05.14.13

The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Henry Ford

He was a magnificent pioneer who made cars affordable and paid his workers well. But he also became an unsettling, terrible person. Richard Snow, the author of the new biography I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, on why the auto mogul spiraled so far down.

Henry Ford is among the strangest—and in some ways the least appealing—of great men. He hated cows, and declared in absolute seriousness “The cow must go!” He believed the Jews had invented jazz as part of a race-wide campaign to corrupt, and then dominate, America. In 1915 he chartered an ocean liner, filled it with intellectuals and journalists, and set sail for Europe ablaze with a messianic intention. In the words of The New York Times’s headline, “GREAT WAR TO END CHRISTMAS DAY. FORD TO STOP IT.” He famously said history was bunk, and then spent the latter part of his life building on some empty acreage in Dearborn, Michigan, a vast museum devoted to American history.

It’s a wonderful museum, an endlessly fascinating place. Ford collected on the grandest possible scale. When he wanted the laboratory where his idol Thomas Edison had invented the electric light, he simply uprooted the buildings and brought them to Dearborn, along with seven carloads of the New Jersey dirt they had stood on, so they could live out their days amid familiar grass and fungi.

Ford got his hooks into me through his museum; that’s what made me want to write a book about its creator. Of course, I understand what a friend meant when he said to me, “Isn’t this story about as well known as the Nativity?” But I don’t think it really is. Everybody knows the name, and the comment about bunk, and that the man spent years in a stew of anti-Semitism, and that he built a lot of cars. But the true breadth of his accomplishment is now so much a part of the world we inhabit that his influence has become as transparent as the air we breathe.

Every century or so, our republic has been remade by a new technology: 170 years ago it was the railroad; in our time it’s the microprocessor. These technologies do more than change our habits; they change the way we think. In between the steam locomotive and Apple came the Model T. One day toward the end of his life Ford was talking things over with a local schoolboy named John Dahlinger, and they got onto the subject of education. Ford spoke of the virtues of the one-room schoolhouse of the McGuffey’s Readers era, and this sounded pretty stodgy to Dahlinger. “But, sir,” he protested, “these are different times, this is the modern age and—”

“Young man,” Ford snapped, “I invented the modern age.”

This is, of course, an insane pronouncement. Or would be were it not pretty much true.

Ford was born three weeks after the battle of Gettysburg into a rural America whose routines he detested almost as soon as he became aware of them. Not the life itself—he would always revere that—but the labor that supported it. All farm work is hard work, and while he was still in his teens Ford was experimenting with ways to shift to machines tasks that men and women had performed since biblical times.

Early on he became fascinated with automobiles, and was charming and persuasive enough as a young man to have no trouble finding backers. His investors, not unreasonably, wanted the Ford Motor Company to build expensive cars. In 1907 a Packard Gray Wolf two-seater sports car (though that term was still 40 years in the future) cost $10,000; a nice suburban house might go for $2,000. Work out that calculation today. If prices had stayed relative, the house would cost $1.2 million—and a Dodge Viper would cost $6 million. Of course it was more desirable to sell something that cost thousands of dollars than something that cost hundreds.

Ford believed exactly the opposite. Make the car cheaper; you’ll do better selling lots of low-priced cars to farmers and shopclerks than you will a few costly ones to millionaires. The way to achieve this, he told one of the backers of his new company, “is to make one automobile like another automobile … just as one pin is like another pin when it comes from a pin factory, or one match like another match when it comes from a match factory.”

Ford got the car he’d been reaching for with the Model T. It was ugly, cantankerous, simple enough for any farmhand to understand and fix, and indomitable. Almost every American could afford to buy one, and millions did. By 1919 Ford was selling half the cars built in America.

He did this by lowering the price instead of raising it in the face of steady demand. (In its last year the car cost just $295 new.) But more important, he was able to make his automobiles in their multitude—one a minute, finally—by developing moving assembly lines to bring the job to the worker, rather than having the worker move around the factory. At Ford, workers stood still, each performing one small motion—tightening three screws, twisting on a hubcap—as the developing car rolled past. This was the first true mass-production line, and when Ford doubled his workers’ wages to the then-unheard-of sum of $5 a day, so that the same people who built the cars could buy them, the destination of those moving lines became clear: mass consumption; the middle class; the modern age.

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‘I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford’ by Richard Snow. 384 pp. Scribner. $30. ()

And then, at the peak of a success unsurpassed in industry, Ford’s nature began to curdle and darken. There is something unsettling, almost eerie, about spending time with him, because almost exactly halfway through his life, you see him turn from being a genuinely great man—kind, wise, benevolent, effective—into quite a terrible one, all in what seems like little more than a year’s time. He went from putting all his formidable energies toward an altruistic goal to ones that were either boring (square dancing), toxic (anti-Semitism), or heartbreaking (he so dominated his greatly gifted son Edsel that many—Edsel’s own son Henry II included—believed he hounded him into his grave).

This change is at heart mysterious, but I believe a great deal of it had to do with Ford’s identification with his car. It was a pioneer, that car, but after 10 years on the road competitors were beginning to see the automobile not as a utilitarian necessity but as an object of desire. Ford came under more and more pressure to change the Model T, and the idea was agony to him. For he saw in his car not just the machine that made him the richest and most famous man in America, but a moral force as well: it was just as much car as people needed, and not a bit more. You can’t perfect perfection, and so, frustrated and tormented, he went off on grimy adventures like trying to prove that Jews had arranged the Lincoln assassination. (“Ah, yes,” said a friend when I told him about this theory, “Booth’s Broadway associates.”)

He was married—and it was a solid marriage—for 60 years to Clara, whose unwavering faith in him was such that he called her “The Believer.” But he may have taken on a mistress, a lively spirited young French-Canadian woman named Evangeline Cote whom he found working as a private secretary for one of his lieutenants and immediately took for his own. (If so, that lasted for 30 years; Ford stuck with the things he liked.) The evidence is circumstantial, but pretty strong. He got her to marry a colleague of his choice, and gave her a Tudor manor equipped with a six-car garage and a refrigerated fur-storage vault a mile away from his own home, a summer house on Lake Huron with a seaplane ramp and a Curtis flying boat to dock at it, and, since she liked horses, a private race track. When, in 1923, she gave birth to a baby boy, Ford gave her the cradle he had occupied as an infant. A lot of people thought the child, John Dahlinger—to whom Ford made his claim to be the author of the modern age—was Ford’s son. John definitely did, and in the 1970s wrote an aggrieved, whiny book making the claim.

Whatever comfort Evangeline may have given Ford, it could not compensate for the death of his greatest creation. He finally stopped production of the Model T after building 15 million of them, far too late, in 1927. And for the 20 years that were left to him, he went on to cast misery about his plant. By the mid-‘30s, Ford workers were muttering to one another, “Who invented the Gestapo, Henry or Adolf?”

And yet, there was always an astringent, bleakly humorous honesty to the man. Once he’d become famous, he became the subject of sermons. Preachers said that he kept a copy of the Scriptures in every room of his house, so holy wisdom would always be close to hand for reference. Having heard a good deal of this, a reporter asked the carmaker if he regularly attended church. “Nah,” Ford said. “The last time I went, somebody stole my car.”

You can’t always like him, but it’s hard to hate him. And, I found, it’s impossible to be bored by him, square dancing or no.

And, of course, in a sense, what he was and what he did are with us always. Toward the end of Ford’s life, Will Rogers said to him, without a hint of his customary folksiness, “It’ll take a hundred years to know whether you’ve helped us or hurt us. But you certainly didn’t leave us where you found us.”