Hired by Henry Ford after a New York street fight, Harry Bennett rose to prominence as perhaps America's most famous corporate thug.
Bennett, a former boxer and ex-Navy sailor, quickly established himself as the auto tycoon's right-hand man after joining Ford Motor Co. in 1916. Until his ouster in 1945 by Ford's grandson, Henry II, Bennett carried out Henry Ford's orders, often using violence.
Other than Henry Ford's wife, Clara, Bennett was perhaps the person closest to the auto pioneer during the final decades of Ford's life. Bennett lorded over Ford's notorious Service Department, a force of up to 8,000. They monitored Ford employees, intimidated union organizers, delivered punishments and guarded Ford and his family.
"Harry Bennett did whatever he was told," said Ford historian and University of Michigan professor David Lewis. "So he did a good deal of Henry Ford's dirty work."
Most notably, that dirty work included fighting the burgeoning power of the United Auto Workers union. Henry Ford hated labor unions and wanted them defeated. Bennett assumed that charge, culminating in the Battle of the Overpass in 1937.
Bennett would stay at Ford another eight years, but his employment depended on Henry Ford's patronage. After the founder moved to the sidelines, the Ford family sent Bennett packing.
Where it began
According to various published reports and Bennett himself, a street fight was his pathway to corporate America after the Navy in 1916. By most accounts, Bennett came to the aid of a friend engaged in a brawl with a New York customs officer. A Hearst newspaper columnist saw him and introduced him to Henry Ford.
After asking Bennett, 24, whether he could shoot, Ford offered him a job.
Over the next 29 years, Bennett's chores included covering up Henry Ford's dalliances, firing executives and harassing jurors in a defamation lawsuit against Henry Ford in 1927. He took over the Service Department at the Rouge plant in 1921. By 1927, Bennett was among the top six men at Ford Motor, according to historian Lewis.
"I got things done," said Bennett in 1973. "That's why Mr. Ford liked me."
Lewis described Bennett as "a substitute son" for Henry Ford. Ford admired Bennett's rougher qualities and hoped they would brush off on his son, Edsel.
By the mid-1930s, much of Bennett's malevolence was directed at the UAW.
"Henry Ford received most of the national attention and criticism, but it was Harry Bennett who was often the driving force behind Ford's attempt to stymie the union movement," wrote Ford's great-grandson and current Ford Motor CEO Bill Ford in his 1979 senior thesis at Princeton University.
In 1933, Bennett's men defeated union drives at plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But a bigger clash was to come on May 26, 1937.
When UAW organizers gathered to distribute leaflets on an overpass at the Rouge plant, Bennett set out to quash them. In front of photographers and reporters, Bennett's thugs beat the union activists, including Walter Reuther. Photos of the organizers bloodied in the Battle of the Overpass were printed in newspapers across the USA.
It would be four more years before a wildcat strike and Henry Ford's capitulation forced Harry Bennett to sign a deal with the UAW. But Bennett had a final confrontation to come.
After Edsel Ford died in May 1943, Henry Ford wanted to make Bennett president of Ford Motor. But Clara Ford and Edsel's widow, Eleanor, wouldn't hear of it. Instead, Bennett joined the board of directors in June 1943 and conspired with Henry Ford to draft a codicil to Ford's will. It effectively gave Bennett control of Ford Motor after Henry Ford's death, to the exclusion of Ford's grandsons. When the eldest grandson, Henry II, discovered the codicil, his confidant John Bugas confronted Bennett, who burned the document.
The Ford women again stepped up and convinced Henry Ford to hand control to Henry II. The reins were passed in September 1945.
On September 21, 1945, Henry Ford II fired the family rival. Bennett was out. The era of the Whiz Kids, the group of savvy young executives hired by Henry Ford II, had begun.