The last official business I had with the Ford Motor Company was in 1971 in Detroit. I was there trying to sell the multi-foci epic poetic drama I had written on the history of Ford. I got as close as a dream.
Yesterday, the Ford Motor Company celebrated the 75th anniversary of its founding by having lunches at Ford facilities all over America. Ford has lobbyists here, so they commingled congressman, companymen, car dealers, a few ambassadors, and Mark Russell to make whoopee.
It could have been a dream come true for me, but I got caught up in old 1915 gossip and missed my chance to saunter up to William O. Bourke, Ford executive vice president and main speaker at the gathering, and tell him what I had wanted to tell somebody back in Detroit in 1970: "Pop, I can make you company a star."
By June of 1971 I had obtained for myself an interview in Detroit with Jarvis B. McMechan, manager, Corporate Advertising and Sales Promotion of Ford. Rank prostitution for a poet, you may say, but I had $300 to my name, and all Ford had to do was put up a few grand and leave the truth, I mean The Truth, to me. The appointment was at 9:30 in the morning. That morning I woke up in my rented room at a little after 5. I resolved to stay awake and psyche myself up for the big sale. Instead I had a technicolor dream in which two ingratiating PR men (one wore a lemon yellow shirt with a striking brown tie) chatted with me and told me in the nicest way that the Ford Company lauded my efforts but . . . I stammered something about the new mythology, the care and feeding of archetypes. They laughed. I woke up, thinking - after that dream, why go? So I didn't. I went birdwatching instead, and soon left Detroit.
Friends of mine arranged for me to be at the Ford celebration yesterday. And yes, I did have a dream yesterday morning in which a cab driver led me astray and I never got there. So when I woke up I took a slow-but-sure, one-hour-long bus ride to the banquet at the Rayburn Office Builing.
I ran the old myths through my brain: Cast Iron Charlie Sorenson forcing the action at the big belching River Rouge Plant; the big sales meeting at the Dearborn Country Club that ended with a fist fight downstairs and signified the ascendancy of Harry Bennett, Henry Ford's flamboyant surrogate son; and I recalled Henry and the grass sandwiches he often forced his executives to eat - yes, real grass sandwiches that his buddy George Washington Carver used to make; and amidst the clatter of traffic I recalled the hundreds of thousands of Ford workers over the years whose lives I immortalized in some of the strongest dramatic choral writing of this century.
I quote from my still unpublished (but not unperformed) opus"
file angle on bearing wipe"
So I had the mechanized men chant as they made the magical Model T.
The Rayburn Building was terra incognita for me. I couldn't tell the car dealers from the congressmen. The Ford PR people sat me at a corner table, and after a quick squint at the name tags I found I was with car dealers Dick Blanken and Joe Gerard. I threw a myth out and Dick Blanken told me: "History doesn't sell cars. Prices, trade and terms sell cars."
Meanwhile, between the soup and the steak (no grass sandwiches at this party) Sen. Robert P. Griffin and Donald W. Riegle and John D. Dingell, all from Michigan, spoke briefly. Riegle spoke best, and not surprisingly because in Harvard Business School, he told us, he did a paper on automotive history. He lauded Ford for historic labor policies such as the $5 day in 1914. I had an urge to rush up to him and say "but Sen. Riegle what about Harry Bennett and his ex-con tough guys?"
But Riegel was soon on the phone and back to the Senate. And anyway, it was a birthday party.
After the steak, William O. Bourke spoke. He recited a litany of statistics. Instead of the $5 Day, Ford today has the $102.72 Day. Then he talked about demographic studies, legislation, furture challenges - but not a breath of myth. On and on he read his speech, calm and sure, nary a joke. In the audience a hundred guests ate steak and listened.
Mark Russell closed the show, and everybody laughed.
I gobbled my lemon tart surreptitiously, because by then I still wanted to ask Bourke something - I wanted to ask, with the hot breath of poetry, about myth. I wanted to rant and rave, and him with me if he would, about the mythic forces of production. Production!
Then the Ford PR person organizing the banquet snuck up to me. She knew of my poem, my interest in history, and told me that an 89-year-old gentlemen was there who had worked for Ford since 1908. His name was Jerome Fanciulli, and I shot to his side. Fancuilli knew my myths and I proded him to gossip:
"Yes, I met Henry Ford many times. He used to stop in Washington whenever he came north from Fort Meyers. He used to come to our dealership and ask if we were getting enough cars and trucks. Of course, weren't. So right there he wrote out a telegram to the home office. He sent a telegram to Norval Hawkins, you know, he was an ex-con."
I remembered Norval Hawkins all too well. In fact, in a production of my play in Cambridge, Mass., I played Hawkins, a sales genius at Ford until he was fired and took his talent to General Motors.
And I had always coached my actors to play Henry Ford like a quirky George Allen, spouting weird sayings at the drop of a hat, a fidgety body and didgety mind. I painted that picture to Fanciulli.
"Oh no, Ford was never like that when I saw him. He was a very serious man."
Probably much like Bourke himself. I still wanted to pop my mythology on Bourke, but by now, of course, he had gone. He was hurrying to the airport, back to Detroit, and then a speech in Chicago the next day.
It probably saved us both from embarrassment - inquiring about the living corporate myth indeed! Myth and business don't mix. In fact, when I put my play on in Washington last year - nine performances by the Bleecker Street Players - I learned that business history and theater don't mix, either.
I came to realize, in fact, that I had metrically parsed the myth of the Ford Motor Co. for one thing: dreams. And those dreams were mine.
I looked over, and saw that though Bourke was gone, Jerome Fanciulli was still there. I wanted very much to gossip about Hawkins and Sorensen and Bennett, but he would probabily have told me that they were, well, more or less like the sober Mr. Bourke. So I let Fanciulli go.
A good time was had by all at the banquet, and Mark Russell's best crack was "Buffalo was built by cloning Cleveland."
It reminded me of a line in my poetic drama.Hawkins says it to Henry Ford:
"But don't you see' The freight rate changes at Buffalo. Build assembly plants and weave a web across the land . . ."
A couple of mere men changing the fact of the earth. To me, that's funny.