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Power Is The Prize
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
As World War II drew to a close, the great industrial empire that was the Ford Motor Company seemed to be reeling madly downhill. At the root of its troubles was Henry Ford himself, whose grip upon the levers of power was failing. Who would succeed him? Therein lies a tale worthy of Machiavelli. Involved, to begin with, was the no-holds-barred rivalry of two subordinates, Charles Sorensen—the company’s long-time production head, and Harry Bennett—the tough little man with underworld connections who was the plant security chief and the master’s closest confidant. Rumors circulated about a mysterious codicil to Henry Ford’s will. There was Ford’s strange antipathy to his only son, Edsel, and the desperate battle of Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, to win control. What follows has been adapted from the third and final volume of the authors’ monumental history of Ford and his company, to be published early next year by Charles Scribner’s Sons.
“Lonely, disillusioned, uniting the most brilliant gifts with the most hopeless limitations, he was groping for some stay, some support.”
“For montns” remarked a news magazine early in 1944, “the world-straddling empire of Henry Ford has quivered and groaned like a leviathan with acute indigestion.” A more accurate metaphor might have been drawn from Gibbon’s pages on Byzantine history. The empire had shaken for years because its aging sultan, refusing to bestow his scepter on his son, had let his chief vizier and the head of his Janissaries, or palace police, contend for it.
Time referred to the struggle for power within the Ford Motor Company between the tough, big manager, Charles Sorensen, and the tough, little service chief, Harry Bennett, whose rivalry had become more pronounced with every passing year. Now both were contenders for the throne. Henry Ford, nearing eighty when the United States entered the Second World War, had suffered his first stroke in 1938, and a second in 1941; a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, his only son, Edsel, had an operation for stomach ulcers, and while he remained active in the company, his health became dubious. With the question of the succession unsettled (Edsel’s son, Henry Ford II, was still an unknown quantity), and with the elder Henry’s strength precarious, a vacuum was developing in the center of authority. No man knew how it would be filled.
Inevitably, an atmosphere of uncertainty, intrigue, and apprehension enveloped the company. Everyone knew that Sorensen’s service ran back forty years to the bright early days of the corporation; in Ford history the years 1925-1944 were “the Sorensen period,” and during most of that period he was indeed a dominant and domineering figure. Most people knew that Bennett had taken his first job in the art department in 1915, and had soon reached the point where Ford detached him to the great River Rouge plant—his reported instructions being, “I’m sending you over there to be my eyes and ears.”
Sorensen and Bennett had risen rapidly because, as both assert, they caught Ford’s ideas instantly and obeyed him implicitly. Sorensen professed respect and liking for Edsel, but if Bennett ever respected anybody but Henry he failed to make it clear. Both knew that, although Edsel was widely admired as one of the finest leaders in American industry, his father had an unshakable conviction that he lacked the steel needed to drive the company forward against competition, labor, and government restrictions. Sorensen later wrote that, as Henry failed, he himself wanted the power of a regent, but only to conserve the vast Ford property for Edsel’s heirs. However that may be, Bennett wanted power to keep it, wield it, and enjoy it.
Most contributors to the legend of Henry Ford have found it convenient to assign to Sorensen most of the blame for the rough management of labor before the 1941 surrender to the CIO, and to Bennett the blame for the company’s dissensions and gangster atmosphere. Sorensen’s hostility to unions was explicit in words and acts, and one reason why he never negotiated labor problems was simply that he had no taste for negotiation. To him union leadership was “a high-pressure group, surrounded by smart lawyers,” and its claims that an all-union shop would bring greater efficiency were an impudent imposture. As bluntly direct as a piledriver, he was an aggressive executive, whose tyrannies in handling workmen won him general dislike as “Cast-Iron Charlie.”
Bennett, with equal harshness and a readiness to use violence which earned him the hatred of thousands, had less grasp—for nobody ever doubted Sorensen’s abilities—but more subtlety. He was a figure that Machiavelli would have appreciated. Brassy, companionable, self-assertive, he remained at bottom coldly cynical and reticent, with depths in his personality which he kept veiled. Nobody was ever quite certain that he might not suddenly drop his friendly mien and strike. To many Ford employees, he carried about him an aura of secrecy, darkness, and mystery; performing functions that were often vague and unpredictable and using methods equally undefined and arbitrary, he stalked the Rouge horizon like a malign satrap.
Inevitably, as the company in the 1930’s drifted toward third place, behind General Motors and Chrysler, and lost the reputation for benevolence which Henry Ford had given it in the era of the five-dollar day, people cast about for a simple explanation. They decided that the malevolent influence of a few men, and especially Bennett, was responsible. The struggle for a place of power near Henry’s throne involved most of the high executives, and, as one by one various men fell before Bennett, they also attributed the company’s troubles to “the little fella” in his tightly guarded basement office.
This simplification of a complex set of forces satisfied the desire of people to find a villain in the plot, giving them a handy “devil theory” of Ford decline. But it ignored the fact that from the beginning until 1946 the company had only one master, Henry Ford. Moreover, it overlooked the unusual set of circumstances which from the late 1930’s permitted Bennett to reach for power.
Foremost among them was the failure to create a modern corporate system of administration that could guide the company expertly through style changes, the labor problems of the Depression, the growth of government controls, and the Second World War. No man had done more than Henry Ford to concentrate industrial power and accelerate production. Yet no leader in manufacturing had clung more stubbornly to an antiquated administrative system totally unequal to the demands of the new era. The family business under one-man domination, typical of the era before 1860, had become old-fashioned with the rise of great modern corporations. The most successful industrialists were men who, like Rockefeller and Carnegie, took partners with brains and force comparable to their own, and adopted every improved managerial device.
Ford distrusted independent-minded executives, and got rid of them abruptly. He was unhappy with men who thought primarily of the company’s social values and its responsibilities to the community and workers. He disliked university men and experts of every category. Organization, form-keeping, and the steady pooling of brains and experience were all repugnant to him. Every decision had to be made by Henry Ford himself, or be subject to his approval or veto.
Ford was constitutionally so unable to relinquish or delegate authority that even when he gave the presidency to Edsel for the long period 1919-1943 he in no way really surrendered the scepter. As long as he remained vigorous, showing flashes of intuitive genius, he could keep his archaic administrative mechanism creakily effective. But as he neared eighty his first stroke portended a clear physical and mental decline, and beginning in 1943, as Bennett tells us, he “began going downhill” rather sharply. Hope of continuing vigor vanished. Instead, another kind of hope arose in the mind of Sorensen, and above all, in that of Bennett.
By 1939 any discerning observer would have pronounced the company in danger of becoming unsuccessful and would have noted a decline in its reputation. This would have been the fact whether Harry Bennett had been in the company or not. The cold, ruthless head of the security force was a protean figure, but above all an opportunist. His rise to palace power, culminating in a thrust for supreme authority at the end of the war, was not the product of a Hitlerian plot laid down in a Mein Kampf outline early in his career and then remorselessly executed. Rather, he found a situation ripe for his abilities, and exploited it with dexterity and determination. Like the musician he was, he played by ear, turning every opportunity to his own advantage, until he came as close to mastery over a billion-dollar corporation as Aaron Burr came to mastery of the Presidency—and that, as every schoolboy knows, was within inches.
In 1939 Bennett, only forty-seven, was at the height of his powers. He had risen in the school of hard knocks, and Ford undoubtedly admired his self-made quality. His strenuous naval career had done far more to shape him than his brief training in Detroit and Cleveland art schools. In a seven years’ enlistment he had been stoker, seaman, diver, bandsman, and cartoonist, meanwhile becoming an adept boxer, a robust group leader, and an initiate in the undercover work of Naval Intelligence. It is evident that from the moment Ford followed his statement, “I can use a young man like you out at the Rouge,” with the question, “Can you shoot?” Henry was intent on testing him for some kind of plant police activity.
For all his restless devil-may-care qualities, Bennett knew the value of discipline, and was as ready to take buffets from his one superior as to administer punishment to others. That he had only one superior, Henry made clear. Sending him to the Rouge plant, Ford said: “There may be a lot of people over there who want to fire you, but don’t pay any attention to them. I’m the only one who can fire you.”
This simple understanding lasted for nearly thirty years. Contrary to many statements that he never went on the company payroll, Bennett was placed there on August 23, 1915, and remained there. While he asserts that for twenty-eight of his thirty years with Ford he got “peanuts for a salary,” it was said that the paymaster always kept a large sum in cash—first $10,000, then $25,000—available to him for special expenses, and he tells us that “Mr. Ford maintained my homes for me.” An informed guess puts his wage in 1940 at $1,500-$1,600 a month with occasional bonuses.
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.
“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.
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.”
Not only did Bennett become Ford’s combined police chief and drillmaster; he took on the function of hatchetman for various rough tasks. If Ford wanted an executive fired, a supplier forced into line, or a union group broken, he had only to hint at his wish. By the 1930’s this function was perfectly understood throughout the Ford organization, where Bennett’s presence, felt everywhere, was hated and dreaded at all levels.
He served Henry in the abrupt dismissal of many an executive. At first he would openly ascribe the act to his chief, saying: “Joe, Mr. Ford doesn’t want you here any more. He has asked me to fire you.” As this course provoked troublesome appeals to Ford, he changed his tactics, discharged the man, and took the responsibility himself. Occasionally he declined an especially sensitive assignment; when, for example, Ford directed him to “bounce” Edsel’s brother-in-law and co-planner, Ernest Kanzler, he refused. But more often he took pleasure in the task.
In many respects, as the years passed, Bennett became something near a substitute son to Henry Ford, and a spoiled son at that; for Henry’s relations with Edsel did not improve. When Kanzler was abruptly ejected, close observers were startled by the sudden glimpse of a deep gulf opening between father and son. That gulf remained. Despite all Edsel’s forbearing loyalty, relations between them could never again be quite the same. Edsel’s wife remonstrated with the old man; his own wife, Clara, was deeply troubled; and Edsel’s own grief was often clear. Far from seeing that the son’s superb tolerance, combined with his determination to continue struggling for a more progressive administration, really proved his strength, the father, in a growing conviction that Edsel was weak, turned to Bennett as the tough, realistic, hard-hitting type he had wished his son to be. And as Bennett became a daily companion, earning Henry’s approval at every turn, he achieved the status of lieutenant, son, and crony combined. Henry telephoned him early every morning, sometimes drove him to work, and telephoned him again nearly every evening at nine thirty. He took any criticism of Bennett’s policies, alleged dishonesty, and violent acts as criticism of his own management; and as it was hard to tell where one authority ended and the other began, he was at least partly right.
The crony relationship was important, for Ford enjoyed his companionship with the cocky, hardheaded service chief. They would meet sometimes at one of the Ford farms of Greenfield Village to take long drives together. At other times they would sit in Bennett’s basement office talking, sometimes for several hours. They discussed factory problems from the same point of view. “Ford delighted in the game of cops and robbers,” writes one commentator, “and the service department was that.” Or they would take up politics or the light jottings of a Detroit Free Press columnist called “Iffy the Dopester,” whom both liked, or one of Ford’s many hobbies. Although Ford often urged both Sorensen and Bennett to take vacations, whenever they went away he felt a gap in his life. Bennett on one of his California trips received a letter from Henry’s secretary reporting: “The boss wishes me to ask how you are, etc. I think he misses his daily talks.” A writer for Reader’s Digest elicited a direct indication of esteem when, riding in the rear seat of a car driven by Bennett, he asked: “Mr. Ford, of all the men you have met in your whole business and industrial experience, which one has seemed to you the most remarkable?” Ford silently pointed straight at Bennett.
All in all, the Ford-Bennett relationship was a curious mixture of impulses practical and emotional, reasoned and instinctive, selfish and unselfish. The two men respected each other’s skills and efficiencies, liked each other’s crassness, and saw in each other the strengths needed to cope with a brutal world. A pathetic element may be found in Henry’s attitudes. Lonely, disillusioned, uniting the most brilliant gifts with the most hopeless limitations, he was groping for some stay, some support. Bennett’s attitude, on the other hand, offers little to win our respect. He was loyal to Ford, even to risking his life for his chief, so long as loyalty paid—and no longer, as he proved by signing his name to a vulgar volume of depreciation after Ford’s death. He respected Ford’s genius, admired his achievements, and liked some of his human traits. But here again he was selfish; he wanted so desperately to share Ford’s power, he was so ambitious to seize the levers of authority, that his final determination was to exploit the old man mercilessly to make himself the ruling head.
The decline came late but with shocking rapidity. On Ford’s seventieth birthday, in 1933, his physical and mental health was sound. Down to his seventy-fifth birthday in 1938 associates marveled at his spry stair-climbing, quick, nervous agility about the plant, and alert responses. Even after his first stroke that year, he seemed much his old self, and his attorney, I. A. Capizzi, noticed no deterioration. Then early in the new decade came a change, which after a second stroke in 1943 became pronounced. He was slower in gait; he did not spend as much time on the job as before; on a trip he began to chill and needed wraps; and above all, lapses occurred in his mental grasp. Suddenly he forgot the names of familiar executives and had to ask their identity.
It is not strange that the calculating man closest to Ford, and best able to gauge his mental atrophy, should weigh more intently than ever the chances of dispossessing him of the scepter upon which his grasp now seemed so insecure. The years of the Mad Hatter were beginning; anything could happen.
Administrative confusion became worse after Henry’s second stroke in 1943, and the areas of administrative vacuum more numerous. Ford had always been reluctant to define spheres of authority and had often delighted in issuing contradictory orders; now his capriciousness made the managerial process a turmoil of uncertainties, fears, and crosspurposes. Sometimes even Ray Dahlinger, manager of Ford’s farms, would issue orders to executives: “Mr. Ford told me to tell you.” This was a far cry from the early days of the company with its printed admonition: “Verbal orders don’t go.”
Often it was impossible to verify a secondhand directive, for Ford was hard to find, seldom entering his two offices and poking about wherever the fancy took him. Once run down, he would often break off any question with an impatient “That’s all been decided—don’t bother me about it.” For self-protection his executives banded together in little clusters of power, which watched each other jealously and engaged in covert warfare. Charles Martindale relates that a little later, in 1945, a young man was set to drafting an organization chart for the company. He found the task impossible. “He’d bring it to me with tears in his eyes,” states Martindale, “and gave up because there was no way of knowing who reported to whom.”
This chaos was to the advantage of Bennett, for as no definite boundaries contained his drive to power, timid men turned to him for protection. Furthermore, as guardian and shaper of Ford’s isolation, he could determine the form of what small resources of leadership the old man still had to give the executives. Bennett was still outside the “round table” group that lunched with Henry in the executive dining room in the engineering building; but as he saw Ford constantly, he could impose his will on the chief better than this luncheon cabinet could. He was ready by 1939 to engage even the once all-powerful Sorensen. Fred L. Black informs us that during this year he heard Sorensen begin to tell Ford something that Bennett was doing of which Sorensen strongly disapproved. “Mr. Ford, with an ice-cold tone in his voice and steely look, said, ‘What is the matter, is he stepping on your toes?’ ”
Ray R. Rausch was high in production at the Rouge, and though Sorensen speaks well of him in his memoirs, the universal impression was that he stood with Bennett, helped Bennett plant his men throughout the factory, and was ready to act against Sorensen in promoting Bennett’s ambitions. Among Bennett’s most regular luncheon guests in his private dining room were Rausch and Russel Gnau, Sorensen’s personal secretary. Gnau also had moved so far into the Bennett camp that practically everybody in the upper ranks believed that he was working to undermine Sorensen—everybody with the exception of the overworked Sorensen himself.
Bennett was also ready to drop into Henry’s mind insinuations derogatory to Edsel’s ideas and attitudes. Another veteran executive recalls that once, riding with Edsel after a humiliating dispute over policy, the tortured son dropped his usually perfect self-control. “The hurtful thing about all this,” Edsel burst out, obviously fighting his tears, “is that Father takes Harry’s word for all this and he won’t believe mine. Who is this guy anyway? Where did he come from? He is nothing but a gob.…” Sorensen states that relations between Edsel and Henry were now strained “almost to the breaking point.” One self-respecting executive after another had left the company in disgust or, like the able purchasing agent Fred Diehl, had been forced out, until only the thinnest middle echelon existed between ownership at the top and technicians below.
When promising men rose at the Rouge they were all too likely to make a rough exit. Bennett tells a callous story about the way in which William C. Cowling, a veteran in the company and sales manager for almost seven years, was pushed into the street late in 1937. Ford executives were permitted to get their cars reconditioned in the factory at moderate cost, and Cowling brought his in. Bennett (acting on Ford’s instructions, he states, but it is impossible to say who was prime mover in such matters) kept precise track of the time spent on the car, and added charges for the time that he and Henry spent overseeing the job. “When the car was finished, we sent Cowling an enormous bill.” The sales manager promptly notified Bennett, “You can keep the car,” sold an unfinished house he was building, and after a further prod, left, taking with him his long years’ experience. His successor, John R. Davis, was transferred to California because he discharged a Bennett favorite.
Beginning in the autumn of 1940, production first for defense and then for war absorbed much of Edsel’s and Sorensen’s energies. While Henry was at first lukewarm or obstructive, they believed wholeheartedly in aiding the vast international effort; Sorensen regarded it as the greatest challenge of his life, and Edsel’s enthusiasm heightened the already great respect that onlookers had for the younger man. As the Willow Run bomber plant got under way, it required all Sorensen’s drive to meet government schedules, and Edsel supported him as his failing health permitted.
As Henry Ford’s attitude toward Edsel became increasingly harsh, Sorensen had the courage to expostulate with the old man. “Again and again,” he writes, “I tried to impress upon him, without success, that his attempt to drive Edsel into line by using Harry Bennett to annoy him and check his every move was breaking down Edsel’s respect for him.” He added that it was ruining Edsel’s precarious health. What was even worse, Henry was showing a jealous antagonism toward Edsel’s sons. Late in 1940, Henry II, recently out of Yale and just married, began to work at the plant along with his brother Benson. Men might have supposed that the grandfather would be overjoyed by this promise that the Ford line would continue in control of the great property, and would greet the boys affectionately. Instead, Sorensen tells us, Henry at first said that he did not wish them around, and when they stayed on, treated them with brusque indifference. This attitude did not displease the man who exulted that he was closer than a son to Henry.
Perhaps Sorensen overstates the tension between Henry and Edsel, but some weight must be given an incident he recounts. He relates that in 1941, just after Sorensen, Edsel, and the two boys visited the Consolidated bomber plant in San Diego to study its methods, Edsel came in from a talk with his father. He was overwhelmed with anxiety, for Henry had bid him to get the boys out of the Rouge—to California, to any other place, the farther away the better. They might stay on the payroll, but they should get out at once! At this, Sorensen writes, he telephoned for a meeting with Henry. When he went he took Edsel along. As they entered the office the old man, caught by surprise to see Edsel there, betrayed himself by what Sorensen calls a look of hatred; probably dismay would be a more appropriate word. The outraged manager told Henry not only that he was completely opposed to the exile of the boys, but that if it were carried through, he would leave the company. This ended the matter; but Edsel could not forget it, and the memory still oppressed him when a little later Henry II entered the Navy, and Benson joined the Air Force.
“‘The hurtful thing is that Father takes Harry’s word and won’t believe mine. Who is this guy anyway?’”
With the war raging more hotly, the Ford contribution to the Allied cause growing more important, and Sorensen so overburdened that he twice fainted in the plant, events reached a partial climax in the spring of 1943. Edsel’s condition had become serious when his stomach ulcers gave way to cancer, and he fell ill with undulant fever contracted from non-pasteurized milk from Henry Ford’s farm. His father refused to believe he was in danger. If he would only change his diet and mode of life to that which Henry Ford had found best, if he would stop worrying, listening to men of the wrong type, and opposing Henry and Bennett, he would soon get well. Disgust, discouragement, and anger possessed the best Ford executives as they heard Henry express these views.
One of the ablest men was ejected from the organization in April—A. M. Wibel. His rigidly honest administration of purchasing, sympathy with liberal ideas, and intimacy with Edsel and Sorensen, all made him repugnant to Bennett. This fine-spirited man, who over the years since 1912 had worked his way up from a machinist’s bench, had apparently always pleased Henry, and certainly no rational basis existed for his dismissal. He had been elected a vicepresident and director along with Sorensen in 1941, thus becoming a figure of national repute. Some men in the company, however, did not want an honest administration of purchasing, and poisoned Henry’s mind. When an irresponsible agent made trouble in his department, Wibel brought hot accusations against Bennett—and his discharge followed. His loss, which was telegraphed over the country, was a shock to both Edsel and Sorensen, for it meant that one of the company’s pillars was gone.
Another event of this troubled April is detailed by Sorensen. On the fifteenth, the day before the manager was to leave for a short Florida vacation, Henry Ford telephoned him. He wanted Sorensen to take Edsel, then almost too ill to move about, in hand, and change his whole attitude toward Bennett, toward Henry, and toward life. “Some job!” ejaculated Sorensen. Of the seven-point program which Henry laid down, five points might have been dictated by “the little fella” himself. Roughly jotted down by Sorensen, they ran as follows:
- a. Discord over handling labor relations (to end).
- b. Wibel and his attitude toward Bennett, says Wibel is through.
- c. Bennett in full accord with Henry Ford. Henry Ford will support Bennett against every obstacle. Seeing labor leaders.
- d. Bennett’s job, no one else.
- e. Change relations with Bennett.
When Sorensen saw Edsel next morning he hardly needed to say: “It is evident where Mr. Ford is getting these ideas.” Edsel sadly explained to him the full reason for the recent decree that Wibel should get out. Bennett had demanded that Wibel give a lucrative order to some supplier whom he favored. Wibel had angrily refused and appealed to Edsel as president, and Edsel had ordered Harry to stop his interference with purchasing and stick to personnel and labor relations. Henry Ford’s telephone call was an additional answer to the son’s show of spirit! Agitated almost to the breaking point, Edsel discussed the propriety of resigning and leaving the company. Had he done this, Sorensen would have resigned also, and with Henry II and Benson in the armed services, Bennett would have been left in complete control. Fortunately, Edsel’s forbearance and Sorensen’s willingness to talk bluntly to the father averted the calamity.
As the old man showed a momentary contrition, the manager and the son—almost equally harassed, stricken, and anxious—went their ways, one to a brief vacation in Miami, the other to the hospital. For nearly a year the son had felt that his illness would have a fatal termination. On May 26, at 1:10 in the morning, he died at his home in St. Clair Shores of a complication of ailments: stomach cancer, undulant fever, and a broken heart. Only a week earlier his father had refused to believe the truth about Edsel’s illness. His death sent a wave of sorrow through Dearborn and Detroit, for all who knew Edsel loved him. Henry took it with composure, but Sorensen, who went to the funeral, broke down. He always believed that if Henry had treated his son with wise consideration and affection, he could have had a long life. Bennett, according to his own story, was asked by Henry if he would come to the funeral and replied that he would not be so hypocritical; “I knew,” he adds, “that Edsel had despised me.” But he had the decency to state that Edsel’s departure had left many orphans about the plant. Few coffins have been surrounded by so much bitterness of heart.
What would happen now that the crown prince, so long the center of all hopes for a better regime in the Ford empire, had died before the mentally failing monarch? The presidency had to be filled at once. On May 27, the day before the funeral, Henry telephoned Sorensen that he would take over the position—at nearly eighty, after two strokes! The manager could hardly believe what he heard and, according to his own story, at once told Frank Campsall, Ford’s secretary and one of Bennett’s supporters, that he would give Henry no help in reorganizing the company. He knew that if he did so he would simply implicate himself in putting a sinister group, using a broken figurehead, in control. This declaration frightened Bennett, who drove posthaste to Willow Run to see Sorensen and smoke him out. Was he maneuvering to succeed Edsel as president? Was he, the real binding force in the plant for so many years, trying to bring pressure upon Henry Ford by threatening a disruptive course? Though Sorensen said no, Bennett and his aides still feared him.
And at this critical moment Henry Ford sanctioned still another extraordinary act, the execution of a codicil to his will which was kept secret from the family. Edsel had been anxious to arrange a farsighted plan of management for the Ford properties when he and his father died; wills had been drafted for both in 1936 which, as we shall see later, kept control of the company in the hands of the Ford family by creating a foundation. It appears that one of the company lawyers, Louis Colombo, divining in Henry Ford’s mind an intense dislike for the foundation plan, had advised him against it, with the result that either Henry or Bennett asked him to draw up a counter-scheme. When Edsel died this had not yet been done.
But it was done now. Another lawyer, the capable I. A. Capizzi, was summoned to a meeting in an office at Willow Run. To the best of his recollection some years later, both Bennett and Sorensen were present. Capizzi recalls this because the crucial problem of the presidency was still unsettled, and he noted the strong feeling between Sorensen, who apparently thought he should succeed, and Bennett, obviously opposing Sorensen because this would reduce his power. “At any rate,” runs an approved summary of Capizzi’s recollections, “it was reported to him by Bennett that…Mr. Henry Ford was concerned that Henry Ford II would come too much under the influence of Kanzler in the operation of the company and that therefore Mr. Henry Ford was interested in setting up a means whereby the operation of the company would vest in others until Henry II and the other grandchildren were old enough to manage the company themselves.” Capizzi advised the group that such a purpose could be accomplished by a provision in Henry Ford’s will setting up a board of trustees to operate the company after his death.
Significantly, Capizzi adds that the only information he got concerning Henry Ford’s wishes came from Bennett; he never talked with Ford himself on the subject. It is also his recollection “that Mr. Bennett finally persuaded Mr. Ford to step in and become president of the company in order to assure his (Bennett’s) position of power.” However this may be, it was Bennett who asked Capizzi to proceed with the codicil. Of course he did this—the family knowing nothing of the matter. Of the nature of the codicil, whatever the circumstances, there is no question whatever. It nullified the foundation plan by creating a trust, under which the Ford Motor Company was to be controlled by a board named by Henry Ford for ten years after his death. None of the grandchildren appears in the list of trustees later set down by Bennett. Although Capizzi believes that the codicil named no secretary of the board, Bennett explicitly declares that he was to hold that position of special power.
One heartening fact was that the women of the Ford family were now playing a determined role in the drama. Edsel’s wife had not watched her husband’s years of suffering, and heard his anguished denunciations of Bennett, without resolving that her sons’ rights should be respected until they could take full management. Clara, as close observers noted, had been expostulating with Henry, denouncing Bennett as persecutor of her son and evil genius of the plant and taking Mrs. Edsel Ford’s side in insisting that the grandsons be trained for control. Both were women of character, whose self-assertion now counted.
Another encouraging element in the situation was the government’s active interest. As the war reached its crisis, Washington had no intention of letting the tremendous production energies of the Rouge and Willow Run be crippled. President Roosevelt and the war production chiefs wished to see Henry Ford set aside by able, earnest, trustworthy men. But could such men gain control in time?
On June 1, 1943, the stockholders held a meeting, with Henry Ford and his grandsons Henry II and Benson present. This meeting re-elected the three Fords and Sorensen as directors, and chose Mrs. Edsel Ford, Mead L. Bricker, Harry Bennett, Ray R. Rausch, and B. J. Craig as new members of the board. Later that day the board elected the elder Henry Ford president, and Sorensen, vice president. This, in view of Henry Ford’s age, was a makeshift arrangement which Sorensen, who states that he wished to see Henry II chosen president, regarded as absurd. It might have proved worse than absurd, for as Bennett reached for enhanced power, he would feel able to count on the support of the elder Ford, Rausch, and Craig.
When Secretary Knox approved the release of Henry Ford II from the Navy to the Rouge plant in the hot August days of 1943, Detroit observers were betting that the young man would encounter the same frustrations that Edsel had met, that the atmosphere of plot, counterplot, and general apprehension would paralyze his good intentions, and that he would probably not have the fortitude to stick to his post and win control. The situation would have confused anybody.
Legal authority, to be sure, rested with the board of directors, but Bennett tells us that its meetings were meaningless when Henry Ford did not attend, and farcical when he did. “Mr. Ford would come in, walk around, shake hands with everyone, and then say, ‘Come on, Harry, let’s get the hell out of here. We’ll probably change everything they do, anyway.’ ” Young Henry, for the moment powerless, had to feel his way cautiously. When later he was asked about the extent to which his father and grandfather had talked to him about plant affairs, he replied significantly that he had talked with his father. He went on: “It may have been in 1941 or a little earlier I told him that things were in a mess, and that it would have to be cleaned up.” Edsel, then profoundly discouraged, merely replied that it couldn’t be done!
“…she now began to act decisively in her husband’s name, and it was high time she did.”
Although Henry II said that his brother Benson knew more about the Rouge than he did, he by no means returned to the company in ignorance of its condition. He had seen enough of the factory before his enlistment to know its routines. Then, while attending the Naval Training School at Lake Forest, Illinois, he had taken time to follow the principal Ford developments in detail. He had requested Sorensen’s secretary, Russell Gnau, to supply not only regular operational reports but news of everything he heard and observed.
Henry II had used a short leave to visit the Rouge plant on June 4, 1943, and Russell Gnau had promptly set down a report on the call for Harry Bennett, who had been busy with some navy officers. Again the young man had shown how closely he was following the business. When Gnau remarked that he must have stirred up the management when he complained that the company was making no money, Henry II replied that the average of the profits over the past ten years had been far below Chrysler’s. The two had talked about current operations, turnover, and the long lag between shipments and receipt of payments. Gnau then showed him detailed material on bomber construction at Willow Run and the assemblies at the Rouge, the Lincoln plant, and elsewhere, inquiring whether he had received the facts before.
“No,” responded Henry II, “Dad never gave me much information on what was going on.” He had known enough about the company’s position, however, to express uneasiness. “We are O.K. now,” he had remarked, “but what is going to happen after we finish our government contracts?” He stuck stubbornly to his doubts after Gnau tried to reassure him by saying that Ford would have the greatest postwar job in the world in making tractors. “Automobile manufacture is the really important matter,” Henry II had said in effect, “and I do not think we are doing enough development work to get ready for it. You say Gregorie has plans for a new car on the drafting board. Well, you should get on with it.”
And Henry II made one statement of great significance for the future of the company. As Gnau records it: “Henry mentioned the fact that he thought it would be a good idea to bring in a lot of young men. Said we should bring young college graduates into the company for training. We told him we didn’t think a college education was necessary except for a professional man, and if a boy had a good high school education, that was equipment enough for us to develop him. He said most other companies brought in college boys.”
Moving into Edsel’s office on his return, Henry II took over part of his father’s staff, began to master various duties, and learned to put up with Sorensen’s grim patronage and Bennett’s hostility, expressed in an odd combination of cajolery and harassment. He “worked for Sorensen,” he said later, and disliked him and his methods. He kept away from Bennett as much as he could and, like Edsel, detested him. Tramping around the Rouge and Willow Run, cheerful, democratic, and observant, the young man got acquainted with workers, foremen, and superintendents.
One reason why Secretary Knox released him from the Navy was that high government officials hoped that he might put an end to the growing chaos in management, for the discharge of experienced and trusted officials had shocked war-production men in Washington. Another reason lay in the intercession of Ernest Kanzler and other anxious Detroit observers. Young Henry’s logical first move was to become familiar with personnel. Sorensen helped in this, and was also useful in accompanying him to Washington and seeing that he met bankers, industrialists, and such high officers as General “Hap” Arnold. They impressed him; and, writes Sorensen, “wherever this 25-year-old young man went he, too, made an impression—a good one.”
To be sure, Henry II, who despite his evident ability was as mild in manner and as modest as his father, did not at first make an impression of tremendous force; few young men do. But his education—the Detroit University School, Hotchkiss School, and nearly four years at Yale, where he leaned first toward engineering and then to sociology and business administration—had given him breadth of view. Affable and unassuming, he made friends readily. He had a marked capacity for hard work. He was a complete realist—nothing and nobody fooled him—and he had one of Henry Ford’s primary traits: tenacity of purpose. Outside observers who had expected little of him, and Bennett’s inside group with its hopes that he would prove weak, found him growing rapidly in poise and assurance.
No realist could have missed seeing the mismanagement and confusion of the Rouge. Wartime dislocations were unavoidable, but apart from this, much was basically wrong. In the absence of a system for fixing accurate ratios among demand, materials, and working force, some departments were bloated with staff, while others starved; there was a particularly deplorable shortage of expert engineers. The financial statements had latterly been kept from all but a few men, partly because publicizing them would have damaged company prestige and partly because incompetent or dishonest officers knew they might prompt an investigation. One of Bennett’s lieutenants said darkly of the balance sheets: “You never know what someone will do with one of these things.” No proper cost controls existed. “Can you believe it?” Henry II later asked one magazine writer. “In one department they figured their costs by weighing the pile of invoices on a scale.” The production department planned output on a certain projected volume, sales planned its marketing on another, and purchasing bought its materials on still a third. The company might run at one third of its normal volume, and still employ two thirds of its normal work force.
Henry II was equally a realist concerning the high officers of the company. He soon took the measure of them all, and trusted few. Fully aware of the character and designs of Bennett, he knew by personal experience how the service chief could manipulate evidence. He recalled later: “When an important policy matter came up, Bennett would get into his car and disappear for a few hours. Then he’d come back and say, ’I’ve been to see Mr. Ford and he wants us to do it this way.’ I checked at Fair Lane and found out that Bennett hadn’t seen my grandfather on those occasions.” The reminiscences of Sorensen and Bennett for 1943-44 are often so directly contradictory that neither can be given full credence, but Sorensen’s carry much the greater weight, and one of his passages has revealing force. Convinced that Bennett expected to browbeat and thwart Henry II as he had frustrated Edsel, he watched the situation carefully:
“One morning I was with him when he got a telephone call from Bennett. He was getting an carful and could hardly get a word in. Not wishing to listen, I stepped into the outer office, and went back when Henry II put down the receiver. Not a word was said about the phone call. He was under fire—I could see that—but young Henry was composed and resumed his talk with me as though nothing had happened. The boy can take it, I said to myself happily, everything will work out all right.”
Time continued to play an important part in the drama. For one thing, the condition of Henry Ford, nominally president, steadily worsened, and his erratic ways could do untold harm. Henry II, making every effort to maintain cordial relations, took care to say nothing that could be carried to his grandfather to create misunderstanding. He even leaned backward to be agreeable. As late as the summer of 1944, speaking before Ford dealers in Massachusetts, he paused to comment on Henry Ford. “He is in excellent health. He puts in a full working day, including Saturday. He goes to Willow Run practically every day, and has put a lot of his effort into that plant, and I believe the outstanding results accomplished at Willow Run reflect his personal supervision…He is going along toward our common objective, Leadership. All our programs have his complete endorsement.” Several aspects of this statement are significant: the young man’s tactful care to praise Henry, his willingness to help maintain the innocent fiction, good for dealers’ morale, of Ford’s competency, and his emphasis on leadership in “our” programs.
Time had already eroded the uneasy Bennett-Sorensen partnership and converted it into a tacit antagonism. The two men shared an iron-fisted temper, and while Edsel lived and Henry Ford remained vigorous, they had regarded each other with a certain respect and even some tolerance; but the moment that control of the Ford empire became doubtful, their jealousy ripened toward enmity. Sorensen, a powerful constructive force, and a man of strict standards in company matters, was irritated by evidences of graft in plant operations. He was deeply offended by the ousting of his veteran comrade, Wibel. He saw with a sense of outrage the renewed purge immediately after the death of Edsel, a purge in which Bennett’s adroit manipulation of Henry Ford’s senile resentments played a main part and which led toward Bennett’s establishment of undisputed sway.
In the discharge of one of the most valuable men in the company, the skilled engineer Laurence Sheldrick, Sorensen was himself maneuvered into playing a part. Like other episodes of the time, it has mysterious aspects. Few happenings in plant affairs were now strictly rational. Sheldrick’s own story is the most trustworthy account. He relates that Henry II, soon after his arrival, asked about his father’s ideas on postwar automobile design. Sheldrick then told of Edsel’s keen interest in plans and showed him various designs embodying Edsel’s ideas. He gathered later that some talebearer carried word of this to Bennett and Henry Ford. At about the same time Henry II proposed to Sorensen that he go with Sheldrick to Aberdeen, Maryland, to talk with federal ordnance officers with whom the company was doing business. This Sorensen approved, saying, “Fine, but I think I’d better clear with your grandfather first, though.” Arrangements were then duly made by which Sheldrick and Henry II were to meet in Washington on September 14 and go on to Aberdeen. Little did Sheldrick surmise that plans had been made for his swift decapitation.
In the light of the sequel, Sheldrick could only conclude that Henry Ford and Bennett had peremptorily ordered Sorensen to pick a quarrel with him and force his departure. For on the thirteenth Sorensen called Sheldrick into his office. He roughly charged the engineer with showing a mass of material on postwar design to Henry II. To this Sheldrick replied that young Henry knew of its existence and had asked for it. Sorensen then accused Sheldrick of making young Henry a “warmonger” by sending him to Aberdeen: “You know how his grandfather feels about that.” Sheldrick responded that he was merely trying to serve the company and that General Motors had shown more zeal in cooperating with the government. “There you go talking about General Motors again,” snapped Sorensen in his nastiest tone. “If you think they’re so goddam good, why don’t you go work for them?” To which Sheldrick made the only self-respecting answer possible: “All right, if that’s the way you feel about it, I guess I’m through”—and walked out of the plant.
“Eleanor had seen her husband so cruelly maltreated that she was resolved to fight to the last for her sons”
Sorensen knew during this autumn or 1943 that his own days were numbered. Like a great oak half-undermined by subterranean waters, he shook, careened to one side, and stood at the point of toppling. Slight after slight had been put upon him by Henry Ford and Bennett. When President Roosevelt’s train had visited Willow Run on September 18, 1942, Bennett had taken complete charge of the arrangements: the formation of the parade, path of automobiles, pace, and stops. F.D.R.’s train had pulled up alongside the plant. After the automobiles completed their circuit of the Rouge, F.D.R. and Henry Ford entered the President’s private railroad car together, leaving Sorensen outside. He did not gain entry until he went to his office to get a miniature plane of aluminum that had been used as a model at Willow Run, fetched it to show the President, and after some parley with the secret service men, was admitted.
Sorensen remained impassive as Bennett, using his malign influence over Henry Ford, steadily disabled him. The service chief effectively pinioned Sorensen just before Henry II’s return, for on June 18, 1943, Bennett had himself appointed assistant to Sorensen for administrative problems and his associate, Ray R. Rausch, made assistant to Sorensen for production. The two, with Henry Ford, thus hemmed Sorensen in. Long the general production chief, Sorensen had latterly aspired to general administrative direction—but now his power was reduced, and he was largely confined to Willow Run. Overworked, often under terrible strain with his bomber program, and half ill as he drove it to success, he saw that he must soon go.
In November, 1943, he told an uncomprehending Henry Ford that he wished to be relieved on January 1 to go to Florida. According to his own story, he advised his chief to make Henry II president without delay and warned him that Washington was grumbling over the plant’s loss of key men and the resulting confusion. Perhaps he made some impression upon Ford’s mind, for on December 15, Henry II was elected vice president. But when on, or just after, New Year’s Day Sorensen said good-by, Henry Ford’s only comment was, “I guess there’s something in life besides work.” Still seeming not to understand what was happening, the elder Ford left for Ways, Georgia. Sorensen had not resigned, and we can only guess whether he really wished to step out. But from his winter home in Miami, he declares, he kept asking Henry Ford for “release”; and on March 2, 1944, he got his answer.
It came through an intermediary: Henry Ford wished him to resign because he had been ambitious for the company presidency! Sorensen, doubtless furious, of course instantly offered his resignation. Its announcement on March 4 was a shock to the whole industry, and to war-production heads in the government. Sorensen tells us that Charles E. Wilson, one of the heads of the War Production Board, telephoned that the President wished him to take charge of the Ford Motor Company for the government. Determined federal action could have arranged this. Sorensen adds that he not only refused to be a party to any such plan but protested against government removal of Henry Ford, “much as that removal was desirable,” and expressed faith that Henry II would see the remaining war work of the plants carried through. Through friends in Washington, he asserts, he made his view prevail.
To what extent the dramatic exit of Sorensen at the height of the war crisis was a product of the machinations of Bennett, to what extent it represented another erratic impulse of Henry Ford, and to what extent other factors counted, nobody can tell. After Edsel’s death no one in the company was in a position to stand up for Sorensen. He himself, after inquiry, concluded that Clara Ford made the decision. This view gains some support from Ernest Kanzler’s statement that since Edsel’s death Clara’s hostility to both Sorensen and Bennett had become implacable. It is certain that she now began to act decisively in her husband’s name, and it was high time she did. In this course Mrs. Edsel Ford would have strongly supported her.
Sorensen’s departure had the quality of a denouement in an Elizabethan tragedy. For decades he had been Ford’s principal lieutenant. Like Edsel Ford, he belonged to that little group of true builders who, using the erratic genius of Henry Ford, lifted the corporation to international fame and power. Of all the men who served Henry Ford after he acquired complete control of the company, Sorensen was the most powerful, while he stands alone as the most dynamically ruthless. Certainly he had played a major role in the greatest single achievement of the Ford Motor Company, the consummation of the mass-production process which transformed modern industry.
Sorensen’s and Sheldrick’s expulsions, clearing the ring, left the surviving antagonists in this murky, undeclared war face to face: Bennett and Henry II. Lesser officers grouped themselves about these two. To be sure, something in Bennett’s motivation, conduct, and aims remains unknown, and men may err in attributing to him the completely Machiavellian, not to say Mephistophelean, role given him by journalists addicted to black-and-white portraiture. We can say, however, that his continued activities in this critical hour, like his past actions, did not belie such portraiture.
The dislodgment of Sorensen was generally accepted as proof that Bennett’s star was rising to the zenith. Unquestionably Bennett held strong cards in his hand. He had his own junta, his palace guard. He had his well-placed plant police, seeded with bruisers and thugs. Above all, he had the codicil to the will, for what it was worth, and his domination over Henry Ford’s uncertain mind. When, in his reminiscences, he tells us that a public remark by Henry II acquiescing to government wartime controls over the industry “enraged” the grandfather, we may wonder if Bennett did not promote the rage. Henry Ford’s obsession with the idea that his beleaguering enemies were held back by Bennett’s wall of defense was somehow sedulously nourished. One of Ford’s remarks chills the blood. “The Jews and Communists,” he said, “have been working on poor Harry until he’s almost out of his mind.” He needed a vacation. “Then he’ll come back all ready to keep on fighting the ones who are trying to take over our plant.”
The event inspired Fortune to publish an article on “The Ford Heritage,” which, while not fully informed, showed how most people interpreted it, and sounded an ominous note. Detroit was full of rumors, it stated, that Henry Ford was waiting to see how much ability his grandchildren showed, and if they flashed in the pan, “he intends to leave his voting shares in a trust, and one of the trustees will be Harry Bennett.” The writer had somehow smelled out the codicil! A column in one issue of Iron Age expressed the view that Bennett would become actual operating head of the Ford works and all outlying activities at home and abroad.
Using these cards Bennett expected to enlarge his authority rapidly after Sorensen’s ouster. Henry II, he believed, might prove weak enough to drift under his tutelage. He told the press that the two of them could soon fill the gaps left by Wibel, Sheldrick, and Sorensen. “There are a lot of geniuses around here, and I hope Henry Ford II will learn to back them as his grandfather did.”
Ominous, too, was the celerity with which, as soon as Sorensen left for the Florida vacation which became resignation, Raymond R. Rausch moved into the production chief’s vacant office. This tall, bulky, balding executive of fifty, his looks attesting to his shrewd, stolid Dutch ancestry, took over Sorensen’s work at the Rouge, with attention not only to Ford vehicles but to the tank division and the Lincoln division. He had tucked himself under the elbow of power, and close company observers wondered that Sorensen, before his ouster, had been so naiïvely unconscious of Rausch’s unfriendly activities.
While Bennett clutched a strong poker hand, Henry II held all the aces—if he had the insight and nerve to play them. “I didn’t know how secure I was,” he said later, but he commanded half a dozen elements of potential strength. For one, from the moment he was elected a vice president in December, 1943, a great many employees in the lower echelons of the company’s management regarded him as the imminent head. Did not his name give him a prescriptive right to the presidency? For another, war-production leaders in Washington had learned from Sorensen and from Kanzler, now in the War Production Board, to look to young Henry, and to the extent that he proved capable, they would give him firm support in directing the plant’s war work. In Bennett they had no faith whatever. As a third element of strength, young Henry’s grandmother, Clara, his mother, Eleanor, and his brothers, Benson and William Clay, stood united behind his leadership. Clara, who as Sorensen surmised had now seized the reins from the nerveless grasp of old Henry Ford, had not only an inflexible hostility toward Bennett, but a fiery pertinacity when aroused in defense of family interests; Eleanor, a brilliant woman, had seen her husband so cruelly maltreated that she was resolved to fight to the last for her sons. The two women were one—and they controlled large blocks of voting stock.
Most important of all, Henry II had his own abilities and fighting temper. Backed by his mother and grandmother, he began to do something about the situation. His power was enlarged when on April 10, 1944, the board appointed him executive vice president, the post next in rank to the presidency.
His triple task was to establish correct policies, eliminate the vicious elements in the administrative system, and find capable, honest aides: three interconnected objectives. Time pressed; June would bring D-Day in Normandy and the capture of Saipan in the Pacific, and it was clear the company would soon face the multiform tasks of peace.
Since Henry II knew in general outline what policies he must pursue, the first step was to bring to his side aides of ability and insight. By good fortune two executives of ripe experience were at hand: Mead Bricker, who ran the Willow Run bomber plant, and his assistant, Logan Miller; a third helper, John S. Bugas, was given him by some curious circumstance; and a fourth, John R. Davis, he added by his own exertions.
The appointment of Bugas, a man of the highest character, had elements of mystery. This energetic graduate of the University of Wyoming had practiced law in Cheyenne, joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation, served J. Edgar Hoover in Alaska and the South, and finally, at thirty, taken over the FBI in Detroit in 1938. His investigations uncovered thefts and other malpractices in the war work of Willow Run and the Rouge. Much may be read into Bennett’s own explanation of the appointment. He writes: “Bugas had been Edsel’s prime source of information, and after Edsel died, Henry II kept up his father’s relationship with Bugas. Bugas was a source of irritation to both Mr. Ford and myself. Finally I decided that the best way to cope with him was to hire him into the plant.” At any rate, soon after Henry II came to the Rouge, Bennett hired Bugas to help deal with industrial relations—that is, labor. Once Bennett had him on the payroll he tried to neutralize him. “I was as isolated as a tuberculosis germ,” Bugas said later. But to Bennett’s discomfiture, the newcomer quickly became one of the best aides of Henry II—alert, progressive, right-minded.
“Henry II held all the aces—if he had the insight and nerve to play them.”
Bricker, a useful, honest, and forceful executive much disliked by Bennett and Rausch, could deal with production almost as ably as Bugas could handle labor. It was plain, however, that they needed reinforcement. Henry II wanted more lieutenants and, going over old plant records and talking with veteran workers, concluded that John R. Davis, the regional sales manager on the Pacific Coast, was needed to manage the sales department. But when Henry asked him if he would come back to Dearborn, Davis politely refused. Not only did he like California, but he feared that his old-time enemy, Bennett, might still be strong enough to ruin him. But Henry II insisted. Seeing the root of Davis’ reluctance, he promised that they would fight to victory together or take defeat together. “Put it on this basis,” he said in effect. “If I stay, you stay. If you go, I go. The company and I need you. We shall share the same fate.” Davis came. Then, the struggle still undecided, came the crisis.
Soon after Bugas joined the company, Henry II suddenly learned that some document connected with his grandfather’s will existed which, if valid, would have the effect of placing control of the property in the hands of trustees for ten years after Henry Ford’s death. He was staggered. The document (he did not know it was a codicil) had been kept secret from Edsel’s family. Bennett, he gathered, would dominate the trustees, most of whom would be his friends. In depression and anger, the young man came to Bugas to talk matters over. This, he declared, was the last straw. He was ready to quit the company, sell his stock, and write Ford dealers all over the country advising them to cancel their connection.
“I tried to calm him down,” a magazine writer quotes Bugas as saying. “Finally he agreed not to do anything drastic until I talked to Bennett and found out what it was all about.”
Going to Bennett, Bugas told him that Henry II had learned of the secret alteration of the will. This statement in turn staggered Bennett. He showed great perturbation. After some remark about not wanting young Henry to feel “bothered,” he said: “You come in here tomorrow and we’ll straighten the whole thing out.”
The next day, relates Bugas, a strange scene was enacted in Bennett’s office. Bennett showed Bugas the original typewritten codicil and a carbon copy of it, for as Capizzi states, Bennett had asked the attorney for a second copy. Then Bennett placed the original on the floor and set a match to it. The two men watched it burn. When the flame expired, Bennett swept the ashes into an envelope, which he dramatically handed to Bugas, saying, “Take this back to Henry.”
In due course Capizzi heard from Bennett of the destruction of the codicil and asked for an explanation. “It wasn’t any good anyway,” said Bennett. “Why?” asked Capizzi. “Because,” rejoined Bennett, “Mr. Ford had carried the instrument around in his pocket for a long time and had made a lot of scribblings on it, including verses from the Bible.” He added that Ford, when he added Capizzi’s name as trustee, had misspelled it. The attorney came to the conclusion that Ford had never signed the document. If this was true, Bennett’s theatrical gesture cost him nothing.
The secret existence of so explosive a document, thus revealed, galvanized Henry II, his family, and his company lieutenants into more urgent action. During the summer and fall of 1944 young Ford, Bricker, Bugas, and Davis spent long hours discussing plans for the future and strengthening their position. Henry II and Davis made their before-mentioned July trip to rally the dealers of New England behind the postwar effort, for the production of passenger cars was recommencing. Young Henry’s obvious grasp of company affairs and energetic program for new models impressed everyone. During the autumn Henry II and Davis traveled together to the Atlanta branch, where Henry announced that the company, as part of a $150 million program of expansion, would erect a great parts-depot to supply the Southeast. Davis had shown acumen in rebuilding the field organization of dealers, calling back to service many experienced men.
That winter Henry II and his aides continued their labors. They held their most confidential conferences in a corner of the high-ceilinged Detroit Club, safe from eavesdroppers. Early in 1945 Henry II called R. I. Roberge into his office. All indications pointed to an early end of the war, for the Russians had captured Warsaw and on March 7 American troops crossed the Rhine at Remagen; and he felt that Roberge should give all his time to plans for resumption of export trade and foreign production, while G. J. Crimmins should devote himself to the renegotiation and termination of war contracts. The first outlines of an orderly administration were appearing in company affairs.
As late as May, 1945, one zone of friction remained—the Rouge. As the termination of the bomber contract approached, Mead Bricker, in charge at Willow Run, ordered his aide Logan Miller to return to the Rouge. “There,” states Miller, “I more or less wandered under special assignment.” Rausch still assumed that he was in control of the Rouge, and arrogantly acted on that assumption. From all appearances, Bricker had little authority there and Miller still less. But Rausch unquestionably knew, when on June 2 Henry II announced design changes in the cars for 1946, just where supreme power lay. A significant incident brought matters to a head. Bricker one day gave Logan Miller an urgent weekend task in the toolroom, which was supervised by one of Rausch’s subordinates, Joe Durling. Durling of course took word of the job to Rausch, and after his own and Bennett’s pattern of conduct Rausch told Miller, “Forget it!” Thereupon Miller reported the cancellation of the assignment to Bricker and added a resentful question: “If you have no authority around here, what are you kidding me about?”
The sequel, as he relates it, was dramatic. “I saw Mr. Bricker go into Mr. Rausch’s office, where a few men were sitting. The double door closed. Finally those doors flew open and out came the group of men as though somebody had exploded a bombshell. That to me indicated that somebody else was taking charge at the Rouge plant in place of Rausch. I never asked where Bricker received his authority.” He did not need to ask; Henry II stood behind Bricker. Soon after June 27 the last B-24 rolled off the Willow Run line, and Bricker was fully established as production chief of the great Rouge plant, displacing Rausch, who, however, still remained in the company.
By force of character, brains, and toilsome attention to detail, Henry II had fairly established his mastery over the company business. Meanwhile, Clara Ford had labored to convince old Henry that the time had come to transfer the presidency to his grandson. He was peevishly reluctant. Finally Mrs. Edsel Ford, according to her brother-in-law, took decisive action in support of Clara. “If this is not done,” she proclaimed, “I shall sell my stock!”—and the old man gave way. He summoned young Henry to Fair Lane for an interview. There he announced that he was ready to step aside and let his grandson assume the presidency.
“I told him I’d take it only if I had a completely free hand to make any changes I wanted to make,” Henry II said later. “We argued about that—but he didn’t withdraw his offer.” The young man went at once to the administration building, where he bade Frank Campsall to prepare his grandfather’s letter of resignation and to call a meeting of the board of directors the following day to act on it.
That day, September 21, 1945, the board held one of the most important sessions in its history. Henry Ford, now a mere adumbration, was present; so were Henry II, Bennett, Bricker, Craig, and Mrs. Edsel Ford. Campsall had the elder Ford’s resignation ready, and delivered it.
As the paper was unfolded, Bennett, who knew what had been decided, watched with bitter chagrin. He rose abruptly as Craig finished the first sentence, hurled an angry word of congratulation at Henry II, and started to bolt for the door; but others prevailed on him to stay until the decisive vote was taken. “Before the directors’ meeting had completely broken up,” writes an informed journalist, “young Henry strode down the mahogany panelled corridor to Bennett’s office. He was inside alone with Bennett for several minutes; when he came out Bennett was no longer the boss of Ford, though he was allowed a face-saving directorship for another month.” According to Bennett, the meeting took place in young Henry’s office. Whatever the scene, Bennett made a last venomous speech to the new president: “You’re taking over a billion dollar organization here that you haven’t contributed a thing to!” He could have offered no better revelation of his character and aims.
The central figure of this gathering, in the historical view, was not the triumphant and vigorous new head, and not the plotter so decisively worsted, but the broken old man who was led from the directors’ room, all his glories ended. Already people were referring to Henry Ford in the past tense. A participant in a Detroit program in his honor had written his speech as if Ford were dead, and had frantically changed his tenses at the last moment. What decisively ended in the board room was old Henry’s presidency; what had already begun to end was the Ford legend that had been born with the efflorescence of the Model T nearly four decades earlier, and the proclamation of the five-dollar day seven months before Europe broke into flames in 1914. An era terminated as he stepped out of the room.
No informed man could doubt that Henry Ford’s resignation closed perhaps the most impressive and certainly the most spectacular career in American industrial history. Nor could anyone doubt that his world-wide fame had been built on solid and enduring foundations. He had established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 as a daring venture in which few men cared to risk their capital. After years of grueling struggle, making one successful car after another, his mechanical genius had produced the Model T, which precisely filled a ravenous national want. The insatiable demand for his automobile enabled him to erect at Highland Park one of the most shining, well-planned, and efficient factories on the globe. It enabled him and his associates to evolve there the magic instrument of industrial fecundity termed mass production. From the early profits of the Model T and mass production bloomed the five-dollar day, which the London Economist has called the greatest single step in the history of wages.
The five-dollar day embodied a simple but inspired formula for the renovation of the economic and social life of industrialized nations. Mass production meant an opulence of manufactured goods; steady price reduction on these goods meant enlarged consumption, profits, and wage-paying capacity; and higher wages meant increased buying power to maintain the cycle. Once its efficacy was demonstrated, the formula seemed as obvious as Columbus’ method of making the egg stand on end—and yet, until it was tested, it appeared so unworkable that most manufacturers thought it grotesque. Ultimately it became the drive wheel of the affluent society. People might say that the Model T was a happy mechanical accident, that mass production was the creation of many ideas and talents working in unison, and that the five-dollar day was a sudden impulsive decision; but genius went into each of these achievements, and the genius was Henry Ford’s.
The Henry Ford who became not only world famous but a world force before 1915, was on the whole an attractive figure. Complex, wayward, mercurial, with a streak of meanness engendered by his hard early life, and prejudices that arose from ignorance, he could in spite of his glaring faults be called an idealist. His interest in schools and educational institutes, which he endowed in England, the South, and Michigan; his zeal in developing his industrial museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn; his efforts to promote better agriculture and wholesome habits in recreation; his labors to demonstrate the social value of “village industries”—these showed facets of a true idealism. The Ford who loved old machines, old folk songs, old schoolbooks, and old dances, who built winter shelters for rabbits and grew corn for crows, who detested snobbery and class lines, and who was contemptuous of money, was a thoroughly likable man. It is not strange that Americans devoured books on him and that Russian moujiks and Turkish mechanics wove wistful dreams about his legendary name.
But the years hardened him; his worse side wrestled more frequently with the better, until, after paralytic strokes lamed his mind, it seemed to master him. But responsibility for the change rested partly with his environment, with scheming and malicious men, and with changing times. Because rural Michigan of the 1870’s had denied him a proper education, his ignorance laid him open to the lamentable suspicions of his anti-Semitic campaigns. Meanwhile, the milk of his idealism had been curdled by cynical or spiteful attacks. Many American journals, he once burst out, were outrageously unfair: “They misquoted me, distorted what I said, made up lies.”
After the stroke of 1938 the old idealism showed itself only in rare flashes; the old kindliness and philanthropy, in few words and fewer deeds. His hostility to labor, his surrender of plant control to hard-fisted men, his comradeship with Bennett, the countenance he gave to violence and injustice, and, above all, his tragic persecution of his own son, placed him in a melancholy light. The growing senility of his last years was so carefully concealed that people failed to make due allowance for it. But as he now moved off the stage, tolerant observers knew that his career would have to be viewed as a whole and that in judging his darkened later years, the luminous creative decades could not be forgotten. In perspective, those decades counted by far the most, and would be remembered when much that followed was forgotten.