Biggs, Electra Waggoner Bowman (1912–2001)

By: Judy Alter

Type: Biography

Published: July 20, 2021

Updated: August 18, 2021


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Electra Waggoner Bowman Biggs, ranch heiress, international celebrity, and a sculptor of some renown, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, but lived most of her life on the historic Waggoner Three D Ranch in North Central Texas. Such was her fame that her second husband’s brother-in-law, the president of General Motor’s Buick Division, named the Buick Electra after her. Although there is less direct evidence to connect it to her, rumor has it that the Lockheed Electra was also named after Mrs. Biggs. She is best-known for the life-size sculpture of cowboy humorist and social commentator Will Rogers, riding his horse, Soapsuds. The piece, commissioned after Rogers’s 1935 death in a plane crash, is titled Into the Sunset.

Electra II, as she was known in deference to her legendary aunt, Electra Waggoner Wharton, was born on November 8, 1912, to E. Paul Waggoner and Helen (Buck) Waggoner. She was the great-granddaughter of Daniel Waggoner, founder of the Waggoners’ Three D Ranch, and the granddaughter of Dan’s son and partner, William Thomas (W. T.) Waggoner. An only child, she was two when her father moved the family from Fort Worth to the W. T. Waggoner Ranch where, for several years, young Electra enjoyed a ranch childhood. She and her parents followed the chuck wagon for beef and beans, sometimes slept under the stars, and rode to nearby Vernon, Texas, for supplies; she was a passenger in the open bucketseat stationed on the runningboard of her father’s roadster.

By 1918 E. Paul moved the family back to Fort Worth, and Electra enjoyed the benefits of an upscale childhood—private school and lessons in music and dance. As a teen, she was sent to a boarding school in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Never academically inclined, Electra discovered the social life of weekend parties at nearby colleges. From boarding school, she went to a “residential school” in New York where she took classes in art history, music, and Italian. Her mother, however, enrolled her in an accounting class at Columbia University. Her unofficial fiancé, a young man named Gordon Bowman, did her homework until she was found out, and the instructor advised her to drop the class. To fill her days, she took a class in sculpture and discovered her hidden talent for the art form.

A doomed love affair with a Spanish violinist was followed by an equally disastrous and brief marriage to Gordon Bowman in 1933. Electra and her mother spent six weeks in Nevada, where they established residency so that Electra could secure a divorce, which was granted on May 3, 1935, and then they traveled to California. Electra first decided to approach sculpture seriously when, on a lark at a party, she offered to sculpt a bust of a young man. During a brief visit to Fort Worth, she decided to return to New York and begin studying sculpture.

Back in New York, she spent evenings dancing, mornings sleeping, and afternoons working in a studio. She took part in New York social life and was frequently seen at “21,” El Morocco, and the Stork Club, as well as the Waldorf Astoria, the Biltmore, the Roosevelt, the Plaza, and the Ritz. Although she socialized with people named Rockefeller, Bouvier, and Chrysler among others, one young man emerged as special. John Biggs worked for the International Paper Company, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor and U. S. entry into World War II, he enlisted in the U. S. Army and was assigned to the Quartermaster Corps in Washington, D.C.

Electra’s sculpting career blossomed. Fort Worth newspaper tycoon Amon G. Carter, Sr., of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, commissioned her to do a bust of Vice President John Nance Garner for the 1936 Texas Centennial. Garner refused to pose, so Electra sat in his office and waited for him to poke his head out from behind his newspaper. Ultimately, she worked from photographs. The unveiling at the Centennial on Sunday, June 7, 1936, earned national media attention. One newspaper column called her the “Doris Duke of Texas” and cited her insistence that her art was “not just an escape from the ‘poor-little-rich-girl’”syndrome but a livelihood. Other commissions followed: Notre Dame’s Knute Rockne; Frank Phillips of Phillips Petroleum; a series of panels depicting the history of lighting, commissioned by Consolidated Edison; a medallion of Amon Carter, Jr.; a bust of actor Victor McLaglen; and, later, President Harry S. Truman.

One bust, done not on commission, considerably advanced her career. Electra worked hard to capture in clay the head of her maid, a woman of African American and Native American descent. During a summer spent in France, she studied marble-cutting at the Valsuani Foundry and rendered the maid’s head in black Belgian marble. Calling the bust Enigma, Electra entered it in the prestigious Salon d’Automne in Paris where it took third place.

In April 1938 Electra’s first major exhibition opened at the Jacques Seligmann & Co. Gallery in New York City. She had thirty-one pieces for the exhibition, and during the three-week show all the pieces were sold, including Enigma, which went for $3,000 to a gentleman who had wanted to buy it in France before Electra entered it in the Salon d’Automne. Several portrait medallions, including those of her cousin Buster and his then-wife, also sold during the exhibition. She had begun work on medallions under the tutelage of sculpting teacher W. Frank Purdy, a cofounder of the Grand Central Gallerie artists cooperative, who used the Lincoln penny to teach her the art of engraved images.

In late 1936 just before Christmas, Amon Carter commissioned Electra’s signature piece, a life-size rendition of Will Rogers on his horse, Soapsuds. Rogers had been a close friend of both the senior Carter and Electra’s grandfather, W. T. Waggoner, and a frequent visitor at Waggoner’s Arlington Downs Racetrack. Electra began work on a ten-inch clay model of the sculpture in a barn owned by Roger’s son in California. She continued her work in Boston in the studio of sculptor Arnold Geissbuhler, and with his help, she created a four-foot working model of the sculpture, which was submitted to Rogers’s family and friends for approval. She next worked on the life-size version in a studio in New York with scaffolding that allowed her to reach all parts of the model. But eventually she tore the model down and started over. This time she worked with a model about the size of Rogers and wearing his clothes; a New York policeman brought his horse as a model for Soapsuds. The completed sculpture, cast in bronze, was nine feet eleven inches in height and weighed 3,200 pounds. It was shipped to Fort Worth, where Carter hid it in a warehouse because of wartime conditions and because he was waiting for his son to come home after release from a Polish prisoner-of-war camp.

Electra Waggoner Bowman married John Biggs on April 25, 1943. The couple had two daughters—Electra III in 1944 and Helen in 1946.

 Into the Sunset (the Rogers sculpture) was dedicated in 1947 in front of the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum in Fort Worth, with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiling the statue and President and Mrs. Truman in attendance. Margaret Truman sang, “Home on the Range,” the crowd cheered, and Electra cried. In some ways, that moment was the pinnacle of Electra’s artistic career. Replicas of the statue were placed at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and near the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma. A later casting was installed in the Anatole Hotel in Dallas.

In 1945 the Biggs family moved back to the Waggoner Three D Ranch where Johnny, as Electra always called him, was named assistant ranch manager and manager of the annual Santa Rosa Roundup. For Electra, the move meant dramatic changes in her life, going from a full social life to ranch living far from the city. She traveled frequently to D.C. and New York, took her daughters to Europe when they were old enough, and entertained often and lavishly at the ranch. But she was content to be there with her husband and children. She continued her artistic career and converted a spare bedroom into a studio and accepted both public and private commissions.

For the next thirty years, Electra enjoyed ranch life, even as Johnny worked to keep the huge property current with the times. In 1974, however, he was diagnosed with throat cancer; he died in August 1975. She continued her sculpture and created miniatures of Into the Sunset and miniature medallion portraits. She also continued her customary entertaining with houseguests and dinner parties. In 1985 she was inducted into the North Texas Women’s Hall of Fame by the Woman’s Forum of Denton, Texas. She served as president of the E. Paul and Helen Waggoner Foundation, on the board of directors for the InterFirst Bank of Fort Worth (later Nations Banks), as director of the Quarter Horse Association, as an honorary vice president of the Cattlemen’s Association, and as a director of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show.

Electra Waggoner Bowman Biggs died in the hospital in Vernon, Texas, on April 23, 2001, after an apparently lengthy illness. She was buried in the Waggoner family plot in the West Hill Cemetery in Sherman, Texas. There is no catalog raisonné of her work. The best overview of her artistic accomplishments is the collection of the Red River Valley Museum in Vernon. The collection includes sculpture, photographs, guns, saddles, a replica of the sculpture studio, and memorabilia reflecting not only her career but the centrality of the Waggoner estate in the life of the region. Electra never publicized nor promoted her sculpture and never hired an agent. Commissions came to her by word of mouth and referral. However, her wealth, fame, social and political connections provided her a vast and reliable network of enthusiastic patrons, and her quasi-celebrity status ensured that her work always received favorable news media coverage. Although her career as a sculptor was often contrasted to her family wealth, her commissions never came close to financing her unabashedly extravagant lifestyle. However, in a family known for an astounding number of divorces, she remained married to one man (after a brief, unsuccessful first marriage), and she made the ranch, source of all that had been given her, the center of her life rather than New York City.

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Judy Alter, The Most Land, The Best Cattle: The Waggoners of Texas (Helena, Montana: Two Dot Books, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). Judy Alter, Thistle Hill: The History and the House, (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1996). Gary Cartwright, “Showdown at the Waggoner Ranch,” Texas Monthly, January 2004. Houston Chronicle, September 20, 2014. Sarah Morgan, Dining with the Cattle Barons, (Waco: Texian Press, 1981). Roze McCoy Porter, Electra II (Vernon, Texas: Red River Valley Museum, 1995). Roze McCoy Porter, Thistle Hill (Fort Worth: Branch-Smith Company, 1980).

Categories:

  • Ranching and Cowboys
  • Cattle Breeds
  • Cattle Management
  • Horse Breeders and Trainers
  • Landowners and Land Developers
  • Ranchers and Cattlemen
  • Ranches Established After 1835
  • Visual Arts
  • Sculpture
  • Women

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Fort Worth

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Judy Alter, “Biggs, Electra Waggoner Bowman,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 21, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/biggs-electra-waggoner-bowman.

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July 20, 2021
August 18, 2021

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