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A Toast To Olde Tymes – The Wenner-Grens

Richard Liggett owned and operated several movie theaters and then, at the behest of his brother-in-law, he went to work for a company that made and sold vacuum cleaners. 

You’re not riveted?

Let’s try this: One of Richard’s theaters was the Gene Gauntier in Kansas City, Kansas. He named it after his sister, who was born as Genevieve Liggett in 1885 and whose stage name was Gene Gauntier. Gene was an actress, a writer, a director, and a producer during the silent film era. Their younger sister, Marguerite, who was born in 1891, trained as an opera singer. She studied voice with Herman Springer, a prominent teacher in that era, and, following Gene’s example, used the name Marguerite Gauntier professionally. While pursuing an international career, Marguerite had a shipboard romance with Axel Wenner-Gren, a young man from Sweden who got his start by selling farm machinery. They wed in December 1909. Marguerite continued her career for a few years, notably at the Elberfeld Opera in Germany and the Stockholm Opera, then stopped singing (both publicly and privately, according to friends) in about 1915, turning her creative talents to writing poetry. Axel later made Electrolux a household name: he is credited with the realization that the vacuum cleaner wasn’t just for industrial use.          

Mrs. H. Roper Bishop is shown with Dr. Axel Wenner-Gren on the terrace of Shang-Ri-La, where she has enjoyed an extended visit with her friends of many years at their estate at Nassau in the Bahamas.

Gene was the first member of the family to become famous. She started her career with the Kalem Film Manufacturing Company, where she remained from 1907 until 1912. Audiences knew her as the first “Kalem Girl.” As Gretchen Bisplinghoff, a professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, has written, “she wrote the scenario for Ben Hur (1907), the work involved in the controversy that established the first copyright laws covering motion pictures.” After leaving Kalem, her next venue was her own business, the Gene Gauntier Feature Players Company. She was employed briefly by the Universal Film Manufacturing Company circa 1915. Gene made her final onscreen appearance in The Witch’s Lure, also known as The Witch’s Gold, which was released in 1921. After that, she spent most of her time with the Wenner-Grens. 

Gene and Marguerite and Axel traveled extensively. They were welcome visitors at the home of Pearl and Richard Liggett at 1223 Quindaro Boulevard. Marguerite and Axel visited the White House at Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s invitation in 1936. Richard didn’t live to see the Roosevelt administration reverse its view of Axel; the 61-year-old district manager for Electrolux died in July 1941.   

As the years went by, Axel certainly had all the accoutrements of a billionaire, including a castle in his homeland, a yacht known as the Southern Cross, and access to heads of state and government officials throughout the world. At the beginning of World War II, though, that last bit created problems for him. His meetings with, among others, Hermann Göring, led to the belief that he was pro-Nazi. Axel was blacklisted by The United States government in 1942. Andrew Morton, perhaps best-known for his biography of Princess Diana, wrote this about Axel in 17 Carnations, his 2015 book about British royalty and the Nazis: “Such were the suspicions surrounding him that his FBI file is one of the most extensive on any private citizen in American history.” Andrew made his own thoughts clear elsewhere in the book, labeling Axel a “Nazi collaborator.” Ilja A. Luciak, a professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, offered a different interpretation: “Recently declassified documents concerning Wenner-Gren’s controversial 1942 inclusion on the US Proclaimed List of Certain Blocked Nationals constitute convincing evidence that the official reasons—namely, his personal and business ties with Nazi Germany—were not at the core of the US government’s case. I suggest that the US government acted out of concern that one of the richest men of his time, courted by the presidents of Peru and Mexico to invest in their countries, represented a strategic threat to US hegemony in the hemisphere.” An additional piece of evidence in Axel’s favor might be the fact that in 1960 he was awarded the 29th Honorary Fellowship of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel – not an honor likely to be given to a Nazi.       

The Wenner-Grens owned estates in Mexico and the Bahamas. Axel was in Mexico during much of World War II, while he was seeking to be allowed back in The United States. During the 1950s, he began the project of developing Hog Island, which would later be known as Paradise Island, in the Bahamas. Their guests included friends from Kansas City, such as Rebecca McLaughlin Bishop (Mrs. H. Roper Bishop), who had known Marguerite since the days when they took lessons from Herman Springer. They also hosted people whose names appeared in boldface type in the tabloids – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor being the best examples.   

Mrs. H. Roper Bishop (right) with her hostess, Mrs. Axel Wenner-Gren, at Shang-Ri-La, winter residence of the Wenner-Grens on Hog Island in the Bahamas.

When Axel died in 1961, the headline of his front-page (but below the fold) New York Times obituary read: “Axel Wenner-Gren, Financier, 80, Dead.” According to some estimates, he had at one time been worth as much as a billion dollars, and he had donated somewhere between $25 million and $50 million to foundations tackling health and science issues in Sweden, The United States, and other parts of the world. 

Gene and Marguerite continued to live together after Axel’s death. They should have been fabulously wealthy, but the money seemed to dissolve. Axel had sold off many of his most lucrative assets in the later years of his life. He had invested in new enterprises, but without his presence, most fizzled. Gene died in 1968, and Marguerite in 1973, both in Mexico. Along with Axel, they were buried on the grounds of Häringe Castle in Sweden, which later became a hotel.           

For further reading: 

  • Bisplinghoff, Gretchen. “Gene Gauntier — Women Film Pioneers Project.” wfpp.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-gene-gauntier/   
  • Luciak, Ilja A. “Vision and Reality: Axel Wenner-Gren, Paul Fejos, and the Origins of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.” journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/687776  
  • Morton, Andrew. 17 Carnations. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2015.
  • “Reality and Myth: A symposium on Axel Wenner-Gren.” wennergren.org/history/axel-wenner-gren

Read more from the November 27, 2021 issue of The Independent
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