Is B. C.’s fanfare for Wenner-Gren another false alarm?
For half a century this Swedish multi-millionaire has been dreaming heroic dreams around the world —and abandoning them. Now he has an Olympian plan for developing B. C. Will he follow it through, or
When British Columbia’s Social Credit government recently reserved one tenth of the province for a Swedish multi-millionaire, it found that it had performed one of the most controversial acts of its regime. The CCF opposition called the scheme "a land grab”; labor spokesmen feared the creation of a private industrial kingdom; mining interests charged the government was giving away more than it had the right to give. On the other hand, many businessmen supported Premier W. A. C. Bennett who called the project “the greatest thing in B. C.’s history.”
Axel Wenner-Gren, the Swedish promoter, now has the right to survey and the option to develop forty thousand square miles of the province. Whatever the rights and
wrongs of the dispute, everyone agrees one question is of first importance: are Wenner-Gren’s plans likely to succeed?
The answer, based on a hard look at his past performances, must be a baffled “nobody knows.” WennerGren has made millions by shrewd deals and promotions in guns and milk products, vacuum cleaners, paper mills and refrigerators. But every few years he emerges from profitable seclusion and proclaims some vast project that makes headlines and causes great furore, but is never heard of again.
If Wenner-Grcn's schemes of the past twenty years had come into being there would now exist:
• The United States of the North, incorporating Sweden, Norway, Den-
mark and Finland in a commonwealth of the British pattern (a dream financed by the same Wenner-Gren Foundation that is backing his Canadian adventure).
• A development project to turn thousands of square miles of Southern Rhodesia wilderness into a paradise of rich mines, water power and forest industries.
• A revolutionary transit system for New York and environs, featuring tunnels under the city, a greatly expanded Long Island railroad and a flat
ten-cent fare for travel anywhere on the system.
• An international rail and road network stretching from Alaska to the Panama Canal.
• A $100,000,000 industrialization program in Mexico. (Wenner-Gren has some Mexican interests, but far short of that scale.)
Of Wenner-Gren's unrealized schemes the closest parallel to his Canadian projects—too close to be coincidence—was the Rhodesian plan. In fact, a resident of Southern Rhodesia who happened to read Canadian newspaper headlines in mid-Feb-
ruary might have developed that eerie feeling of witnessing something that had all happened before.
For in the Rhodesian newspapers of September 1952, and in the Canadian papers of February 1957, appeared almost identical stories.
They said that Wenner-Gren and two associates, an Englishman and a Scandinavian, were planning to put five million dollars into mapping the mineral, water-power and forest potentials of a large territory; they envisioned a revolutionary highspeed monorail railway spanning the area and
giving access to its riches, airborne electronic devices pinpointing the region’s mineral deposits; and profits of the enterprise would benefit educational and welfare work.
These Wenner-Gren dreams died
A United States of Scandinavia
A resources empire in Southern Rhodesia
A new transit system in New York
An Alaska-to-Panama rail and road network
A $100-million plan to industrialize Mexico
Big investment by Axti Wenner-Gren of SwecUn looks likely to speed develop ment of natural resources.
Axel Wenncr-Grcn, the Swedish financier who made a fortune when he founded Electrolux Co. in Sweden j* the eartj 20s. is looking, around fc*
Will this one survive?
Wenner-Gren a Backer of Plan For Vast New N. Y Rail Network
NEW YORK HERALD-TRIBUNE.
There were, of course, differences between the announcements, five years apart in time and twelve thousand miles apart in distance. Wenner-Gren's current English and Scandinavian associates are Bernard Gore and Birger Strid; his African lieutenants were Colonel David Sterling and Ake Lilias.
The Southern Rhodesia scheme never got start-
ed and is now, in the words of Col. Sterling, “a dead project.” Wenner-Gren's Canadian plan, not yet a going concern, is very much alive as a hot issue of public and political debate.
Still another difference is that no money went into the African scheme—Col. Sterling said that the two million pounds earmarked for it “was never really called upon.” The British Columbia government states, however, that it holds a cheque for half a million dollars from the Wenner-Gren B. C. Development Company as an earnest of its
intentions. The company first handed over a cheque in discounted U. S. dollars, but hastily added twenty thousand dollars when the directors were reminded of the facts of North American currency.
“Wenner-Grenland,” as the survey area is now called by British Columbians, is situated in that geographical phenomenon, the Rocky Mountain Trench. The Wenner-Gren organization first heard of it because British Columbians (few of whom have ever seen it) like to boast of this amazing
I, 200-mile rift in the continent’s crust. More than two years ago at a cocktail party in London, William McAdam, B. C.’s agent-general in Britain, brought up the subject of the Trench. He told of the level valley, formed by one of the world’s greatest geographical “faults,” which stretches the length of the province from below the U. S. border to the Yukon, ten to forty miles wide.
McAdam described the Trench’s thick forest growth that assays three thousand cubic feet to the acre; of winters sharp but short in which the temperature sometimes drops to sixty below and snow lies as much as six feet deep; of cascading rivers begging to be harnessed for power; of deposits of minerals including copper, lead and probably coal.
Among the listeners was Bernard Gore, London director of the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Impressed with what he heard, Gore passed word on to others in the organization, and soon Wenner-Gren and his men were bargaining for survey rights to as much land as they could persuade the British Columbia government to grant. What they did receive and what they promised in return is outlined in a “memorandum of intention” signed last Nov. 16 and made public three months later. WennerGren has promised, in addition to mapping the area’s resources, to build a four-hundred-mile monorail transit system up the centre of the Trench, to build schools and hospitals to serve the area, and to build at least one pulp mill of 100,000-tons-per-year capacity.
Wenner-Gren receives “rights to certain of the lands and timber,” and the right to apply for mineral rights in the area of development. Gore has stated that he and his associates know only what McAdam and other provincial officials have told them about the Trench, but are convinced that it is worth spending five million dollars to get the full details.
The upper four hundred miles of the Trench has been partly surveyed, explored and prospected, but it is, as one visitor put it, “country only for the hardiest.” This accounts for the fact that the region has been little exploited. It contains three small trading posts and a mobile summer population of five hundred. In winter the number who stay in “Wenner-Grenland” is even smaller.
But in the next two years, according to WennerGren’s announced plans, five separate companies will start surveys of the Trench’s various potentials of electrical power, railways, mineralogy, pulp and paper and forestry. When this combined five-million-dollar survey is completed, says Gore, “we shall present our report outlining what we propose to do. If the government accepts our proposals we shall follow through with the development.”
Before this transaction, Wenner-Gren had three known contacts with Canada. All started on notes of high cordiality hut ended less happily. The first episode was the rescue of three hundred and eighty Canada-bound passengers by Wenner-Gren's yacht when the liner Athenia was torpedoed in the Atlantic a few days after the outbreak of World War
II. It would be difficult to convince those Canadians that the tall, white-haired, blue-eyed man who welcomed them aboard the providential Southern Cross was a continued on page 85
Is B.C.’s fanfare for Wenner-Gren another false alarm?
Continued from page 17
sinister figure, but gratitude over the rescue did not silence the circulation of rumors in Canada and the publication of suspicious questions in newspapers. How, it was asked, did Wenner-Gren, who was generally regarded as being on cordial terms with the No. 2 Nazi, Hermann Goering, “happen” to be in the vicinity when a U-boat's torpedo ripped into the crowded liner?
As he usually did, Wenner-Gren remained tight-lipped. But his Kansas Cityborn wife, Marguerite, had a fascinating explanation. Some nights previous in their home in Sweden she had seen an apparition: a man carrying a child with a bloodstained face. She called to her husband, but the vision disappeared before he reached her side. Terrified, she insisted that they leave on a planned trans-Atlantic trip immediately, two days before they intended to depart. Thus the Southern Cross was where it was when the Athenia went down, instead of two days’ sailing away. And when the rescued passengers were helped aboard, the first she saw was a duplication of the apparition—a man carrying a child with blood-stained face.
A year later Wenner-Gren made his second contact with Canada. He was cruising in Pacific waters off the Canadian coast and was invited to receive from Vancouver a large silver plaque honoring the yacht and those aboard her for “gallant behavior.” Fourteen Vancouver residents who had been rescued by the Southern Cross were invited to bring their families aboard for tea, and WennerGren made one of his rare public declarations: “1 find Canada full of faith in the future and not a bit jittery about the war.” The visit was, however, somewhat marred by the fact that Canadian authorities boarded the vessel and seized an arsenal of sub-machine guns for the duration of the Southern Cross’ sojourn in Canadian territorial waters.
In 1941 he experienced his last known “Canadian incident” until now, sixteen years later. He donated $10,000 to the University of Toronto for geophysical research. Immediately he was publicly accused of trying to gain access, by the ruse of keeping in touch with the experiments he was financing, to nuclear research being carried out in the same building. This time Wenner-Gren did not remain silent. Rumors and speculation about his relationship with Goering and other enemy leaders were piling up in the United States, Britain and Canada, and it was believed that he was in danger of being blacklisted by the two top Allied countries. He vehemently denied having any motive other than advancing geophysical research. In reply to newspaper comments, Wenner-Gren said: “It is discouraging when a man does his best to share his own good fortune with less fortunate people that he should be constantly hounded. But 1 will not attempt to defend myself because at a time like this it is impossible to overcome suspicion after it has been planted.”
A few weeks later Canada, the U. S. and Britain blacklisted Wenner-Gren. Whether there were specific charges
against him has never been revealed, but the meaning of the blacklist was definite. The Canadian government’s proclamation naming Wcnner-Gren on Feb. 12, 1942, for example, characterized him and others on the blacklist as “persons deemed to be enemies’’ because of enemy associations, and prohibited “trading, entering into transactions or doing any acts with, to or on behalf of" Wenner-Gren and other blacklisted persons.
The result of the blacklisting was to loose more speculation than ever on Wenner-Gren’s activities. The University of Toronto decided to keep his grant since it had been accepted in good faith and was being devoted to work useful to the Allied war effort.
At almost every stage in his fifty-year career an aura of intrigue and unreality has surrounded the comings and goings of the seventy-five-year-old Wcnner-Gren. The very name has come to mean an indefinable but unmistakable combination of great wealth, secret deals, tight-lipped henchmen and personal reticence. And in the background is usually the ship that has taken on some of her owner’s mystery, the big white Southern Cross, in her day the largest and most luxurious yacht afloat.
Wenner-Gren’s life is a textbook of opportunism. At the age of nine, a student at the public school in the small Swedish town of Uddevalla, his birthplace, Axel organized his first business promotion by providing a group of classmates with baskets and ashtrays to sell door to door.
The young Swede graduated from the College of Commerce in Berlin in 1902. at a time when the new chancellor, Prince von Bulow. had imposed high tariffs on imported agricultural products. WcnnerGren decided that German agriculture would boom, and he took a job with Alfa Laval company of Berlin, maker of separators and other agricultural equipment. When he felt he knew all Alfa Laval could teach, he returned to Sweden to start his own agricultural-equipment company, exactly fifty years ago.
This first business venture did not show a turnover large or lively enough to suit the impatient Axel. He felt that a small efficient motor was what his equipment lacked. So in 1908 he made his first trip to the United States. He found a depression in full swing, and the best job he could get in a motor factory paid fifteen cents an hour. After a year in overalls Wenner-Gren returned home with Swedish rights to the engines he had helped build.
But still his farm-equipment business lagged. Finally Wenner-Gren had to acknowledge failure. But he came out of that bitter experience with the business philosophy that was to make him a multimillionaire: “Deal only in goods that sell in big quantities to a few buyers, or one to a customer at every house in town.” He decided that the rapidly expanding use of electricity in the home offered scope for his ideas and he got a job with the A. B. Lux company, makers of light bulbs, as a traveling salesman with all Europe as his territory.
The real turning point in WennerGren's career came one day in Vienna shortly before World War 1. He called on an electrical-products dealer who scarcely had time to listen to the sales talk of the straw-thatched Swede, so engrossed was he in a strange contraption on his office rug — an early American vacuum cleaner. Soon Wenner-Gren fell silent and watched with shrewd eyes a demonstration of the gadget. He told himself that the engineers back home could improve the design. He bought one of the cleaners and took it back to Stockholm.
Wenner-Gren gambled his savings by assigning a leading firm of Stockholm engineers to re-design the American vacuum cleaner. Then he made a deal with his ex-employers, the Lux company, to manufacture it for him. Wenner-Gren himself organized sales by recruiting a door-to-door sales force not unlike his selling crew of high-school days. The new vacuum cleaner was an immediate success, and by 1919 Wenner-Gren could organize his own manufacturing company, Swedish Electrolux, and start subsidiaries throughout the world, including Canada and the U. S.
On one of these business trips across the Atlantic Wenner-Gren met Marguerite Liggett, a Kansas City girl with vivid dark-red hair. She had studied operatic singing in Berlin and even had a considerable success as a performer. They have now been married nearly forty years, and have no children.
Electrolux soon made Wenner-Gren wealthy, but left him unsatisfied. The promoter in him was reaching out in all directions. Between the two world wars he dabbled in numerous businesses. He bought into Bofors, the Swedish armament plant, and presented Stockholm with $100,000 worth of anti-aircraft guns before the second war broke out; he organized Svanska Cellulosa, Sweden's largest pulp producer; he acquired interests in Servel refrigerators, in the Anglo-French Banking Corporation, in U. S. ore refineries, in flour mills and dairy-product plants that today produce fifty percent of Sweden's flour and seventy percent of its powdered milk.
All this Wenner-Gren carried out without fanfare. Almost every Swede used his products, but few knew him. Elsewhere in the world where Electrolux vacuum cleaners and Servel refrigerators were becoming household words, the name Wenner-Gren was all but unknown. In fact the first time the name appeared in world news was early in the Depression, a time when newly acquired poverty was the normal state of man. But from Sweden came word that one Axel Leonard Wenner-Gren had become Sweden’s biggest individual taxpayer.
Unlike most men of great wealth, though, Wenner-Gren did not regard his enterprises as a hobby or as a spiritual exercise. “Man,” he said bluntly, “does not work from a desire to work. He works for the sake of acquiring comfort, pleasure and riches for himself and his family.”
Even his most ambitious project of those acquisitive years, the joining of the four Scandinavian nations into the United States of the North, was in a sense a long - range Wenner - Gren commercial enterprise. After he had formed and financed the Wenner-Gren Foundation to promote the Scandinavian union, he explained frankly that the Scandinavian countries would be unlikely to unite “on sentimental considerations alone.” On the other hand, “With our 17,000.000 people with their high standard of living we shall constitute so important a body of consumers that any power will find reciprocity expedient.” Wenner-Gren added the sentiment of kinship and the “impressive defensive strength” that unity would bring as two other reasons for the formation of the United States of the North.
His plan was, of course, a failure. Within a couple of years Finland was to be invaded by Russia, a little later Denmark and Norway were to fall to Germany, and Sweden, the “heartland” of the United States of the North, was to maintain an unhappy but impotent neutrality. Wenner-Gren claimed to have made attempts to preserve peace in Finland and to have acted as go-between in messages exchanged by Hermann Goer-
ing and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. When the pact between Stalin and Hitler made war inevitable, Wenner-Gren hastily departed from Europe in his yacht to keep the strange rendezvous with the Athenia, and on to eight unhappy years of exile on this side of the Atlantic, a self-styled “refugee from a world gone mad.”
For nearly two years Wenner-Gren, his wife, his secretaries and his ship's company cruised the waters of North and South America, seeking the ideal place to sit out the war. Wenner-Gren had seen
James Hilton’s movie Lost Horizon and had become obsessed by the idea of a Shangri-La. a place of peace and seclusion. The restless Southern Cross became a familiar sight in the roadsteads of the Caribbean islands, the Pacific ports of Central America, the steamy harbors of the Spanish Main. In 1941 he decided he had found Shangri-La. He bought several acres of rock and scrub on Hog Island, half a mile off Nassau in the Bahamas. He set a thousand native laborers to work clearing the land and landscaping it with sunken gardens and lagoons, and
building the white house he formally christened Shangri-La.
Wenner-Gren and his entourage presently showed signs of becoming reconciled to his being a refugee from warring Europe. He entertained lavishly at Shangri-La and aboard the Southern Cross, his guests including Garbo, Gaylord Hauser, the yoghurt-and-molasses dieter, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the Duke was then governor of the Bahamas) and other prominent visitors to the fashionable island resort. On one occasion Wenner-Gren obligingly took the Duchess
Blacklisting by the Allies stunned Wenner-Gren and marooned him with a mere million dollars
across to Miami for some dental work.
But Wenner-Gren was bored with life, even in Shangri-La. (Guests frequently wonder at his preoccupation with tropic paradises, in fact, for he does not fish, hunt, golf or loll on sunlit beaches. When he swims it is late at night in a pool near Shangri-La’s front door.) Soon the displaced Swedish industrialist was stirring up business among the Bahamas. Within a year after he settled there he had. characteristically, registered four or five companies, including a seafood and vegetable cannery and a dredging company. He made plans to clear a large acreage of swamp on Hog Island and develop it into a holiday resort he named in advance: Paradise Town.
In February 1942, Wenner-Gren was riding high. He had been invited to Peru where he financed an archæological expedition, presented the country with a million-acre public park, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cuzco, thereby becoming “doctor” to servants and associates. Next, Mexico invited him to visit. Presently General Maximino Avila Camacho, minister of communications and brother of the president of Mexico, announced two major pieces of news:
Dr. Wenner-Gren would invite his friends, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. to visit Mexico.
Dr. Wenner-Gren had decided to launch a $100,000,000 industrialization program in Mexico.
Before either of these things could come to pass, though, the blacklist fell on
him. The next word he had from the Duke of Windsor was that his home and his industries in the Bahamas were being taken over by the colonial government and Wenner-Gren himself would not be permitted to return to Shangri-La for the duration of the war. Mexico was at war on the Axis, too, and paid heed to the blacklisting by seizing the Southern Cross, although Wenner-Gren was allowed to stay in Mexico and was not deprived of his freedom. Wenner-Gren said bitterly: “I haven’t been using the yacht, anyway —people would have said I was refueling U-boats.”
The blacklisting stunned Wenner-Gren. He called the accusations against him “cruel and unfounded,” although specific accusations were never made public. He said the German press had been attacking him on the grounds that his wife was Jewish and he was “an exponent of international Jewry,” both of which he said were untrue.
Wenner-Gren was now virtually marooned in Mexico, cut off from the in come of his subsidiary companies in the U. S. and Britain. The man who was accustomed to having at his disposal the assets of an estimated $100.000,000 estate now found himself with a maximum of six hundred dollars a month Sweden would let him take out of that country, and about a million and a half dollars he carried with him as spending money.
Against this he had liabilities in the form of his personal entourage, and the staff of his Mexican Electrolux branch, now with few vacuum cleaners to sell.
In the face of this challenge, WennerGren bounced back swiftly from depression. The Mexican government allowed him to remove tons of the finest delicacies from the Southern Cross’ cold rooms and storage pantries, and he opened a deluxe delicatessen in Mexico City. Mexican society, which had first embraced him then assumed a more cautious attitude when he was blacklisted, now flocked back to buy his luxurious pâtés and anchovies.
To put the door-to-door skill of his Mexican Electrolux staff to work WennerGren set up a factory for the manufacture of silverware and trinkets. Lacking what he considered adequate capital for any major operation, he spread his measly million thinly into a resort hotel, a furniture factory, a razor-blade factory and an electric-appliance plant.
As a businessman trying to do business under already trying conditions. WennerGren was reminded almost every time he made a telephone call that there was one big Mexico City deal begging to be made: the amalgamation of the city’s two telephone companies. Later he was able to accomplish this by a complicated deal whereby he swapped Swedish securities for stock in the companies. To businessmen it might be a device for beating currency controls; to Mexicans it was an unforgettable blessing, since for years everyone w'ho needed a telephone had to have two instruments and two telephone bocks, and often had to try two phone booths before finding the one that connected with the required number.
In 1947, with the blacklisting canceled, Wenner-Gren made a triumphal entry into New York City. For the first time in many years he was willing to talk. He had come to put the final touches to a plan that entailed buying the Long Island Railway, replacing, or completely renovating its rolling stock, building numerous spur lines to sparsely populated points along its route, tunneling under the Hudson and East rivers in four places across midtown Manhattan to link the Long Island and Erie railways. A revolutionary feature would be “distanceless flat-rate” fares, which meant that for ten or fifteen cents a passenger could travel wherever he wanted to go. Cost of the New York scheme was to be $500,000,000. and it would serve as a pilot program to a similar plan for all the United States and eventually the whole world. There would be no profits in it for him. Wenner-Gren claimed (as he was later to claim in his Canadian schemes). He said all profits would go to scientific, charitable and educational causes, via such bodies as the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York, the Wenner-Gren Institute for Experimental Biology in Sweden and Denmark, the Wenner-Gren Cardiovascular Research Laboratory in Stockholm and similar bodies on which he claimed at that time he had already spent $12,000.000. (His 1957 estimate was $25,000,000.)
Two weeks after his first announcement. though, Wenner-Gren said he had thought the matter over and decided to drop it. “People are always suggesting all kinds of schemes to me,” he said. Two years later came another announcement. Wenner-Gren had been invited to appear before the Senate Committee on Public Works to submit his plan for a great international eight-nation rail and road network starting in Alaska and traversing Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala. El Salvador, Nicaragua. Costa Rica and Panama to the Canal.
"I his big project in international communications is the latest string on Wenner-Gren’s bow, and he is a specialist in this field,” reported the publication,
Stockholms - Tidningen. “The project would be financed through regional loans from private sources in conjunction with the International Bank. The Senate Committee feels the idea should be carried out as soon as possible.”
That ambitious plan has not since appeared in the news or before the Senate Committee on Public Works.
Before Wenner - Gren’s Canadian scheme was made public, he had been occupied in two projects. One was the development of a luxury resort on Andros Island, largest of the Bahamas group,
where his development company sells cottage sites at twenty thousand dollars an acre or puts up tourists in a comfortable clubhouse at the fairly reasonable rate of twenty-five dollars a day, meals included—less in the off season. The other is financing the development of monorails.
A pilot model, two fifths of full size, has been under test for three years in Germany. It was the "rapid transit" Wenner-Gren announced for Southern Rhodesia. and now for his British Columbia grant. Wenner-Gren maintains it is the ground transport system of the future,
but the monorail has not yet been tested
in everyday service.
The story of Axel Wenner-Gren shows that he is capable of both solid success and unfulfilled flights of fancy. Whether he will make a dent in Canada’s development remains to be seen, but if he has put half a million into it he seems to intend giving it a good try. It’s not easy to sum up this complex personality in one sentence, but a man who has known him for years has tried it:
"Axel Wenner-Gren is an able man— afflicted with delusions of grandeur.” it