Power Is The Prize

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“He wanted the power of a regent, but only to conserve the vast Ford property for Edsel’s heirs.”

From this center decrees meanwhile went out enforcing a stern discipline upon his agents. Each service man must keep his beat: perhaps the laundry one day, Gate Four the next, guiding visitors through the Rouge on a third, and inspecting fire precautions on the fourth. Everyone reported at intervals daily through the communications system to Bennett’s office. Undercover men spied on service men who in turn watched the workers and to an increasing extent the executives as well. Bennett alone knew the full intricacies of the network. He kept no records, made no written reports, and was responsible only to Ford, whose capricious interest was in results rather than the methods used to achieve them.

Whatever the methods, whatever the resulting decisions, Bennett could not have continued his activities with out Henry Ford’s constant approval. Upon Ford’s silent assent or explicit decree rested the fabric of plant police, espionage agents and secret communications, the structure of iron rules, arbitrary enforcement, and steady threat. The relationship between Bennett and Ford was of the kind certain to spring up in any coercive organization under despotic rule: the autocrat of a business “state” needs his equivalent of the Venetian Inquisition, the Gestapo, or the Cheka; and its head becomes so powerful that he is tempted to employ his apparatus recklessly. By industry, loyalty, and all-embracing knowledge, Bennett established a fairly complete ascendancy over his master, his relationship being, as he put it, “progressive.” “I became his most intimate companion, closer to him even than his son,” he declares.

Ford, though never inclined to explain his trust, did indicate its completeness. Various people remember his referring to Harry Bennett as his “loyal right arm.” As Henry became older, more rigid, and more suspicious, he leaned on Bennett as the one lieutenant who best knew the facts, and who acted on them in Henry’s own spirit. One competent observer was convinced that Ford thought his aide and echo completely right: “He believed, I think, to the end that Harry Bennett was perfect.” Utility, congeniality, intuitive perception of Henry’s mental processes, all played a part.

We should never forget the utility, for Bennett did get things done. His legitimate responsibilities were broad and onerous: to protect the plants against fire, fraud, waste, and “irregular intruders,” to manage the laundries, to assist all visitors, to maintain a clearing center for information, to reduce friction and superfluous effort, and in an emergency to keep the works running. Where a blunderer would have let the Rouge suffer from interruption and breakdown, Bennett’s efficient measures helped keep it moving smoothly. He had a broad range of legitimate duties, moreover, associated with Ford and his family. He saw to Henry’s protection, his transportation, and his freedom from annoyance. His vigilance against the possible kidnapping of Edsel’s children, a cloudy subject, may or may not have been an important function; Henry thought it was. During the 1930’s Bennett traveled widely to establish business relationships, conclude negotiations, or perform other duties that Ford wished handled discreetly. He went to Canada to bring an important executive back from a drinking bout and to investigate reports that Ford boats were being used by rumrunners. He acted upon letters threatening bodily harm to members of the Ford family—Henry Ford got an average of five a week in the early 1920’s; he made quiet inquiry into troublesome marital problems or political involvements of company personnel; he found out why a particular branch suddenly lost energy.

Because Henry, as one employee put it, “didn’t want anybody meddling with his personal affairs or his person,” he specially relied upon Bennett’s shrewd, unobtrusive efforts to shield his circle. In the confused years of the prohibition era, when bootlegging, gang warfare, and robbery flourished, many criminals looked upon the Fords as ripe victims. In March, 1924, Detroit police arrested extortionists who had threatened to blind Henry’s grandchildren unless Edsel paid a heavy sum, and a few months later burglars stole valuable jewelry from Edsel’s well-guarded residence on East Jefferson Avenue. To both Henry and Edsel the threat of kidnapping was so real that Ford is reported to have told Bennett: “Never mind the plants. If anything happens to them we can build new ones. But we’ve got to make absolutely sure that nothing happens to the children.” As Bennett realized that merely guarding the children was not enough and that he must gain prior information about any effort to seize them, he left for a long “vacation.” “Before he got back,” a Detroit newspaperman later wrote, “he had visited practically every major city in the United States, and some of the smaller ones where gangs were established.” He saw and talked with men who were well informed on underworld activities, letting them take an accurate measure of his strength and ruthless determination.