Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Henry Ford's Tough Guy--Harry Bennett

Harry Bennett
Harry Herbert Bennett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 17, 1892. At the age of seventeen, he joined the United States Navy where he learned the pugilistic arts and became a champion lightweight boxer fighting under the name of Sailor Reese.

Legend has it that sometime in 1916, New York newspaper columnist Arthur Brisbane introduced the twenty-four year-old Bennett to Henry Ford. Brisbane witnessed a street brawl where Bennett came to the defense of a fellow sailor under attack by some local thugs. The naval boxing champion acquitted himself well. When the police arrived, they were going to arrest Bennett, but the newspaper man vouched for the young sailor and he was released.

Brisbane told the young tough he had someone he wanted him to meet. Brisbane was writing an article about Henry Ford for the Hearst newspaper chain while Ford was in New York. They met in Ford's hotel room. Kidnapping wealthy people was on the rise in America and Henry Ford was concerned for the safety of his family. Ford was fascinated hearing about the street brawl Bennett was just in. He asked Bennett if he could handle a gun. He could. Upon the young sailor's discharge from the Navy, Bennett was hired at the Highland Park Ford plant in the art department.

Red-haired Harry Bennett was five feet, six inches tall--built like a fire hydrant and just as strong. He cultivated his tough guy image by wearing a fedora, a hand gun, and a bow tie. People who knew him said he was fearless. With no background in engineering or the automobile business, Bennett rose in five years to become head of Ford's infamous Service Department. He was known within the company as the old man's hatchet man. 

Battle of the Overpass reaching flash point.
The Battle of the Overpass outside the Ford Rouge plant was a defining moment for Harry Bennett and the United Auto Workers (UAW). On May 26, 1937, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, among other union organizers, were beaten by Ford Service men and dragged and kicked down two flights of steel and concrete stairs. The attack was captured by a Detroit News staff photographer. The next day, newspapers around the world ran the photographs and the story. Overnight, Walter Reuther became the most recognized labor leader in America.

Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen

At a National Labor Relations Board hearing held in the summer of 1937, UAW field-organizer Frankensteen testified how Ford's security force assaulted him and Walter Reuther. The labor board found the Ford Service Department had underworld connections with the local Black Hand--a Sicilian gang, and the Dearborn police stood by while the labor demonstrators were beaten. No charges were ever filed.

In 1941, the four-year bloody conflict resulted in the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo) recognizing the UAW and negotiating their first contract. The Ford executive to sign the contract--Harry Bennett. But this was the beginning of the end of Bennett's tenure with the automotive giant. Henry Ford's wife Clara had as much to do with the contract settlement as anyone. Ford family history notes she threatened to divorce her husband if the labor violence wasn't ended and the contract settled.

Henry Ford II
By 1945, the old man's health and mental state were declining as Bennett maneuvered to gain control of the company. Clara and her son Edsel's widow--Eleanor Clay-Ford--insisted the company remain under family control. Eleanor threatened to sell her stock if her son was not made president. On September 20th, Henry Ford I officially resigned the presidency and nominated his grandson Henry Ford II to replace him. The Board of Directors rubber-stamped the recommendation. Twenty-eight-year-old Henry Ford II was discharged from active duty with the United States Navy to man the helm of his grand sire's company.

Henry's first official act was to fire Harry Bennett. He drove to the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road and walked down to the secluded basement office of his late father's nemesis. But Bennett could see the writing on the wall. It was written in dark blue and read Ford.

The former boxer could not resist giving the young Ford a parting shot. "You're taking over a billion dollar organization here that you haven't contributed a thing to?" The rest of the afternoon, the basement was filled with smoke as Bennett burned his records--almost thirty years of company history--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Henry Ford I
Later that evening, Henry II drove to his grandfather's estate and told him he fired Bennett. The elder Ford's reaction was understated. He simply remarked, "Now Harry is back where he started." 

After his loss of power, Bennett retired to an 800 acre wilderness area outside Desert Springs, California. His last moment in the public spotlight came when he was called to testify in the Kefauver Senate Crime Investigation Committee Hearings in 1951. 

In 1973, Bennett suffered a stroke. In 1975, he entered the Beverly Manor Nursing Home in Los Gatos, California. On January 4, 1979, he died. His death went unreported for a week--the cause was never released to the public.