Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Detroit Time Capsule Anthology Available on Amazon


After a decade writing 500 Fornology posts,
I'm proud to announce the publication of my fifth book Detroit Time Capsule, which is a collection of seventy-five of my best, re-edited Detroit posts including significant history moments, biographies of people who left their mark on the city, and memories of media personalities in the early days of Detroit television.

Detroit Time Capsule is a trip down memory lane, which should resonant with nostalgic Baby Boomers and contemporary Detroiters with a taste for learning about our town's rich history and heritage.

This anthology makes a great holiday gift for readers who have an interest in digestable Detroit history. Most chapters are not tied by a narrative thread and can be read in three to five minutes.

And finally, I want to acknowledge Detroit/Ypsilanti photographer Chris Ahern for his "striking" photograph of the Monument to Joe Louis, aka The Fist (1986) by Robert Graham.

Detroit Time Capsule Amazon Site

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"We Never Called Him Henry"-- Harry Bennett Polishes His Own Apple--Part Two

Harry Bennett with Henry Ford in Willow Run.


Much of Harry Bennett's "tell-all" memoir of his time with Henry Ford reads like a tattletale, supermarket tabloid about people within the Ford empire and the Ford family. I chose to write about several provocative sections of the book: how Bennett met Henry Ford and the open employment of gangsters at the Rouge plant, Henry Ford's anti-Semitism and ties to Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, how Bennett was paid, and Bennet's severance from the Ford Motor Company in 1945.

***

When Harry Bennett first met Henry Ford in 1916, the automobile mogul was fifty-three years old and Bennett was twenty-four. Bennett was on shore leave in New York City between Navy enlistments with a sailor friend. The two young sailors were brawling with some civilians and about to get arrested.

Well-known New York journalist Arthur Brisbane saw the fight and vouched for the sailors telling the police they acted in self-defense after they were set upon. The reporter convinced the patrolmen to release the sailors into his custody. Brisbane was on his way to interview Henry Ford and asked Bennett if he would like to meet the famous industrialist. 

Brisbane introduced Ford to Bennett and began giving an account of the brawl he just witnessed where this five foot-seven inch/145 pound, former Navy boxer handled himself bravely. Ford listened with rapt attention and then offered Bennett a job, "I can use a young man like you out at the Rouge [plant]." 

Bennett remembers refusing because he wanted to re-enlist in the Navy. Civilian life was not exciting enough for him, he told Ford.

"It's a rough lot out at the Rouge. I need some eyes and ears in the plant. I haven't got any policemen out there. Can you shoot?"

"Sure, I can!"

After some further coaxing, Ford convinced Bennett to give the job a try. "But I won't work for the company, I'll work for you." It was that relationship that ultimately caused problems for both men. Ford was looking for someone tough enough to manage plant security, but he also needed someone to protect him and his family from kidnappers, which was a serious problem for wealthy industrialists in the 1920s and 1930s.

"Mr. Ford's grandchildren were pushovers for kidnappers," Bennett wrote. "Mr. Ford told me to take care of the problem and hire anybody I wanted." Bennett justified his open hiring of underworld figures because they gave him "a capacity for protecting Ford and his family from criminal molestation." A number of Mafia dons were granted lucrative Ford concession contracts which were little more than payoffs for protection inside-and-outside of the plant.

Regarding Henry Ford's concern for his personal safety, Bennett says Mr. Ford was a good marksman and always carried a .32 cal pistol on his person. "In the early 1920s, Ford was getting an average of five threatening letters a week. Ford's [bodyguard] driver had a shoulder holster under each arm, and Mr. Ford had two, loaded Magnum revolvers with holsters built into the back seat of his car."

With over 500 former convicts on the Ford company payroll under the guise of rehabilitation, these gangsters were a good source of information forming an extensive intelligence network throughout the plant complex, reporting on United Automobile Workers labor activities and informing on Ford employees.

An additional benefit of having some hired muscle in the plant gave Bennett a ready source of manpower to unleash against UAW organizers when called upon. "Mr. Ford made me his agent with the underworld," he bragged. "I kept them obligated to me but [I was] never obligated to them." It took a bulletproof ego for Bennett to believe that. More likely, Bennett carried around Henry Ford's wallet so why kill off the golden calf?

***

Another of Bennett's jobs was to protect Mr. Ford from himself when he could, and barring that, it was his job to pick up the pieces from Ford's bad judgements. In May of 1920, a Ford-owned newspaper called The Dearborn Independent began publishing anti-Semitic articles based on the spurious Protocols of Zion written surreptitiously in 1905 by Czarist propagandist Serge Nilus, to incite Russian civil onrest and polgroms against their Jewish population. The four small volumes carried the title The International Jew, each with its own subtitle.

A series of anti-Semitic articles ran ninety-one weeks in the Dearborn Independent, each with a run of 200,000 copies that was distributed and sold worldwide. A copy of the newspaper came with the sale of every Ford car during this period. In March of 1927 when the Independent named Chicago attorney Aaron Sapiro the "Jewish ring leader" and organizer of socialist farm cooperatives to gain control of American agriculture, Sapiro brought a libel suit against Henry Ford for a million dollars.

Typical provocative front page.
 

Bennett blamed Dearborn Independent editor Bill Cameron and Dearborn Publishing Company general manager Ernest Liebold for "constantly stirring up Mr. Ford" with anti-Semitic slanders and propaganda. Every time Ford had trouble getting a loan, he complained it was a Jewish plot. At first, Ford wanted to fight this case to the finish, but it was a public relations nightmare in the press.

After five days on the stand, Bill Cameron fell on the sword and took responsibility for everything that ever happened in the Dearborn Independent. Cameron testified that Mr. Ford had no connection whatsoever with the editorial policy of the paper.

Ford was subpoened to testify in court the following Monday, but a Ford spokesperson reported to the local newspapers that while driving home on Sunday night, Mr. Ford's car was run off the road by a touring car driven by two men. A FoMoCo spokesperson stated that after the accident, Ford was treated for his injuries at Henry Ford Hospital and released under a doctor's care to his home for recovery.

As soon as Bennett found out about the attempt on Ford's life, he rushed to the Ford residence at Fairlane to see who his vengeance should fall upon. Ford said he felt fine and acted uncommonly calm about the accident. "It was probably kids on a joy ride," he said. "Forget about it, Harry." But Bennett wouldn't let it go, so Ford finally admitted, "I wasn't in that car when it went down the hill."

Then it struck Bennett that Ford was terrified of testifying in open court and the "accident" was a cover story. An earlier court appearance years before for another case revealed in cross-examination that Ford was poorly educated, had a limited vocabulary, was not well-read, and had little grasp of American history. It was humiliating and Ford vowed he would never testify in open court again. He would rather settle the Sapiro lawsuit out of court rather than subject himself to public riducule again.

Mr. Ford's lawyers drew up a formal apology as the basis for a settlement. Ford agreed to cease the publication of "anti-Setimic material circulated in his name, and he would call in all undistributed copies of The International Jew."

The apology further stated that "Mr. Ford had no knowledge of what had been published in his Dearborn Independent and was 'shocked' and 'mortified' to learn about it." The apology was printed on the front page of the Dearborn Independent, which shut down shortly afterwards in 1928. Mr. Ford paid everyone's court costs and stayed in his mansion licking his wounds.

But Henry Ford was a proud and stubborn man. Ten years later, his name became linked with Nazi Germany when he accepted the "Grand Cross of the German Eagle" from two German engineers on behalf of Adolph Hitler's admiration of Ford's industrial achievements.

A propaganda photo was taken in Dearborn, Michigan to commemorate the presentation, with Ford wearing the medal and sash around his neck with the German engineers flanking him on either side. By the next day, the photo appeared in newspapers across the country; by the following day, it was printed worldwide. The timing could not have been worse. In 1938, anti-German sentiment  was growing in America.

On a petty, personal note, Ford had a grudge against Winston Churchill and hated him for a perceived, personal affront at a dinner party in London. On the other hand, Ford was pro-German. He and Adolph Hitler had a shared admiration for one another. After all, they were both poorly educated, self-made men. In addition, FoMoCo had a successful truck factory in Cologne, Germany that was very profitable for the corporation.

Ford went on to say that stories of Nazi brutality against their own people were British propaganda to drive America into another World War. The result of Ford's German diplomacy resulted in a serious drop in Ford sales at home. Mr. Ford did change his views about Herr Hitler after watching battlefront films of the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Once again, Ford humiliated himself in the American press and there was little anyone could do about it.

*** 

Bennett asserts in his autobiography that he never received a large salary from the FoMoCo, probably low grade executive pay due to his lack of management credentials. But Henry Ford had a private office in the Dearborn Engineering Laboratory where he kept a floor safe with a "kitty" [contingency account] from two million to four million cash dollars that Ford and Bennett would access without any red tape or company oversight.

Henry Ford also paid Bennett indirectly through real estate. Over the years, Ford bestowed upon his righthand man a lodge on Harsen's Island, the castle off Geddes Road in Washtenaw County, 2,800 acres in Clare County, and the Pagoda House on Grosse Ile. among others.

As Bennett tells the story, Mr. Ford had the Pagoda House built in the early 1930s for his family, but Mrs. Ford did not like the swift running current of the Detroit River. She feared for her grandchildren's lives. "Ford was disgusted and asked me if I had a dollar. I said, 'yes.'

"Give it to me and the place is yours."

Bennett did not like the mosquito infested property either. "No matter," he revealed, "I was glad to trade the Grosse Ile property for the ranch [290 acres of Arizona desert].... It was good for my sinus and arthritis."

Bennett made a fortune in real estate speculation to supplement his modest salary. This arrangement was clearly a money laundering scam to funnel money to Bennett for services rendered.

***

In the opening section of We Never Called Him Henry, Bennett wanted to correct the widespread notion that he was fired by twenty-eight-year-old Henry Ford II, grandson of the man he served for close to thirty years.

In a face-saving move, Bennett writes that young Henry Ford II said to him, "I don't know what I would have done without you. You don't have to leave--you can stay [at Ford's] for the rest of your life." Bennett maintains he always said, "When Mr. Ford retires, so do I." But, his employment records show Bennett did not officially resign from the corporation for weeks after Mr. Ford's death.

Henry Ford II with Harry Bennett in Bennett's office.

Edsel Ford's wife and mother of Henry Ford II, Eleanor Clay Ford, was instrumental in Bennett's departure from Ford. She believed Bennett helped destroy her husband and vowed she would not let him destroy her son. There was a long history of bad blood between the Ford family and Bennett.

The newly christened Ford president's first duty was to fire Bennett. A man who had time for corporate intrigues was little use to the company as an executive. Bennett had to go, but he was the Ford patriarch's partner in crime, so he had to be handled carefully to avoid further scandal. Henry the Second, arranged to get Bennett a $424/month retirement check [not bad for 1945] and a Ford benefits package to simply walk away.

Bennett describes walking away from FoMoCo like "a man being let out of prison." Henry Ford II remembers it differently. Many years later, he told Detroit reporters that "Bennett stole plenty from the company, so I fired him. He was the dirtiest, lousiest, son-of-a [expletive deleted] I ever met in my life, except for Lee Iacocca."

We Never Called Him Henry--Part One

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Harry Bennett "Tell-All" Book About His Boss Henry Ford

Reprinted 1987 paperback edition.

Harry Bennett officially joined the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo) in 1917 at the Highland Park plant where the automobile assembly line was born. In his almost thirty years with the company, Bennett exercised influence far beyond his station upon Henry Ford, founder and corporation president. In Mr. Ford's later years when his health declined, Bennett was considered the power behind the throne.

Tired of the barrage of bad publicity Bennett received after his unceremonious firing by twenty-eight-year-old Henry Ford II, he began writing his autobiography of his time working for Henry Ford I "to set the record straight." But publishers reportedly would not touch We Never Called Him Henry because it was "dynamite."

Fawcett Gold Medal Books spokesperson Ralph Daigh asked Bennett to rewrite the book to make it "more objective." With the help of former Detroit Times newspaper reporter Paul Marcus, an edited version was released in 1951 by Fawcett in a 25-cent paperback edition. Marcus spent six weeks interviewing Bennett. "I prodded and nagged at his memory and asked countless questions."

The book had a 400,000 copy run and was billed as the "sensational inside story of intrigue within the Ford empire, its gangster connections, and its bloody union wars." But the book is next to impossible to find.

Folklore surrounding this book proports that the Ford family was offended by its publication, so they bought up as many copies as they could in a "capture & kill" attempt to keep it off the market. I contacted the Benson Ford Research Center, but a spokesperson at their archives told me he could neither confirm nor deny the story. 

For my part, I remember coming home from the tenth grade in 1963 and seeing my mother intently reading a grimy, tattered and torn, well-read, Xerox copy of a book held together by a couple of brad tangs along the left edge. I asked my mother what she was reading, and she answered, "A banned book about Henry Ford and his family. A friend in my card club lent it to me." I was fifteen at the time, so I barely took notice. It wasn't until many years later when I was bitten by the history bug and Fordiana that I remembered my brush with this book.

In 1987, thirty-six years after its original publication, We Never Called Him Henry was republished by Paul Marcus with a new cover page by Tor Books for $3.95. Resale copies of this book are also rare and unavailable on Amazon, but I searched other used book retailers in July 2021 and found several copies ranging in price from $30 to $900. I bought an intact but yellowed copy to see what all the fuss was about.

Without going into the specifics of the book, I feel Bennett tries to portray himself as a sympathetic person who only did what Henry Ford asked him to do. He attempts to sanitize his public image by making himself the hero of his own story by blaming others and justifying all the right reasons for doing all the wrong things. Although he takes some roundhouse punches and jabs at the Ford family, the former Navy boxer never lands a punch.

In January 1974, Detroit Free Press feature reporter David L. Lewis convinced Harry Bennett to sit for a profile interview in Las Vegas, Nevada for "Detroit Magazine." The article was a personality piece about Bennett's private life after Ford. When Lewis asked Bennett his opinion of his own book, he answered: 

"I didn't like the book at all. The way it was written made me sound like a 15-year-old-kid. [The book] made it seem like I was ridiculing Mr. Ford. When I first saw the cover, I knew I would be loused up. The picture of Mr. Ford made him look dead.... I got so I didn't like Marcus [the ghost writer] either. The longer he was with me, the more snarly he was."

Original 1951 paperback book cover.

Bennett's response to the book which bears his name is just another example of his tendency towards disassociative behavior when it comes to taking responsibility for his actions.

Harry Bennett--Henry Ford's Fixer

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Hoarders Henry and Clara B. Ford

Clara B. and Henry Ford

After Mrs. Clara Bryant Ford died at the age of eighty-four on September 29, 1950, lawyers, executors, and archivists discovered in the Ford family's Fair Lane mansion a massive accumulation of memorabilia and business documents tucked away in shoe boxes, desk drawers, file cabinets, and dressers.

Among their findings in the fifty-five room, greystone mansion were records from the earliest days of the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo), 25,000 assorted photographs, bales of greeting cards tied with string, blueprints, contracts, maps, legal documents, personal letters, magazines, newspaper articles, and Henry Ford's "jot books."

Archivists filled 24 document boxes with Christmas cards alone and another 11 boxes with financial receipts for common household expenses from 1889 to 1950. Also found lying around carelessly was $40,000 in loose cash, 10,000 unopened letters, and many uncashed dividend checks.

Fair Lane Mansion

In their fifty-nine-year marriage, Henry and Clara lived in twelve different places before they built Fair Lane, and apparently neither of them ever threw anything away. Collectively, the treasure trove of documents was dubbed the Fair Lane Papers and occupied more than 700 feet of shelf space in double-tiered, steel document racks installed above the filled-in indoor swimming pool at the mansion. A full-time staff of sixteen historians, librarians, and archivists was hired by the Ford Foundation to organize and catalogue this vast, new documentary resource.

The operation was split into two units. The Records section was led by Dr. Richard Ruddell, a professional librarian whose team cataloged, annotated, and microfilmed over five million perishable papers and photographs. Their offices were on the main floor at Fair Lane.


The Living History section was led by Dr. Owen Bombard of Columbia University. His office was the master bedroom upstairs where Henry Ford had died six years before. The combined objective of both units was to assemble a rounded picture of the late industrialist.

Dr. Bombard set out to capture the living history about Henry Ford by interviewing and recording three hundred people who knew Mr. Ford. Participants were asked to share their tape recorded memories of the auto magnate. Only five people declined the invitation. Two people said they had nothing significant to add, and three former FoMoCo employees harbored resentment against the old man and did not want to be recorded.

On May 7, 1953, Detroit Free Press feature reporter Ed Winge asked Dr. Bombard in a interview if former Ford security chief Harry Bennett would be invited to record his memories for the oral history project. Bombard cautiously replied, "Bennett hasn't been approached yet. But he may be contacted in the future if it is felt that he has something to contribute."

For background, Harry Bennett published his autobiography in 1951 titled We Never Called Him Henry about his controversial years as Mr. Ford's right-hand man and company enforcer. The Ford family was united in their contempt for the former Ford Security chieftain, although a copy of his book is one of many books written about Henry Ford in the archive's collection.

Throughout the1920s and 1930s, Henry Ford was the world's best known American citizen. Because of the intense public and world interest in the enigma that was Henry Ford, his decendants opened the Fair Lane archives to historians, scholars, and authors. The Fair Lane Papers collection has since moved to the Benson Ford Research Center adjacent to Greenfield Village.

Henry Ford's Tough Guy--Harry Bennett 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Spirit of Detroit, The Fist, and Detroit Time Capsule


History is fascinating in what it shows and tells and what it does not. My newest nonfiction book is a collection of seventy-five of my best Detroit blog posts called Detroit Time Capsule, which will be coming out this fall. Each chapter tells the story of some of the people who left their mark on Detroit history or its culture.

For the front cover, I chose a visually striking closeup view of The Spirit of Detroit by gifted Detroit photographer Chris Ahern. Searching for information about the building of the sixteen foot bronze statue and its dedication on September 23, 1958, I came across this color film I have linked below that tells the whole story.

To present a broader view of who and what the City of Detroit represents, the back cover photo will be a black & white closeup photo by Chris Ahern of Joe Louis' fist. I am anxious to see what my bookcover designer comes up with.

The Creation and Placement of The Spirit of Detroit 1958

Monument to Joe Louis "The Fist" 1985

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Fleisher Brothers--Louis: Unlucky or Stupid? (Part 1 of 2)

Alcatraz--the Rock.

Two bonus posts to supplement The Elusive Purple Gang: Detroit's Kosher Nostra. The Fleisher brothers, Harry, Louis, and Sam struck out on their own after the Purples imploded. Part two is linked below.
 
Despite Abe Burnstein disbanding the Purple Gang in 1935, former members Harry and Louis Fleisher were directly responsible for keeping the defunct gang's name in the local press from the late 1930s through Harry's death in 1978. Those boys couldn't stay out of trouble. Every time their names appeared in the press--and there are hundreds of citations--the tags "former Purple Gang members," "alleged Purple Gang members," or "Purple Gang leaders" preceded their names.The Fleisher brothers may hold the record for the most family members to do hard time on the Rock--Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of San Francisco.

Harry, Louis, and Sammy grew up in the same Paradise Valley neighborhood as the Burnstein brothers and other tough street kids who eventually coalesced into the Purple Gang. They learned their street smarts by preying on handcart operators at the Eastern Market and harassing shop owners on Hastings Street with petty crime and vandalism.

Harry Fleisher began his underworld career as a driver and bodyguard for Oakland Sugar House Gang leader Charles Leiter in the 1920s. Harry was a trigger man and shakedown artist of legal and illegal businesses like speakeasies and disorderly houses (brothels). For unknown reasons, Harry interacted as little as possible with younger brother Louis.

Louis began his professional crime career as a trigger man, a labor "organizer," and a hijacker for the Sugar House Gang. When the Sugar House Gang suffered a devastating bust of their leadership in the late 1920s, Louis gravitated to the Purple Gang.

When Louis was only twenty-two years old, he was the first of the three Fleisher brothers to serve hard time. Lou Jr.'s day job was helping his father Lou Sr. run an auto junkyard. Their side-job was retrofitting touring cars with hidden compartments for smuggling illegal liquor or concealing guns.

Louis Fleisher mug shot--1927.
In 1927, Louis and three other men hijacked a semi-truck in Flat Rock, Michigan, loaded with 400 new automobile tires bound for Detroit from Akron, Ohio. A green Studebaker sedan swept in front of the semi blocking it at a stop sign. Four men jumped out of the car with shotguns and machine guns commanding the drivers to get out of the truck. They were bound and shoved into the back seat of the Studebaker.

Two of the hijackers took the truck and the other two drove off with their captives. The bound men noticed there was some chrome trim damage on the passenger side of the car. One of them took the added precaution of spitting on the rear window to mark the car as the one they were abducted in. The truck drivers were released unharmed twelve hours later. The empty semi-truck was found two days later, and the green Studebaker with the faulty trim was tracked down shortly after that. The car's serial number revealed the owner to be Louis Fleisher.

Louis was located and arrested, but he refused to identify the other hijackers he was working with. After an initial plea of "not guilty," Louis changed his plea to "guilty," reasoning that he was safer in prison than on Detroit's streets. If he took the rap and served his time, he would prove himself to be a stand up guy and survive. If he was released on bail, he would be considered a risk to the gang and sooner than later he would be found dead on a city street someplace. A federal judge sentenced Louis to ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. He served a minimum sentence of six years and three months before being paroled for good behavior.

Sam Burnstein
Nine months after being paroled, Louis went into business with former Purple Gang speakeasy operator Sam "Fatty" Burnstein--not blood-related to the Burnstein brothers--reputed leaders of the Purples. Sam and Louis were brothers-in-law; Sam's sister Nellie was Louis's wife. Fleisher and Burnstein opened a scrap metal and auto junkyard in the autumn of 1935 far from Detroit in Albion, Michigan. The business was named Riverside Iron and Metal Company. Both men needed to demonstrate to their parole boards that they had gone "straight" and had a steady source of income.

These guys must have loved crime because their junkyard was a front for a safe cracking operation in central Michigan. The parolees went into a partnership with the Lizard Gang--a Hamtramck burglary ring. A nine-month crime spree ensued.

Louis used his mechanical, fabrication, and body shop skills to convert a 1935 Graham Paige sedan into a rolling fortress.The Graham Paige was stolen from a Dodge dealership in Ferndale, Michigan. This particular car was desirable because it was wider than other makes and was equipped with an eight-cylinder Blue Streak supercharged engine that could reach speeds of 100 mph. The car was bulletproofed, the passenger side doors were retrofitted to open extra wide, and a ramp was welded to the undercarriage which rolled out to load stolen safes quickly.



The Michigan State Police were baffled. Fifty businesses had been burglarized over a vast section of central Lower Michigan. Robberies occurred in Battle Creek, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Jackson, and Ionia. The burglary team stole safes from businesses and either blew their doors off with nitroglycerin or took the safes to the junkyard and burned off the combination locks with an acetylene torch.

On May 11, 1936 at 2:30 a.m., night clerk Jack Kane at the Capital Hotel next door to the Isabell Seed Company in Jackson, Michigan, heard men struggling to load the company's 500 pound safe through the side doors of the Graham Paige sedan. The burglary was reported to the State Police, but troopers were too slow on the scene to make an arrest or give chase. Then on May 30th, a local Albion resident reported to state police that a suspicious Graham Paige sedan was being stored in a barn across from the junkyard in Albion.

Officers from the Michigan State Police and the Albion Police Department descended upon the barn, broke in, and found the car with its left side strafed with bullets. The police also discovered two sets of stolen license plates, weapons, and burglary tools. Nitroglycerin, blasting caps, and fifteen feet of wire were concealed in the side panels of the car. State Police quickly arrested Fleisher and Burnstein along with their wives. Two junkyard employees were also brought in for questioning but later released for lack of evidence. After a brief investigation, Louis and Sam were indicted and posted bonds of $5,000 apiece. While awaiting trial, Louis jumped bail and remained at large for a year.

On the night of April 8, 1938, Louis Fleisher's car was pulled over by the Highland Park police. His wife Nellie tossed a .38 calibre automatic pistol out the passenger window which police soon found. A clumsy attempt had been made to etch out the gun's serial number. Louis and Nellie were arrested with a twenty-two-year-old man who gave his name as Jack Sherwood but was soon found to be Sid Markham--a first-degree murder fugitive from Brooklyn, New York. Markham was extradited to New York where he was convicted and sent to the electric chair in Sing Sing Correctional Facility on January 18, 1940.

Samples of weapons found in Fleisher apartment.
 
Louis and Nellie's arrests led to a search of their Highland Park apartment where police found what they described to reporters as "the largest underworld arsenal ever found in the Midwest." The unregistered arsenal was neatly packed in a trunk containing submachine guns, automatic pistols, revolvers with silencers, brass knuckles, tear gas shells, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

The Fleishers were held in Milan Detention Farm under a $50,000 bond each. On April 7, 1939, Louis Fleisher was sentenced to thirty years in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary; Nellie received ten years in a Federal detention home. After serving nineteen years of his original sentence, Louis was released for good behavior from Alcatraz at the age of forty-one.

As a moth is drawn to a flame, so was Louis drawn to crime. On midnight Sunday, October 26, 1958, Fleisher and partner in crime Joe Anielak were caught red-handed trying to torch Dorsey's Cleaners on East Seven Mile Road. Anielak climbed on the roof with a length of rope. He threw one end down to Fleisher who attached a five-gallon gas can to the rope and Anielak pulled it up. They did this twice.

Little did the pair know they were under police surveillance on the ground and hidden on the roof tops of adjoining buildings. Anielak drilled several holes in the roof with a brace and bit auger. He inserted a funnel and was about to pour gas through the hole when police scout cars turned their floodlights on the roof. Anielak tried to flee, but when a detective fired a warning shot at him he surrendered. Fleisher was arrested in the alley. Because Fleisher had broken the terms of his parole, he was sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary to serve out the rest of his original thirty-year Federal sentence while awaiting trial on the Michigan charges.

The two men were charged with three counts: conspiracy to place explosives, breaking and entering, and intent to destroy property with explosives. Each of the counts carried a fifteen-year sentence. Detroit defense lawyers Joseph Louisell and Ivan Barris delayed proceedings for two years until they plea bargained for an attempted arson charge which carried a maximum five-year jail term. It was unlikely that a jury would convict the defendants on the original charges because no explosives were found at the crime scene. The prosecutor didn't want these men acquitted. On October 17, 1960, the men pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of attempted arson and were given a three to five year sentence.

Louis Fleisher was transferred from Leavenworth to Milan Federal Prison to serve out his sentence. On April 3, 1964, he died of a heart attack in his jail cell just nine weeks and two days short of serving out his Detroit conviction for arson and leaving prison a free man. He was fifty-nine-years-old.


***

Louis' older brother Harry and his younger brother Sam also had checkered underworld careers which will be the subject of part two of this post.

The Fleisher Brothers (Part 2) 

Friday, June 18, 2021

Rubin "The Voice" Weiss and His Wife Elizabeth "Woman of a Thousand Voices"

Elizabeth and Rubin Weiss rehearsing.

Rubin Weiss was born sometime in 1921 in Detroit, but no public record was recorded in Wayne County. He may have been born at home which was more customary in those days. As a child, he performed in Yiddish skits and plays within Detroit's growing Jewish community. Rube attended Northern High School and earned a master's degree in English while attending Wayne State University.

In December of 1941, Weiss entered the United States Army and fought in the European theater of World War II and rose to the rank of captain. At war's end, Weiss decided to try his hand at acting in New York City, but after a year of struggling, he decided to return to his family in Detroit and landed a job as an English teacher at his high school alma mater from 1946 through 1952. To supplement his modest teaching income, he picked up what radio and advertising work he could get. As soon as he was sure he could make a living in radio, he quit his day job.

Early in Weiss' WXYZ-Radio career, he specialized in playing "bad guys," much to the disappointment of his mother. His voice was much larger than he was at five-feet, five inches. His voice was versatile, and Weiss often played four or five roles in a single fifteen-minute episode. He was a featured player on popular Detroit radio shows like The Green Lantern, Challenge of the Yukon, and The (original) Lone Ranger, where Weiss met his future wife Elizabeth Elkin in 1948.

Later in Rube Weiss' career, he would run into people randomly who had no idea who he was until he spoke in his distinctive, resonant voice. Not only was Weiss' voice familiar because of his work in radio and television, he was the raucous announcer for "Saturday, At Detroit Dragway" heard on pop radio stations all over the Detroit and Windsor airwaves in the 1960s. What many Detroiters do not realize is that Weiss played Santa for sixteen years at the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade. When fans would meet Weiss in person, they often remarked, "You sound taller on radio," his retort was, "I'm six-five when I stand on my money."


Rube Weiss said the most fun he ever had in his long career was being a regular on Soupy Sales' WXYZ-TV evening show at eleven o'clock. Rube and a talented cast of radio performers took their schtick to the small screen. His characters included big game hunter Colonel Claude Bottom, loudmouth pop tune composer Shoutin' Shorty Hogan, detective Charlie Pan, and The Lone Stranger's sidekick Pronto.

Weiss was a much sought-after freelance pitchman for Detroit and national brands. A short list of the brands he lent his voice talents to are Kay's Jewelers, Velvet Peanut Butter, Midas Mufflers, Chrysler Corporation, Kellogg's Special K, Lincoln Continental, and Marlboro cigarettes. 

Rubin Weiss passed away from an "internal infection" on April 25, 1996 at the age of seventy-six in Huntington Woods. Weiss' professional awards are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say he won an American Federation of Television and Radio Actors Guild (AFTRA) Gold Card Award and several Emmy and Clio awards for his extensive work in radio. He is buried at Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham, Michigan.

***

Rube's wife Elizabeth was no less distinguished in her career than her husband, while also giving birth and being the proud mother of five children. Elizabeth Elkin was born in Detroit in 1925. Her talent as an artist and actor got her into Detroit's Cass Technical High School where she majored in Commercial Art. During World War II, Elizabeth became one of the youngest draftswomen in Detroit drawing plans for fighter airplane parts.

After the war, Elizabeth returned to the stage at Wayne State University performing in classical plays like Taming of the Shrew and Oedipus Rex at the Bonstelle Theater which was originally the Temple Beth El on Woodward Avenue (Piety Row) when it was built in 1902. Elizabeth honed her acting skills and landed a job doing summer repetory theater in New York City where she earned her Actor's Equity card. While appearing in The Importance of Being Ernest with the Actor's Company in Detroit, she became reunited with Rube Weiss, who was directing the play. They fell in love and married at Workman's Circle in 1949.


Elizabeth thought her regular voice was ordinary, but she could do dialects, foreign accents, or whatever a role required. A Detroit newspaper profiled her as The Woman of a Thousand Voices for her countless radio and television commercials.

Elizabeth and Rube's home was a gathering place for actors, artists, scholars, and comedians, where she became the hostess and gourmet cook. The Weiss home became so popular that the family was dubbed the Jewish Waltons. The family led a rich social life grounded in Elizabeth's love of Jewish culture.

Later in life, she performed in many Jewish Ensemble Theater Yiddish language productions. Rube would regularly appear on Detroit television celebrating Jewish holidays. Both of them were active in their synogogue and the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit. Elizabeth taught an Institute for Retired Professionals (IRP) Yiddish language group for many years.

Elizabeth Weiss was a lifetime member of the Screen Actor's Guild and AFTRA. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alliance for Women in Media, and she was inducted in the Silver Circle of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Like her husband, Elizabeth received many professional and community service awards too numerous to list here.

But without a doubt, Elizabeth was most proud of her large and devoted family of five children, sixteen grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren who continue to be inspired by her example. Elizabeth Elkin Weiss passed on at the age of ninety on September 18, 2015. Her funeral was held at the Ira Kaufman Chapel, and her remains are interred beside her husband at Clover Hill Park Cemetery.

SATURDAY, At Detroit Dragway