Ferrytale: The Career of W. H. “Ping” Ferry
by James A. Ward
Stanford University Press, 2001
There are scores of biographies of the great philanthropists. But where are the stories of the program officers, foundation executives, and grant administrators? Who tells their story?
Ferrytale is a book for people who spend their days anonymously toiling at the great foundations. Although W. H. Ferry did end up in his last years running a small foundation, he spent most of his career as a staff officer and “number-two guy” in several nonprofits. Ward, a historian at the University of Tennessee, is a good writer, and Ferrytale is an enjoyable book that adds substantially to our knowledge of the Ford Foundation’s early years.
Wilbur Hugh Ferry was born in 1910. When he was eight, he came home one afternoon after being kicked in the head by older boys after a violent football game. While waiting in the doctor’s office, Ferry remarked loopily, “Ping-pong is a very rough game.” Ever after, he was known as “Ping,” while his brother was usually called “Pong.”
Ferry’s father, Hugh Ferry, spent most of his career toiling for Packard, eventually becoming the car company’s last president. The senior Ferry was a very conservative Catholic; so Ferry rebelled by becoming a very liberal Protestant.
After his graduation from Dartmouth in 1932, Ferry landed a job teaching English and Latin at Choate. Among his students was future President John F. Kennedy, who thought Ferry spent so much time sneaking around the student dorms that he called Ferry “creeping Wilbur.” After Choate sacked him for drinking, Ferry spent the next 13 years in a bewildering array of jobs. He was a reporter for eight newspapers in the United States and Argentina. He alternated newspaper jobs with ones in public relations; while working for Eastern Airlines in 1937, for example, he claimed to have invented the in-flight magazine. Ferry also spent two years working as a federal price controller, a job that confirmed his belief in the usefulness of bureaucratic red tape. He also may well have been the only American who began World War II maneuvering to get a 4-F draft rating and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign.
After the war, Ferry signed on as a top account executive with the public relations firm of Earl Newsom and Company, or ENCO. There he was assigned to ENCO’s most important client, the Ford Motor Company, just as 28-year-old Henry Ford II took over the company. To Ferry fell the job of selling the young executive to the public as a “young industrial statesman” with the intellectual firepower to noodle over gassy ghostwritten speeches on topics such as “The Challenge of Human Engineering.”
In 1946, Earl Newsom asked Ferry to study the Ford Foundation, which, with the elder Ford’s imminent death and the transfer of his stock to the foundation’s endowment, was soon to become the largest foundation in the world. The study was necessary, added Newsom, because the foundation “had absolutely no focus or idea.” It had been set up in 1936 but remained small, with just three employees and a few grantees (mostly the older Ford private charities, including the Henry Ford Hospital and Greenfield Village, a living-history museum).
For the next decade, Ferry was at the center of the white-hot debate about what the foundation would do with its millions. Ferry wanted the Ford Foundation to be an organ of crusading liberalism that would “kick the sh** out of those in seats of power, fix up the supine press and the supine church, and so on.” His staunchest ally in these internecine battles was associate director Robert Maynard Hutchins, long-time president of the University of Chicago and a man who combined political liberalism with traditional views on education.
As social critic Dwight Macdonald once observed, the Ford Foundation was a large body of money surrounded by people who wanted some. Some of the grant applicants were excessively demanding; for example, Harvard Business School dean Don David was so insistent in his pleas that the Ford Foundation board proposed giving him $8.5 million on the condition that he never ask for another penny. Henry Ford II, not the brightest of men, wanted to stay far away from the hornet’s nest of feuding intellectuals; at a lunch with Ferry in 1951, Ford looked at the huge pile of Ford Foundation grants Ferry had brought with him and said, “Christ! If I could only make automobiles and get rid of all this crap.”
Some Ford Foundation people proposed breaking the foundation into several smaller entities. This was partially done in 1952, when the foundation was reorganized into several smaller “funds,” some of which became independent nonprofits. Ford’s environmental programs, for instance, were bundled together to become the environmental think tank Resources for the Future. Many of the controversial Ford grants in civil liberties and public policy were put together into an entity called the Fund for the Republic, which was created in 1952 with a $15 million one-time grant. Hutchins became the fund’s president and, two years later, Ferry left ENCO to become vice president.
Hutchins and Ferry thought they would use the Fund for the Republic to fight McCarthyism, but in hindsight the fund’s chief function was to place a “kick me” sign on the foundation’s front door and invite conservatives to comply. The fund began by spending $35,000 to hire cartoonist Al Capp to create an anti-conservative cartoon featuring a character named “Toejam.”
Capp’s cartoon never appeared, but two other Fund for the Republic grants would be more controversial. One was briefly hiring Amos Landsman, who had taken the Fifth Amendment when asked by Congress about whether he was a Communist. A second one was hiring historian Clinton Rossiter to conduct a study about Communist infiltration of American institutions. Rossiter then hired, as an acknowledged expert on American Communism, former Communist Party USA president Earl Browder, who was under indictment at the time for perjury charges.
By September 1956, the Internal Revenue Service was threatening to revoke the Fund for the Republic’s tax-exempt status, and House Un-American Activities chairman Francis Walter was threatening a congressional investigation. But Hutchins and Ferry, who had barely survived being ousted by the fund’s board the year before, nearly lost their jobs again when they published a study by John Cogley defending most of the screenwriters blacklisted by Hollywood for their Communist affiliations.
In 1957, Hutchins stopped most of the fund’s controversial grants, and in 1959 the fund evolved into the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The center appealed to Hutchins’s traditionalism; it was based on the premise that, given money and freedom, a brains trust of elder statesmen could solve the world’s problems.
Ferry stayed at the center until 1969, when he was sacked after losing one of the center’s many vicious internal feuds. He then created his own job, hiring himself out for $6,000 a year to ten California philanthropists. One of the ten was Carol Bernstein, whose late husband was part of the Loews Inc. communications empire. Ferry and Bernstein married, and Ferry ran Carol Bernstein’s DJB Foundation, which spent out its $18 million endowment on a variety of hard-left causes. If you were in trouble with the law in the 1970s and 1980s, knew who Ferry was, and told him you were a political prisoner, he would provide bail. As a peace activist, Ferry also spent the 1980s on a grand tour of America’s enemies, including trips to Havana and Moscow.
When W. H. Ferry died in 1995, he was fondly remembered by many people. He spent his career as the bright bit of color in a sea of grey flannel suits. He seems to have been someone who, if you agreed with his politics, was an eccentric, fun friend.
But Ferry’s life was ultimately a futile one. His limited writings (he never wrote a book) were muddle-headed tracts now mercifully forgotten. His charity does not appear to have changed America’s politics or uplifted the lives of the poor.
Still, his life, though minor, was nonetheless interesting, and James A. Ward does a fine job in telling Ferry’s story. Anyone interested in the history of philanthropy, especially the history of the Ford Foundation, will find Ferrytale a most engrossing book.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor of Philanthropy and author of The Foundation Builders.