I know it’s in fashion to wildly speculate about the sexuality of various historical figures and label them as this and that through our biased modern lens, but having said that, Henry Ford was totally gay for Thomas Edison.
If you’ve been to the Henry Ford Museum or Greenfield Village on a visit or a school field trip, you already know this. When I was little, before I even knew what gay was, or that I was gay, I knew that Henry Ford was in love with Thomas Edison.
As the hippie teachers told us, Thomas Edison was Henry Ford’s childhood hero, and Ford worked hard and grew up to collaborate with Edison and then they became such good friends that they took yearly camping trips together!
(I had a similar childhood fantasy involving Laura Dern after Jurassic Park. It could still happen! I’d never make her go camping though).
When Edison was dying, Ford asked Edison’s son to capture his father’s last breath in a vial, and that vial is on prominent display at the museum (which was originally called The Edison Institute, because nothing says love like naming your personal museum after someone else).
“Ford asked for Edison’s last breath in a test tube” is presented as a completely rational thing to ask a person when their father is about to die.
I could never tell if there really was a last breath in the test tube, or even any breath at all, and even as a child on field trips, I wondered why Ford would ask such a thing of a guy trying to spend his final moments with his dying father? Did Ford do something weird involving that bottle?
As a kid, I imagined Ford sucking the air out of the vial and assuming Edison’s essence like a bombastic ‘90s cartoon villain. Now I think of . . . other things.
I don’t want to drag the image of an accomplished man through the mud, but Ford was a vicious anti-Semitic, union-crushing supervillain who shoved Michigan under the yolk of the car industry, destroying public transportation in this entire country and dooming our state’s economy forever.
And Edison was a patent troll who stole his greatest inventions, sued every competitor into ruin, and publicly electrocuted elephants to scare people into buying his stuff and his stuff only. He also overworked and underpaid his workers, most of whom he’d handpicked from poor backgrounds, so he could take the credit for their inventions—and all the profits. He singlehandedly held back the film industry for decades because he’d created a monopoly on moviemaking technology, all of which he stole from someone else. You can look that up.
I’m not trying to start a flame war fought with pocketwatches on Edison or Ford, I’m just saying, maybe they deserved each other. Nothing forges the fires of intense man-on-man bonding like unrepentant capitalism.
My best friend Stella brought me a magnet from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida.
“Isn’t it great that we’re at a point in our lives where the highlight of our vacations are tours of historical houses?” she said, before telling me all the details of the tour.
As if having their names combined for eternity at the site of their neighboring homes wasn’t gay enough, allow me to present the following evidence with my best knowing smirk.
1) Edison built his house in Fort Myers and designed every detail personally, but once he moved in, Henry Ford bought the adjacent house so they could live next to each other. Didn’t change a thing about the house, didn’t buy new furniture, just bought the previous homeowner out and moved right in. Can’t you just hear the judgment in the House Hunters’ narrator’s voice describing that decision?
2) Edison had a laboratory on his estate, which Ford wanted so badly for Greenfield Village that he promised to build Edison a pool and a greenhouse to replace it. That lab is still at Greenfield Village, you can walk around inside it (shameless plug!), and Edison got his greenhouse and pool.
Did the two of them relax poolside in matching beach chairs, clinking pina coladas to technology?
3) Ford loved Edison SO. MUCH that after Edison died, Ford returned to his own home in Fort Myers just one more time. On the tour, they said that Ford couldn’t bear to stay in the state of Florida once Edison was gone. He didn’t take any of his stuff with him or have the furniture moved out. He abandoned the place as if fleeing grief-stricken in the middle of the night. I imagine much clucking of tongues and raised eyebrows among the servants.
How has this story not become a musical yet? Someone call Lin-Manuel Miranda and say, “You still want to beat that Tony record?”