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 and likely some of his own making, often using violence and even underworld connections.
Spying, firings and beatings were Bennett's game. And he excelled at it.
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, heading up a force that at one time topped 8,000. They monitored Ford employees, intimidated union organizers, delivered punishments and guarded Henry Ford and his family.
"Harry Bennett did whatever he was told, and he did it very efficiently and very fast," 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 UAW. Henry Ford hated labor unions and wanted them defeated. Bennett assumed that charge, culminating in the Battle of the Overpass in 1937, when Bennett's toughs beat union organizers bloody.
Bennett would stay at Ford eight years after that famed confrontation, but his employment depended on Henry Ford's patronage. After the founder moved to the sidelines, the Ford family triumphed in a power struggle that sent Bennett packing.
Where it began
According to various published reports and Bennett's own version, a street fight was Bennett's pathway to corporate America, soon after his term in the Navy ended in 1916. Details vary, but by most accounts, Bennett came to the aid of a friend engaged in a brawl with a New York customs officer. He caught the eye of Hearst newspaper columnist Arthur Brisbane, who introduced him to Henry Ford.
Ford liked the idea of a young scrapper who could look out for himself. After asking Bennett, 24, whether he could shoot, he offered him a job. Bennett, reared in a professional household in Ann Arbor, Mich., didn't know much about the car business, but Henry Ford had other duties in mind.
Over the next 29 years, according to published reports, 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 Dearborn in 1921, and by 1927, Bennett was among the top six men at Ford Motor, according to historian Lewis.
"I got things done," Bennett told Lewis in 1973. "That's why Mr. Ford liked me."
The red-haired, bowtie-wearing Bennett projected a tough-guy image despite his small stature. He carried guns and conducted target practice in his office in the basement of Ford's administration building.
By the mid-1930s, much of Bennett's malevolence was directed at the UAW. "While it was Henry Ford who received most of the national attention and criticism, 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.
But Henry Ford hated organized labor, historians say, and he approved of Bennett's actions. In 1933, Bennett and his men defeated union drives at plants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But a bigger clash was to come on May 26, 1937. (See story on Page 104.)
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 United States.
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 give control to Henry II. The reins were passed in September 1945.
Bennett made one last stab at holding his job. After Henry II's promotion, Bennett contacted him. "Henry, I've got wonderful news for you. I've just talked your grandfather into making you president," Bennett said, according to Ford biographer Robert Lacey.
On Sept. 21, 1945, Henry Ford II fired the family rival. Bennett, who later told Lewis that he always planned to resign when Henry Ford retired, spent that afternoon burning his records before leaving the Rouge plant for the final time.
Bennett was out. The era of the Whiz Kids, the group of savvy young executives hired by Henry Ford II, had begun.
After starting a business - B-F-G Manufacturers' Representatives Co. - that failed, Bennett moved to California. He died in a California nursing home in 1979 at age 86.