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.

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

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