- - Thursday, August 1, 2019


This is former investigative journalist Jeff Guinn’s fifth book, and the second one with the word “road” appearing in the title. The other, his maiden venture as an author, was “The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple,” dealing with the murderous left-wing cult leader who put Kool-Aid back on the map in the worst possible way. 

Mr. Guinn’s Jonestown saga was followed by a book on a second homicidal guru, Charles Manson, and then an account of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. After that came one on Bonnie and Clyde, the tabloid crime couple who, had they been alive today, would probably be signed up by GM to do celebrity endorsements on the theme of, “Rob the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”

With “The Vagabonds,” Mr. Guinn has hit the literary road yet again. Only this time there isn’t a murderer in sight. Instead, he has spun the entertaining but also rather edifying tale of how, for the decade between 1914 and 1925, three of the most famous Americans of their time — and each a major shaper of our modern way of life — spent vacations “on the road” together previewing the widened horizons and greater mobility that their own creations would make available to millions of ordinary Americans.

The men in question were Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.

Edison’s incandescent light bulb brightened American homes and many of his other inventions harnessed the same new energy source, electricity, to thousands of labor-saving home and industrial applications that we now take for granted. He also invented a recording system and a phonograph that, for the first time, brought the sounds of the world’s greatest musicians into American living rooms, just as his patented movie camera — and pioneering East Coast film studio – laid the foundation for the mighty motion picture industry. 

Henry Ford, the ultimate autodidact, was a genius-in-the-rough who designed a sturdy, reliable and well-designed car, the Model T, and perfected a cost-effective assembly line system that made automobiles — previously a status symbol limited for the very wealthy — affordable for the average American. It was nothing less than a revolution on wheels, and it was Harvey Firestone, the third member of the trio, whose superior inflatable tires kept the wheels spinning.

One of the most useful lessons to be drawn from Mr. Guinn’s breezy, unpretentious account of these three titans and their annual forays into America’s small towns and wide open spaces, is its reminder of how, a century ago, the rich and famous celebrities that most Americans looked up to tended to be practical visionaries, clean-living entrepreneurs who made history as well as big bucks, and who, whatever their personal limitations, were optimists about America and proved by their achievements that their optimism was justified.

Of course, it wasn’t all sightseeing and sitting around campfires. They were attended by a big entourage and pursued by the press. En route visits with two U.S. presidents — Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge — brought plenty of free publicity and the gratifying feeling that they were meeting their commanders in chief on an equal footing: American icons all. 

All three had their faults and foibles. Henry Ford, in particular, fell for some of the ancient libels leveled against Jews and tried to turn the Dearborn Independent, a local Michigan weekly he purchased, into a major national journal trumpeting his anti-war, anti-Semitic message from coast to coast. He wasted millions, failed miserably and eventually recanted. But painful scars remained. I still remember a late 1950s conversation I had with a Jewish friend in junior high. When I mentioned that my father drove a Ford he told me that his family had a Dodge and would never dream of buying a Ford. It was several years before I found out why. 

Ford, minimally educated, something of an idiot-savant and by no means a cruel man, imbibed and espoused hateful ideas with an incredible naivete. “He was shocked and hurt,” Mr. Guinn writes, “when Jews he considered friends took offense at the articles [in the Independent]. His regard for Rabbi Leo Franklin of Detroit was such that he’d recently presented him with a Model T as a gift. Soon after the Independent began its anti-Semitic campaign, Rabbi Franklin returned the car. He received a personal phone call from the baffled Ford, who asked plaintively, ‘What’s wrong, Dr. Franklin? Has something come between us?’”  

It would almost have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •

By Jeff Guinn
Simon & Schuster, $28, 306 pages

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