Commentary Magazine

The Fords, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz


The Fords: An American Epic.
by Peter Collier and David Horowitz.
Summit Books. 496 pp. $22.95.

Chronicles of great 20th-century American families tend to fall into two divided camps: on the one side, foot-stomping denunciations of the depredations and corruptions of the powerful; on the other, and these days far less common, side, saccharine, flowery treatments that are often the work of kept biographers. Peter Collier and David Horowitz, in lively chronicles of the Rockefellers, the Kennedys, and now the Fords, have avoided both pitfalls.

Balzac said, famously, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.” But for the Fords, the authors contend, the fortune came first and then the crimes. Perhaps this is why the first Ford, Henry, a diligent, persistent, mechanically adept, runaway farm boy, who would become the richest man in America, escaped in the early days of his celebrity the hotheaded condemnations meted out to the other great capitalists by muckrakers and politicians.

Unlike John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould, the hated “malefactors of great wealth,” whose fortunes were born in sometimes murky circumstances, Ford made his by bringing to the ordinary American a machine that transformed daily life and in so doing helped to break down the strictures of class and geography. The Nation praised Ford as “a man who not long ago was a simple mechanic, who has no recourse to combination or manipulation or oppression or extortion, who has simply offered his wares to a public eager to buy them and distanced his competitors by no other art than that of turning out his product by more perfect or more economical methods than they have been able to devise or execute.” Even so unlikely a friend to capitalism as the radical journalist John Reed gushingly described the automaker as a “slight boyish figure with thin, long sure hands unceasingly moving . . . the fine skin of his thin face browned by the sun; [with] the mouth and nose of a simpleminded saint.”



Henry Ford’s vision, which won him such acclaim, was deceptively plain. “I will build a motorcar for the multitude,” he announced. “It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to buy one.”

With the help of a collection of highly capable associates, one of whom, Charles Sorensen, hit upon the idea of the assembly line, Ford built his factory at Highland Park, Michigan in 1910, turning out the Model T at a furious rate. By 1914 Ford had manufactured half the nation’s automobiles. With the opening of the Rouge River Plant in 1920—an enormous industrial city employing some 42,000 workers—production expanded even further. Mass production lowered the price of the automobile and made it accessible to the middle class. But if not for the discovery of vast oil reserves at Spindletop in 1901, which, curiously, Collier and Horowitz fail to mention, Americans, like Europeans, would probably have had to wait until the middle of the century for the automobile to become a vehicle of the people.

When he raised the wages of his workers to five dollars a day in 1913, Ford brought them out of the working class, and ingeniously created a new cohort of consumers for his product. He became a national figure overnight. For many Americans this harbinger and prophet of the modern age was, as the authors show, a comfortingly populist symbol of rural Midwestern virtues. From 1916 until the mid-1920’s, a movement sprang up to draft Ford for the presidency, and in 1923 a Collier’s poll showed him far and away the preferred potential candidate over Warren G. Harding, Herbert Hoover, Robert M. La Follette, and others.

Journalists fueled his popularity by quoting his every pronouncement on the attractions of hard work and self-discipline and trumpeted his broadsides aimed at urban sophisticates. Reporters often called upon Ford, a man ignorant of most things save the industrial production of automobiles, as if he were an elder statesman, asking his opinion of President Woodrow Wilson’s latest speech or his thoughts on who was the greatest man who ever lived. The most famous American of his day, Ford wore, for a time, a disguise in public in order to avoid the crowds of the curious that followed him in the streets.



Ford’s mistake may have been that of a great many public figures: he came to believe in and depend upon his reflection in the public imagination. The instrument of his rise, the press, would also help to bring him down in 1919 at the nationally publicized Mount Clemens trial of a libel suit brought by Ford against the Chicago Tribune. The paper had called Ford an anarchist for allegedly firing employees who took up arms in the National Guard. In the course of the trial, the auto magnate revealed to the American public the extraordinary extent of his ignorance. Ford thought that the only revolution the United States had experienced was in 1812, and insisted that “chili con carne” was properly defined as “a large mobile army.” He argued that “ballyhoo” meant “a blackguard or something of that nature.” After a week of humiliation Ford admitted, “I am ignorant about most things.” The authors mark this trial and the ensuing public opprobrium as the turning point in Ford’s life—the hayseed visionary was buried and the hardened, spidery crank was born.

Post-Mount Clemens, Ford emerged as a sort of 1920’s Shirley MacLaine. Like the actress, he deployed his considerable financial resources and ability to attract the attention of the press to promote his bizarre notions: a dreary laundry list of fetishes, which Collier and Horowitz describe in great detail, that included a belief in reincarnation, an obsession with soybeans, and a liking for weed sandwiches. He washed his hair in a sink littered with old razor blades because he believed rusty water was a hair restorative.



The resemblance to Shirley MacLaine ends there. A persistent strain of cruelty manifested itself in Ford’s treatment of those who worked for him. He slapped assembly-line workers on the back with extra force when he found them chewing tobacco against company orders, causing them to swallow their cud; as the poor man turned green, Crazy Henry, as he was sometimes called, would laugh hysterically. He compelled Lawrence Sheldrick, one of his top designers, to eat an enormous meal of roast pork, potatoes, and apple pie and then to take a new experimental laxative that Ford was curious about. His cruelty extended to his family: he humiliated his son Edsel in public, and, according to Collier and Horowitz, drove him to a premature death at forty-nine.

An anti-Semite, Henry Ford mounted an expensive hate campaign, buying the Dearborn Independent in 1919 as a pulpit for his attacks on the Jews. He also printed the screed The International Jew which became a best-seller in Germany and which in 1922, according to a New York Times reporter, ended up on Hitler’s desk alongside a large photo of Ford. As the paper came to be filled almost exclusively with anti-Semitic attacks and descended into increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories (one involved Ford’s belief that a group of Jewish bankers had hired John Wilkes Booth to kill Abraham Lincoln), public outrage mounted, until former Presidents Taft and Wilson pleaded with Ford to stop. Their entreaties met with little success; Ford ceased his campaign and apologized only when threatened with potentially embarrassing lawsuits.

Henry Ford’s increasing malevolence also transformed the Ford Motor Company from one of the best-run auto manufacturers into a harsh, inefficient industrial cripple. By the early 1930’s Ford had turned the Rouge River Plant into an “industrial concentration camp,” overseen by an army of thugs and ex-hoods under the direction of his favorite flunky, Harry Bennett. Company rules prohibited sitting, squatting, singing, talking, or whistling on the job. Workers learned to communicate without moving their lips in what became known as the “Ford Whisper.” By World War II the company was so badly run that the government seriously considered taking it over for the war effort.



If Henry Ford was a tyrant and a bully, his son Edsel, as portrayed by Collier and Horowitz, was a humane, diligent man who struggled to build a life for himself and his family while counterbalancing the elder Ford’s mismanagement of the company and mistreatment of workers with his own quiet, responsible presence. Edsel’s charm and decency, and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, in turn gave Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, a powerful sense of mission—a mission to reclaim the company from the grip of his monstrous grandfather. But as Collier and Horowitz also argue, in practice Henry Ford II oscillated between two personas: the hardworking, capable, and surprisingly resourceful businessman and the heedless, vulgar, self-indulgent brat.

In the mid-1940’s, after Edsel’s death, the Ford Motor Company was ruled by a senile Henry I and Harry Bennett, who were slowly edging the once enormous empire toward collapse. In a carefully orchestrated maneuver Henry II managed, with the help of his mother Eleanor, to strong-arm Henry I into stepping down and turning the company over to his grandson. After purging Bennett and his thugs, Henry II brought the Ford Motor Company into the modern age of corporate management. He lured to Ford a new class of technocrats, the “Whiz Kids,” a group of ex-military officers who during the war had transformed modern air warfare by centralizing information and manipulating the inventory of bombers. By the end of the 1950’s Ford and his Whiz Kids had reestablished the company as an American industrial giant.

“Hank the Deuce,” as he was known in Detroit, adopted a far more conciliatory stance toward labor than that of his grandfather, and with the help of a public-relations firm earned a reputation as something of an industrial statesman—a reputation that was reinforced when he instituted a minority-recruitment plan in the late 1960’s that became an industry standard.

For these gestures Henry II is here advanced as a model of a new kind of accommodating postwar American businessman. What is most striking about Henry II, however, is the narrowness of his concerns, and specifically his rejection of a great national role. He exhibited little interest in ideas, rarely read a book, and put up only a mild resistance to the leftward tilt of his family’s enormous Ford Foundation, set up as a successful tax dodge by Henry I, who thought that charity was a weakness.

Hank the Deuce drank and ate to excess and behaved badly in public. At company dances he liked to get drunk and loudly ask other executives’ wives to sleep with him. Still, he managed to keep his indulgences sufficiently under control to maintain his position as head of Ford Motor Company. His younger brothers, Bill and Benson, did not. By the end of the 1950’s, realizing that they would have no prominent place in the company hierarchy, they descended into alcoholism; their antics, as well as Henry’s own lengthy and expensive marriage battles with three wives, get a good deal of play here.

Collier and Horowitz also detail the endless executive spats and fights, the purges, and the rapid rises of top executives in which personality seemed to play a more important role than policy. The most enduring struggle of the postwar decade was waged between product men like Lewis Crusoe and the slick Jack Reith, who had a feel for car-making, and the ascetic “Bean Counters,” the Whiz Kids, personified by Robert S. McNamara. By the end of the 1950’s the Bean Counters had won out over the product men—McNamara was made president in 1960. The battle left sobering reminders of the high stakes involved in these disputes: Crusoe suffered a massive heart attack, and shortly after leaving the company in defeat, Jack Reith committed suicide. The second great corporate conflict—between Henry II and the flamboyant, ambitious Lee Iacocca—dominated the life of the company from the late 1960’s until well into the 1970’s, when it once again ended in victory for Henry II.



All dynasties must eventually fall or fade. It tells us a great deal about our expectations of the rich that a house’s decline should be cause for such elaborate and extensive comment—a phenomenon, perhaps, that owes its existence not only to a persistent leveling impulse in American life, a desire to savor the misfortunes of the wealthy, but also, perversely, to the high hopes we still entertain for them.

The attention paid in his own time to Henry Ford I’s every word, the desire to find in him some kind of philosopher or wise man, provides a fine illustration of a lasting American belief: that the self-made manufacturer can succeed at anything to which he applies himself. Rich men’s opinions on politics, religion, and history still carry weight out of all proportion to their intrinsic importance. Americans, moreover, are probably the only people in the world to think that running a successful business is ample qualification for becoming President of the United States—a judgment expressed in the move to draft Henry Ford and surviving today in campaigns to draft such tycoons as Lee Iacocca and Donald Trump.

The Ford Motor Company, perhaps because of its connection with a single family whose founder genuinely represented universally recognized national characteristics, has always occupied a more secure and prominent place in the American imagination than its bigger and more powerful but faceless rival, General Motors. Indeed, Ford is intimately identified with America’s estimate of itself and its industrial might. In his 1986 bestseller The Reckoning, David Halberstam chose Ford Motor Company—prematurely, it turns out—as an emblem of the crumbling U.S. economic colossus, whose weakness was encapsulated for Halberstam in the drinking and womanizing of Henry Ford II. Similarly, the authors of this book see the Fords as symbols of the capacity of power to destroy those who hold it. In their epilogue Collier and Horowitz go so far as to suggest that “the primal Ford act which welded man and machine and displaced family was destructive.”

We do, indeed, learn from this account about the wreckage of the family, but in order fully to understand the relation between the power of the company machine and the internal drama of the Ford family we would have to know what the Fords themselves, a laconic bunch, felt about their relation to the automobile. One certainly gains no sense from this narrative that they partook of the erotic or romantic charge so famously an element in America’s obsession with cars. At Ford they manufactured automobiles, not metaphors.

Altogether, the saga of the Ford dynasty does not afford the tidy moral of the Kennedys’ attempt to become America’s royal family—an attempt that, as everyone knows, ended in drugs and promiscuity. With the Fords the picture is actually not so bleak, and at the moment even has a happy ending of sorts: in 1987 the company reported record profits, and in the previous year it outearned General Motors for the first time since 1924. Possessing no metaphysical sense of national mission, the Fords did not aim as high as the Kennedys or the Rockefellers, and while there is a good deal of misfortune and cruelty in the story, all of it amply documented by Collier and Horowitz, there is also considerable accomplishment.



In The Fords the heads of the family are often compared to figures from religion, myth, and fiction. Henry Ford I is “like some god of Oriental mythology—simultaneously creator and destroyer,” an “Adam filled with innocence although he had just created the original sin of the modern world,” a “Midas figure,” a “benign monarch.” Henry Ford II is like the “watchmaker god of the company.” Meanwhile the real narrative focus is on the limits of power and the human weakness of the Fords and their employees, from Henry I’s decline into senility and cruelty to the later intrigues, purges, and rapid ups and downs of company executives. All this makes for interesting reading, but it also renders the success of the company, the sustainer of the family fortune, somewhat unintelligible.

How did Henry I build up his organization? How did he maintain people’s loyalties? Henry II’s initial postwar burst of activity is vividly presented, but his subsequent role in the continued success of the company remains a mystery. What were Hank the Deuce and his executives doing in between corporate machinations and purges? Collier and Horowitz unfortunately fail to convey any lasting impression of the daily life of the company, any real sense of its ethos, or a sufficiently detailed illustration of its formula for success.

Despite these lapses, however, the authors do give us, with a novelistic flair for pacing and the effective use of anecdote, an exciting portrait that will not fail to satisfy even the heartiest appetite for the perversities and extravagances of the powerful.



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