A Life of Henry Ford II

Walter Hayes

Grove Weidenfeld. 285 pp. $19.95

In his capacity as public relations adviser to Henry Ford II, Walter Hayes over the years worked with innumerable writers who came to worship, or to thumb their noses at, this American colossus. One of these was the British journalist Robert Lacey, who writes in the acknowledgments to "Ford: The Men and the Machine," his superb history: "At the Ford Motor Company, Walter Hayes was my initial and closest contact, unstinting with help and patience, even when it became obvious that my writing was not going in the direction that he might have wished. We part, I hope, more in sorrow than in anger."

No doubt that was the case, since all the evidence indicates that both Lacey and Hayes are gentlemen. But the portrait of Henry II painted by Lacey, as well as that subsequently done by Peter Collier and David Horowitz in "The Fords: An American Epic," cannot have sat well with Hayes. Though friendly and sympathetic and even admiring, these authors insisted on painting in all the warts their researches uncovered; for Hayes, to whom Ford was "a man who was more important to my own life than any other," this seems to have been unacceptable.

So now comes Hayes, pen in hand, to do his own sketch. It is unfortunately no more than that, if anything even less. "Henry: A Life of Henry Ford II" adds nothing of moment to our understanding of its subject -- certainly it adds nothing to what the aforementioned writers have already told us -- and it defeats its own purposes, the honesty of which is not in question, by its smarmily sycophantic tone and its pervasive ineptness.

The book is represented as "a life" of Henry II, but it hardly qualifies as biography. Though chronological narrative is not essential to the genre, the hit-or-miss arrangement of Hayes's tale is jarring at best and befuddling at worst; he dances about from subject to subject, leading the reader off on paths that often turn out to be dead ends. To all intents and purposes he completely ignores Ford's long first marriage; as to Ford's drinking, documented by Lacey et al. in bibulous detail, he dismisses it with a merry wave.

What he does give us, on the other hand, is one of those worm's-eye views of the eminent in which the worm somehow manages to metamorphose into a figure of consequence, if not indeed greatness. If we are to believe Hayes, he was the courtier who had the king's ear; over and over again he tells us about the advice he gave his lordship, advice that wasn't always taken at first but in the end usually was.

Beyond that, we are given snippets about Hayes and his family the bearing of which upon Henry Ford's story is utterly mysterious. Flashing his literary bona fides, Hayes tells us that he hopes a meeting with Ford won't take long: "Some Lewis Carroll first editions were coming up in auction at Sotheby's, due to begin at 10:30 a.m., and I wanted to be there to bid." On another occasion he rattles on about how he "came back to pay attention -- as my wife put it -- to my family, dining with my son's housemaster, watching both boys in a school performance of 'Julius Caesar,' worried how well one of them would do in a cricket match against Eton, planned an extension to my house -- since I was running out of space for my books... ." Guess he got to the auction in time.

And speaking of his wife: Hayes does have a way with the ladies. Another gentleman's wife "remembered {an} occasion in the way that a woman would": She thought about the dinner party. Meetings of the Ford Foundation board were sometimes very frank, "before women were admitted to the board." Another gentleman's "petite wife, Marjorie, an accomplished hostess, was always an understanding ally." Lady Bird Johnson was "a person of some consequence in her own right." In America "even women, who might be considered less adventurous than men, often thought little of packing the family into a big wagon and ferrying it from Chicago to Florida... ."

These examples are merely offered by way of warning: If you are of the female persuasion, be prepared to wince your way through "Henry: A Life of Henry Ford II," as its author's consciousness is a few notches short of raised. But then whatever your persuasion, you'll find this book a hard slog. No doubt Walter Hayes is a decent fellow, and his loyalty to his old employer is touching, but these virtues disappear beneath the sheer silliness of his book.