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In the Desert, Henry Ford's Strongman Finds His Artist's Heart

Paul Grimm stands on the side of his painting of Harry Bennett and his horse Sonny.
Paul Grimm, a well-known Palm Springs artist, often collaborated with Harry Bennett in his studio — even painting Bennett and his horse Sonny for a project. | Winfield Line / Courtesy of Palm Springs Historical Society
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The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.

Harry Bennett had been watching his back trail most of his life, but finally — atop a winding driveway on a high knoll in Desert Hot Springs — he could rest. He picked up his binoculars and scoped his kingdom. The long views in every direction would reveal a car's dust trail miles before anyone could reach him. Assured he was safe, Bennett settled behind his easel and gazed at San Jacinto peak across the valley.

Picking up his paintbrush, he leaned in just inches from the canvas to accommodate his failing eyesight. In this pose he felt powerful again — as he had felt in Detroit when he was Henry Ford's enforcer, an heir to the Ford Company throne known by the nicknames "The Little Giant" or "Little Fella." With his horses pacing in the corral below, Bennett relaxed into the simple rhythm of landscape painting.

He'd always had a rich fantasy life and now he could imagine he was an exceptional western artist like Charles Marion Russell. The Old West had plenty of room for bad guys with hearts of gold and Bennett was a bad guy by any measure. "America's Most Reviled Corporate Thug," a headline once called him.

His forgotten days as a Desert Hot Springs resident and desert painter — he studied with Paul Grimm — are beginning to be revealed thanks to the decades-long work of writer Thomas DeWald, who is researching a biography of Bennett. While Bennett gave away paintings during his desert days, very few of his canvases have surfaced. Let's hope someone reading this article discovers a hatchetman original in the closet.

Current interest in Bennett centers on his "ninja houses," as DeWald calls it. The desperado built exotic escapes — a castle outside of Ann Arbor, a Chinese-style boathouse on an island in the Detroit River and a retreat in central Michigan (which became a Boy Scout summer camp), as well as the desert house. Bennett's construction crew from Detroit was assisted in building these escapes by employees from Ford's old Long Beach plant on Terminal Island.

DeWald himself grew up near one of the Michigan homes. The tales of sliding bookcases, trap doors, escape tunnels, secret passageways and a moat with sharpened sticks were catnip to the young man. The homes have more recently attracted a cult of urban explorers who steal glimpses and compare myths: Did Bennett really practice target shooting in his office and keep lions as pets? Yes, he did.

The Desert Hot Springs ninja house is the only one with no secret tunnels or other James Bond touches. Built on land given to Bennett by Henry Ford, the home was originally intended to be only a two-week-a-year getaway and the isolated location seemed to be enough of a moat.

Bennett made his first trip to the desert in 1939, when he was still employed by Ford. He took a room at the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs, then went down to McDonald stables on Ramon Road and rented a horse. When his horse climbed up out of the Araby wash and into the mountains, Bennett must have had a revelation: Here he could escape the cold and the killing and live like a cowboy.

A drawing by Harry Bennett of a man on a horse waving his lasso and some farmers and cowboys play on various instruments.
A 1943 sketch by Harry Bennett depicts a western lifestyle with a horse, cowboys and music. | Courtesy of Harry "Skip" Angellotti

The West was deeply embedded in his psyche. When he was a kid growing up in Ann Arbor, he rushed to see the Wild Bill Hickok review when it came to town each year. Later, he was friends with Warner Baxter — the actor who played the Cisco Kid — who also had a ranch in Desert Hot Springs.

Bennett's grandson, Harry "Skip" Angellotti said recently: "He liked cowboys. He loved 'Sons of the Pioneers.' He liked Western wear, Western stuff. There's not a lot of that in Michigan."

Art — like cowboys — had been part of Bennett's life since his school days. His mother, a painter herself, enrolled him in the Detroit Fine Arts Academy when he was 15. Bennett wanted to become a commercial artist, but he detoured into the Navy where he learned to box, worked in Naval Intelligence and acquired an arm full of tattoos: ship, anchor, Indian head. He kept up his art skills by drawing cartoons for a Navy magazine.

He was originally hired to work as an artist at the Ford Motor Company in 1917, but what impressed his employers more than his brushwork was his casual brutality. Short, muscular and bow-tied (he said you couldn't be strangled with a bow tie), he soon was put in charge of Ford's army — called the Service Department — using violence to guard the plant against union uprisings.

A book cover of an animated Henry Ford in a car titled "We Never Called Him Henry"
"We Never Called Him Henry" tells a sanitized version of Harry Bennett’s time working for Henry Ford.

"Only those who lived through this tumultuous time know the true intimidation tactics used by Bennett to stop the United Auto Workers from gaining control," wrote Desert Hot Springs writer Audrey Moe in her book "Celebrities in Hiding." "It has been reported that Hitler's Gestapo was modeled on the tactics of Bennett at the Ford Motor Company."

While Bennett was never personally charged with murder, men died at his command. He and his henchmen beat and tortured laborers and, in return, shots were fired at them through doors; their cars were run off roads. His enemies would seek revenge as long as the enforcer drew breath.

During the Ford years, Bennett abandoned art and became a heavy drinker. (While still working for Ford, he was introduced to Walt Disney and discussed art with him one long evening. DeWald says that Disney ended the evening by drawing cartoon characters on the walls of Bennett's baby's nursery.)

Harry Bennett sits alongside family members Aunt Trudy, his daughter Billie and his wife Esther at a race event.
No matter where they went, Harry Bennett had security around himself and his family. At a race event, Bennett sits (from left to right) Aunt Trudy, his daughter Billie and his wife Esther as his security team in fedoras sits close by. | Courtesy of Harry "Skip" Angellotti

After his initial visit to Palm Springs, Bennett returned in 1940 to supervise the work on his new fortress, a showplace. The 80 acres of land was just outside of Desert Hot Springs in a place called Seven Palms Valley on early maps. An Italian construction crew on Henry Ford's payroll came west on the train to begin construction.

In 1945, when Bennett was fired from the Ford Motor Company in a struggle over control of the company, the desert escape became a full-time home for himself, his wife and two of his four daughters. At the time, the house was "way out in the middle of nowhere," DeWald says. "There was the B-Bar-H, and Janet Gaynor lived nearby. Harry's place was way, way out."

Bennett called the compound S-Star Ranch, derived from his own name and his wife's name, Esther: Est-Har or S-Star. The hideout was an island rising above the surrounding desert. There was no telephone. Armed guards and dogs patrolled the washes. Audrey Moe writes: "Bennett is said to have sometimes fired shots in the air, which could be heard from far away and when he played his organ, one of his hobbies, the music filled the pure desert air and carried over the valley for miles."

Harry Bennett rode on horseback in the desert.
Harry Bennett rides on horseback in the desert surrounding his home a year after being fired from the Ford Motor Company. | Courtesy of Thomas DeWald

The family integrated smoothly into small-town life, with the kids riding their horses in the Palm Springs Desert Circus and Western Week parades. Moe says she was struck by how often the Bennetts cropped up in the Desert Sentinel society columns of the 1940s and '50s. The family hosted parties and teas at their ninja ranch. Harry's daughter, Esther Rae, won a Lion's Club Scholarship Award in her 6th Grade class, which numbered six pupils.

Meanwhile, a parade of Detroit ex-cons and gangsters came to ride horses and play cowboy at the getaway on the hill. Bennett had acquired numerous underworld friends during the years when he was charged with protecting Ford's kids from kidnapping threats.

The juxtaposition of evil and family life gives a Sopranos feeling to Harry Bennett's story. Like Tony Soprano — who could dismember a guy and then dash home for ziti — Bennett maintained a respectable veneer, despite a tendency to torture people with pliers.

There was some serious stuff going on… guns fired at the house. I do not think my mom lived in fear, she was just always very careful. Like children of a famous person. I'm sure the Kardashians — when they walk downtown — they have their guards nearby.
Harry "Skip" Angellotti, grandson of Harry Bennett

Thomas DeWald delved into Bennett's desert days on a 1990s visit to do research for his book. Among the Bennett acquaintances he interviewed were Chi Chi club founder Jack Freeman and Palm Springs cowboy mayor Frank Bogert. Bogert was the realtor who sold the S-Star ranch when Bennett moved away in 1968.

DeWald learned that Bennett also had been friends with well-known Palm Springs artist Paul Grimm. Grimm even painted a portrait of the Ford Co. gunslinger. "Bennett described himself as an unfinished painter and Grimm as a finished painter, able to put finishing touches on a face and hands," says DeWald. "He would visit Grimm's studio and Grimm would help him with his own stuff."

Like other powerful men before him, Bennett found solace in his return to painting. In the year Bennett had taken over the Ford Service Department, Winston Churchill published his famous essay "Painting as a Pastime." Even Adolph Hitler found anxiety relief in paints. "Bennett was in a very high-stress environment," says DeWald. "He had a lot of nervous energy. And he always said that painting allowed him to use that energy, to direct it."

As Bennett became known as a desert artist, he was invited to exhibit at the Little Gallery of The Desert, appearing in a show alongside Axel Linus and curated by J. Marie Ropp. Ropp was a major figure in desert art. She established the Little Gallery in Cathedral City, before moving the shop to Desert Hot Springs. She later ran the Desert Magazine Art Gallery. Ropp was friends with both Cabot Yerxa and Agnes Pelton, so it's likely the Little Giant rubbed shoulders with his pueblo-building neighbor and with Pelton too.

A Harry Bennett painting that depicts a snowy Mount San Jacinto from the Desert Hot Springs.
Harry Bennett returned to painting while in the Desert Hot Springs as he depicts Mount San Jacinto and the valley around it. | Courtesy of Jimmy "JJ" Jackson

Regular visitors to the house on the hill found the walls increasingly covered with paintings of horses, Bennett's friends and his beloved mountain.

One such visitor, Jimmy "JJ" Jackson used to come up the hill to clean Harry Bennett's estate-sized swimming pool. Jackson's father had known Bennett in his days as an Indianapolis race driver but didn't tell young Jimmy the whole story. "He just said he was a tough guy," says Jackson.

Bennett's daughter, Esther, was two grades ahead of Jackson in school and they rode the bus together. "Everyone just knew you had to be silly to date his daughters," Jackson said, referring to the aura of danger around Bennett.

Jackson is a rare owner of Bennett's artwork, inheriting from his parents a Bennett painting of Mt. San Jacinto (it hangs in his living room in Heber City, Utah) and a portrait of his dad in a race car. "It looks just like him."

A painting of Jimmy J.J. Jackson sitting in a narrow 1948 red race car.
Jimmy "JJ" Jackson’s father was an Indianapolis driver who knew desert painter Harry Bennett. Jackson said his father described Bennett to be a tough guy. | Courtesy of Jimmy "JJ" Jackson

Another visitor, Angellotti also watched his grandfather at work on paintings. "He was an artist in a lot of ways. He actually made fake cactus, saguaro cactus, made out of concrete and painted so it looked like real cactus. He liked to paint most of all."

Angellotti used to come stay at the desert house every Christmas. It took years for him to grasp his grandfather's true notoriety. "I'd hear stories," he says. "You get older and you start asking questions. My mom [Billie] was pretty protective of the bad stuff but my dad was always really honest with me. He was Bennett's ranch hand in Michigan. That's how he met my mom."

"They had guards around all the time," he adds. "There was some serious stuff going on… guns fired at the house. I do not think my mom lived in fear, she was just always very careful. Like children of a famous person. I'm sure the Kardashians — when they walk downtown — they have their guards nearby."

The "serious stuff" was not well-known to neighbors during the years Bennett lived here. He told people he came to the desert due to his sinus trouble, and newspaper accounts of the day portrayed him simply as an influential Detroit businessman. Delinda Angelo grew up in the nearest ranch house. She remembers that visitors who strayed onto Bennett's property were accosted by men in jeeps and she got the message to stay away. There was something forbidden about her neighbors, but she didn't know just what. "We didn't gossip about people."

Angelo still lives in the house, with a view of Bennett's pad out back. She believes the Al Capone myth — a persistent rumor that the gangster stayed at nearby Two Bunch Palms resort — actually got its start due to Bennett's legend. As time went by, the Capone name crept into local lore. Angelo believes Harry Bennett — not Al Capone — is the real outlaw antihero of Desert Hot Springs.

Harry Bennett with grandchildren, Skip and Maria Angellotti, on a visit to the desert compound.
Harry Bennet (center) would have his grandchildren, Harry "Skip" (left) and Maria Angellotti (right), over at his desert house during Christmas. "Skip" recalled seeing guards and hearing gun shots as a kid. | Courtesy of Harry "Skip" Angellotti

The fantasy years on the hill came to an end in 1968 when Bennett sold the S-Star Ranch and moved to Las Vegas. At the time, his eyesight was failing due to glaucoma and macular degeneration. He later moved to a nursing home near his daughter's home in Los Gatos, dying there in 1979. His daughters have also since died.

Back in Seven Palms Valley there are persistent rumors about the compound. People who live along the street named for the gunman know vaguely that a bad dude lived in the big house.

You can get a look at the perch from the nearby Kim Nicol hiking trail and also by driving down Bennett Road (you'll pass Ford Ave., named for Henry himself) until you reach the dead palm with Alto signs and the address: 19900 Bennett Road. One recent day, Sue Swafford (a volunteer for the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society) and I drove as far as the "Keep Out" signs. We'd been told that visitors were chased off and we expected to go no farther.

A Harry Bennnett and his horse Sonny in a portrait by Paul Grimm.
Paul Grimm painted a portrait of his friend, Harry Bennett, and his horse, Sonny, as they worked together in May 1944. | Courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

On this day, though, a neighbor who lives in a rental on the private drive happened to be driving down the road and told us it was okay to go up and see what's left of Bennett's exile.

A rare early photo of the S-Star Ranch shows a Pueblo-Revival style mansion, with stately palms and a large swimming pool. Now the precarious and unmaintained dirt road suggests squalor, drunken parties and late-night accidents. When we arrived atop Harry's island, we found the grounds littered with old cars and trailers, the once regal palms now dead.

We took a quick drive through the compound before a man standing on the roof confronted us with an intimidating glare. With a wave and a backward look at the huge views, we skedaddled down the hill.

While the ranch has fallen into decay, what remains is the best view of Mt. San Jacinto found anywhere. Harry Bennett was in love with our mountain — as were the penniless plein air painters and the big names like Agnes Pelton. It's a mountain big enough to nurture the great and the fallen — even a man like Little Fella.

Author's note: Thanks for research help to Audrey Moe, Sue Swafford and Marge Snell of the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society.

You can reach Thomas DeWald, author of a forthcoming biography of Harry Bennett, at: HarryBennettBook@gmail.com

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