Lonni Wernike Wheeler Sanger
August 22, 1891- December 13, 1987
My Grandmother, born Lonni Wernicke in Berlin, celebrated her birthday every August 22 with a bang. Just what year she was actually born in remained somewhat more fluid. A study of her travel documents in the 1910's shows a wide range of birth years.
It now seems she was born in Berlin, August 22, 1891 on Alte Schönhauser Strasse, a place she drilled into my brain, but I have yet to find a birth record of it.
My grandfather, Richard Sanger, her second husband was a mere three years younger than my grand-mother, which was enough for her to adjust her age to narrow the gap and make it more socially acceptable.
It turned out that Grandma's birth year paled as a mystery, when I found out -- overhearing a colleague of my mother's who was a weekend house-guest--that my grandmother had been married BEFORE she met my grandfather.
It was very vague, after years of putting hints together, I had nothing much to go on as I had the first husband's last name wrong. Not until I found the passport database online did I find Lonni listed with Willard H. Wheeler: unleasing their story.
These mysteries, loomed large in my imagination, on account of my grandmother's mythic retelling of my grandparents meeting -- on an ocean-liner bound for the Orient -- he, headed for a job working for John D. Rockefeller's SOCONY - Standard Oil, in Hong Kong, she headed to visit a friend in Japan where she used to fall out of bed in the morning with the Earthquakes.
Then she told stories of their somewhat whirlwind marriage in San Francisco, the sapphire he'd given her, which was a forlorn empty setting by the time I came along. But she was never missing the huge silver Cambodian bracelets that attested to their charmed life in Asia.
To get to the point:
When my best-friend, and Grandmother died on December 13, 1987, at the alleged age of 96, at the Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital (where Maria Callas was born 64 years before), we had a simple memorial including the lighting of her favorite Sparklers on an upper East Side Apartment Buillding rooftop.
It wasn't until it was deemed warm and spring-like enough for Grandma, that a bunch of the family met in Cambridge, MA to bury her ashes in the Sanger family plot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
It was while sipping iced tea after the deed was done that all the family skeletons sprang from the closet largely in the form of a cousin, on our German side who had come down from Montreal.
Since writing this story I've come across a photograph of the day in Cambridge in 1988 when we went to bury my grandmother at Mount Auburn, Cemetery.
What's amazing is that I didn't remember half the people present. The photo is attached the people present were Left to Right back row:
Lonni Wernicke Gardner (Grandma's nice and namesake and the story teller), her husband Gottfried, Grandma's daughters Helen Sanger, and my mother Eleanor Sanger Riger, my husband Richard Duke Piper, and a member of the Cambridge Clan and in front row my sisters: Victoria Riger Phillips, and Charlotte Riger Hull.
The family bean-spiller, was aptly, one of the many women named Lonni Wernicke after my grandmother. Here it is:
Aunt Lonni was married to an American millionaire named Wheeler before she met Dick (Sanger), and she even went to be Renovated. (term of art perpetuated by the 1939 George Cukor film). She did meet Dick Sanger on an ocean voyage, and fall in love, and a little bit later get married in San Francisco as she had told us. While in Reno she met a woman who she evidently liked and she told her to go back and marry Mr. Wheeler -- since the only thing wrong with him was that he couldn't have children, and he wasn't my Grandfather who she was madly in love with.
This woman from Reno, does as she's told, marries my Grandmother's millionaire, and all is well till on their wedding night he blows his brains out, leaving a note that he can't live without Grandma Lonni. I remember this becoming a somewhat awkward iced-tea moment in Cambridge: Dick, my husband, was enthralled, my mother Eleanor was bemused and ultimately not shocked, my beloved Aunt Helen, my Grandmother's middle daughter appeared somewhat horrified and ready to crawl under the table, figuratively.
When I started seriously looking into my Grandmother's story, in 2008, my first forray into primary sources was through Ancestry.com and Family Tree Maker, and as luck would have it my Grandmother and both of her husbands spent a lot of time in the passport offices around the world leaving trails of facts, but also of amazing photos.
Not only did I prove the rumored first marriage, but I ended up staring at him face to -- not always lovely face. And that was only possible when her passports told me his real name: Willard Hayden Wheeler, not William. Jewelry merchant on Maiden Lane, and collector of museum quality watches.
Do all great loves begin at the passport office?
My Grandparents' apparently did. You can see them each, for totally different reasons, in January of 1919 booking passage on the Canadian and Pacific Lines, Empress of Asia Ocean Liner. Then each goes to the Passport office, my Grandfather in Boston, my Grandmother to New York.
Her application, coming as a married woman travelling alone, appears to have raised some eyebrows with the overly frank Passport folks.
That and being a German-born woman right after WWI.
"A Queer Sort of Case", they call it.
The trip together on the Empress of Asia, must have been some voyage, as they apparently decided to get divorced, and married. Within 18 months of their first sailing, they were.
And there appears to be a little more to that first voyage, a detour to Hong Kong for my Grandmother, when comparing the Ship's manifests and the intended routes.
Next thing you know in November of the same year Lonni has applied for another solo passport that engenders the curiosity of the Passport authorities, and says she wants to go to Europe to start some other artistic enterprise.
But her date for sailing, happens to coincide with her train to Reno, which we know because her name appears on January 7, 1920 in Brooklyn on the Census, as the married Mrs. Willard H Wheeler at home, and Lonni Wheeler, on January 10, 1920 as a roomer at the Golden Hotel in Reno, Nevada, and listed on the Census in Reno.
I'm not sure the trains ran that fast, so the census taker, may have been taken-in by the millionaire's assertions of her being part of his household.
Meanwhile my Grandfather is coincidentally listed at the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan for that Census, when he should by rights be in Hong Kong taking care of business for Mr. Rockefeller.
The divorce came off (I have the papers), and by the next day, with two witnesses from Reno, my Grandparents were married in San Francisco,
July of 1920.
They depart on the Empresss of Asia yet again in December of 1920 to begin their 20+ year stay in Asia, chiefly in Hong Kong.
There was more to know about Mr. Wheeler...
While I haven't proved that Jean Wentworth Marsh was in Reno with my Grandmother, her bio, and her experiences are awfully close to the tale told by our younger cousin Lonni.
She was 46 years old to my Grandmother's then 29 years old (give or take), she had already married and divorced one man (Alexander William Clements, 10 years her senior; the well-heeled Mr. Wheeler would be number 2; followed shortly by marriage to Mr. Jellico #3.
The amazing thing is that the story told by my Cousin Lonni was so close to the truth -- while 6 months late, the suicide note remains, the added character is the new bride's brother who seems shady.
Here Jean Marsh is depicted while married to her third husband, looking the caricature of the successfully Renovated woman a few times over.
I find myself wondering what happened to what the New York Times describes as perhaps the most complete watch collection in the world, valued at over $1,000,000 in 1920 dollars.
If they were given to a museum, which one? and can one see them. Would I recognize something bought with my Grandmother in mind.
Marsh's brother, E. Sheffield Marsh, quoted in the Times denying anything out of order in the suicide note, shows up at age 61, in the 1940 Census as a boarder at the YMCA, and an organist in a Church in Brooklyn. (In Wheeler's obit he's "a voice instructor with a studio in Carnegie hall," he gives his oft married sister as the person who will always know how to find him on is WWI and WWII forms, and he passes away one year after she does.
So I take solace in thinking he either spent any money he got away with from the Watches, or the proceeds went elsewhere.
Almost done -- a happy ending, and then an unhappy coda, that hit our family the way so much of the shrapnel of this unhappy Century hit so many families.
My Grandparents lived mostly in Hong Kong from 1920 to 1940.
At first the likes of my Great Aunt Eleanor, keeper of the 9 generation-long Sangers-in- America-Flame that ends with my Aunt Helen, were sent out from Cambridge to investigate the German divorcee, just as Grandma's brothers were sent in 1912 etc. to checkup on their favorite sister who had taken off to the new world with the rich jeweler.
But while she kept up her "wide-awake" sort of girl status living on the Peak in Hong Kong, playing bridge with Mrs. Shang Hai Chek, singing on the Radio in Hong Kong, acting as an official censor for the movies shown in the Colony, raising three daughters, she became fast friends with Mrs. Helen Mayhew and her husband, who eventually brought the Sangers to Martha's Vineyard on their furlough years back home in Cambridge.
What always marred the Hong Kong stories that my Grandmother told --how my mother was always afraid of loud noises because she was born on the strike of noon, the playing bridge with Dictator's wives tid-bits, etc. was that "your Grandfather stayed too long before the war began..."
In fact he was scheduled to leave on a Pan Am Clipper the morning of Pearl Harbor and it was quickly apparent that he wasn't going anywhere. He spent the next 6+ months a Japanese prisoner of war on Hong Kong, watching as the place he and my Grandmother had loved so much was torn apart.
The Americans with him in Stanley Yard, were much luckier than thier Colonial counter parts who stayed the better part of 4 and 5 years. His group came home on a two ship relay, reaching New York Harbor, 23 August 1942.