Power Is The Prize

PrintPrintEmailEmail

After purging, reorganizing, and re-staffing the Rouge service department according to his and Ford’s wishes, he was ready to undertake many other roles. Indeed, at a nod from the chief, he was licensed to interfere anywhere; Ford, he states, “had me jumping around from one task to another.” Talking to an executive, Ford once remarked that managing a great plant was like stirring a pot of molten metal with an iron rod to force the dross to the top, and the executive concluded that he used Bennett as his long rod. One of Henry’s first orders to Bennett, for example, was to get into the new administration building and “keep an eye on the accounting department”—a branch the chief always disliked because of its addiction to forms.

Wherever Ford appeared in the 1920’s and 1930’s Bennett was likely to be at his heels, quick to seize and act on every idea or hint dropped. His appearance and bearing contributed to the respect engendered by his vague, unlimited powers. Short, muscular, moving with springy energy, taking in everything with his hard blue eyes, he had a combative aspect. His features were sharply chiseled, the cheeks and nose scarred from his fighting days, his jaw, chin, and thick neck pugnacious-looking. He combed his thinning, dark brown hair to disguise the evidence of growing baldness. His erectness made the most of his five feet seven inches, and his brisk, nervous walk added to the effect of wiry strength given by his 160 pounds; as a matter of fact, he kept in the best physical trim. Ever alert, he could use his mind and his fists with equal rapidity. Even in repose his expression wore a certain defiance, and his voice ranged from a hard, friendly bark to a high, angry snarl.

His dress comported with his character. He liked natty suits, colored silk shirts, snap-brim felt hats, large western belt buckles, and bow ties (this last, it was said, because he had once been nearly strangled in a fight when his antagonist seized his four-in-hand). He looked the prosperous man he was. By 1940 he owned a good deal of property, including his lavishly decorated home, The Castle, near Ann Arbor, several retreats elsewhere in Michigan, and a ranch in California. He made some of his parties at The Castle, in Detroit night-spots, and on his yacht a subject of talk by his conviviality and boisterous practical jokes. However, he carefully protected the privacy of his home life, his wife, and his three daughters, and he sometimes relaxed in sedate domesticity, painting, drawing, and playing a variety of musical instruments. He was a good hunter and fisherman.

The center of Bennett’s factory activities was a small, plain office in one corner of the administration building. Visitors to “the little fella” waited in an anteroom under the sharp scrutiny of several muscular service men. They could watch a large Gamewell board with winking lights which, connected to every patrol station in the Rouge, showed at a glance the position of Bennett’s security forces. Direct telephone wires reached other strategic persons and places in the plant, and short-wave radio kept Bennett in touch with high Ford executives even in their own cars. The latch to his inner office was controlled by his secretary and by a button under his desk. Once inside, a visitor might be disturbed by what he saw:

“At one end [wrote one reporter] there are some files and a long table covered with a model of the Rouge plant. On one of the files is a small contraption about six inches square, the well-known target at which Mr. Bennett occasionally shoots lead pellets from an air gun shaped like a Luger revolver. The target was copied from one designed by Mr. Ford for his own use and has been so constructed that if Mr. Bennett hits the target, as he almost always does, the pellets are deflected toward a slot in the back and do not go ricocheting around the office.”

Proud of his marksmanship, Bennett would sit tilted back with one leg on the desk and the other folded under him, methodically shooting the points off a row of pencils aligned on the desk edge. It was reported that just to prove his skill he shot a pencil in half from a friend’s fingers; when irritated by a boxing commissioner who ignored the rule against smoking in Bennett’s office, he shot the cigar out of the offender’s mouth with his .38; and to express his dislike of straw hats he once shot two holes in one held by a caller. He temporarily worried other visitors by keeping in his office two young tigers which the showman Clyde Beatty had given him. “For several years I raised lions and tigers at home,” he tells us, “and often took one into the plant with me.”

But the room was primarily a work center, and one explanation of Bennett’s success was his industry—his ceaseless attention to detail, his meticulous control over all his subordinates. Everybody sought his little office: governors, mayors, prominent industrialists, journalists, police chiefs, detectives for the FBI, salesmen, gangsters, movie stars—and, usually at least once a day, Henry Ford himself. Bennett kept in rapport with well-informed men in government, business, labor, and the underworld. He knew more about affairs touching Ford interests than Henry’s former secretaries had ever dreamed of knowing. Telegrams from Ford centers throughout the country, letters from workers, confidential memoranda from newspapermen and local politicians, all reached his hands.