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The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century
by Steven Watts
614 pages
Alfred A. Knopf
Published: Aug 2005

Steven Watts’s 2005 biography “The People’s Tycoon” is one of the most popular explorations of Henry Ford’s life available to modern readers. Watts is a professor at the University of Missouri focusing on American intellectual and cultural history. He has also written about Walt Disney, Hugh Hefner, Dale Carnegie and John F. Kennedy.

Henry Ford (1863-1947) is best remembered as the founder of Ford Motor Company, the automaker which still bears his name. But in his own time he was renowned for his mass-produced Model T cars and for instituting a “living wage” for his employees at a time when that concept wasn’t even embryonic.

Those facts alone would suggest Ford as a superb biographical subject. But other qualities (and captivating contradictions) also make him compelling: he was a relentless self-promoter (but a very hard worker), a notoriously bad day-to-day business manager (but an unmatched visionary) and aggressively promoted Victorian-era moral standards (while conducting a three-decade affair with a much younger employee).

Watts expertly reviews Ford’s successes as well as his personal and professional failures in this engrossing 536-page narrative. Ruthlessly objective, this biography never lets Ford off the hook…but is also careful to highlight the qualities which made him so successful.

Although the author’s writing style is not as vibrant or colorful as I would have liked, Watts is more analytical and penetrating than most biographers. Ford is an interesting subject, but a complicated study in contrasts…and Watts carefully dissects and distills this perplexing dichotomy.

There are countless interesting moments in this biography. Some of the more fascinating include tales of Ford camping with Thomas Edison, his dreadful testimony in a libel lawsuit and his views regarding reincarnation. Other memorable moments include Ford’s long-term affair with his personal assistant, his virulent anti-Semitism and his shabby treatment of his son.

The book proceeds chronologically until Ford launches his car company. At that point the chapters are organized thematically (describing various personality traits Ford exhibited). Although some readers have found this odd or difficult to follow, I found it surprisingly logical and easy to follow.

Disappointing, however, is that Watts fails to focus more on Ford’s personal life. The biography is half-finished before his wife is thoroughly introduced. And despite his son’s impact on his life (for better and worse), Edsel isn’t a subject of focus until even later in the biography. Finally, for all the merit of this fabulous biography, the reader never quite feels as though he or she is seeing the world through Ford’s eyes; instead, this is clearly an astute study of Ford as discerned from afar.

Overall, Steven Watts’s “The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century” is a balanced, thoughtful, revealing and occasionally captivating biography of a fascinating twentieth-century industrialist. Readers seeking a thrilling narrative may come away enlightened but not fully satisfied. Nearly everyone, however, will feel as though they’ve read the most perceptive account of Ford which may ever be written.

Overall rating: 4½ stars