A page in John Cote Dahlinger's book 'The Secret Life of Henry Ford' (Bobbs-Merrill, 1978) shows the family resemblance. (Bobbs-Merrill)
The investigation into the murder of John Cote Dahlinger Jr. of Grand Rapids last month was closely followed for all the reasons any brutal crime would rattle a quiet community.
But the 56-year-old businessman’s slaying also drew a kind of sensational scrutiny that he would never escape: that of being a direct descendant of Henry Ford.
John Jr. was discovered dead in the condo he shared with his longtime girlfriend when she returned home from work about 6:45 p.m. on Oct. 16. Police said he’d been severely beaten about the face and shot in the head. He also suffered a heart attack during the assault. It was his father, John Cote Dahlinger Sr., who is alleged to have been the product of a decades-long affair between the auto magnate and his former personal secretary.
Heightening the suspense, two days after the murder, a friend of the family, who chose to remain anonymous, offered a “substantial” reward for information leading to the capture of the person or persons responsible.
What would be more befitting of the auto czar billionaire than an anonymous benefactor offering aid to help solve a grandson’s murder. It would be the stuff of intrigue and Agatha Christie if it weren’t so tragically true.
On Friday, Grand Rapids police reported the arrest of two suspects. Danyell Thomas, 36, and Dijana Kilic, 24, were charged with murder, armed robbery and several other felonies in John Jr.’s death.
“We learned the story about the Ford connection from the fiancee, who first told us about it the night of the murder,” said Capt. Jeffrey Hertel, adding that the Ford connection “never became an aspect of the case.”
Reached by phone in California, the victim’s mother, Barbara Dahlinger (who married John Sr. in 1956 and divorced in 1961) confirmed the claim.
“Yes, my husband was the illegitimate son of Henry Ford,” she said. But in the next breath, she rued the sordid past. “So what if it’s true? Everybody knew it back then. It’s just old crap. I lived it. My son lived it. And there’s nothing to be gained by rehashing all this again. The Ford Motor Co. owes us nothing.”
For its part, Ford Motor Co. was noncommittal.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the Dahlinger family for their loss, and we trust that those involved will be brought to justice,” said Susan Krusel, corporate communications manager, in a statement. “As this claim dates back many decades and has never been proven to be true, it would serve no purpose for us to speculate further.”
In 1978, John Sr., then a supper club owner in Detroit, wrote the tell-all book “The Secret Life of Henry Ford” (Bobbs-Merrill, 1978). John Sr., who was born in 1923, says he was the product of a decades-long illicit relationship between Ford and his mother, Evangeline Cote.
At age 19, Evangeline was promoted from stenographer to Ford’s personal secretary. At the time, Ray Dahlinger was Ford’s chauffeur, auto tester and first-rate mechanic.
Relying on diaries from Evangeline and Ray, John Sr. wrote that Ford arranged for Ray to marry Evangeline and then built them a massive 38-room mansion on 10 acres in Dearborn Heights.
In the book, John Sr. cites Ford shocking the hospital staff by showing up at the baby’s birth. He assigned bodyguards and a registered nurse to the baby. The gifts bestowed on young John were elaborate and constant. For his fifth birthday, he was given a car — with a motor. He said he was often bullied and called Ford’s “bastard son.”
When Ford died in 1947 at the age of 83, John Sr. wrote: “As soon as possible, all traces of the Dahlinger family were, in effect, wiped from the record.”
John Sr. died in 1984 of cancer. He was 61. John Jr. married, had two sons and later divorced. At his memorial service last month at the Blythefield Country Club in Belmont, Mich., friends went sockless with loafers and popped their collars to honor John’s signature style. His favorite bar stool was on display as part of the tribute.
Jim Nichols, a friend of John Jr.’s for more than 10 years, said he was “larger than life.” He said his two passions were “his significant other and golf.” But Nichols was less than forthcoming about him being a Ford heir. “He told us about the book, but that was pretty much it,” he said. “I never discussed it with him beyond that.”
Perhaps being the secret grandson of the auto czar was more burden than blessing. Ironically, his father said he wrote the book so “people won’t whisper behind my back anymore … I know who I am. I’m a thorn in the Ford’s side. If they had been more gracious, I would probably have been content to stay in the shadows.“