Frank Hershey — the gay designer behind the Ford Thunderbird
Published Thursday, 26-Jun-2003 in issue 809
Though many car aficionados — particularly those favoring old American sports cars — may know Frank Hershey as the “Father of the Thunderbird,” few realize that the man who designed this vintage sports car and many other 1930s, ’40s and ’50s classics was actually a gay man. Though closeted at the time, according to one of Hershey’s closest gay friends, the world famous auto designer could at times be dangerously boisterous and bold in public. Speaking with Santa Barbara resident John M. Black, Hershey’s best friend and closest confidant for some 40 years, the Gay and Lesbian Times discovered an uncanny parallel between the life of Frank Hershey and the closeted father in last year’s Academy Award-winning film, Far From Heaven.
With the Baby Boom in full swing, early 1950s America was a land of consumers, hungry for new products and designs. It was during this time that Black said he first met Hershey, while they were both employed at Kaiser Aluminum in Oakland, California (which just recently sold for $65 million).
Hershey had set up a design department at Kaiser for the purpose of creating a buzz around the use of aluminum in manufacturing. Black recalled one job, in which Hershey had been working on a brochure that included “cars of the future,” intended to spark the interest of automobile manufacturers in Detroit.
“I remember a big meeting of all the VPs and stuff,” recalled Black. “We were going to produce a brochure advertising and/or assuring the use of aluminum in automotive design.... Frank had endless and very unique aluminum applications. I was going to produce the brochure — and that’s how we met. But during the meeting, something came up about an outside artist that I guess Frank wanted to use to design the brochure and the vice president made some disparaging remark about [his sexuality]…. You know, the vice president called the [designer] a faggot right out, but Frank wanted to use this guy.… Frank snapped back immediately. He didn’t care if the guy was gay or not gay, or black or white, if the quality of his work was superior.
“The way Frank snapped back at him in front of that powerful bunch of vice presidents, I thought, ‘Hey, this guy is great, He’s not taking anybody’s bullshit,’” said Black. “I said, ‘I’ve got to know him better.’”
“When we got out of there, I told him to get lost and never to darken my path again….”
Though Black and Hershey became close friends, working on a number of projects over the years, neither knew the other was gay at the time. Though Black had a few lovers, Hershey was married with several adopted children.
Black recalled how the two first found out about each other. “I lived in San Francisco at the time. There was a bar … that I went to for years…. Frank [was there with] his youngest son Michael, who was adopted in Australia, because Frank and his wife traveled to Australia with Ford or General Motors…. So Michael and Frank were out on the town one night … and they came into this gay bar in San Francisco — and there I was having a ball.”
Black had left Kaiser and was working at Pan American [airlines] at the time. He had not seen Hershey and his son at the bar. “One day I get this phone call and my secretary says there’s a Frank Hershey on the line. I picked up the phone … and he said, ‘I saw you last night and you will never guess where.’ Well, that’s the only place that I had been, and I just froze…. I sent my secretary packing and he just carried on and scared the hell out of me.”
Black said Hershey claimed that he rarely had sex with his wife, jesting that their one biological child, a daughter who died early, must have been fathered by “the mailman.” However, Black said the bond between Hershey and his wife was indeed close.
“He was a good father,” Black said, “but Frank couldn’t help himself. He traveled so much and he was alone in strange cities. He liked young boys, and so that’s the route he went — and it finally got him in a lot of trouble with his wife. She found out and all hell broke loose. Then then she turned on me also, because I had been one of her favorites. I’d been on their boat and out to their house for meals and everything else.”
While both Hershey and Black had to remain closeted in their careers, Black recalled that Hershey simultaneously “seemed to want the world to know about himself. In fact, we had many fights about it…. He had a wife and family to cover his closet, I didn’t…. I was very closeted in those days, because there was just no other way to go.
“We were in a very fancy restaurant in Hollywood one time for dinner,” continued Black. “We were … surrounded by tables of people. He was talking about some trick he had picked up and all the dirty details. Frank had a voice where, if he whispered, you could hear him around the world. He was aware of that, because he had been told that many times. I kept trying to shut him up, because it became very embarrassing to me. I had moved and taken a job in Beverly Hills and I worked in that area. I didn’t know if some of those people might have been customers of mine…. So, anyhow, when we got out of there, I told him to get lost and never to darken my path again, because I thought that was very inappropriate for his best friend. You know, you’re not being a friend, you’re being an enemy.”
However, Black couldn’t remain mad at his friend forever.
“One of Frank’s saving graces was that he never let it go,” he said. “I ignored his birthday, I ignored Christmas. Then he called me and I was very cold. He kept calling until I forgave him and we became close friends again. But that was Frank. He didn’t mean harm, he was just totally enthusiastic about who he was.”
Born in Detroit in 1907 (and since deceased), Frank Hershey got his first job with Murphy Coachworks in Pasadena, California. Later, at General Motors, Hershey redesigned the Pontiac in 1933, adding the car’s trademark sliver streak of chrome. He was later transferred to head GM’s foreign division in Germany, just prior to WW II. Black recalled that Hershey had even lost one of his jobs because of his sexual orientation, though he could not remember which one.
Ironically, decades later, when Hershey was living as an openly gay man, he had to fight for the recognition of his designs he deserved.
“Because the Thunderbird became so popular,” said Black, “after the fact, other people kept claiming that they designed it, trying to cut Frank out of it. So he had to fight for what he knew was the truth…. Fortunately, the companies [eventually] wined him and dined him and honored him in a number of ways that were long overdue.”