Power Is The Prize

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Whether they liked him or not, and most of them apparently did, they respected him. It was reported at the time that he cemented their trust by various services to men in trouble, anonymously hiring legal counsel for some and giving jobs to others as they left jail, while he used his influence to have contracts, concessions, and even Ford agencies awarded to a few useful agents. They repaid him by conveying timely warning of any scheme for robbery or kidnapping that came within their ken, which enabled him to take appropriate action. In his own book, We Never Called Him Henry , Bennett relates that a reporter for the Detroit News gave him a tip “from a West Side mob” that gangsters were about to attempt a robbery of the pay office at the Rouge. When the expected carful of bandits drove down Miller Road, which bisects the Rouge, he halted it. “There’s a whole arsenal in there waiting for you,” he said. “If you go in, there are going to be a lot of people killed, and some of them will be you.” They hastily drove away.

On another occasion a hoodlum whom he had thwarted shot him; but while in the hospital he unexpectedly received, it was said, a photograph of the culprit, suddenly and mysteriously slain, with the message, “He won’t bother you any more, Harry.”

Bennett never concealed from his associates, and least of all Henry, the fact that he had influential relations with the underworld. Shortly after a supposed attempt on Henry’s life by men who forced his car off the road, Bennett told the press that his connections were such that within twenty-four hours after the hatching of a plot he would know of it. Some paroled convicts on the company payroll retained channels of communication with gangsters. Joseph A. Laman, who had turned state’s evidence in the prosecution of a kidnapping ring, and who on release from prison found a job at the Rouge, sent Bennett effusive thanks for his “kindness and generosity.” Chester LaMare, a short, swarthy Sicilian with pretensions to leadership in the Detroit underworld, gained the fruit-supply concession in the Rouge plant under circumstances which so outraged Fred H. Diehl, head of the purchasing department, that he resigned. Admitting that “Chet didn’t know a banana from an orange,” Bennett defended the arrangement as an experiment in rehabilitation, and later declared that it protected the company from the violence of racketeers then ruling the Detroit fruit business. LaMare, however, died in 1931 in a typical Mafia execution.

Whether or not Bennett told the truth in asserting, “Mr. Ford made me his agent in dealing with the underworld,” he was assuredly accurate in adding: “He gave me a job that a number of times almost cost me my life.” Certainly his work strengthened Ford’s predilection for him; the nature of the work also heightened the impression he gave of mysteriously formidable power. Increasingly “the little fella” staffed the service department and stiffened the ranks of petty bosses with hard-jawed, big-shouldered recruits from all the rougher groups within reach. He himself writes: “We had many former pugilists.”

Among those who stood the best chance of landing positions under him were footloose policemen, detectives, and police inspectors; no questions were asked as to their reasons for leaving their former employment. Still, Bennett always maintained: “We don’t tolerate rough stuff or thugs in the Ford organization.” He always defended, and this with reason, Ford’s humane practice of giving paroled convicts another chance in his factory. Hence he was quick to take umbrage at those who called his force ruffians or hoodlums. “They’re a lot of tough bastards,” he said, “but every goddam one of them’s a gentleman.”

”…he came as close to mastery over a billion-dollar corporation as Aaron Burr came to the Presidency—and that was within inches.”

His “gentlemen,” who knew just why they had been hired and to whom they were responsible, deepened the grim, corrosive character of life in the great auto factory. So much plant-security work was right and necessary that it was difficult to make tenable complaints until the line between legitimate and illegitimate activities became almost indiscernible. Rules for handling “irregular intruders” were interpreted to warrant the rough ejection of union organizers. Reduction of friction within the factory came to mean an industrial discipline, verging on terrorism, so rigorous that it drained workers of initiative and vitality. To the prevention of theft and fraud a double standard was applied that punished some men with brutal harshness while it left favorites their easy perquisites. Steps taken against “wasted effort” led to the hateful “speed-up” and “stretch-out.” Much of this shackling, hectoring, and policing of employees involved threats of violence or its actual use, and after the passage of the Wagner Act some of it—as Bennett and Ford well knew—was in direct violation of federal law.

Ford found it best to pretend that he was ignorant. When an executive, A. M. Wibel, asked him, “I wonder if you know all the facts?” he cut this veteran associate short with the rebuke: “I don’t want to know the facts.” On another occasion he said that he was not going to spend hours listening to “petty gripes.”