Dispatches

Checkered Past

Robert Everett-Green

Sharing a blazer with Buhlie Ford III

I like 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 21 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 $2 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 196s 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.

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Robert Everett-Green

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at the Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.

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