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ELEANOR CLAY FORD
Eleanor was “the strong-willed matriarch of Detroit’s famous automotive family and a dedicated patron of the arts.”
Eleanor Lowthian Clay (1896-1976) was born June 6, 1896, the same year Henry Ford tooled around Detroit in his first experimental car. After Eleanor’s father died when she was 12 years old, she moved with her mother and sister into the art-filled home of her uncle, Joseph L. Hudson, owner of Detroit’s premier department store.
While still in high school, Eleanor began her lifelong commitment to community service, teaching tap dancing at the Franklin Settlement, an immigrant aid agency. That’s where she met Edsel Ford at age 15. They married when she was 20. The couple’s first child, Henry II, was born in 1917, followed by Benson in 1919, Josephine in 1923 and William in 1925.
Avid art collectors and supporters of the arts, Edsel and Eleanor provided funding for the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) from 1924 to 1945 to make the DIA an internationally recognized museum. Over the years, many pieces of their personal collection were also donated to the DIA.
Throughout her life, Eleanor remained committed to community service, philanthropy, and the arts. After Edsel’s death in 1943, Eleanor increased her annual giving, often donating anonymously.
She lived at Ford House until her death in 1976. She left behind an endowment so that her beloved home, Ford House, could become open to the public after she was gone. The Detroit Free Press noted, “Mrs. Ford’s greatest gift to the public, indeed, her greatest legacy, is her home, which she had transferred to a trust with the request that it be used for the benefit of the public.” With this final act of generosity, which Eleanor included in her will, this home and furnishings remain intact, as a window to the past, and to enrich the lives of future generations.