February 12, 2010

Henry & Bess Kaiser: ‘Unabashedly sentimental’ Valentine’s Day story

Bess and Henry Kaiser

Contributed by Tom Debley, Former Heritage Archives director

Thinking about sweethearts across America expressing their love this Valentine’s Day weekend, my attention was drawn to almost 200 newly acquired recordings in our Kaiser Permanente Heritage Archive.  One recording qualifies as a “singing Valentine” from Henry J. Kaiser to his wife, Bess, as World War II drew to a close 65 years ago.

First, the backdrop.

Historical photo of Bess Kaiser, with Henry, preparing to launch one of her husband's ships. Sons Henry Jr., left, and Edgar look on.
Bess Kaiser, with Henry, prepares to launch one of her husband's ships. Sons Henry Jr., left, and Edgar look on

One has to understand that the Kaisers—along with their sons Edgar and Henry Jr.—were “unabashed sentimentalists,” as Kaiser biographer Albert P. Heiner has recalled.   “They showed their affection for each other by effusive words of love they so often expressed.  And by unhesitatingly putting their arms around each on a regular basis.”

Henry Kaiser called Bess “mother” in private and public.  This struck a cord within the Kaiser organization, and she became widely known among Kaiser’s employees as “Mother Kaiser.”

In October 1945, this sentiment was reflected at a banquet honoring “Mother Kaiser” with a song from a group of Kaiser singers in a rendition of  “Let Us Call You Sweetheart.”  Based, of course, on “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” this popular song dates from 1910—three years after the marriage of Henry and Bess.  It became a lifelong favorite of the couple.

If you take a listen to the song, you will hear the singers invite the audience to join in.  Listen especially to the end when Henry Kaiser—a little off key—joins in an unabashedly sentimental solo.

A second recording at the banquet was a humorous takeoff of the 1892 classic “Bicycle Built for Two.” Here are the changed lyrics:

Historical photo of Henry J. Kaiser at 12 with a bicycle.
Henry J. Kaiser, age 12.
  • Bessie, Bessie,
  • Give me your answer do!
  • I'm half crazy
  • All for the love of you!
  • It won't be a stylish marriage,
  • We can't afford a carriage,
  • But you'll look sweet upon the seat
  • Of a bicycle built for two.
  • Henry, Henry, here is your answer dear.
  • I can’t cycle. It makes me feel so queer.
  • If you can’t afford a carriage,
  • Call off your bloomin’ marriage,
  • For I’ll be blown if I’ll be ‘tow’n’
  • On a bicycle built for two.
  • Henry, of course, provided much more for Bess than “a bicycle built for two.”
Bess & Henry J. Kaiser in 1946

As one of the 20th Century’s most successful industrialists, Henry Kaiser also built several lines of automobiles. Kaiser’s love for Bess and for automobiles is illustrated in one of the photographs reproduced here. It is an image from our history archive that shows Henry and Bess playfully taking a spin in a door-less small truck in 1946 at a Kaiser industrial plant in Trentwood, Washington.

Henry and Bess Kaiser's lasting legacy, of course, is Kaiser Permanente.  In 1942, they formed the Permanente Foundation Health Plan, a charitable trust, to serve the health care needs of 200,000 Kaiser employes on the Home Front of World War II.  It was Bess who picked the name.  The couple had a retreat along the bank of Permanente Creek south of San Francisco that she found beautiful and calming.  

Let me close with special thanks to collector Ron Gorremans of Lincoln City, Oregon, from whom the Kaiser Permanente Heritage Archive acquired these World War II era recordings.  The audio clips are from master recordings of 118 ship launches during the war from Henry Kaiser’s Swan Island Shipyard in Portland, Oregon.  They are currently being digitized.  When that is complete, we will deposit the originals in a permanent preservation archive as well as make the digital copies available to the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park for use in its interpretive program.

Happy Valentine’s Day!