The Texas 100: Money Becomes Electra

From the pages of Vogue to the ranchlands of Vernon, Electra Waggoner Biggs is the very model of a Texas aristocrat. Not even a family feud can change that.

September 1992By Comments

ELECTRA WAGGONER BIGGS is in the driver’s seat, steering away from the blanched walls and terra-cotta tiles of her ranch house, past a lawn mottled with shade, down an allée flanked by marigolds and crape myrtle. Sprinklers moisten the grass. This is Electra’s private world, an emerald sanctuary tucked inside the biggest chunk of real estate in Texas.

Electra looks like a 79-year-old heiress should: pale skin, erect posture, prominent nose, and a crown of golden hair whose upkeep is the point of her weekly trip to the beauty salon in Wichita Falls. Suddenly she brakes while a cluster of buzzards flaps skyward, exposing a pulpish mass on the roadway. “Nasty things,” she says and drives on.

Past a wrought iron gate at the end of her driveway, the artifice ends and the landscape reverts to sere reds and browns. For four generations the Waggoner family has inhabited this remote corner of northwest Texas, 835 square miles of cow pastures, oil fields, and scrub brush. Electra’s great-great-grandfather Solomon Waggoner came from Tennessee to farm the open prairie. Her great-grandfather Dan Waggoner switched to cattle in the 1860’s and picked the fabled 3D brand. It was her grandfather W. T. Waggoner whose chance discovery of oil made him so stupendously wealthy that none of his offspring had to work.

But no dynasty is complete without internecine feuds. Raised in luxury, the descendants of W. T. Waggoner were largely incapable of leading productive lives. Alcoholics, gamblers, spendthrifts, they suffered every malady of the rich and spoiled. One had eight wives and syphilis. Another so loved his champion quarter horse that he buried it, standing up, outside the gates of the ranch. They had a zeal for spending the family fortune but little interest in the ranch itself. When they died, they passed their rivalries on to their children. For two years Electra has been battling her cousin, Bucky Wharton, over the future of the Waggoner Ranch. They share a fortune of $240 million (see page 142), and each owns half of the land, oil, and mineral rights. If they don’t make peace, the ranch might be broken up and sold.

Electra has never been a cowgirl. She came to live at the ranch for the first time when she was in her thirties. The most horseback riding she ever did was in New York City’s Central Park. Once, driving on one of the ranch’s many back roads, she got lost and had to ask a ranch hand for directions. At her home, called Santa Rosa, her favorite spot is an old leather chair in the living room, close to the telephone, the TV, and a CB radio. Every evening, she sits in that chair, drinking Scotch and water and watching the news.

One night, she tuned in Tom Brokaw, whom she had met in New York. “Nice but short,” she said. On a news story about poverty and the American family, a woman was talking about her struggle to pay her bills. Electra does not romanticize the poor. “They figure if someone would just give them the money, they’d be okay,” she says. “That won’t work. The way I figure, if you level it out, within a few years some would be at the top and some at the bottom.”

Electra has always been at the top. She was raised like a princess in a huge house with servants in Fort Worth. Her unusual name came from her father’s sister, Electra Waggoner, famous for her beauty, her appetite for clothes, her disastrous marriages, and her dissolution—she died of cirrhosis of the liver at 43. Electra Waggoner Biggs has only one dim memory connected to her aunt: playing with the hundreds of shoes in her closet.

Electra did all the things a privileged child was supposed to: dance and sing and take piano lessons. At the age of twelve she was packed off to an East Coast boarding school, where the other girls made fun of her Texas accent. She visited the Waggoner Ranch only on holidays; summers were spent touring the Continent. After boarding school, her parents set her up in a Manhattan apartment. The rest of the country may have been in the midst of the Depression, but Electra floated through those years as part of a privileged class. She and her friends watched the sunset from her penthouse and danced after dark at the El Morocco club. Suitors drifted in and out of her life. Electra never, ever, dated anyone who wasn’t tall, handsome, and slavishly devoted to her. “I just wanted a lot of adulation, flowers, love letters, and that sort of stuff,” she says.

On the rebound from a calamitous love affair with a Catalonian bandleader, Electra married a young man from a proper New York family. “Aureole of tulle,” read the caption beneath her wedding portrait in the July 1933 issue of Vogue. Edward Steichen took the photo, but Electra doesn’t remember him—he was just “someone Mother found.” In the photo, yards of tulle spray out from her shoulders in a luminous corona.

It was a fabulous wedding and a brief, miserable marriage. One day, while her husband was off duck hunting, Electra checked herself into the Plaza hotel and swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. After she recovered, her parents dispatched her to Reno, Nevada, for a divorce, followed by a long ocean cruise. Back in New York, Electra took up sculpture. “It’s divine,” a friend had told her. “You squeeze a lot of mud through your fingers.” To Electra’s surprise, she discovered that she had a talent for sculpting. At her first exhibition in 1938, she sold every piece, including a bust of her maid that California millionaire Huntington Hartford bought for $3,000. Sculpting was the first real work Electra had ever done, and it opened the door to a lifelong calling that has brought her much acclaim. In that respect, Electra has been an atypical Waggoner, the first in two generations to actually earn money, not just spend it.

In 1942, Electra married again, this time a businessman named Johnny Biggs. “Johnny was sensible. He was good-looking. He adored me,” she says. In Johnny, Electra found the answer to her parents’ wish for someone to manage the ranch. In 1946, Electra and Johnny and their two daughters, Little Electra and Helen, settled on the ranch.

But she came home to family discord. W. T. Waggoner had divided the ranch equally among his three children. One generation later, the ownership had been winnowed down to just two cousins: Electra and Bucky Wharton. Unhappily, they came from branches of the family that did not get along. “You either have to be on one side or the other,” says one Vernon resident. What makes their feud so bizarre is that they both live at the ranch, in separate compounds about ten miles apart. To get to her oasis, Electra has to drive past the house where Bucky and his wife live. She would never drop in, say, to borrow a cup of sugar. Mostly they communicate through their lawyers.

Electra is determined to keep the 535,000-acre ranch together or sell it in one piece. But the chance of that happening in today’s economy is remote. Anybody with that kind of money would be better off investing it elsewhere. Dollar for dollar, ranching provides an extremely low rate of return. Oil and cattle prices swing up and down. Bad weather can bring doom. But Electra has not reconciled herself to the reality that the days of the immense Texas ranches are over; she is as much an anachronism as the ranch.

Since the death of Johnny Biggs in 1975, Electra has lived alone at Santa Rosa. Her daughter Helen and her family live in a house next door. Little Electra lives in Santa Fe (her daughter Electra goes by “Ellie”). At Santa Rosa, Electra’s life is a series of comings and goings; when she’s away she wants to be home, but as soon as she gets home, she is planning another trip. Her favorite destination is Hong Kong, where the doormen at the Peninsula know her by name. In New York she dines at the 21 Club and La Grenouille. Only rarely does she go to Vernon, the closest town to the ranch, with its feedstores, boot shops, and grain elevators. Once in a while she eats at the Canton Cafe, but she doesn’t like the way people gawk, as if she were the queen of England. “People want to stare at you and see if you’ve got three legs or six eyes,” she says.

But Electra has never resisted attention, as long as it was the right sort. She has had an airplane (the Lockheed Electra) and a car (the Buick Electra) named after her. Yet fame has a price. One of Electra’s greatest aggravations is that she is often described by the media as superwealthy. In her own eyes, she is ordinary. “People think I’m made out of gold and diamonds, and I’m not,” she says. “I’m scrounging all the time for my kids.”

Visitors do not arrive at Santa Rosa without bearing a gift for her, some small token that she accepts with courtesy and a supreme air of reserve. What pleases her most are gourmet items that her cook can’t find in the grocery stores of Vernon and Wichita Falls: endive, fresh crabmeat, a bottle of basalmic vinegar. Electra is fanatical about collecting recipes. She clips them out and plans each meal in advance. Her cook prepares every dish—“savory frosted meat loaf” one day, “chicken hash à la Ritz” the next—according to Electra’s specifications, then sets it in front of the leather chair, on a TV tray with a cloth napkin and polished silverware. If the dish is deemed a success, Electra has a secretary at the Waggoner Estate offices in Vernon type it onto an index card, which Electra meticulously places in a photo album. Other albums, with family photos and mementos, are stuffed into shelves and piled precariously on tables in her house. On the walls are photographs of Electra in years gone by. When she is complimented on her appearance, she often replies, on a note of resignation, “I used to be beautiful.”

Indeed, having been beautiful can be a great burden in old age. At the beauty shop, she beams at her hairdresser, pulls off coral earrings ringed with diamonds and lapis lazuli, and lays them on the counter. She vanishes into the back of the shop and reappears in a housedress, then settles herself before the mirror like a dowager awaiting her attendants. Two-and-a-half hours later, she is once again examining her reflection in the mirror, her blond hair swept upward into a bouffant with two inward curls, like volutes atop an Ionic column.

Back in the Cadillac, Electra heads north toward home. She is thinking about another trip to Hong Kong, but she needs a companion. “Who can I find to go?” she asks. “Who has the time to go? The money? And who can I get along with?” To Electra, preoccupied with her problems, the breakup of the ranch seems no more threatening than the distant rumble of thunder.

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