Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress, by Douglas Brinkley, Viking, 2003. This book was written in 2003 to mark the centennial of the Ford Motor Company. Brinkley is a good writer and he was offered complete access to the Ford Motor archives. His caveat to the company management was that he be allowed to write with candor about all of the ups and downs of the history. The first two-thirds of the book were focused on the fascinating and difficult character of Henry Ford, the founder. We was an enigma to almost everybody: visionary, charismatic, open-minded, and at the same time a tyrannical father, anti-Semitic, and semi-illiterate. For better and worse, he molded the Ford Motor Company into his own controlling image. The second half of the book was about the post WWII history of the company. It touched on the high points but often, it seemed to me, with a sympathetic brush. Henry Ford II, for instance, was revered more as the man who saved the company from bankruptcy in late '40s and less was made of his philandering and drinking in his later years. The book ended in 2003 and, or course, much has happened since. Ford Motor was the only one of the Big Three to not file for Chapter 11 protection in the Great Recession. Henry Ford would have been proud.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles, Vintage Books, 2009. This National Book Award biography is simply a stunning accomplishment. Stiles has complete recalibrated our understanding of the Commodore as a businessman, citizen, and individual with glimpses of warmth and compassion. Stiles has done his homework and his writing style is first rate. The similarities between the way Vanderbilt treated his eldest son, William, and the way Henry Ford treated his son, Edsel, are amazing. Vanderbilt was in many ways the godfather of the American corporation. His New York Central RR was the greatest of 19th century organizations. Vanderbilt was the toughest of men, both physically and emotionally. He stared down financial disaster numerous times throughout his career. He was always calm in the face of crisis. An amazing man and an amazing book. This one gets 5 out of 5 stars.