Harry Bennett and bodyguard enjoy the circus

Bennett and his longtime driver/ bodyguard Frank Witmire enjoy a circus performance in Detroit, c. 1940. Few pastimes gave Bennett more pleasure than the spectacle and thrill of the circus. Bennett befriended wild animal tamers Clyde Beatty and Allen King.

It was from Beatty that Bennett received several sets of lion cubs which he raised during the mid-1930s. Once they grew to half size at five-six months old he traded them for cubs.

The cats provided a handy prop for Bennett's risky practical jokes. He often flipped off the lights at parties and quietly unchained a lion that brushed against people's legs, triggering panicked screams. He also locked unsuspecting guests in the darkened tunnel that contained the lion's cages.

He peered through peep holes to watch the terrified reactions when the guest reached the cages, unaware that bars protected them from the lions. However, the danger the lions posed outweighed the fun and Bennett gave up the hobby after several escapes and the injury of a guest.

 HB and Max Baer

Heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer and the diminutive Bennett (5' 6") at company headquarters in Dearborn, Jan. 1935.  Bennett hosted other ring champions for lunch in his opulent dining room at the Ford Administration building, including Jack Dempsey, Max Schmeling and Primo Carnera.  An avid sports fan, Bennett found work for such legendary athletes as Jim Thorpe, Jessie Owens, Kid McCoy, Mickey Cochrane and Eddie Cicotte.

Harry Bennett hands Truant to Navy

In 1941, at a ceremony on the quay at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago, Bennett, representing the Ford Motor Co., conveys legal title to the yacht Truant, owned by Henry Ford, to the U.S. Navy for training purposes. 

Bennett sold his own yacht to the Coast Guard a year later for wartime patrol duty.

HB on Castle Porch

Harry Bennett, 36, strikes a genial pose in front of the castle's glass-enclosed front door in 1928.  A year later, at the close of a kidnapping case Bennett helped to solve, one of the fugitive kidnappers fired a shotgun blast at Bennett through the plate-glass door as he read a newspaper.  

The clean entrance and exit wound required hospitalization.  Afterwards, Henry Ford assigned a bodyguard to protect Bennett.  Ford also paid to bullet-proof the glass in Bennett's door and install an escape hatch to the Huron River.

Wine Cellar to Castle Tunnel

All seven Bennett homes were constructed with party rooms equipped with bars. Several homes contained wine cellars, like this one. The wine cellars were accessible by trick doors. Additional hidden doors inside led to tunnels. The below-ground cellars, featuring marble shelves, provided ideal refrigeration for wine storage.

Bennett Tunnel

Workmen using pick and shovel burrowed the tunnels beneath Bennett's homes. The floors, walls and arched ceilings are concrete. The tunnels measure approximately 30 inches wide and just under six feet high, and were outfitted with overhead lights. Their distances varied depending on the end point. Some ran 20 to 30 feet, while others extended hundreds of yards; one stretched more than three-quarters of a mile.

The tunnels ran beneath flat terrain, descended hillsides via staircases, and often branched off in different directions. One tunnel dipped beneath a creek and remained watertight for decades.  The mansions of both Henry and Edsel Ford contained subterranean pathways too. Theirs predated Bennett's tunneling.

Bookcase door to tunnel (shown closed & open)

In five of his seven homes, Bennett installed a variety of secret doors that opened to secret passageways and tunnels. Some portals were as simple as hinged storage shelves; others were quite sophisticated, involving hidden buttons and moveable towel racks. Pictured here is a hidden door to a tunnel disguised by floor-to-ceiling shelves.

HB tightrope walk

With a helping hand from Esther, his third wife, Bennett steadies himself as he walks a rope to the deck of his yacht during a party at his East Tawas cabin, c. 1937. Before World War I, Bennett served a four year hitch stoking the coal-fired engines of three U.S. dreadnaughts. Bennett held the rank of Lieutenant Commander in the naval reserve intelligence division for 17 years beginning in 1936.

 HB swims with daughter at Pagoda

A windswept, tattooed Bennett wades with his youngest daughter in the flooded yard of his Pagoda boathouse on Grosse Ile, c. 1941. The unpredictable level of the Detroit River's Trenton Channel periodically flowed into the ground floor of Bennett's summer home, where he moored his yacht in one of two sea-going slips enclosed by roll-up garage doors.

HB with Tris Speaker-Ty Cobb

Retired baseball greats Tris Speaker (left) and Ty Cobb flank Bennett at a Ford-sponsored baseball game in August 1945, one month before Henry Ford II replaced his grandfather as company presidency and pushed Bennett into retirement.  Bennett and Cobb remained friends for years.

HB on horseback after retirement

Bennett rides his pinto horse on the desert floor of his 80 acre ranch near the San Jacinto National Park at Desert Hot Springs, California. In 1946, the Bennetts relocated to the West Coast following Bennett's retirement. The family escaped the sweltering summers by spending June, July and August at their Lost Lake retreat in Michigan for the next ten years.

 In retirement Bennett filled his days by painting oils of the mountain scenery surrounding him, performing home improvement projects, and entertaining out-of-town guests. His family took an active part in community events. 

They frequently dined in Palm Springs, often in the company of Hollywood screen stars. In 1968, at the age of 76, Bennett and his wife moved to Las Vegas. Bennett died in 1979 at a Los Gatos, Calif., convalescent home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What rarity photos you found! I am delighted! Max Baer and the diminutive Bennett look especially impressive. Bennett's bodyguard with all his appearance shows the seriousness of his intentions.

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