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He invented modern mass production. He gave the world the first people’s car, and his countrymen loved him for it. But at the moment of his greatest triumph, he turned on the empire he had built—and on the son who would inherit it.
October/November 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 6
He became more and more distant from the reality of his own company. As he became more senile and more threatened by growing pressure from a restive labor force, he began to cut back on the power of Charlie Sorensen and grant it instead to Harry Bennett, who was head of the company’s security forces. Sorensen had been a savage man, hated by many, capable of great cruelty, eager to settle most disputes with his fists, but at least he knew something about production. Bennett was worse. An ex-seaman who had boxed professionally under the name of Sailor Reese, he had come to power in the post-World War I days, when his assignment was to hire bullies and ex-cons and wrestlers and boxers to help control the plant and keep the union out. Bennett was well suited for that role. His was an empire within an empire, and that inner empire was built on fear. He padded his pockets with Ford money—the finances of the company were in chaos. He built at least four houses with his appropriated wealth. His rise exactly paralleled the decline of the old man, and he played on all the fears the old man had, especially fear of labor and fear of kidnapping. Ford was convinced that Bennett, with his connections in the underworld, could stop any attempt to kidnap his son or grandchildren. Ford loved the fact that Bennett used force to intimidate people. “Harry gets things done in a hurry,” he liked to say.
To the distress of Ford’s family, Bennett’s power over Henry grew almost without check in the 1930s, when the founder was in his seventies. Board meetings were a travesty. Often Ford did not show up. Or he would walk in at the last minute with Bennett and after a few minutes say, “Come on, Harry, let’s get the hell out of here. We’ll probably change everything they do anyway.” Once a magazine writer was in a car with Ford and Bennett, and he asked Ford who was the greatest man he had ever known—after all, in so rich and varied a career he had known quite a few exceptional people. Ford simply pointed at Bennett.
By the 1930s the business community had begun to turn against Ford: Fortune called him “the world’s worst salesman.”
At the very end he used Bennett as his principal weapon against his son. The last years were truly ugly. Sure that he was protected by Ford, Bennett harassed Edsel mercilessly. The old man took obvious pleasure in Edsel’s humiliations. Already emotionally beaten down by his father, Edsel had become a sick man. He had remained loyal to his father and endured his humiliations while healthy. Now, battling stomach cancer, he had less and less to fight back with. Edsel’s last years were very difficult, as he struggled to expedite the war-production work his father hated while at the same time resisting his illnesses. In 1942 Edsel got undulant fever from drinking milk from his father’s dairy; Ford disapproved of pasteurization. The old man blamed it on Edsel’s bad habits. In 1943 Edsel died. He was only forty-nine. Almost everyone who knew both Henry and Edsel Ford thought the son had really died of a broken heart.
This was the final, malevolent chapter in Henry Ford’s own life. Not only had he destroyed his son, he had all but ruined a once-great industrial empire. By the middle of the war, the Ford Motor Company was in such poor shape that high government officials pondered whether to take it over, for the government had to keep the giant going. Without the stimulus of the war and the work it eventually brought the company, it is possible that Ford might have failed completely. As the government debated, two women stepped forward. Clara Bryant Ford and Eleanor Clay Ford, one Henry Ford’s wife and the other Edsel’s widow, had watched it all with dismay—the old man’s senility, the crushing of Edsel, the rise of Bennett—but with a certain helplessness. “Who is this man Bennett who has such power over my husband and my son?” Clara Ford once asked. She had hated the fact that Bennett and Sorensen had both taken it upon themselves to speak for Henry against Edsel and had participated in and encouraged his destruction. Now both women feared that the same forces might prevent young Henry, Edsel’s son, from ascending and assuming power.
Henry Ford II had been serving in the Navy during the war, enjoying a taste of personal freedom. But in August 1943, thanks to intervention by his mother and grandmother, he got orders sending him back to Detroit; the nation’s highest officials feared that, after Edsel’s death, Harry Bennett might actually take over the company. Young Henry returned reluctantly, but he was the firstborn of Edsel Ford, and familial obligation demanded it. He had no illusions about the challenge ahead. He was well aware that, except for a very few men, the Ford Motor Company was a corrupt and corrupting place.