Man Cannot Live by Bread Alone

Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.


What would Brillat-Savarin have made of Aristotle, who liked camel meat and fried pregnant cicadas, or Friedrich Nietzsche, who gave up alcohol and tobacco and spent a lot of time at the local pastry shop wolfing down cakes and pies?

Trickier still would have been Pliny the Elder, whose larder contained fresh gladiator blood (as a cure for epilepsy), hares’ testicles (for relief of pain in the loins), and lynx urine (sore-throat gargle).

Ludicrous though these remedies sound, we should be careful before we write them off. Dietetics is a more complex science than astrophysics—we know less about the effects of the food we eat than we do about the galaxies.

Nothing brings the dead more vividly to life than finding out what they ate. It makes the famous seem more human, and shines a light on the obscure.

We know very little about the life of Helena, Comtesse de Noailles (1824–1908), but we know quite a lot about her theories on food and health. Born into the English aristocracy, she had a short-lived marriage to a French nobleman and her only child died at birth. Fabulously rich but bored much of the time, Helena migrated between her houses in England, Paris, Montpellier, and the French Riviera. In her fortieth year, she saw a striking portrait of a girl aged about six by the Parisian society painter Ernest Hébert (1817–1908). She asked to buy the picture but was told it had already been sold to Baron James de Rothschild. Undaunted, she decided that if she couldn’t own the painting she would acquire its real-life subject instead. She discovered that the child, Maria, had been brought to Paris by her feckless Italian father, Domenico, and that he was willing to allow her to be “adopted” for two bags of gold, with which he planned to return to Italy and set up his own vineyard. He made only two conditions: that the girl would be brought up as a Catholic and that she would be treated as an equal, not a servant. The comtesse agreed and Maria’s life changed forever.

It was a privileged but peculiar existence. The regulations laid down by the comtesse dominated Maria’s whole childhood and, in due course, the lives of her English husband and their two children as well. They were kept in line by the threat of losing the inheritance promised by their “grandmother,” and dread forebodings passed around the family breakfast table whenever an envelope arrived from France embossed with a capital N.

Loose clothing was one of Madame de Noailles’s iron rules. So when Maria was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Sussex, she was excused from wearing a school uniform. She also had to have her own exclusive supply of fresh milk. This was provided by the comtesse’s personal dairy herd, installed on the grounds of a large house she had bought on the nearby downs. Each winter, the comtesse left England for fear of catching the flu, and later instructed Maria to do the same with her children in the autumn, the climate being especially unhealthy when the leaves were falling, especially from the oak trees, of which, she said, England had too many.

At mealtimes Helena de Noailles’s eccentricities really came to the fore. When Maria and her children came to visit, she would eat with them only if her food was served on plates hidden from view by a two-foot-high silk screen. She never revealed why.

The comtesse always slept with a loaded pistol beside her bed, even when she stayed in a hotel, where she also demanded that a string of fresh onions be hung on the door to ward off infection. A visitor to her bedchamber noted the silk stockings stuffed with squirrel fur wrapped around her forehead and chin to prevent the formation of wrinkles. To avoid bronchitis, she would eat plate after plate of fresh herring roe. Once Maria and her husband received a gift from the comtesse of three dozen bottles of Bordeaux and fifty bottles of port. Along with the alcohol came instructions that they should drink the port only at sunset mixed with a little sugar. It was to be diluted with soft rainwater collected from the roof of their house by the servants, under strict supervision by Maria’s husband, Philip.

Helena was sprightly and energetic into her mideighties, vigilant for the smallest error. Her granddaughter, named Helena in her honor, recalled the comtesse shrieking hysterically at the staff because one of the blue silk covers on her bedroom door handle had fallen off. The glare from the naked brass was, she said, damaging to the eyes. A similar theory led her to replace the lower half of all her windowpanes with red glass, which, she explained, was both healthier and more cheerful. And cows were essential. As well as fresh milk, they produced methane: her herds were always encouraged to graze near the open windows of her houses. She suggested to her grandson Philip that instead of enrolling at medical school he should become a vet, thus contributing much more to the good of humanity. She said she had read in the Royal Agricultural Review that “children brought up on good milk seldom become drunkards.” If Philip switched to veterinary medicine, she promised, she would give him some money from the sale of land in England, which would otherwise be going to help needy Armenians. He declined.

On one occasion, Maria and her children were summoned to the south of France to mingle with polite society. They were under strict instructions to accept no invitations to afternoon tea at five o’clock. This was the hour when the comtesse believed most people caught the flu, not by mixing with other people but because there was a dangerous “miasma” in the air at the end of the day. One of her visitors made the mistake of wearing high heels. After the comtesse had asked to examine them, she threw them onto the fire. Flat, broad shoes, she always said, were better for the general health, and in 1866, she wrote a letter to the Medical Times and Gazette extolling the benefits of going barefoot:

Look at the magnificent gait of a barefoot Highland girl and the elastic play of every muscle, and compare her feet with those of girls who have been tortured in boots, too short or too narrow at the toes…. As for cleanliness, feet freely exposed to the air are not offensive, but the smell of unwashed feet enclosed in dirtier stockings and shoes is very unwholesome, whereas no one ever felt disgusted at the little bare brown feet of Italian peasant children.

When Helena de Noailles died, her doctors said she had lasted longer than expected, subsisting largely on a diet of champagne and, of course, fresh milk.

In her will, she endowed an orphanage for the daughters of clergymen, where, even after death, her regulations lived on. Any potential inmates were to have their skulls examined by two independent phrenologists, to ensure that they were “firm spirited and conscientious.” None of the girls was to be vaccinated—the comtesse believed vaccinations led to other illnesses—and no girl under ten was to be taught any mathematics except for multiplication tables.

There was nothing remotely cranky about George Fordyce (1736–1802). He was a respected doctor who fought against quackery, exposing the ineffectiveness of treating epilepsy with a forehead paste made from ground-up elks’ hooves, and producing important theses on fever, smallpox, diet, and metabolism. He also conducted experiments in heated rooms that proved for the first time that the human body could effectively regulate its temperature whatever the environment.

But Fordyce was as famous for his poor bedside manner as he was for his medical expertise. With his patients he was blunt and taciturn: A consultation usually consisted of asking his patients to stick out their tongues and have their pulses taken. “That will do,” was his usual pronouncement before writing out a prescription. Born in Aberdeen, he came from a family of high achievers: Two of his brothers were doctors, one a Presbyterian minister, one a banker, and one a professor. At fourteen he gained his MA from Aberdeen University and spent several years apprenticed to his uncle, a doctor in Rutland. Returning to Scotland, he graduated in medicine at Edinburgh when he was only eighteen. His curt manner may have been exacerbated by the tragic loss of both of his sons in childhood, one of them by drowning in the Thames. He also had two daughters, one of whom married Samuel, brother of Jeremy Bentham.

Fordyce gave lectures that were renowned for their thoroughness—and their length. For more than thirty years, they took place each morning at his premises on the Strand. Gifted with an extraordinary memory, he began speaking, without notes, at seven in the morning, continuing until ten. In spite of his reputation for rough manners, Fordyce was elected a fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society. He knew Dr. Johnson, the artist Joshua Reynolds, and the actor David Garrick, and was happy to sit quietly in the company of livelier and more famous men, many of whom shared his passion for consuming huge quantities of food.

Fordyce was as regular in his eating habits as in his lecture timetable. For twenty years, he dined every day at four in the afternoon at Dolly’s Chop House near St. Paul’s Cathedral. His theory, laid out in his Treatise on Digestion and Food (1791), was that people should emulate lions in the wild, eating just once a day, rather than overworking the digestive system with frequent meals. His dinner began with a tankard of strong ale, a bottle of port, and a quarter pint of brandy. The meal then gathered pace.

For an appetizer, Dr. Fordyce usually took something light—grilled fowl or a dish of whiting. After this had been washed down with a glass of brandy, he would tuck into two pounds of prime steak accompanied by the remainder of the brandy. For dessert, he had another bottle of port, after which he set off to his home, where he would spend much of the night studying. Not surprisingly he was noted for a florid complexion—and for his scruffy appearance: He often appeared for his morning lectures in the clothes he had worn the previous day.

Like many food theorists, Fordyce paid the price for his single-mindedness. For the last weeks of his life, he was bedridden with gout but refused to let any other doctors treat him. One night, while his daughter Maggie was reading to him, he suddenly exclaimed: “Stop! Go out of the room, I’m going to die!” And so he did.

If Fordyce was a typical eighteenth-century trencherman, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria (1837–98) comes straight out of a nineteenth-century romantic novel. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and mother to Crown Prince Rudolf, Elizabeth was a society beauty obsessed with her physique. Throughout her adult life she was determined to maintain her 16-inch waist, which she set off to best advantage with tight corsets that took an hour to lace up. After having three children, her waist expanded to 18 inches, but at 5 feet 8 inches tall, she never let her weight go above 105 pounds. If it exceeded that, she ate nothing but oranges until she had lost the extra ounces.

Elizabeth was beautiful and adventurous, famed for her fearlessness on horseback and for her thick dark hair, which fell to the backs of her knees. In public, even when out riding, she carried a fan to conceal herself from sketch artists and photographers who might try to capture a view of her face for the press. Others said she did this to hide her teeth, which were always yellow.

Born to Bavarian royalty at Possenhoffen Castle, Elizabeth was a favorite cousin of “Mad” King Ludwig II, but her outwardly pampered life was marred by tragedy. She lost her youngest daughter, Sophie, at the age of two in 1857, and in 1889 her son, Crown Prince Rudolf, committed suicide in scandalous circumstances. Apart from his body being found with his young lover Mary Vetsera, there were rumors that he had been plotting against his father.

Elizabeth’s marriage to the emperor was further strained by the formality of the Hapsburg court, where Franz Joseph was in complete control. When he finished a course at dinner, the other diners had to put down their knives and forks, too. He was distrustful of modern inventions like telephones, cars, and trains, and said that electric light irritated his eyes. On top of that, his wife’s repeated attacks of “nerves” and her obsession with diet were a constant objection. For her part, Elizabeth hated everything to do with childbearing, and found sex with the emperor a duty rather than a pleasure. Although she bore him four children, she left them in the care of their grandmother or the servants, and found it difficult to show them affection. She confessed to a friend that only riding helped dispel her frequent bouts of depression.

Known as Sisi to those closest to her, she generally preferred horses to people. She kept portraits of all her horses in her bedroom, describing the ones that had died as “lost friends” who were “always more loyal than human beings, and less malicious.” It was said that she “looked like an angel but rode like a devil” and she hunted all over Europe, often transporting her own mounts by ship and by rail. Fortunately, she had a personal allowance of about $7,500 per month (equivalent to almost $445,000 in today’s money) to help fund her hobby. On Corfu she built a holiday villa where she said that she wanted to live “like a student.” This was about as realistic as Marie Antoinette’s attempts to live like a shepherdess at Versailles: Elizabeth’s student digs had 128 rooms and stables for fifty horses.

The empress seemed oblivious of the dangers of riding. She once narrowly escaped death when her horse caught its foot in the planks of a bridge over a steep gorge in the Alps. Later, attempting to vault a wall in Normandy, she was thrown and knocked unconscious, but nothing would slow her down. Riding helped her keep her slim figure—and that tiny waist. Local tailors would be summoned to sew her into her riding costume and, of course, she always watched what she ate. Staying at Combermere Abbey in Shropshire, Elizabeth required the cook to keep a supply of live turtles to make fresh soup and tubs of seawater were shipped to the house from the Welsh coast so that the Empress could have a proper bath.

Elizabeth continued riding until she was in her late forties, after which she channeled her energies into long-distance walks, swimming, and gymnastics as well as almost ceaseless traveling, especially after the death of her son. Her fitness regime included daily visits to the gym, so she naturally had gyms built into all of her residences. One visitor described her using the rings to pull herself off the ground dressed in a black floor-length gown trimmed with ostrich feathers. At the edge of the exercise area a rope was stretched across the room, which, she said, was there “to make sure I don’t forget how to jump.”

At state banquets, Elizabeth insisted on having only a cup of consommé, two slices of wheaten bread, and some fruit. She also irritated the emperor by skipping dinner entirely sometimes, instead retiring to her room with a glass of milk and a biscuit. When her doctors told her that she was anemic, she was persuaded to eat red meat for a time, though she soon reduced it to the juice of a rare steak and almost nothing else. One aristocrat described her as “inhumanly slender.” Her beauty treatments included vigorous massages and being wrapped in wet towels filled with seaweed. She immersed herself in baths of olive oil to smooth her skin and her magnificent hair was washed every three weeks with beer and honey. On her travels she was occasionally seen eating generous portions of cake and drinking hot chocolate, suggesting that she probably suffered from bulimia.

After the death of her son, Elizabeth stayed out of the public eye as much as possible, usually traveling with just one lady-in-waiting. In her diary she wrote: “I wish for nothing from man kind except to be left in peace.” The crown prince’s death brought Elizabeth and Franz Joseph together in grief, and, even though they were apart for months at a time, they corresponded daily. In one of his last letters to her, Franz Joseph poignantly wrote:

Happiness is hardly the right word for us, we should be satisfied with a little peace, a good understanding between us and fewer misfortunes….

He did not get his wish. In September 1898 Elizabeth was stabbed in the heart by an Italian anarchist as she boarded a ferry on Lake Geneva. Luigi Lucheni had traveled to Geneva to assassinate the Duke of Orleans but couldn’t find him. Hearing that empress was in the vicinity he took his chance, saying afterward: “I wanted to kill a royal, it didn’t matter which one.” As Elizabeth lay dying, a doctor forced a sugar lump soaked in brandy between her lips, an ironic final touch for a woman who today would have been diagnosed as suffering from an eating disorder. Always destined to play the tragic heroine, a few days earlier she had confided to her companion, Countess Sztaray, that she felt “a vast longing to lie in a good large coffin and simply find rest, nothing but rest.”

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943) had a simple slogan: “Eat what the monkey eats, simple food and not too much of it.” His advice went against the grain for large numbers of his fellow Americans, who were then, as now, fond of red meat and white bread. Concerned with the dangers of constipation and a “slow colon,” Kellogg advised that healthy people should give themselves enemas at least three times each week. He published more than fifty books, many of them alerting the public to the dire consequences of masturbation—or “self-pollution,” as he called it—lest it make them idle, spotty, and depressed, and in the case of boys, stunt their height. At 5 feet 4 inches, perhaps he knew something he wasn’t telling. Although Kellogg and his wife, Ella, fostered forty-two children and adopted seven of them, they never had sex. On his wedding night, he sat up into the small hours working on one of his most successful books, Plain Facts for Old and Young, a treatise on healthy living based on the suppression of sexual urges. Kellogg was a virgin when he died, aged almost ninety-two.

As a young man John Harvey was chosen by Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, to help run the Western Health Reform Institute in Battle Creek, Michigan, which she had founded in 1866. Recognizing Kellogg as energetic and a fast learner, she subsidized his study of medicine in New York. One of her beliefs was that vegetarianism was part of the path to enlightenment. Studying at Bellevue Hospital, Kellogg had a strict breakfast regime of seven water biscuits and an apple, with the weekly luxury of a coconut and very occasionally some oatmeal or potatoes. However, he struggled to buy healthy grains and cereals that were easy to prepare and, returning fully qualified to Battle Creek in 1876, he set out to develop simple foods that opened up the bowels at least three times a day. From these experiments emerged granola and, in due course, the world’s most popular breakfast cereal, Kellogg’s cornflakes.

Battle Creek’s three principles were exercise, diet, and purging the body of impurities. But Kellogg was also a skilled surgeon, performing more than twenty thousand operations during his career—as many as twenty-five a day at his peak—and he was still operating at the age of eighty-eight. Trained as a gynecologist, he also specialized in removing hemorrhoids. Patients on the table received a cleansing enema of lukewarm water, and to reduce postoperative shock, their beds were packed with warm sandbags. Kellogg also sprinkled lactose on their wounds to prevent infection. Although he kept his patients confined to bed immediately after surgery, he believed in exercise to aid recovery, sometimes stimulating their muscles with painless electric shocks.

John Harvey Kellogg’s younger brother, William, began as his assistant, but was to go on to found the family cereal empire, originally called the Battle Creek Toasted Cornflake Company. Although John Harvey recognized that the sanatorium needed to function as a business, he didn’t like the idea of using his methods for commercial gain. William was more practical and—crucially—was willing to add sugar to the cornflakes to make them more palatable to a wider market. The Kellogg brothers fell out over this and didn’t speak to each other for the last thirty years of their lives. While William became a wealthy man, John Harvey plowed his salary back into running the sanatorium and endowing hospital beds in India and China. The royalties from his books were used to feed and clothe his enormous brood of foster children.

As well as abstaining from red meat, John Harvey Kellogg advocated fresh air and the consumption of nuts, even writing a paper titled “Nuts May Save the Race.” He was an early proponent of yogurt and tofu and, long before Jane Fonda was born, a believer in exercising to music in order to relieve boredom. Columbia Records issued a set of five phonograph records to accompany his booklet on exercise. Kellogg also dabbled in eugenics (improving human health and intelligence by selective breeding) and was a founder of the “Race Betterment Foundation.”

Many of Kellogg’s theories, once thought to be outlandish, have since been vindicated. He was one of the first doctors to campaign against smoking. He argued that cow’s milk was unsuitable for invalids and that salt should not be added to food, and he was one of the first to state that a diet high in animal fats and dairy products was ultimately unhealthy. He also recognized that vegetable oils were preferable to lard, suet, and butter. His system of Biologic Living was aimed at promoting “good digestion, sound sleep, a clear head, a placid mind and joy to be alive.” Part of that system involved sleeping outdoors “watching the squirrels gamboling” and relying on fruit, nuts, and berries for sustenance, a simple life that Kellogg said would allow people “to listen to the music of the spheres.” He applied his theories to his own life, getting by on four hours’ sleep a night and staying fit and healthy until he succumbed to pneumonia at ninety-one.

The founder of another, even more successful, American business dynasty also paid close attention to diet and exercise. At the age of seventy-five Henry Ford (1863–1947) could still do handstands. In his late fifties he impressed friends by leaping into the air and kicking a cigar off the mantelpiece. He attributed his physical fitness to avoiding anything that might poison his body. Like Kellogg, he saw white bread as a major enemy and sternly warned his friends and associates against it. He always drank his water warm, believing that the body wasted energy heating it up if it were drunk cold. He never took sugar because he thought the sharp edges on the crystals were like pieces of glass that could damage internal organs, until it was pointed out to him that the crystals dissolve when wet.

For a time in the 1920s Ford tried eating only wheat—which he held to be a miracle food. His doctor told him he was starving to death; this was demonstrated by experimenting with pigs fed only wheat. When they almost died, Henry was persuaded to vary his diet. In 1926 he decided that carrots were a magical cure-all and devised a meal made up of fourteen different carrot recipes. In 1927 he announced that pigs, cows, and chickens would soon be “redundant” because he was working on a biscuit made of wheat germ, oatmeal, pecan, and olive oil that would be sufficient for all human dietary needs. The “wonderfood” biscuit never went into mass production but that didn’t stop Ford’s relentless dietary experimentation. No one was spared. Businessmen and friends invited to lunch at Ford’s mansion near Detroit were faced with what Ford called “roadside greens,” including stewed burdock and soybean-bread sandwiches with a filling of milkweed.

This attitude to food reveals much about Ford’s attitude to life in general. For him, control was of paramount importance. In Brave New World (1932) the state religion is called Fordism: Aldous Huxley saw that Ford’s working methods were as much to do with social manipulation as economic freedom. Ford’s mission in life was to make the process of making things more efficient. He thought that the key to human happiness was productivity and that anything that interfered with it—war, organized religion, financiers, trade unions, bad diet—was to be resisted.

It was an insight that changed the world. What we now call the consumer society was practically invented by Henry Ford: The idea that we “consume” goods in the same way we consume food was entirely new. The first recorded use of the word consumer in this way was in a Sears Roebuck catalog of 1896. Ford found his métier, aged fifteen, when he discovered that he had a gift for taking watches apart and putting them back together again. By the age of thirty he was chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Ford idolized Edison and worked hard in the temple of electricity, but with typical single-mindedness and self-belief, in his spare time he was developing an entirely different source of power: the gasoline engine. In 1896 he unveiled his crude first “horseless carriage.” It was called the Quadricycle because it used four bicycle wheels and was driven by a chain. In an uncharacteristic example of poor planning, the finished version was too large to get out of the workshop and Ford had to improvise a larger doorway using an ax. But Edison was impressed and urged him on:

We do not know what electricity can do, but I take for granted that it cannot do everything. Keep on with your engine. If you can get what you are after, I can see a great future.

Two years later Ford left to set up his own business. In 1903 he personally broke the world land-speed record in a car called the 999, reaching 91 miles per hour on the frozen surface of Lake Saint Clair near Detroit. Impressive though this was, the “motor car” was easily dismissed as a plaything for the well off, expensive to make and to buy. But Ford had other ideas. His invention of the assembly line simplified the manufacturing process, keeping costs down and radically reducing production times. But the real stroke of genius was to do this while also keeping down the price to the buyer. Every worker was a potential customer and the profits would come from volume. It worked. In 1908 the first Model T Fords began rolling off the line, priced at $825 dollars. By 1914 the price had fallen to $360 (equivalent to a very affordable $7,000 at today’s prices). By 1918 half the cars in America were Model Ts, and when production finally stopped a decade later, 15 million had been produced—more than any other car except for the Volkswagen Beetle.

Ford had managed this through some bold innovations, all of them designed to centralize control. The eight-hour shift allowed three sets of workers to keep the production line running twenty-four hours a day. In 1913 the introduction of the first conveyorbelt-driven “moving production line” reduced the time it took to produce the car’s chassis from six hours to just ninety minutes. At the same time, a network of Ford dealerships was established, which not only made the dealers themselves wealthy, but also meant Ford cars were visible in every American city, helping to create yet more demand. At the other end of the supply chain, Ford looked to buy—or form strategic alliances with—the companies producing parts, glass, and rubber, to improve consistency of delivery and drive production costs down further. This was to become the template for the modern manufacturing corporation, and Ford did it all without accountants. He didn’t like employing people who weren’t directly involved in making or managing—in his lifetime, the Ford Motor Company was never audited.

Ford’s other major innovation was to do with staff. In 1914 he introduced a minimum wage of $5 a day, a huge leap from the previous rate of $2.34. It was an instant success, attracting thousands of highly motivated workers to Detroit and ending the high staff-turnover problem overnight. But there were conditions. To qualify for the minimum wage meant conforming to Ford’s social vision: no heavy drinking, no smoking, no divorce, no union talk. He set up a Social Department under the ex-boxer and tough guy Harry Bennett. Bennett had a team of fifty investigators gathering information about the personal lives of the workforce. Anyone who failed to meet the standards of the Ford Motor Company forfeited their right to the minimum wage. Bennett also made sure union activity was disrupted at every turn, employing thugs and ex-criminals under the guise of a crime rehabilitation program. He was the ultimate fixer and he enjoyed Ford’s complete trust, picking his boss up and dropping him home every day for more than twenty years. Once, when a newspaper suggested to him that he would paint the sky black if Ford asked him to, he replied:

I might have a little trouble arranging that one but you’d see 100,000 workers coming through the plant gates with dark glasses on tomorrow.

The Social Department hints at the darker side of Ford’s character. He was an autocrat who couldn’t bear dissent. Bennett himself captured this perfectly. Practically the first thing Ford said to him was “Harry, never try to outguess me.” “You mean never try to understand you?” replied Bennett. “That’s close enough.” Those that tried to defy him, including his own son, Edsel, and his grandson Henry Ford II, found themselves overruled or expelled. This ruthlessness was one of the reasons that Hitler kept a life-sized picture of Ford next to his desk. (He would later claim that the Ford Service Department inspired him to set up the Gestapo, just as the Model T had influenced the Volkswagen Beetle.) And this wasn’t all that Hitler had in common with Ford. In the 1920s, he was the proprietor of the Dearborn Inquirer, a newspaper that had published a series of anti-Semitic tracts, including the notorious (and fake) “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.” Ford later disowned the paper and claimed he was unaware of its racist content, but all the evidence points to these apologies as window dressing. Even in his final weeks he was still grumbling about Jewish bankers having caused World War II.

In June 1916 the Chicago Tribune published an article headlined FORD IS AN ANARCHIST that claimed, incorrectly, that the company was refusing to pay employees called up by the National Guard. Ford sued and the paper was found guilty, but fined only six cents—the amount the jury thought covered the damage Ford and his company had suffered. During the trial, Ford had been cross-examined in the witness box and this had revealed some strange gaps in his general knowledge. It emerged that he thought the American Revolution had taken place in 1812 and he couldn’t define words and phrases like ballyhoo and chili con carne. He thought that the traitor Benedict Arnold was a writer. It was in defense of his ignorance that he made his often misquoted reply “History is bunk.” What he actually said was: “History is bunk as it is taught in schools….”

What distinguishes Ford from most modern CEOs is that his vision went far beyond business. He was a Utopian, convinced that technology properly managed would lead to a world without war, turning it into one happy global version of the Ford company. This helps explain his obsession with diet and personal morality—and the apparent paradox that the man whose wealth was built on the internal combustion engine was a committed environmentalist. His estate at Fair Lane, near Detroit, was powered by hydroelectric power from his own dam on the Rouge River. To control mosquitoes organically, he built hundreds of bat houses on the grounds, and while building works were going on, he paid local boys to catch squirrels so that they wouldn’t be killed when trees were felled.

As a teenager, Ford had given up hunting after shooting a meadowlark. As he and his two companions retrieved the dead bird, Ford exclaimed, “Well I’m through. When three big able-bodied men with guns will pick on a little bird like this, I’ve fired my last shot.” For the rest of his life, he was a pacifist: He wouldn’t even let his son Edsel play with toy guns.

In many ways, Ford never left the farm where he was born. He loved nature and enjoyed camping, going on regular excursions with a group of wealthy friends who called themselves The Vagabonds. They included his former mentor Thomas Edison, the tire magnate Harvey Firestone, and the naturalist John Burroughs, known affectionately as the Grand Old Man of Nature. In 1921 they were joined for a night by the then president, Warren Harding. According to John Burroughs, the campers would “cheerfully endure wet, cold, smoke, mosquitoes, black flies and sleepless nights, just to touch naked reality once more.” It was a pretty relaxed form of “roughing it,” though: Each man had his own personal tent, with mosquito nets and a separate dining marquee.

On an even folksier note, Ford helped rejuvenate traditional American fiddle playing. He had his own $75,000 instrument (a Stradivarius, naturally) but no natural talent, and he made himself cross by continually failing to play and dance a jig at the same time. To make up for it, he hired an elderly fiddler called Mellie Dunham to record traditional tunes and funded the Henry Ford Gold Cup for fiddling. The publicity generated was huge. Fiddling underwent a national revival and remains an essential part of country music to this day.

Perhaps it was inevitable that a farm boy turned technologist would end up finding a way to combine the two disciplines. In the 1930s he saw his chance: a new branch of science called chemurgy, which sought to find new uses for agricultural raw materials in industry. Ford became so interested that the Ford Motor Company began using soybeans as an ingredient of its gear knobs and car-horn buttons and, in 1934, he formed the Farm Chemurgic Council, with a national conference in Dearborn, Michigan, to which George Washington Carver (1864–1943) was invited.

Carver was a legendary figure. A former slave, in 1896 (the debut year of the Quadricycle and the word “consumer”) he had been appointed by the great educator Booker T. Washington (a former slave himself) to be the director of Agricultural Research at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute for Negroes. His aim was to help black farmers improve their crops by means of crop rotation and by finding alternatives to cotton, which depleted the soil. It was Carver’s championing of soybeans that drew him to Ford’s attention, but peanuts were what assured his immortality. Largely due to him, over the next fifty years, peanuts became one of the dominant crops in the whole of the South.

Initially, there wasn’t much call for peanuts, so Carver set about exploring the possibilities for by-products. His ceaseless experiments produced some three hundred peanut derivatives, including evaporated peanut beverage, cheese, ink, dyes, soap, medicinal oils and cosmetics, metal polish, plastic, instant coffee, meat tenderizer, shaving cream, talcum powder, wood stains, shoe polish, peanut oil shampoo, and various cooking sauces, earning himself the nickname “The Peanut Man.” He may well have invented peanut butter, but he never patented it: He believed food products were a gift from God and therefore belonged to everyone.

Some weeks after going to Dearborn, Carver sent Henry Ford a recipe for a gravy substitute made using soybean oil, adding a note to Mrs. Ford:

Please watch the digestive tract of Mr. Ford for a few days after he has eaten the gelatinized pig’s feet. Notice how his face will fill up. To clear the skin, remove wrinkles etc, try massaging with pure, refined peanut oil.

The same month, Carver wrote again to Clara Ford saying: “I want to help Mr. Ford prove his startling statement that we can live directly from the products of the soil.” Their collaboration culminated in 1942 in an idea that was decades ahead of its time: a plastic car body made from soybeans that weighed 30 percent less than the standard steel model and ran on grain alcohol. Sadly, the war intervened and the first ecocar never went into production.

Ford’s last years were dominated by paranoia and speculation on the afterlife. These were brought into sharp focus when his son, Edsel, died of cancer, aged only forty-nine, in 1943. Ford became convinced that the government was planning to oust him, and fearful of assassination attempts, he had all his chauffeurs armed. In fact, it was simply ill health that cut short his tenure, and his grandson Henry Ford II replaced him in 1945. Some say his final decline was caused by a stroke that struck him down as he watched uncut footage from the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Majdanek in Poland.

Ford had become a firm believer in reincarnation, inspired by one of the few books he admitted to having read: A Short View of Great Questions (1899) by Orlando Jay Smith. The book’s contention that our experiences in life are never wasted struck a chord. Henry Ford hated waste.

Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next.

He decided that because he was born in 1863—the date of the Battle of Gettysburg—he was the reincarnation of a soldier who had died there.

By the end of his life, Ford had amassed a fortune that would today be worth $188 billion. Reincarnation gave him a plausible reason for the magnitude of his success and for his sureness of touch. He’d been around the block many times before. In 1928, he explained it to a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner:

Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us.

The other way Henry Ford put his mind at rest was by making sure everything was neat and tidy. He was very keen on keeping records. When his wife Clara died three years after him, in 1950, staff found that many of the fifty-six rooms at his house were crammed with his papers, notebooks, and receipts—even letters Edsel Ford had written to Father Christmas as a small boy. He had thrown nothing away in more than sixty years. The collection became the basis of the Ford archives, which number more than 10 million documents.

Henry Ford’s entrepreneurial flair, his enormous wealth, and his attempts to control every aspect of his life pale into insignificance, however, compared to the life and career of another billionaire, Howard Hughes (1905–76).

When Hughes died in 1976, he was the second richest man in the United States after J. Paul Getty. His father had made a fortune by patenting (in 1909) the rotary drill bit that was to revolutionize the oil industry. By 2000, the Hughes Tool Company still had an astonishing 40 percent share of the world drill-bit market. Hughes used his inherited wealth to build an empire that included not just oil but mining, aviation, armaments, films, and property, including many of the hotels and casinos in Las Vegas. When he sold his controlling shares in the airline TWA in 1966, he was presented with the largest check that had ever been made out to an individual—for $566,000,000. On his death a decade later, he left around the same amount—though unraveling the details of his investments and legacies took another fifteen years. This sounds like the classic American dream, but whatever else his vast wealth did for Howard Hughes, it never made him happy.

From about 1950, he became increasingly reclusive, disabled by obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia. The last twenty years of his life were spent being looked after by a small team of loyal aides and doctors, an inner circle that either protected him from outsiders or, depending on your perspective, colluded to imprison him within his neuroses. Many of them were Mormons, whom Hughes trusted despite not being a member of their church. He died in an air ambulance en route to a Texas hospital from Acapulco, emaciated, unwashed, and pumped full of painkillers and sedatives. In a life that had more drama than anything he ever produced in Hollywood, his eating habits particularly stand out. They became a series of increasingly bizarre personal rituals, outward symbols of his inner distress.

It had all started very differently. As a young man, Hughes had declared:

I intend to be the greatest golfer in the world, the finest film producer in Hollywood, the greatest pilot in the world, and the richest man in the world.

He came very close to achieving all these ambitions (although he never bettered a handicap of two in golf). Even if he hadn’t moved into film, he would be remembered for his achievements as a pilot. Just as Henry Ford had tested the possibilities of the automobile by becoming a racing driver, Hughes taught himself to understand the new science of aeronautics from inside the cockpit. Flying a Lockheed Super Electra in 1938 he broke the world air-speed record, as well as the records for the fastest flights across America and around the world (91 hours 14 minutes in 1938). In 1939, his flying career was recognized by the award of the Congressional Gold Medal. It is typical of Hughes that he never bothered to collect it: Years later, President Truman finally sent it to him by post.

If flying was Hughes’s amateur passion, he managed to turn it to good use in his professional career as a movie producer. His first successful film was Hell’s Angels (1930), an epic tale of World War I fighter pilots. Budgeted at $3.8 million, at the time it was the most expensive film ever made, in no small part due to Hughes’s perfectionism. He sent buyers to Europe to find as many World War I airplanes as possible for the film and shipped eighty-seven of them to the United States. He choreographed many of the dogfight scenes, and when the stunt pilots all refused to fly the dangerous final scene, he did it himself, crashing the plane but escaping with minor injuries—and filming the shots he wanted. Three other stunt pilots died during the making of the film.

Handsome, daring, and rich, Hughes had a roll call of lovers to match that of any of the leading men he cast. Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, and Lana Turner were all charmed by his good looks and generosity. Hepburn in particular was smitten by his bravery, packing him turkey and cheese sandwiches for his round-the-world flight in 1938, while on another occasion he let her steer his private plane under the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge on a night flight across Manhattan. He was also rumored to have had affairs with Cary Grant, Randolph Scott and numerous other “pretty boy” stars.

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Hughes appeared to be fulfilling all his youthful ambitions. But even then, ominous signs were perceptible. His colleagues complained of unreasonable requests, violent mood swings, and a fixation with tiny details. Obsessed with Jane Russell’s breasts in his 1943 movie The Outlaw, he designed and built a cantilevered, steel-reinforced bra to show them off to their full advantage (though Russell later claimed she never actually wore it). More troubling, in 1941 he was diagnosed with syphilis (which he also gave to Lana Turner), and he started to agonize over the possibility of “catching germs” from other people. After being given penicillin for the infection, he instructed his housekeeper to put almost all of his clothing into laundry bags and seal them with padlocks, after which they were to be thrown onto the lawn and burned. The syphilis caused an angry red rash to erupt on Hughes’s hands and his doctor told him not to shake hands with anyone until the antibiotics had cleared it up. His fixation with not touching anything dirty was about to take root.

In December 1947 he suffered a total breakdown. Telling his staff that he wanted to watch some movies, he disappeared into a nearby studio’s screening room and didn’t emerge for four months, refusing to speak or be spoken to, only communicating with his staff via notes scrawled on a yellow pad and living entirely on chocolate bars and milk.

He reappeared in the spring of 1948, but he was never the same again. He stopped cutting his hair and nails, saved all his urine in glass bottles, and preserved any of his stools that he considered “worthy.” He ate only room-service meals, instructing that his sandwiches be cut in precise triangles, that no tomato should be sliced thicker than a quarter of an inch, and that his lettuce should be shredded “on the bias.” He kept a ruler in the room to measure any peas he ordered, sending back any that were “too big.” Hughes never really regained equilibrium. From then on he gradually disappeared from his own life.

By the time he married his third wife, the actress Jean Peters, in 1957, his fear of germs had reached a new level of intensity. He was going through a dozen boxes of tissues a day, using them to pick things up and to isolate him from anything he sat on. Even tins of food had to be scrubbed and disinfected and the contents removed very slowly, so that they did not brush against the sides of the can and become contaminated. When he and Jean stayed at a hotel in Nassau, he refused to let housekeeping staff into their room, instead simply moving to another one once it was too dirty. They remained married for fourteen years but, at times, Peters was a virtual prisoner, forced to write Hughes a letter whenever she wanted permission to leave their hotel. One of the less attractive aspects of their marriage was that she was kept awake at night by the clicking of his gigantic toenails, which he refused to cut. To enable her to get a good night’s sleep, he first slipped tissue paper between his toes, and then asked engineers at the Hughes Aircraft Company to build him a set of callipers with metal ridges in the foot plate that would hold his nails apart. Mr. and Mrs. Hughes had to have separate fridges so that he didn’t catch germs from her, and for the same reason she wasn’t allowed to touch the knobs on the TV. They divorced in 1971, though they hadn’t lived together for more than a decade. When she remarried, Hughes bought the houses on either side of her new marital home, and two others across the street, just so he could keep an eye on her.

Hughes died without friends or family, his sordid decline eked out in hotel rooms, the windows shrouded with blackout material. Often he would sit naked, a hotel napkin covering his genitals, watching movies over and over again. He was rumored to have watched Ice Station Zebra, the 1968 Alistair MacLean spy thriller starring Rock Hudson, more than 150 times. No one knows what it was in the film that piqued his interest. When Hughes was chronically constipated and dehydrated in his final months, his assistant John Holmes would arrive every three days to deliver brown paper bags containing almond Hershey bars, homogenized milk, and unsalted pecans to his bedside. These had to be handed over in silence, the bag held out at 45 degrees so that Hughes could reach inside and remove the items individually with a clean paper tissue for each one. According to one biographer, Richard Hack, the chocolate was “cut into half-inch squares, each square chewed individually and completely, followed by a swallow of milk.” Hughes weighed less than one hundred pounds when he died. His appearance was so changed through neglect and malnutrition that the FBI had to resort to fingerprints to identify him.

As falls from grace go, Hughes’s has a mythic quality to it. Few men have ever enjoyed so much money and fame; few have ended in such a complete rejection of the world. What was it that first sent Hughes over the edge in 1947? There are clues in his childhood: His mother, Allene, was always worried about germs, sending news clippings to the supervisor of young Howard’s summer camp advising caution when allowing so many boys to mix together because of the dangers of spreading polio. His grandmother Mimi was also fearful of dirt and refused to have any built-in cupboards in the house because they could not be moved outdoors to be “disinfected” by sunlight. And both his parents had died suddenly when Hughes was in his late teens.

But there were two other specific events that took place just before his breakdown that may have contributed more directly to it. In July 1946 he was the pilot on the test flight of a spy plane called the XF-11 when mechanical failure brought the plane down on the edge of Beverly Hills. It collided with three houses and then exploded. Hughes was severely injured, puncturing a lung, breaking six ribs and his collarbone, and suffering extensive cuts and burns. The morphine used to treat a serious burn to his hand probably started his dependency on prescription drugs, and he remained in constant pain for the rest of his life.

The second setback involved Hughes’s contribution to the war effort. Concerned at the loss of American troops and equipment through U-boat action in the Atlantic, he had secured the government contract to build a huge transport seaplane, big enough to carry 750 troops and two tanks. The eight-engined H-4 Hercules, or Spruce Goose, was the largest plane then built and remains the largest wooden airplane in history. Though the Spruce Goose’s size has since been beaten by the Russian Antonov An-225, its wingspan of 320 feet is still a world record. Like many of Hughes’s schemes, it went wildly over budget and was never delivered, the contract being canceled amid accusations of bribery. The prototype flew only once, in November 1947, a journey of about a mile at an altitude of 70 feet. Hughes was at the controls. The collapse of this project was a huge blow to his pride (and his pocket) and he kept the plane in a hangar in perfect condition at a cost of $1,000,000 a year until his death in 1976. He was not a man who was used to failure. As he reminded a reporter: “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire.” Two weeks later, he withdrew to his screening room and began his long descent into oblivion.

Howard Hughes’s descent into culinary lunacy feels a long way removed from the dietary eccentricities of Helena de Noailles or John Harvey Kellogg, or the weight-watching routines of Empress Elizabeth. Today when we call someone a glutton, we mean they eat too much. Of the lives in this chapter, only George Fordyce fits that description. But the original meaning of gluttony was much more subtle. The great medieval moralist St. Thomas Aquinas defined it as the sin of “inordinate desire.” As well as eating too much, he thought eating too soon, eating too eagerly, eating too expensively, and eating too fussily were all equally wrong. And we’re talking to an expert here. St. Tom himself was so fat he had to have a semicircle cut out of his dining table to accommodate his stomach. But where food is concerned we should not be too hasty in our judgments. As G. K. Chesterton said: “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.”

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