FORD TURNS 100: Bennett chapter a bizarre one. Thug, Ford's grandson sought clout
June 2, 2003
BY SHERYL JAMES
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
It was Sept. 21, 1945 -- the date of the famous executive shootout at the Ford Motor Co.
On one side of Henry Ford II's office at the company's Rouge complex in Dearborn was young Henry himself. He was 28, a tall man with a boxy build. Moments earlier, he had been voted president of his grandfather's company.
Facing him was Harry Bennett, 53, America's most-reviled corporate thug, the very stuff of wax museums. Head of the infamous Ford Service Department and for years a Rasputin-like confidant of an aging, ill Henry Ford, Bennett was vicious and powerful and everyone knew it, including Henry II. It was an understatement to say the men disliked one another.
Ford eyed the short, stocky Bennett. Inside, he admitted later, he was flat-out scared of the guy. Bennett had good friends who were gangsters, several pet lions and a gun in his desk. Worse, he had everything to lose: Until that day, he believed old man Ford had fixed it so he would be president, not this spoiled Ford brat.
But that was before the Ford women got involved, and now -- well, it was time for Henry II to rid the company of this cancer. He had to tread carefully. He'd heard rumors about a Bennett-inspired codicil to his grandfather's will giving Bennett control, but he'd never seen it. He politely told Bennett he no longer would be running any departments, but could remain on the Board of Directors and draw a salary for another 18 months until he was eligible for retirement.
Bennett knew this moment was coming. That's when he "played his ace in the hole," said Thomas DeWald, a Washington, D.C., journalist writing a Bennett biography. Bennett announced that he would be in charge as soon as the old man died.
That triggered it for Henry II. The neophyte executive already had learned a basic truth: In corporate power plays, the only time that matters is now. I'm in charge, he told Bennett, and you're through.
Bennett whirled toward the door. "You're taking over a billion-dollar organization that you haven't contributed a goddamned thing to!" he snapped.
Thus ended the finely engineered conclusion to one of the most bizarre chapters in corporate history, what one writer, Ford Bryan, calls "the Ford-directed super-drama." It went back to 1915, when Henry Ford hired Bennett, and involved machine guns, gangsters, one of the country's most famous labor disputes, innumerable corporate back-stabbings and the intertwining of four men: Henry Ford, Edsel Ford, Henry Ford II and Harry Bennett.
The story begins, of course, with Henry Ford.
Bennett was a chronic liar, and the widely reported story of how he met Ford is a good example. Here is how it goes:
One day in 1915, Ford was in New York City for business. Well-known journalist Arthur Brisbane was on his way to interview Ford when he saw Bennett in a brawl at Battery Park. Brisbane admired Bennett's bravado and took him along to meet Ford. Impressed with Bennett's story, Ford asked Bennett, 24, to help keep order at his auto plant. He asked Bennett to be his "eyes and ears" at the plant, according to Bennett's 1951 autobiography, "We Never Called Him Henry."
What really happened, according to DeWald:
Bennett, fresh out of the Navy, went to his native Ann Arbor, broke. His brother, who worked at Ford's Highland Park plant, got him a job as a clerk in the parts and service department. Henry Ford never sought out Bennett, who transferred to the Rouge, but Bennett made sure he got Ford's attention in 1918. He then ingratiated himself to Ford.
Ford eventually made clear to Bennett and to everyone that Bennett answered only to him. Bennett had no title, just orders. And often, Bennett and others said, Ford's orders were indirect -- almost mind games.
"I don't recall ever receiving a direct order," Charles Sorensen, a Ford executive, wrote in his 1956 book, "My 40 Years With Ford." "'He got what he wanted by hint or suggestion."
The situation was ripe for abuse, and Bennett was up to the task. Bennett, now part of American corporate folklore, was something out of a 1930s James Cagney movie.
"A fiction writer would be hard put to devise a more picaresque or colorful character," wrote David Lewis, professor of business history at the University of Michigan, in his 1976 book, "The Public Image of Henry Ford."
Allan Nevins and Frank Hill, authors of "Ford," a multivolume history, were more scathing:
"He was a figure 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, uncoil and strike. He carried about him an aura of secrecy, darkness and mystery; performing functions that were often vague and unpredictable."
Rough and ready
At 5-feet-7 and about 160 pounds, Bennett, a boxer, took to the adventurous, brawl-prone life of early 20th-Century Navy life and said he had considered re-enlisting.
Bennett always wore bow ties because, he said, he once had almost been strangled by a traditional tie in a fight. In his years at Ford, he leveled more than one man and shot at others -- all in his Rouge basement office. Once he shot a cigar out of a man's mouth; another time it was a man's hat -- while he held it. Ford liked to hang out in Bennett's office and target shoot. Sometimes, Ford aimed at a metal ceiling light fixture to irritate the executives upstairs; Ford hated executives, one reason he was attracted to the rough-hewn Bennett.
According to Lewis, Ford favored Bennett because he did whatever Ford asked him to immediately. He asked no questions and often took the blame because Ford liked to hide behind the curtains.
In 1943, when Henry Ford II started with the company, he learned a lot about Bennett, he told Booton Herndon in "Ford, An Unconventional Biography of the Men and Their Times."
"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'd check with my grandmother and find out that Bennett hadn't seen my grandfather on these occasions."
When Henry II tried to talk to his grandfather about this, the elder Ford refused to listen, saying, "I won't hear a word against Harry!"
Ford also liked Bennett because he was the rough, pugnacious man Ford wanted his son Edsel to be -- and was not.
To fulfill his vague but limitless role at Ford, Bennett took charge of the Service Department, which he packed with ex-convicts, former boxers, athletes and other tough characters. The benign-sounding department was actually an in-house police force. Its men were so thorough, they followed some employees to the toilet.
"It was like being under Army guard," Bryan said.
On the other hand, the Rouge was a rough place, Bryan said. "There was a lot of thievery. The slogan was: $6 a day, plus parts. You had to be careful. If you had any bulges in your jacket when you left, they would find them."
In the 1920s, Ford also was worried about his grandchildren being kidnapped, and he asked Bennett to take whatever measures necessary to protect them. That led to Bennett's notorious connection with underworld figures such as Chester LaMare, a Hamtramck gang kingpin, and Joe Tocco, a Downriver mob boss. Bennett granted these men and others favors such as the lucrative fruit concession at the Rouge or perhaps a dealership in exchange for protection.
In time, Bennett also managed the Rouge Employment Office, which gave him the power to hire and fire -- for whatever reasons he saw fit.
"At a nod from the chief, he was licensed to interfere anywhere," wrote Nevins and Hill.
Bennett always complained about his salary, but his compensation was another story. Fresh cash -- thousands -- was kept handy for Bennett. And he was given property worth millions: 2,800 acres in Clare County with an 8,400-square-foot cabin; property on Grosse Ile, and a lodge on Harsens Island on Lake St. Clair.
His principal property was the "Castle" on Geddes Road in Ann Arbor. Fit for the kind of caricature he had become by the 1930s, the Castle was more a fortress, with towers, secret passages and tunnels that led to lion cages. Bennett raised many lions.
"I often took one into the plant with me," Bennett wrote. "I have always been fond of cats of any kind."
By the 1930s, Bennett was at the zenith of his power at the plant just as labor unions were reaching peak organizing power. The two forces squared off at the Rouge. One labor leader, Benjamin Stolberg, described the following in a 1938 book:
"There are about 800 underworld characters in the Ford Service organization. They are the Storm Troops. They make no pretense of working, but are merely 'keeping order' in the plant community through terror. Around this nucleus are, however, between 8,000 and 9,000 authentic workers, a great many of them spies and stool pigeons. Because of this highly organized terror and spy system, the fear in the plant is something indescribable."
Men suspected of having union sympathies were fired under trumped-up charges of starting a fight, hauled off and beaten. Bennett also had influence with judges and state officials.
So Bennett was perfect, Ford thought, to keep unions out of his company. He proudly announced this one day to an unsuspecting Edsel. "I've picked someone to talk with the unions. I want a strong, aggressive man who can take care of himself in an argument, and I've got him."
This scene was merely the latest of many in which the elder Ford hurt his son by favoring Bennett. Ford had designated Edsel as company president in late 1918, but never really stepped aside. He alternately supported, then undermined, Edsel -- and Bennett personified that betrayal. Bennett skillfully undercut Edsel by reinforcing Ford's vision of his son's perceived weakness.
After one policy dispute won by Bennett, Edsel "dropped his usually perfect self-control," Nevins and Hill wrote. "The hurtful thing about all this," he told one executive, "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?"
Clara Ford was equally dismayed. "Who is this man who has so much control over my husband and is ruining my son's health?" she asked another executive.
Edsel watched with horror as Bennett carried out Ford's antiunion crusade with a vengeance. In 1937, Ford servicemen beat up Walter Reuther and other UAW members in the famous Battle of the Overpass. In the next few years, Bennett's men resorted to similar measures to discourage the union. But the union, in its 1941 strike, defied Bennett -- and his machine guns placed atop the Rouge plant -- and won a contract.
Ironically, it was Edsel Ford who lobbied his father to negotiate with the union. Clara Ford threatened to leave her husband if he did not yield.
Edsel prevailed, but years of Bennett's pressure and his father's antics cost him. He fell ill in the late 1930s and knew by 1939 that he was dying. Henry Ford refused to acknowledge his son's illness or that he had treated his son so poorly. Ford never saw the valiant, fine executive others did. When Edsel died in 1943 of stomach cancer, many said he really died of a broken heart. Bennett saw it as one major adversary out of the way. Edsel, he wrote, had always been "a scared boy."
Ford women step in
It took a world war and two steel magnolia Ford women to dislodge Bennett's icy grip.
Ford's Willow Run plant was producing badly needed munitions. But the company's chaotic, archaic administration, reflecting Henry's eccentricities, was a growing concern to the Roosevelt administration. And it was obvious Bennett was Ford's chosen successor -- despite his lack of training for any job he ever had at Ford. After two strokes, Henry often was incoherent.
Edsel's death and his father's decision to assume the presidency again elevated the concern to panic. There was only one real hope: Henry Ford II.
In 1943, Roosevelt and top defense officials arranged for Ford's grandson to leave the Navy and return home. Young as he was, Henry II was Bennett's match. He was elected a company vice president and nimbly garnered allies while cultivating Bennett's friendship.
"It was all an act," Henry II said in 1980. "I played a charade the whole time, a complete charade until I knew my time would come."
Ford, egged on by Bennett, nurtured the same distrust of Henry II as he had of Edsel and nearly every other Ford executive. But Clara Ford worked on Henry for monthsin 1945 to let their grandson take over. Finally, Edsel's wife, Eleanor, played her own trump card. Bennett helped destroy her husband; she would not let him destroy her son. If Henry Ford didn't resign and pave the way for Henry II, she told him, she would sell her stock.
On Sept. 20, 1945, Henry II was summoned to Fair Lane Estate. Grandfather and grandson talked. Henry II said he would accept the presidency only if he could operate freely. They argued, but "he didn't withdraw the offer," Henry II said.
A few days later, Henry II told his grandfather he had fired Bennett, expecting a blowup. But, ever unpredictable, Ford just sat quietly for a long time.
"Well," he finally said, "now Harry is back where he started from."
Loyalist, or thug?
Was Bennett as bad as history has made him out to be?
Sorensen, the onetime Ford executive and author, partially defended him, saying he just followed Ford's orders. Others, including biographer DeWald, say he was worse, stealing large sums of money from the company and maligning Ford himself.
Bennett spent much of his autobiography blaming others or outlining all the right reasons he did wrong things. "I have been called a thug, a gangster, a pro-Nazi, an anti-Semite; it has been said I was 'fired.' All of these accusations are just plain lies."
Wrong, said Henry II. He fired Bennett, and what's more, Bennett "stole plenty" from the company.
"Harry Bennett was the dirtiest, lousiest son of a bitch I ever met in my life, save one," Henry II said. (The "one" was former Ford President Lee Iacocca.)
In any case, Bennett, who married three times and had four daughters, retired to California. He did not attend Henry Ford's funeral in 1947 and died in 1979.
As for that codicil: Had it gone into effect at Ford's death, Bennett would have been put in charge of a board of trustees devoid of any Ford. DeWald, who has had access to Bennett descendents, says the codicil was not destroyed before that September day in 1945, as has been reported previously.
Bennett burned it the day he was fired during a tense meeting with John Bugas, Henry II's ally, DeWald says. During that meeting, Bennett reached for his desk drawer gun but pulled back when Bugas placed his hand on his gun.
Why would Bennett burn the instrument of his revenge? For only one reason, DeWald says: Henry Ford never signed it. The document was worthless.
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My next Ford.....