- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005




By Steven Watts

Knopf, $30, 614 pages, illus.


Henry Ford liked to tell the story of an encounter on one of his camping trips. Heandhis friends drove up to a farmhouse to buy some supplies and found the farmer in his barn trying to repair a large automobile that was not a Ford. Without disclosing his identity, Ford asked the farmer what the trouble was, and he pitched in to help fix the car.

Ford contributed some spark plugs and a few tools and soon had the car working. “How much do I owe you?” the farmer asked. And Ford replied, “Nothing.” “But I can’t let you give me spark plugs and your time and not do something. Here’s a dollar and a half.” “No,” said Ford, “I have all the money I want.” The farmer looked Ford over and said, “Well, you can’t have that much and still be driving a Ford.”

That was Henry Ford, inveterate tinkerer, and the man who put the automobile within reach of the average citizen. This is his story, diligently researched, annotated and evaluated in terms of his influence on the American economy and the world. But is Henry Ford explained as a man? Ford is perhaps unexplainable. This generous genius was also bigoted, spiteful and surprisingly ignorant. A reader must guess at the reasons for Ford’s complexities.

The author, Steven Watts, a history professor at the University of Missouri, is also a biographer of Walt Disney, another American genius with wide influence. This time, Mr. Watts tells a story of America’s coming of age, the sweep of one man’s life from his rural roots to his dizzying success as a leader of the machine age.

Henry Ford was born in 1863 on a farm in Dearborn, Mich. At an early age he began doing farm chores, though “Henry was more of a tinkerer than a farmer,” his father noted. The boy especially disliked horses. He was once thrown by a colt and, with his foot caught in the stirrup, was dragged home. Later, a runaway horse wrecked a manure wagon Henry was driving, seriously injuring the boy. No wonder he later invented a horseless carriage.

At age 16, Henry left the farm to find his future in Detroit. He worked at two jobs, milling brass valves by day and repairing watches by night. Later, he managed a sawmill, worked in a shipyard and was thrilled to get a job as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company. By then he had married a pretty local girl named Clara Bryant, who kept a neat house and never objected when Henry emptied their bank account to buy parts for an experimental horseless carriage. She was a quiet woman of remarkable strength. Many years later, when people began to promote Ford for president, Clara said, “When it happens, I’ll catch the first boat for Europe.” And when violence erupted over a union contract at Ford plants, Clara told her husband: “Sign a contract and end this bloodshed, or I will leave you.”

Ford was always a prankster — the exploding cigar, the hot-wired urinal — and he challenged colleagues to run footraces, wrestle and roughhouse. He contrived a four-wheeled bicycle, then a gasoline powered pre-car. Twice he went into precariously financed businesses, and twice went bust. Thereafter he mistrusted financiers and, as always, resented taking orders from anyone. By then Clara had borne him a son named Edsel, but medical problems left Clara unable to have more children. Henry left the parenting to Clara. “We never had a fight,” Henry once said of his marriage. A friend confirmed that fact, and explained that when there was a disagreement, Henry “just went away.”

Always he had a sense of public relations. He built a racing car, raced it himself and won, becoming a celebrity along with his racing car — a machine so fearsomely noisy that he dared not drive it through the streets of Detroit. Ironically, he had it towed by horses. His next attempt at manufacturing automobiles was a success. He made a sturdy, simple car with a bargain price. No frills. Gradually, he developed the assembly line. As competitors entered the field, Ford kept his price low. “Buy a Ford and Save the Difference,” was a slogan proposed by his advertising men. Ford changed one word: Instead of “save” he wrote the word “spend.”

His announcement of the Five Dollar Day was revolutionary. Every worker in the Ford plant would receive that sum for a day’s work — an unheard-of wage. His Model-T, first built in 1908, put Ford first in auto production and sales. By 1916, he was making 585,000 a year. In 1920, he produced two million. The press portrayed him as a folk hero. He preferred home cooking to fancy restaurants. His wife darned his socks. He shunned tobacco, alcohol and gambling. In politics, he was a populist and pacifist. Woodrow Wilson encouraged Ford to run for the U.S. Senate in Michigan — as a Democrat in a strongly Republican state. Out of half a million votes cast, Ford lost by a mere 5,000. Ford blamed his defeat on Wall Street interests.

A Chicago Tribune editorial called Ford “an ignorant idealist … an anarchistic enemy of the nation.” Ford filed suit for one million dollars in damages. The trial turned into a circus. On the witness stand, Ford’s response to Tribune lawyers was embarrassing. When asked the date of the American Revolution, he said 1812, and he could give no causes for the Revolutionary War. When confronted with his own antiwar statements, he seemed confused. “The public is disillusioned,” said one newspaper. The jury, after 10 hours deliberation, found the Tribune guilty of libel, but awarded Ford only six cents in damages.

“Then a startling thing happened,” writes Mr. Watts. “Many common citizens, small-town editors, village leaders, workers and farmers throughout the United States rushed to Ford’s defense.” Letters of support poured into the Ford offices. The trial ended up as a triumph by enhancing Ford’s status as a man of the people. Yet within the Ford plant, dissatisfaction was rising. Men were under great pressure to produce more cars. Spies in the plant caused resentment. Labor organizers were roughed up and banned from the premises.

And here the author introduces us to one of the more interesting employees of the company, Harry Bennett. He had joined the Navy at age 17, seen the world and become a boxer. Then one evening, Bennett became embroiled in an argument with customs officials in Battery Park and things turned into a brawl with police. By chance, the famous journalist Arthur Brisbane wandered by during the fight and persuaded the officers to release the young boxer. Brisbane invited the young man to meet a friend of his, Henry Ford. On the spot, Ford offered Bennett a job as a security man for his plant in River Rouge.

Bennett soon became a power in the Ford organization, occupying, as the author says, “the position that Rasputin did in Russia.” He cultivated an aura of fear. He carried a gun to his office and fired it often and with precision. He raised lion cubs and sometimes brought one to the office to scare people. The aging Henry Ford leaned on Bennett as on a son and disastrously took his advice on labor relations.

Another interesting person in the Ford organization was Evangeline Dahlinger, a “bright, vivacious, ambitious, and outspoken young woman,” in the author’s words. “Evidence suggests,” writes Mr. Watt, “that Eve Dahlinger enjoyed Ford’s physical attentions, bearing him a son in 1923.” She was also an excellent horsewoman, the woman’s harness-racing champion in Michigan. She loved ice-skating, speed-boating and flying. She became, in fact, the first woman in Michigan to earn a pilot’s license. Ford gave her a large house near his own and even found a husband for her — his chauffeur, Ray Dahlinger, who tactfully slept in their barn.

It was in 1920 when Ford began a campaign against Jews. His publication, The Independent, began a series of 92 articles, deeply anti-Semitic, and later published in a collection called “The International Jew.” In 1938 such venom brought Ford the Order of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. It was the highest award to be bestowed upon a foreigner by the Reich. It came with “a message from the Reichsfuehrer Adolf Hitler felicitating Ford on his 75th birthday.”

For all the interesting details in this book, the author’s rich research deserves a better narrative. Mr. Watts has chosen to organize his facts into topical chapters that illustrate one facet of Ford’s personality. A chronological narrative might have added to our sense of sadness, as we watch Henry Ford grow old. His business sense falters. We watch him make the one greatest failure of his life in his role as a father. When he brought Edsel into the business, the young man proved bright, polite and interested in innovation. Henry put him down, ordered him about, humiliated him in front of others.

Edsel took his father’s rebukes with grace, never rebelling. He developed stomach ulcers, then cancer. Edsel’s wife blamed the old man. So, for a time, did Clara. And Henry himself never fully recovered from the loss of his only legitimate son. There is something here of Greek tragedy, a man of great gifts brought down by his own flaws, a man who perhaps simply lived too long.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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