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Classic review: The People's Tycoon

Henry Ford was the very image of the America of his day: idealistic and far too self-assured.

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Ford loved the ordinary folk and they loved him back. By 1920, half of all cars on US roads were Fords.

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But it wasn't just cars that Ford was selling.

He preached a new gospel to a public raised on Puritan ideals of delayed gratification and self-control. Ford believed that money was for spending, and that workers should use their income to buy products that would improve their lives - products like his Model T.

To meet the enormous demand for his cars, Ford enthusiastically embraced mass production. He also believed he was providing a superior form of employment. "The average worker ... wants a job in which he does not have to think," he pronounced.

But if Ford managed to appear heroic at a certain moment in history - a day when working families needed sturdy, inexpensive cars and large numbers of unskilled workers were grateful for secure jobs - he utterly failed to keep pace with the times.

When consumers wanted more sophisticated cars, he insisted that his Model T was enough. When workers called for unions, he was adamant that they were unnecessary. And when the Depression took its toll, he couldn't grasp its severity.

Ford's intransigence cost him dearly. By the mid-1930s, General Motors and Chrysler had already passed him by.

The more tragic failure, however, is the story of Ford's relationship with his son Edsel, an intelligent and sensitive man who could have been the ideal heir to the business. But the older Ford - offended by the son's gentle style and superior education - ruthlessly undercut him at every turn, only then to mourn grievously when Edsel died young.

Watts, who is a professor of history at the University of Missouri and the author of a biography of Walt Disney, creates a comprehensive picture of Ford and the era in which he lived. (Although one error noted: Watts inaccurately identifies Mary Baker Eddy, founder of this newspaper, as a leader of a "New Thought movement" founded by Phineas P. Quimby.)

The book is longer than it needs to be and its narrative is awkward at times. Watts tends to hit his main points too repetitively and sometimes works too hard to pump up drama. (Chapters often end with heavy-handed cliffhangers like: "Eventually, the Ford family and key associates stepped in to avert disaster, but not before this King Lear of the automotive world had been brought low.")

But "The People's Tycoon" remains well worth reading. Not only does it provide a lively portrait of America at a pivotal moment in history, it also offers the compelling human tale of a gifted man ultimately undone by his own success.

Ford's last days were sorrowful. On a visit to the house where he had lived as a newlywed he told his chauffeur, "I've got a lot of money, and I'd give every penny of it right now just to be here with Mrs. Ford the same as I was in the old days."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's Book editor.

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