A gossipy rundown on the House of Dodge, which helped make Detroit America's automotive capital but produced descendants with greater affinity for pleasures domes than assembly lines or executive suites. Latham (The David Letterman Story, 1987) and her collaborator (described as a Dodge-set insider "with unique access to family documents and on-the-record interviews") offer a fast-paced chronicle that takes the star-crossed clan from its roots in southwestern Michigan to the present day. By far the most compelling characters in the generation-spanning saga are the patriarchs—John Francis and Horace Elgin. The brothers Dodge, both skilled machinists, moved to Detroit in 1886. They prospered almost from the outset and amassed great fortunes as suppliers to and financial backers of Henry Ford. After an inevitable split with Ford, the Dodges invested the substantial settlement in a motor vehicle company of their own. Both died in 1920—at the height of their fame and fortune. The authors devote roughly half their coverage to the productive careers of the brothers, whose demise costs the narrative much of its momentum and no small amount of appeal. In the absence of strong-willed capitalists who (despite their faults) were builders, Latham and Agresta must focus on ne'er-do-well sybarites (none of whom have had any direct ties to the family firm, which is now a comparatively obscure division of Chrysler Corp.). Horace's widow, Anna, who lived to be 99 and the vaguely discontented doyenne of high society in Palm Beach, Fla., gives them some continuity through 1970. As a practical matter, however, the scandalous behavior of feckless Dodge heirs and their travails with drink, drugs, divorce, or allied woes of the well-heeled are of interest mainly to readers of tabloid newspapers. Nor is there a whole lot to be learned from the authors' accounts of unseemly scrambles for money from the estates and trust funds left by the family's founders. On the whole, though, good dirty fun and a slick reckoning on a failed dynasty.
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