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The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. By Steven Watts (Knopf; 640 pages). Eccentric to a fault, Henry Ford went from being his company’s biggest asset to its biggest liability. While Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he perfected a way to mass-produce cars that even working people could afford. But his mind didn’t operate as precisely as his famed assembly lines. Teetotaler, spiritualist, populist, health nut, moralist, bigamist, pacifist, racial supremacist � Ford embraced a wide range of extremist causes, making him an increasingly controversial figure in his later years. Not surprisingly, Ford’s many enthusiasms mean that he’s also a difficult subject for the biographer. Steven Watts, a thorough researcher but clumsy writer, has considerable trouble nailing down the real person in The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. Watts, a historian at the University of Missouri and the author of an acclaimed biography of Walt Disney ( The Magic Kingdom), improves over previous Ford studies by showing how the carmaker’s empire was shaped by his idiosyncratic personality. But while Watts methodically totes up Ford’s trials and triumphs, he does little in the way of interpreting the final results. That means we learn about Ford’s enthusiasm for soybeans and his disdain for book learning, but not much about how a man with such unconventional views made his way in the world. More annoyingly, Watts decided to organize his book by subject rather than by chronology, and to summarize each chapter’s key points in a few introductory paragraphs. These structural choices prevent Watts from developing a cohesive narrative. And as a result of his hodgepodge approach, the author also glosses over major points in Ford’s life � the inspiration for the assembly line, or the carmaker’s close but unfaithful relationship with his wife, Clara. Still, Ford was a colorful character, which makes The People’s Tycoon an engaging read. The personal details of his life � such as his strained relationship with his father � are maddeningly ambiguous, deliberately obscured in part by the armies of PR men he hired to burnish his image. But as is the case with many celebrities, Ford’s personality was exposed in court, where he frequently found himself due to a succession of lawsuits. Take Ford’s insistence on doing things his way. Starting in 1879, Rochester attorney George Selden filed suit against several automakers, claiming that they had infringed his patent for a carriage powered by a gasoline or kerosene motor. Though Selden never manufactured his vehicle, 26 companies settled with him. But Selden had a tougher opponent when he sued Ford in 1903. Ford fought back, finally winning at the New York State Court of Appeals seven-and-a-half years later. At the time, a business mogul who stood on moral principle was unheard of. Ford’s position as a man of the people was enhanced in his 1916 suit against The Chicago Tribune, which had written that he was an “ignorant idealist” and an anarchist. During his testimony, Ford, then 56, revealed a shocking lack of basic knowledge, claiming, among other things, that the American Revolution took place in 1812. Though he was mocked in the press, the public saw him as a self-made titan who was just an average Joe. The libel suit that Jewish union organizer Aaron Sapiro filed against Ford in 1925, however, showed a less admirable side of the carmaker. A virulent anti-Semite, Ford owned a Detroit-area newspaper which published a column devoted to “exposing” the international Jewish conspiracy. One column claimed that Sapiro’s efforts to unionize farmworkers were part of a Jewish plot to take over the American economy. After a mistrial, Ford issued a letter of apology to the nation’s Jews (which Watts concludes Ford never actually read), and closed his paper. The Sapiro case was a sign of how the carmaker’s extremist tendencies had overcome his populist instincts. By the time of the Great Depression, Ford’s fortunes had peaked and so had his taste for change. His antiunionism tendencies and his longtime refusal to design a successor to the best-selling Model T soured the Ford Motor Company’s prospects. “History is bunk,” Ford many times declared. But his own life refuted this statement. While his personal history was the reason for his initial fame, it later turned into a legacy he couldn’t match. Foege, a freelance writer, is working on a book about Clear Channel Communications, to be published by Faber and Faber.

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