Bill Mitchell, only the second man to head General Motors styling when he took over from the monumental Harley Earl, was not a man about whom people were impartial. GM’s official history reveres him. Harley Earl’s family reviles him. His coworkers and subordinates at GM either loved him or despised the man. Even landmark designs that were signatures of his reign at GM Styling, the split-window 1963 Corvette Sting Ray and the boat tail Rivieras, are polarizing designs that had detractors, including some on the GM Styling staff. He admittedly ran that department like a dictator, though he rarely fired anyone. Mercurial in temper, he’d have screaming fits at his design staff, laced with the most vulgar epithets, then defuse the tension with an offhand joke as he left the room. Shamelessly ambitious and self-promoting, often taking personal credit for his staffs’ designs, had the term “larger than life” not existed, Mitchell would have coined it to describe himself.
By today’s standards of workplace political correctness, diversity and racial and sexual harassment law, Bill Mitchell was an atavistic throwback to an age when ethnic jokes by supervisors were uncomfortably endured by the brunt of that ‘humor’. An executive then could tell his secretary to order him up some hookers after a multiple martini lunch, knowing that she’d hold all calls and cover for him if his wife (or another executive) got jealous. As a result, in addition to whatever praise and criticism his aesthetic direction and management skills have garnered, Bill Mitchell’s legacy has been somewhat tarred with the brush of bigotry.
The question is are we being fair to the man? Are we applying contemporary standards to an era that was simultaneously more innocent and more evil in terms of racial, ethnic and other prejudice?
Just about every biographical account of Bill Mitchell written since his death uses the word “bigot”, mentions his profanity and his heavy drinking, and also usually references his recreational activities with those of the two X chromosome persuastion. It’s in Motor Trend Classic‘s profile of the man and shows up in Ate Up With Motors’ history of the Cadillac 60 Special, the first important design that Mitchell directed.
Based on how Mitchell’s vices usually come cataloged together, my hunch is that most of these accounts ultimately rely on Michael Lamm and Dave Holls’ encyclopedic A Century of Automotive Style: 100 Years of American Car Design first published in 1995. In introducing their book’s section on the Bill Mitchell era at GM Styling, Lamm and Holls characterize the man thusly:
“He was tough and dictatorial, a bigot, a womanizer; he often drank too much [and] had a foul mouth…”
That Mitchell was a womanizer is in no doubt. He had a contentious divorce with his first wife, and was estranged from one of his daughters when he married his second wife a day after it was granted. According to Peter Robinson’s piece in MT, Mitchell’s indiscrete foursome with three women got him banned from an upscale Frankfut hotel. Lamm & Holls quote Chuck Jordan, Mitchell’s lieutenant and successor as saying, “He certainly loved women,” and Mitchell himself often said “If God made anything better than a woman, He kept it for Himself.” A former administrative assistant (they were called “secretaries” in those antediluvian days) said that had the laws existed then, she could have filed a hundred sexual harassment suits against him. One account had him hiring seven prostitutes for a lunchtime orgy. When he discovered that he was short of cash, he sent an underling to the bank with his personal $1,000 check so he could pay each of the working ladies her $100 fee.
When it comes to the ladies, Baruth ain’t got nothin’ on Mr. Mitchell.
He also drank quite a bit. At a party at GM designer George Moon’s home Mitchell was seen tying one on, only to disappear. The next morning they had to call the police and fire department to get him down from 50 feet up in a tree. Another time, he and Oldsmobile design director Art Ross got stuck trying to drive a horse drawn carriage they’d stolen in Central Park into the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Mitchell’s vices are documented but prejudices are a bit harder to pin down. He did have very clear gender roles.
Harley Earl was rather progressive in his thinking. He hired Jews, Latinos, openly gay men and women as designers. Though Arthur Ross had changed his name from Rosenman, he didn’t hide his Jewish ethnicity, and Earl hired him, eventually promoting him to head the Cadillac and Buick design studios. He hired the first female designer in the industry in 1943. Automotive design was often seen as a struggle between the “pretty boys” (designers) and the “tough guys” (engineers). Engineers would called the designers “pantywaists” and “fairies”. As a result of those perceptions Earl himself affected a hyper-masculine persona to have some leverage with the engineers. Still, as a matter of practice, Harley Earl hired some openly gay men for his design staff. Recognizing that women usually cast the deciding vote on car purchases, he made a point of having at least one woman on each design team. Today we’d probably call that tokenism, but in the 1950s it was genuinely progressive.
Earl even used the women on his staff for promotional purposes. Sue Vanderbilt and other female designers chafed at the PR copy that focused on them making cars living rooms on wheels, and weren’t thrilled at being relegated to interior design teams. Still, they were team players trying to get ahead in a very competitive field, so they didn’t complain about being “Damsels of Design” until after they retired. They took the opportunities presented to them, including a 1956 display at the GM Building of ten cars “feminized” by GM’s women designers and the chance to contribute to GM’s 1959 Motorama cars. Earl said, around the time of his retirement in 1958, “I believe the future for qualified women in automotive design is virtually unlimited. In fact, I think that in three or four years women will be designing entire automobiles.”
That prediction did not come to be and interiors would still remain the female ghetto at GM Styling for decades. Bill Mitchell said, “No women are going to stand next to any senior designers of mine on any exterior styling of Cadillac or GM’s other major brands,” and proceeded to demote all the females on the design staff. Not long after Mitchell succeeded Earl as VP of styling, Vanderbilt got a leave of absence from her position as an assistant styling director in order to get her MFA at the Cranbrook Institute. However, when she returned to GM after only two years away she had to start over as a junior designer. Men who left GM Styling and returned usually came back at the same or higher level than they left. Mitchell also paid his female designers less than the men, though this was standard practice in industry at the time and not necessarily due to Mitchell’s personal sexism. Vanderbilt does note that while restricted to interior design, she indeed moved up in the hierarchy at GM. She also points out in her oral history that GM Styling was intensely competitive and that she and other female designers did not always have the stomach for the political and corporate combat needed to move up in rank.
In terms of other prejudice, specifically racial, religious or ethnic bias, the question is a bit murkier. The Lamm/Holls book gives the perspective of the people who knew Mitchell and were likely to be on the receiving end of some of his epithets. Lamm and Holls characterize Mitchell’s bigotry as reflecting not the man, but the era. I’m not entirely convinced. He may not have discriminated against people because of what they were, he just seems to have enjoyed making them squirm for the same reason. I’m not sure that it’s much of a defense to say that someone wasn’t a bigot, just selfish and cruel.
His bigotry was perhaps typical of the era. “Minorities had a difficult time under Bill,” observed designer Stan Wilen [a GM brand design head]. “If you were Black or Latino or Asian, he’d put an adjective in front of a reference that would make conversation a little awkward. I qualified as a minority, so I hear[d] those things. Sometimes when he did not like the design of a front end, he’d say it looked like a grouper. But if someone was in the room who was Jewish, like me or Jerry Hirschberg [later vice president of Nissan Design International in California], Bill would use the word “jewfish” instead of grouper. Maybe he was just teasing, but maybe he wasn’t.
“Or he’d be up in the executive dining room, and there’d be all of his men around him. We’d be eating lunch, and Bill – with no [excuse that he'd been drinking] alcohol, because it wasn’t allowed there – would start telling stories. And Juanita, the waitress, would be serving a salad or something, and he would come up with some of the most outrageous sexual comments. Even the guys around him would curdle. But Juanita would look straight ahead… and pretend she didn’t hear any of it. I mention this to demonstrate a dimension of cruelty in his humor.”
Jerry Hirschberg had another explanation. “Mitchell was never an introspective man. He was all reflex and intuition., and it was clear to me that there was little intent in many of his statements and actions. I heard the ‘jewfish’ comments but also found myself being moved up the [GM] management ladder as swiftly as anyone. The words Jew, Jap, Wop and Nigger tumbled out of him, but his passion for beautiful cars and the talents needed to make them prevailed. Being Jewish never seemed to hurt my career at GM Design Staff, although it occasionally did hurt! Mitchell’s contradictory nature reflected the turmoil and pain around him – and the levels of energy and even inspiration that prevailed.”
Lamm and Holls continue:
Chuck Jordan likewise maintained that Mitchell didn’t intentionally hurt people; he was just thoughtless. And Corvette designer Larry Shinoda, who’s Japanese-American, said he never noticed any racial malice in Mitchell, “…none at all.” Shinoda often accompanied Mitchell on racing junkets and the two became quite close until Shinoda left to go to Ford. Strother MacMinn further pointed out that Art Ross, who was Jewish, not only worked closely with Mtichell on cars like the 1941 Cadillac [60 Special] but was also his friend and faithful drinking companion.” – Lamm & Holls, pg. 173.
Since the Lamm/Holls book has become a standard reference on the history of automotive design and designers, that would probably be where the issue ends: a man of his times whose use of slurs was more personal than prejudicial. However, as I discovered, Strother MacMinn’s reflection on Mitchell’s relationship with Art Ross was not the same as that of Art Ross himself.
How I got to that discovery requires a small digression, so please bear with me.
In recent years the fine art world has discovered and started to appreciate (in both senses of the word) the original artwork and illustrations done by automotive designers. In 2005 Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts published Future Retro: Drawings From the Great Age of American Automobiles, with an introduction by Frederic Sharf and selections from his collection of original design art. In 2007 the Louisville [KY] Visual Art Association put on a show, “Designing an Icon, Creativity and the American Automobile,” with over 100 original art works and clay models, with the assistance of Bill Porter, who drew the 1968 Pontiac GTO. That collection has been shown at a variety of museums, schools, galleries and automotive related institutions, most recently last week at the Northwood Institute.
In reviewing Future Retro, I came across some works by Jerry Brochstein, a GM designer from the late 1950s to the late 1980s. Bill Porter and other colleagues hold Brochstein’s work in high regard, though Brochstein is somewhat embarrassed by the fact that Sharf’s book features work he did as a student, not an experienced designer. Among Brochstein’s designs at GM were the distinctive spoked and spinnered hubcaps for the ’63 Vette (which showed up in later iterations on the Riviera and other ’60s GM cars). He also worked on the AeroVette and Olds AeroTech concepts. Brochstein’s 1988 Cadillac Voyagé, to my eye, established the profile of the mid 1990s B-body Caprice/Impala.
I took note of Brochstein’s somewhat Jewish sounding surname and thought about adding him to my list of “car Jews” I’ve been keeping for a possible book about Jews with notable roles in automotive history.
When Brochstein’s son told me via email that his family was “as Jewish as Tevya”, I added him to the list. Searching for information on his role at GM, I found the name of Art Ross, son of Sheckel and Miriam Rosenman, another name for the list. I was able to contact Ross’ son, Carson, via the web sites he has set up to honor his father’s artistic legacies (and sell reproductions, now that such art is considered gallery worthy and collectible).
In discussing Mitchell’s relationship with his father, Carson Ross said that at one time they were indeed close, had been friends, and worked closely with each other at GM. The junior Ross said, though, that the relationship changed as Mitchell gained more power, first as head of design at GM and then later as VP after Earl retired. Earl had hired Ross, was a bit of his patron, and ran interference for him with Mitchell. Once Earl retired, Ross resigned from GM, starting his own successful design firm. Despite what Jerry Hirschberg said, Carson Ross told me that his father considered Mitchell to be an anti-semite, and that one reason why he left GM was that he had grown tired of Mitchell’s frequent use of the word “Jew”. Mitchell would frequently “joke” about Ross being “GM’s token Jew”. Considering that GM hired other Jewish designers like Wilen, Brochstein and Hirschberg, and that both Ross and Wilen rose in the GM hierarchy to head brand design staffs, the joke sounds more pointed than funny. Considering, too, that for a decade and a half after he hired on at GM Mitchell’s paychecks were signed by Meyer Prentis, GM’s treasurer, comptroller and Alfred Sloan’s right hand man, the comment is even less funny, though definitely ironic.
So was Bill Mitchell a sexist, homophobic, racist, anti-semitic bigot? Unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper, Mitchell was a real person who caused real hurt with his remarks, not a fictional character who “evolves”. I don’t think that it’s applying today’s standards to a previous era to say that Bill Mitchell could be bigoted and cruel, but that he also appears to have never let that bigotry or cruelty get in the way of assessing talent.