Read any Norman Ford lately? Maybe his novel, The Black, The Gray, and The Gold? That's his published novel, which is why on the back of the picture postcard of his house it says, "The home of Norman Robert Ford, the novelist." But there have also been a dozen unpublished novels, 125 short stories, numerous poems and several plays—the latter, appropriately, were produced, directed and acted in theaters throughout the country by Norman Ford. Also a bunch of stories that appeared in Confidential and Whisper, with Ford exposing, more or less, the "real" life in prep schools and at West Point. Or you may have read some of Norman Ford's pamphlets—designed, printed, advertised, written and sold by Norman Ford, and including such numbers as What You Can Do About Varicose Veins, $100 a Week Making Rosaries, The Love Poems of Vermont, How to Make Perfume and Make Money with It, You Can Save Your Hair, How to Recognize the Psychopathic Teacher, Hormones and What You Should Know About Them, How to Make Rubber Stamps and Make Money with Them, and the ever-popular How to Be Reborn Each Day.
For 25 years Norman Ford wrote these pamphlets, poems and plays and taught at prep schools, husbanding his finances so that he could chase the dream of becoming the great American novelist. He never once came close except, ironically, that he once taught the boy who became a great American novelist—J. D. Salinger was in his English and dramatics class at Valley Forge Academy.
In addition to teaching and writing, Ford was an Army officer, a Navy officer, an astrologer, a choirmaster, a typist and a bookkeeper. Also, he did save his hair, he did make rosaries and he did produce perfume and sell it—handing out The Love Poems of Vermont as a come-on in the deal. But always he was really just bounding after the dream, carrying one suit, one printing press ("that's the one thing I'd never pawn no matter how bad it got") and not much else, except perhaps a growing disillusionment with the world about him.
So there he was in November 1962, optimistic but down as usual, penniless, cold and hungry, trying to scrape together enough to write just the one more novel. And then—flourish and loud alarums—then Norman Ford wrote the first book in the series Norman Ford's Force Method for the Handicapping of Race Horses.
October 3, 1965
Hardly 18 months later Norman Ford moved to Newport, R.I., the geographic symbol of absolutely unbridled wealth, onto Newport's most fashionable street, Bellevue Avenue, into the mansion, Beechwood, that formerly had been owned by Mrs. William Astor—the Mrs. Astor—and had been the splendid scene for decades of society's most exclusive parties, limited to the magic number of 400.
There are 63 rooms in Beechwood. Mrs. Astor knocked down a wall and expanded the ballroom and made it the biggest in all of Newport. Beechwood is just a few doors down from Doris Duke's place, surrounded by eight acres of lawns and rose gardens, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It costs Ford $15,000 a year to lease it—he could buy it all for $250,000, but he balks at tying up that much capital—and it costs him at least another $15,000 annually to maintain it in the style to which it is accustomed. And Norman Ford lives there in Beechwood all by himself. That Norman Ford is one guy who beat the races, huh?
Ford evolved his Force Method after hardly a decade of race going, and he was not really a track regular until late in that period. He had, however, done work sporadically for his late brother Geoffrey, who had had a racing school of his own. These are the racing-school Fords.
Norman assimilated Geoffrey's ideas about both racing and racing schools, but his methods of handicapping and doing business are vastly different from his brother's. Still, it is interesting to note—though it is not surprising, Ford having written pamphlets on virtually every subject known to superstitious man—that he once wrote one entitled, yes, How to Start and Operate a Profitable School for Horseplayers. In addition to his new fortune, Ford thus wins this year's award for chickens coming home to roost.
The Force Method is, above all, not a system. System is not a word you use around Norman Ford. He is 56 now but in the youth of his success, still a sturdy, powerfully built man with flowing off-white hair. When Ford hears "system" he gets a pained look on his face—though you usually can't see his face. It is hidden behind two pairs of eyeglasses and almost always under a dirty old hat with a long green plastic visor that he found lying around the place. He is frugal, too.
Mellowing now, he seldom shows the belligerence that was born of the hard times. Instead, he is just sort of cynically whimsical, twitting the world more than fighting it. "People who think they know me often wonder how I can distrust others so thoroughly and still enjoy life," he writes in one of his self-analysis asides, this in Book Nine. Today he diffuses his scorn with wit or mimicry. The thespian in him is as alive as the novelist, and he is given to acting out old, fiery scenes that he participated in with various protagonists, such as headmasters or complaining racing students.
The Force Method began strictly as a mail-order project. ("What does it mean? I don't know, I just dreamed up the name," he says. But later: "No, it means that with this method you are practically forced into picking the right horse.") In the Force Method's almost three years, more than 5,000 people have "enrolled" for the course, and 2,000 are on the books now—which is a fair-sized student body, considering that the series is up to 28 books and each and every one sells at $3 a throw.
Ford has also begun meeting with individual students and in periodic lecture sessions with groups at Beechwood, which is referred to in his literature as The School for Millionaires. For tax purposes it is referred to just as a plain old school school. That is good enough for the Internal Revenue Service. This winter Ford plans to hold sessions in California and Florida and, if that works out well, he may arrange a speaking schedule covering many other parts of the country. Geographically his students are widely scattered. Some have traveled from as far away as California to meet with Ford. Nearly all who are still enrolled after receiving three or four books swear by Ford's theories. They swamp him with letters and send their copies of marked racing papers—The Morning Telegraph or Daily Racing Form—beseeching him to show them where they or (heaven forbid) the Force Method went wrong. Ford fires right back at them. He is extremely self-confident and persuasive, as glib with words as numbers—a rare trait but a particularly good one to possess in this game.
Ford has made good money at the races using the Force Method. So, too, by now have some of the students. The incumbent honor student is a dentist from Pasadena who played so much Force Method and so little teeth that his wife got after him. He settled things simply by winning enough at the races to send her on an extended Paris vacation so he could keep going happily to the track. Ford figures he himself could easily clear between $50,000 and $100,000 annually at the races if he could tolerate the existence. But he never could stand the tracks for much more than a couple of months at a stretch. He would make a bit and then hurry back to Vermont, "where nobody cared if your trousers were frayed," to work on one of those novels. Now, since he obviously can make just as much money sitting home in Newport and telling other people about it, he seldom ventures out on extended betting excursions, except to Florida in the winter. But he keeps up, reading The Telegraph religiously and reexamining and updating his system—uh—method.
One of the more surprising things about the success of the Force Method is that Ford did not have it all figured out at the start. He has been obliged to revise as he composed, and in a few instances he has completely contradicted earlier statements. The Force Method grows all the time. Like Hinduism, it will graciously incorporate any new revelation.
"I'm not the least bit interested in winners. I just want profits," Ford says. In the profitable, warm folds of the Force Method there is something for everyone. There is room for the chalk player and for the long-shot player, for the big bettor and for the $2-show timid soul, for those who like parlays, for those who go for the daily doubles, and for people who prefer to bet across the board, win or place or show or any combination thereof. Ford himself bets mostly place or show, contradicting an old wives' tale that betting to win is the only way to win.
So far in the 28 books, which comprise about 275,000 words, every racing contingency this side of the effect of Elizabeth Taylor up on The Pie in National Velvet has been meticulously discussed. Not surprisingly, then, exceptions to the major rules abound. But Ford is faithful to his basic premises. He believes that he has isolated the key past-performance factors that point to the winner. The Telegraph provides about 20 different ways of rating and comparing horses; Ford says he has determined the four that count in the long run. Normally he does not even consider such supposedly significant factors as distance of the race, track condition, speed of past races ("speed is a result, not a factor"), comments on past races, jockeys, trainers, breeding, stretch-running ability, money earned and workouts.
Instead, he says he has empirically concluded that the horses to bet are those that rate highest in these four areas:
1) RECENCY (his word) OF THE HORSE'S LAST RACE. Ford insists that a horse he bets must have run within 21 days; he prefers a 15-day limit.
2) WEIGHT. He has worked out a rating guide, which is derived by comparing the horse's scheduled weight with the average that he carried in his last three races.
3) CLASS. Ford has developed a method of assessing a horse's inherent class and giving it a rating. He believes this is his most significant gift to the art of handicapping.
4) SIGNAL. Ford believes that a horse's readiness is most transitory and is signaled by the way he ran in his last race. He considers only the last race. "Other things being equal," he writes in Book Seven (Long Shots), "the player who can solve the riddle of the most recent race is the player who will select horses that pay."
The signal, Ford says, is "the key" to the Force Method. Those signals that Ford sees, however, are often different from the ones that grand old handicapping traditions suggest. Contrary to all racing folklore, for example, Ford usually dislikes a horse that was closing fast in his last race. He likes a horse that quit last time out. He figures it means the horse was tired in that race but is fresh now. On the other hand, a horse that drove and fought to close ground may have looked courageous, but the effort probably tired him for his next race. "We want a horse who did a smooth job last time," Ford writes. "The Backward Smoothie is most desirable; we like an F horse [an F (Forward) horse is one that gained on the leaders; a B (Backward) horse lost ground] too, but we are always on the alert for an F horse that ran too hard and exhausted himself last time out."
Putting the four factors together, Ford has evolved something called Uniscore, which produces one score for every horse in a race. It is the ultimate refinement of the Force Method.
It also was one of his memorable dramatic achievements, for, like an old treasure map—the one half buried, the other half committed to memory and swallowed—Uniscore was shrewdly devised by Ford to be revealed in two books. Both are marked TOP SECRET on their covers but, Ford contends, one is gibberish without the other. Students are instructed to learn what the numbers mean from the Key and then, for security reasons, to take only the book of tables to the track. "The Uniscore Tables present utter confusion to anyone who has not studied the Force Method," Ford writes in the Key, in explaining his victory over the evil forces that may attempt to steal precious Uniscores.
The Force Method began merely as an advertisement, Ford having long before decided that it was wise not to write anything until he had a good idea how much demand there was for it. He was absolutely dead broke at the time and hocked some jewelry of sentimental value that he was holding for a friend. That got him $6 to pay for an ad for the Force Method in a tawdry freak sheet in Montreal.
There were enough inquiries to encourage Ford to start writing, so he bummed paper and the use of a mimeograph machine from the bookstore where he had held the autographing party for his novel, The Black, The Gray, and The Gold. "I had them," he explains. "They couldn't very well turn down the only author that had ever held an autographing session in their place." He figured that if he was lucky with the Force Method he might be able to make $100 a week for long enough to bang out his new novel and then he could start bugging Doubleday again. As it turned out, the novel—attacking the American educational system—never had a chance. The Force Method was making more than $1,000 a week within four months, and next stop, baby, was Newport.
Since the Force Method attained the four-figures-a-week plateau, Ford has deliberately stabilized profits. He makes about $600 for every $100 worth of newspaper advertising he pays for and, because he does not care to expand his staff beyond the two devoted helpers whom he has, he regulates how much he works and how much he earns by the number of ads he places around the country.
Actually he's a little bored with it all now, craves a capital gains deal and is asking $125,000 for the whole shebang. ("A gold mine," the circular says. "The two largest selling points in my property are the books themselves...and my name, which is well known in literary circles, familiar to most reading people.") Since no enterprising member of the literati has bitten yet, Ford figures he will just have to keep on turning out the books. He says he has 500 students who would buy a book every week if he cared to bang them out that fast. As it is, he can produce a complete book in 36 hours, including time off for a night's sleep. That means from the minute he types the first word—directly onto the stencil (he never makes a rough draft)—until the time the book is written, mimeographed, proofread, corrected, covered, folded, stapled, bound and mailed out by the suspicious Newport post office, 36 hours will have elapsed. Each copy costs all of 8¢ to produce. Ford says that he can make more money more efficiently in the mail-order field than anyone else in the world. There seems to be no reason to dispute that claim.
"My great forte is organizing," he says. "But, you see, I didn't realize it myself. It took me all that time to see that I was doing the wrong kind of writing. I never thought. It was just a fight all the time to stay out of the schools. Stay out of the goddam schools. I seldom stayed at one for more than a year. I'd just take everything and disappear. Just disappear." His mention of the schools usually precipitates Ford into a more or less fixed speech, or rant. Other targets include taxes, the government, Babbittry and the general decline of the 20th century. But he never, apparently, fully appreciates the severity of his words, and even at his most vitriolic he remains hopelessly amiable and delightful.
"I was at Taft one year—best school I ever was in—and the kids all called me Johnny-One-Suit. Not to my face, but I knew. I heard one of them mumble it in the dining hall, so I just got up and pinned him up against the wall and held him up by his snotty little collar. I suspect—well, they never said—but I guess that was the reason they didn't want me back."
Before Taft it had been Brooklyn Academy, and then with Salinger at Valley Forge—where Ford was choirmaster and was booted out for swearing in the choir loft—and Riverside Military Academy. After Taft it was Darrow and Pawling, after which Ford tried to write for the movies. The war came, and he was stationed in Hawaii as a naval officer. Then it was back to the schools: New York Military Academy, Norwich University, the Irving School, Montclair Academy and, finally, Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa.
At Lycoming, Ford taught statistics and overwhelmed his classes with hard work. "If you were a normal person," he says, "Lycoming would be the end of the world. I began to see the futility in it, and I said to myself, 'Norman, it's getting late.' I was, uh, 49 then. I was living in a miserable $8-a-week hotel room and teaching these horrible kids. All that sustained me was that I had the idea for the West Point novel. Just before exams a bunch of the students came to me in desperation and asked how much I would take to give them A's. I needed money desperately to live on while I wrote, so I figured, ah, to hell with it. All my life I've played by the rules. For once I'll go on the take. So I said, 'Fifty dollars.'
"Six of them paid me, $50 each, and I gave them their A's, but when they paid me I made a note of their names. I said that I would get the money back to them, that this was just an investment in my novel. Well, you can tell them to come and get their $50 back now. I'd like to see the expressions on the faces of some of those kids from Taft when they find out that old Johnny-One-Suit is living in Newport now, in the Astor place."
Ford thumps about his manor in clothes that the Astors would not have permitted the servants to wear. The visor hat is traditional, it seems. So, too, are droopy woolen socks, a rumpled shirt and a pair of blue jeans, cut short and jagged, √† la Daisy Mae. He still owns only one suit, and dressing up means only the concession of a cleaner visor hat and long pants. This scraggly outfit is all the more odd because of Ford's spit-and-polish, West Point background. He was in the class of 1932, but after some dispirited duty on Fishers Island he resigned his commission two years later. Still, the Point (if not the Army) retains a sentimental hold on him. There is, however, no love lost for Ford at the academy, because his one novel that was published—and which had a fair exposure—was about the cheating scandal. But Ford's affection for his alma mater, however directed, is obvious, and a disproportionate amount of his serious work has been concerned with it.
At the many schools where he taught, Ford had the problem—besides that of his just plain obstinate nature—of his West Point training. He could never forget it and was always too hard on the preppies. But he is proud of the tough-guy pose, and he has sustained it in the writing of the Force Method books. Whether or not Ford planned it that way, this tone has provided the Force Method with a certain dignity in comparison with the usual mail-order prose, which tends toward euphony and seductive phrasing. Ford starts right out calling the Method a school and demanding hard work and proper attention or he does not want any more of your lousy money. With Book One (Basic Principles) he sends along something called the Code Book. It begins with an ominous preface aptly titled A Warning to New Students. In the way of thanks for their $3, the freshmen promptly catch it as Ford answers 100 questions—stupid ones that he says people are always asking him and that he doesn't want to find students ever asking him again. Samples:
Q. Do you guarantee I can make money with this method?
A. Don't be a jackass. How do I know you can even understand it?
Q. Will you make me a package deal so that I can learn the Force Method at one mailing?
A. Dear Mr. Paderewski, send me a package deal to play the Tchaikovsky concerto in one lesson.
Q. Can you send me all the rules I need to know to make the system work without reading and studying a whole flock of books?
A. Can you peel a grape?
And, as usual in his conversation and writing, there is one Q & A presumably for those not classified in the "most reading people" group:
Q. Are you the same Norman Ford who wrote that scandalous novel attacking West Point—The Black, The Gray, and The Gold?
But if Ford begins his series as a martinet, he soon turns into a friendly Dutch uncle, mellows further into a Mr. Chips, and finally the whole original posture evaporates into a Normy-and-His-Friends bit. Oh, there is occasional chastisement for students, but most of Ford's censure and sarcasm is reserved for those louts not enrolled in the Force Method. In some instances, as in Book Nine—where he instructs students in how he expects them to behave at the track—he gets downright paternal. He tells them at length how to prepare themselves and be comfortably dressed before leaving home, what modes of transportation are available, not to be ostentatious with winnings and not to associate with strangers. "There are men who will kill for $50 or less. Keep it in mind," he notes.
As his students become a captive audience, more and more of Ford's extracurricular opinions creep in among the race charts. "The teacher is the middle-class servant to the wealthy, and higher learning is an abomination," he declares in Book Nine. But it is a wonderfully engaging prose that Ford distributes, and not until he wrote Book Twenty-One did he forsake the role of headmaster for his first love. By then, obviously, he could no longer contain himself. He had not been away from a novel for so long in 20 years. He had to do a novel. Had to. But he also had to answer the students' demands. So he wrote a horse-racing novel for them. Or at least he started. It was to run in installments, each at the established $3 price, and it was called Grandma Was a Horseplayer. And it was a bomb. "I guess the students just weren't ready for it," Ford says. "They started writing in like crazy: 'Give us the racing!' " So, by Book Twenty-three, which would have been the third installment, Grandma was all but phased out. She was doing a lot more handicapping than gallivanting. To further soothe the students, Ford here introduced Uniscore, after thinking about it at least since Book Eleven (Weight-Performance). "If I didn't have something new for you all the time, I'd quit writing the books," he assured students in a succinct policy statement.
Ford teaches beautifully. He will explain a new point carefully and then, for illustration, will analyze an actual past race, culled from his stacks of Telegraphs. "Here's a claiming race that won Force Method players a great deal of money," a typical account begins in Book Five (Dictionary of Races). "It happened at Rockingham Park on 14 August 1962 in the 2nd race. Nine horses, and you're going to be amazed at how easy this selection was.
"Three are not up to the claiming price of $2,500, so out they go.
"Two are carrying too much weight.
"One is exhausted from his last race.
"That leaves Rosy Future, a B-8; Penepopie, an R-5; and Miss Sheila, a D-17. No doubt at all, is there? We certainly don't want a D-17, and if Penepopie ran a rough race last time we can't allow her in ahead of Rosy Future. Now I want you to note that Rosy Future was nothing special—just a filly in a race. She has ten races on the record and believe it or not, she has never even been in the money once in all those times. She's the kind of nag that makes people ask—what's she doing in this race? Well, she was doing plenty. She had recency, enough class, a smooth backward race last time out, and she was dropping six pounds off her recent races. Of course, the blind horseplayers at the track let her go off at 13/1 and she won by a length, paying the golden sum of $27.80...That future really was rosy, wasn't it?
"Here's an easy and profitable handicap at Saratoga on 9 August 1962. ...won very easily and paid $13.60. Sometimes following the Force Method can be like taking candy from a baby."
Ford does make a point of losing a race or two that he describes at just about the time when all this winning is getting a mite suspicious. But he seldom varies from the upbeat and sometimes carries the students away in a rush of euphoria. "The best thing about Belmont Park," Ford writes, "is the lovely back garden where you can get away from the crowds and sit or lie on the grass and quietly decide what the Force Method indicates."
It is this combination—earnestness and charm rather than hard sell, together with the good, clean instructional value—that is responsible for the success of the Force Method. Its popularity is, however, only one of the remarkable phenomena that have occurred. There is also the simple surprise that Norman Ford, the disenchanted, found that he really liked the people who bought his books. "I've met better people in the last three years than in a whole life at the schools," he says, still shaken by the revelation. "The people you find in the schools—and I've been in enough of the goddam schools to generalize about them all I want—are usually hide-bound, insular and downright bigoted. But not the Force Method students. None of them are soporific or moping. They're wonderfully vital people. That's the one word for them—vital."
Fascinating, too, is the fact that the students have developed a clubby, fraternal view toward the Force Method that often transcends their educational or financial concern. There have been few professional handicappers attracted; rather, the nucleus is composed of dedicated hobbyists. To his complete astonishment, Ford found that several of his best students do not even bet. They just buy The Telegraph, "quietly decide what the Force Method indicates," and then check next day to see how they did. It is just like anagrams or crosswords. They can play every race and make all sorts of little numerical jottings and circle things and cross out others and underline. In short, there may be no pot of gold at the end of the course, but it is still a lot of fun to play Norman Ford's Force Method at your neighborhood racetrack.
"The front—Beechwood—is the biggest expense," Ford says. "But it is a proper expense and a worthwhile one. Don't you think that these people find a new pride and a self-respect in what is supposed to be a shady avocation when they can come to Newport and sit in Mrs. Astor's ballroom and listen to a composed, literate lecture on their favorite subject?
"Of course, the fact that I'm in charge helps, too. You know—that I'm a West Point graduate, a best-selling novelist and a real teacher. The personal touch is still needed. I answer every letter. It is a genuine student-teacher relationship."
The regulars are enthralled with it all and particularly taken by the Newport angle. Ford, appreciating this, feeds them plenty of it. For instance, starting with Book Eleven, an impressive rendering of Beechwood appears on the covers with the caption, "Beechwood Newport, R.I.: Force Method Headquarters." Then, in Book Fifteen (Class in Allowance Races), Ford describes all the homey little problems one must contend with in living on an estate ("the unexpected obstacles of having to trot a quarter of a mile in this 63-room mansion"), and in Book Seventeen (Weight Versus Odds) he goes into his personal financial situation, vividly attacking the income taxes as he goes, but taking plenty of time once again to let all of the students in on little homemaking details at Beechwood. "Heating a 63-room mansion is not easy," he lets on. If the students cannot win at the track, they can always vicariously experience the joys and minor trials of the teacher.
Today, his battle won, his pride restored and even his faith in mankind somewhat repaired, Ford is out seeking new challenges. He has a pamphlet planned, called Fortunes after Fifty, in which Cervantes will star with Norman Ford. (Cervantes, who did not make much of a splash in his group until he published Don Quixote at age 57, is something of a hero figure for Ford.) He also has a book idea that he thinks even a publisher might buy—Dear Horseplayer, a collection of silly letters to the professor from his students. Among other schemes awaiting his pleasure is that novel blasting American education. But good fortune, having finally located Norman Ford, now just about keeps bowling him over.
Mulling the various possibilities for his future, Ford went to Providence one day recently to meet his sister-in-law, Joan. She was coming from California to assist him in preparing for his big July conference, to help tidy up Beechwood and give the place a feminine look for the many lady students who would be attending. When Joan got off the train and Ford first spotted her, he was nearly, as he acts it out, struck dumb. Why, he could hardly believe it—she looked so young! What had she done to herself?
Well now, Joan explained, she had learned about some amazing new facial exercises, a wonderful treatment that removed middle-age flab and that took years off her age! And suddenly, there in the ancient Providence railroad terminal, light bulbs lit and eurekas flashed about the bushy head of Norman Ford. The next day all of the books on facial exercises were gone from the Newport library. Ford learned how to do this one thing in the privacy of your own home where you use the muscles at the bottom of the eye without using the ones at the top. That gets rid of those unsightly bags under the eyes!
"I should be able to get 20 books out of this without any difficulty," Ford said, working his left eye. He said he might have to look into buying the grandest mansion of them all in Newport, The Breakers, the old Vanderbilt place, and turn it into a charm school. "How do you think they would like that?" he asked, the con and the sincerity and the ambition and the irreverence all getting mixed up on his face, the way they do now. He rubbed his hand through his great mane of hair—he was losing it 25 years ago before he learned how to do something about it—plopped on his grubby hat with the long green plastic visor and strutted off in the ragged blue-jean shorts through some of the 63 rooms in the Astor mansion, which is now the headquarters of the Force Method and "the home of Norman Robert Ford, the novelist."