Robert Everett-green

Shar­ing a blazer with Buh­lie Ford III

Geist - - Features - ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN

Check­ered Past

Ilike house­hold auc­tions and thrift shops, where noth­ing can be re­ordered and ev­ery­thing has a past. Last year, in a base­ment vin­tage shop in Toronto, on a bat­tered vin­tage man­nequin, I found a plaid hound­stooth sports jacket that was loaded with the kind of mid-cen­tury style cel­e­brated in the TV series Mad Men. The fab­ric was a re­laxed woollen weave in red, white and a blue so dark that it looked black from even a short dis­tance. The pat­tern was loud and the cut a bit boxy, as Amer­i­can jack­ets of­ten were back then. The jacket was in great shape for the age it had to be, and it fit me beau­ti­fully.

Usu­ally gar­ments like this have no dis­cov­er­able his­tory, noth­ing you can trace back to a pre­vi­ous owner. But when I got home and ex­am­ined my new pur­chase more closely, I found a name jot­ted on a tai­lor’s ticket in­side the breast pocket: Wal­ter Buhl Ford III. There was also a date: Septem­ber 1965.

I googled the name and found a brief obituary from 2010 for my jacket’s first owner, who turned out to be a great-grand­son of Henry Ford. He lived in the posh Detroit sub­urb of Grosse Pointe Shores, worked for the fam­ily firm for fif­teen years, loved his dogs and had an in­fec­tious laugh. The obit photo in the Grosse Pointe News showed a guy with a full face, a big smile and re­ced­ing steel-grey hair combed straight back.

Since I was shar­ing a jacket with the man, so to speak, I wanted to know more about who and what he was when he bought it. It wasn’t hard to do. The Fords are the kind of fad­ing in­dus­trial dy­nasty that never com­pletely slips from pub­lic view. This par­tic­u­lar Ford, it turned out, was far from be­ing one of the fam­ily’s brighter lights, but he did play a small but mem­o­rable role in the birth of one of the com­pany’s most fa­mous cars.

“Buhl,” or “Buh­lie” as he was known, was one of the “Ford Fords,” so called be­cause his mother Josephine, Henry’s only grand­daugh­ter, had mar­ried a wealthy de­signer who was also named Ford. Josephine (“Dodie”) shunned the fam­ily firm and spent her time giv­ing away money, in­clud­ing $20 mil­lion to the Detroit In­sti­tute of Arts. As she said, “What else is there for a girl who wasn’t com­pet­i­tive to do, but try to es­cape all that Ford stuff?”

She and her hus­band ex­pected Buh­lie to com­pete, how­ever, and sent him to a pri­vate boys’ school in Mas­sachusetts. He left early, and in­stead of lev­i­tat­ing his way into an Ivy League uni­ver­sity, as rich dullards like Ge­orge W. Bush did, Buh­lie fin­ished his ed­u­ca­tion at a small Michi­gan busi­ness col­lege that had for­merly been an acad­emy for pen­man­ship.

He was twenty years old and still a stu­dent when he did the one thing for which he earned no­tice in his­to­ries of the Ford Mo­tor Co. It was known in early 1964 that the com­pany was de­vel­op­ing a se­cret de­sign for a car it be­lieved would change the mar­ket. Some­how, Buh­lie got hold of a pro­to­type, drove it down­town and left it in the open valet park­ing lot at Detroit’s Sher­a­ton-cadil­lac Ho­tel. “It’s a hot job,” he told the carhop. A pass­ing Detroit Free Press editor spot­ted what he knew must be the mys­tery car, called a pho­tog­ra­pher and got a great scoop about the first-ever Ford Mus­tang. “That dirty Wal­ter Buhl Ford let our se­cret out of the bag,” said Lee Ia­cocca, the Ford ex­ec­u­tive who led the Mus­tang project. Time mag­a­zine’s ac­count was less harsh, de­scrib­ing Buh­lie as “some­thing of a leg­endary cut-up around Grosse Pointe.”

A year later, Buh­lie en­coun­tered our jacket. He bought it from Arthur M. Rosenberg Co., Tai­lors and Fur­nish­ers, which had been cutting cloth for col­lege boys since 1898. Rosenberg was one of the New Haven tai­lors who es­tab­lished what Life mag­a­zine pop­u­lar­ized in a 1954 ar­ti­cle as “the Ivy League Look.” The look’s cen­tral item was an un­ta­pered sports jacket with nat­u­ral shoul­ders. It was of­ten made in what a 1933 “Clothes for Col­lege” ar­ti­cle called “rough fab­rics of the Shet­land or Har­ris va­ri­ety,” the kind worn by the English gen­try on their coun­try es­tates. These tweedy jack­ets were louder and more ca­sual than the sub­dued power suits Ivy League types ex­pected to wear af­ter grad­u­a­tion.

A 1947 print ad for Rosenberg (“Tai­lors for Yale Men”) shows sev­eral jacket pat­terns in hand-loomed Shet­land, one of which is clearly the one that caught Buh­lie’s eye (and mine). The greyscale swatch is sub­tler than the real thing. Buh­lie wanted to be no­ticed.

He might have flown to New Haven or New York to be fit­ted—two of his Ford cousins flew from New York by pri­vate jet for Buh­lie’s wed­ding in 1964—though he may also have en­coun­tered a Rosenberg tai­lor dur­ing one of the com­pany’s pe­ri­odic trunk tours of the US. Busi­ness was still good for the Ivy League Look in 1965, but time was run­ning out. Within a cou­ple of years, ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans of the style, the Look was no longer as­so­ci­ated just with Yale

Men, but with The Man—the square, con­form­ist power struc­ture it was so cool to be against.

That may be why my jacket is in such great shape: Buh­lie prob­a­bly stopped wear­ing it af­ter the Sum­mer of Love. A photo from the late 1960s shows him in a polo shirt and slacks, with long hair and lamb-chop side­burns. He was al­ready mov­ing to­ward what came af­ter the Ivy League Look: the preppy look, which is ap­par­ently still big in Grosse Pointe. He didn’t make much of an im­pres­sion on the world in any other way. He flopped in sev­eral busi­ness ven­tures, in­clud­ing a movie com­pany, be­fore tak­ing a sinecure at the fam­ily firm in 1978.A 1989 For­tune mag­a­zine sur­vey of the Ford clan said that Buh­lie, who was then a “sales pro­mo­tion co­or­di­na­tor,” did not “drive on a fast track.” He re­tired four years later, at age fifty.

What I still want to know is why he kept our jacket in his closet for nearly half a cen­tury. Its near-pris­tine con­di­tion tells me it must have stayed there, or in cold stor­age, till he died. Some­one prob­a­bly shipped it to a Detroit thrift cen­tre, where it could eas­ily have been picked up by the Toronto dealer I bought it from. Thrift­ing, as it’s called, is a cross-bor­der busi­ness.

For me, the jacket is a piece of menswear his­tory that I can ac­tu­ally put on, and a link to the tragi­comic tale of an un­der­achiever with a fa­mous name. I of­ten get com­ments about it, from peo­ple who some­times mis­take it for a re­cent im­i­ta­tion of that mid-cen­tury look. I as­sure them that it’s some­thing much bet­ter and less ex­pen­sive than that. I like to think it also meant some­thing for the older Buh­lie if he glimpsed it on the closet rail—youth­ful hopes, per­haps, un­ful­filled but still worth re­mem­ber­ing.

Robert Everett-green’s pre­vi­ous Notes & Dis­patches in­clude “Li­corice Roots,” in Geist 88. He also writes for the Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto. Read more of his work at geist.com.

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