Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Mysterious Mrs Willy Grebst and her Daughter

Alone is strong!
The most famous of all Buddhist parables is that of the elephant and the blind men. It tells of the whim of a great Indian king who, for his own entertainment, gathered together a group of men who had been blind from birth and who had never encountered an elephant. He placed them around his own royal pachyderm and asked them to reach out and feel what was in front of them. They would be touching an elephant, he explained. Then he asked them to describe to him what an elephant was. The blind man standing behind the elephant took hold of its tail. An elephant, he said, is like a broom with a long handle and a brush at the bottom. The blind man standing beside the elephant touched its leg. An elephant, he said, is like the column of a great building. The blind man standing near the elephant’s head touched its ear. An elephant, he said, is like a big flat winnowing basket. The blind man standing in front of the elephant touched its tusk. An elephant, he said, is like a ploughshare. Upon hearing all these different answers, the blind men began to quarrel amongst themselves about who was right and who was wrong. And the great king laughed at their ignorance.
As a native English-speaking writer researching the life of Willy Andersson Grebst from distant Australia with limited resources, I was one of the blind men standing around the elephant. And what I felt with my hands told me that an elephant is definitely homosexual. “So what!” you say. And I do take your point – although you have to remember that we are dealing with Gothenburg in the early 1900s when the boundaries of social morality were significantly different from those we deal with today. As a Buddhist, too, I see the mind of an “ignorant worldling” such as myself as a swirling cesspit of unwholesome thoughts of many shades and varieties, occasionally interrupted by a wholesome thought, a moment of clarity or wisdom. So it doesn’t surprise me when these silly judgements spring up seemingly out of nowhere. From what I had before me, Willy seemed so much like the classic artistic bachelor uncle. There was no mention of wives and children. Not even in the emotionally charged obituary that was published in his beloved newspaper Vidi – a gushing obituary written by a distraught man who had been one of the first persons Willy called to his side when struck by his fatal illness and who subsequently helped nurse him to his death. The dying man had agonised long and hard over whether Vidi should go to the grave with him but no, in the end, he handed the editorship over to his friend for safekeeping. On the internet, I found an article by a gay historian arguing that Willy’s male associate, the new editor of Vidi, was a closet gay of the nasty self-hating kind.[1] So, from afar, the whole thing seemed pretty straightforward: Willy was gay. That was my mindset and, like all creeping mindsets, it expanded to fill in the many blanks of the story with whatever it saw fit, including all the usual John Inman and Dick Emery “Honky Tonks” stereotypes that the 1960s English-speaking generations were raised on.

Then I arrived in Sweden and cold new winds began to blow. One of the priorities high on my list was to acquaint myself with Vidi. Had Hans Erikson been submitting articles to it from Australia as he had once claimed? I learned that the University of Gothenburg held a complete set of Vidi on microfiche. So I found the library building in the vicinity of Haga Cathedral and helped myself to one of the microfiche readers and the tapes. The very first edition of Vidi I stumbled upon had an advertisement for Willy’s book, My Little Princess [Min lilla prinsessan] stating that it was based upon his relationship with his daughter. A daughter? Then, in Vidi of 9 April 1919, he printed an article about his adventures in Manly, Sydney on a day when his wife refused to leave the hotel because of oppressive heat. A wife? The picture was becoming muddier and muddier.

Vidi itself showed no signs of being sexually ambivalent - quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. On the front page of each and every edition published by Willy was an article and photograph of some pretty, charming or glamorous belle he had met and chatted with at the Hindås Tourist Hotel or on his travels. A pretty young miss who wanted to become a dancer and was seeking his advice on the choice of a teacher. That sort of thing. He very much gave the impression of being a ladies’ man and, dare I say it, a flirt. The newspaper was sprinkled with columns of witticisms about female psychology and jokes about male-female miscommunication. When I later read Willy’s book about his honeymoon to Tierra del Fuego, it became clear that he saw females as another species altogether: their manner of thinking was a total mystery to him and a constant source of grief flowed from the forthright tongue of his beloved who was quick to take exception to his many innocent blunders. The most intriguing blunder of all was seemingly made by both of them. They travelled through morally conservative, Catholic South America not wearing wedding rings and he inevitably slipped up by referring to her as señorita instead of señora:

It was not like I exerted myself for as long as possible to put off going to bed. Senor Villegas helped me. He saw the lay of the land. The inevitable moment finally arrived. I plucked up as much courage as I could and decided not to restrain myself. Did I have to run around and show our marriage certificate to every idiot in South America who doubted that we were truly married? I could frame it and hang it on a string around my neck! One shouldn’t be too sensitive out here in the wilds. One needs a thick skin and not to bother if people talk nonsense. But my wife was not of the same view. She gave me a proper dressing down. First, again, because I had been so thoughtless as to call her senorita. Then because I have been “disobedient”. The least a woman can ask of her husband was blind and unquestioning obedience, she said. How could she otherwise put up with him? If he goes around and thinks that he can do what he wants? If he doesn’t realise that it is in his own best interests not to say or do anything without first being told? I don’t understand. Was it not so simple that my dim mind could grasp it? I kept my cool. Despite the taunt about my dim mind. As I reiterated at this point, a wise sincere man should remain silent and let his wife talk till she is finished. It gives her mental relief. It achieves nothing to argue. If a woman sees a certain thing in a certain way, no arguments help. Nothing other than time can satisfy her that she is possibly wrong. So I alone took all the blame for what had happened.  I explained that she was completely correct and that I, as usual, had behaved like a fool. I ought to go down to the cabins and wake our fellow passengers up one after the other. I wouldn’t let them escape until they had learnt our marriage certificate by heart. If they were unwilling, I would threaten them with a gun. My wife darkened. She wanted only to be sure that I admitted that I was foolish not to want to behave like other sensible men. I agreed even to this. One should do as the crowd does and not emancipate oneself. The world endures no disobedience. It wants to have everyone the same. It wants to have as little difficulty as possible with individuality. In this manner, I was defeated. But inside I saw it as a victory. I had avoided a conflict. He who yields in this world is a wise man, goes an Indian saying. He who defies, a fool. This I learned through marriage.[2]

So now I had to deal with the existence of a Mrs Willy Grebst and a daughter. This struck me as being particularly odd because of what Hans Erikson had written in The Rhythm of the Shoe. Erikson stated that he was the sole beneficiary of his Uncle Willy’s estate. “All his wealth he bequeathed to me,” Erikson wrote.[3] He said nothing of Willy having a wife and daughter, his cousin. The estate comprised a stamp collection second only in quality to the King of England’s and a rare and expensive collection of jade and ivories. When the time came for the estate to be liquidated on Erikson’s attainment of his majority, he fully expected to become a millionaire overnight. But why would Willy pass his entire estate to his nephew when he himself had a wife and daughter: a child who was “his little princess”? It just didn’t make sense.
Nevertheless, I scoured the sources available to me for information about the wife and daughter. It was a frustrating exercise. They are not mentioned on Willy’s mausoleum and nothing at all was said of them in his Vidi obituary or the brief Dagens Nyheter note of his death. They are not mentioned in the Swedish Writers’ Lexicon biography. I now knew that Willy had written two books about the adventures of he and his wife on their farm in the Rocky Mountains. The books were set around 1910 and were published in 1912 and 1913. I expect that Anders Källgård and Bengt Öhnander were relying on these works when they stated that Willy’s wife was an American. Willy’s honeymoon to Tierra del Fuego took place in 1906. I myself have read this book but remain confused about his wife. We are never told her name. Is it safe to assume she didn’t speak Swedish? As an American, English would be her mother tongue. But we are not told what other language or languages she could speak with one notable exception: at a delicate moment in the book, she spoke to her husband with displeasure in German. The book also contains reference to a marriage certificate obtained in Berlin. Willy had studied in Germany and certainly spoke the language. Perhaps they met and married in Germany? Öhnander, however, implies that the wedding took place in America.[4] The honeymoon book contains two photographs where Willy’s wife is captioned and two others uncaptioned that she appears to be in. They are distant shots and whilst she is clearly Caucasian, it is hard to make out her features. We see her hatted and formally dressed, relaxing in an armchair and being entertained by the Governor of Uschuaia and his wife. Then we see her formally dressed, her shortish frame mounted on a beautiful piebald horse.

And what of Willy’s daughter? Öhnander threw me into total confusion by writing that she was born in 1917. I wonder where he got that date from? If it is correct, Willy’s wife and daughter were surely on the scene in Sweden at least three years before Willy’s death and Hans Erikson’s “running off to sea” in 1920. Did they visit him when he was dying? Were they present at the funeral in the Gustavi Cathedral? Did Hans Erikson know his little girl cousin? And what became of her? What terrible tragedy or family schism caused mother and child to “disappear”? The questions just keep coming.

If we are to believe Willy’s account of his honeymoon, his marriage did seem to get off to a rocky start and one can easily imagine it splitting asunder after years of the kind of bitter arguments the newly weds were quickly having. Willy’s personal motto was “alone is strong” and nowhere do I get the feeling that he ever saw himself as part of a loving team with “a good woman” standing behind him, backing him all the way. He strikes me as a loner, through and through. Divorcees often despise their ex-spouses but it takes a cold heart to completely walk away from a child, your own flesh and blood. Did Willy have such a cold heart? Despite all his bluster and disputation, he clearly held a deep community spirit and was happy to spring to the defence of the poor, the sick and the lonely. But one also gets the impression that he bore grudges and could be consumed by them. His hatred of Göteborgs Posten is the classic example; the newspaper ended up suing him for slander in 1917 as a result of which he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Perhaps he and his wife split so bitterly that he lost all perspective and gave his estate to his nephew as an act of spite? Perhaps we will never know.
I share with Willy Grebst the burden of having too active an imagination. Despite the paucity of my resources and the resulting inadequacy of my research, I couldn’t help wondering if Willy’s wife and daughter were real. Could they have been mere figments of his public imagination, a ruse to disguise his closet homosexuality. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it. But don’t forget that we are talking about someone of exceptional bravado here. Did Willy, as alleged, write a book-length “eye-witness account” of the 1908 Messina earthquake disaster purely from reading news despatches and embellishing them with his rich imagination? If he did, just imagine the gall required to do such a thing, to live a lie so publicly and so flagrantly. Writing an “on the scene” account of Messina’s misery from that cosy little grey cottage at Hindås in Sweden! The cheek of it!

It has been argued (not by me) that Willy’s close friend, Barthold Lundén - to whom he entrusted the editorship of his beloved Vidi – was a repressed homosexual who (after Willy’s death) desperately tried to deflect detection by publicly railing against homosexuality and male prostitution. Lundén’s anti-gay campaign began when he published an account of his being molested [antastad] by a 17 year old male prostitute while taking a stroll near the Great Theatre [Stora Teartern]. “The cheek of you!” Lundén had shouted as he tried to grab the miscreant. He described the feeling of nausea that struck him when he touched the young man. Nils Weijdegård has suggested an alternative interpretation of this encounter: that Lundén was actually eliciting sex in a known gay beat, was seen doing so and was panicked into acting out a case of molestation and writing about it to stifle any rumour mongering. So, was Lundén a repressed homosexual? Were he and Willy secret gay lovers who went to great lengths to conceal their “love that dare not speak its name”? Including inventing a happy hetero-family for Willy?

Whoa! Okay, I accept that this theory is “over the top” and well beyond the hard evidence. It could probably be very easily debunked by someone with the time to plough through contemporary records back in Gothenburg. So we have turned a full circle and come back to the nagging problem we started with: what became of Mrs Willy Grebst and the little princess? The challenge is there for interested Swedes! To Willy’s ghost, if he is planning on haunting me for raising the question of his sexuality, I can only say in my defence that I would never have entertained it but for the Messina earthquake controversy and my own Grebst-like imagination. Sorry!

To conclude this discussion of Willy’s sexuality and the role it played in shaping his behaviour, we must deal with his erotica and romance writing. It is typically straight and tame and sugar-coated - like the “Story from Tahiti” he unsuccessfully tried to finish on his deathbed. It interweaves several hetero-romances including that of Nature Man and his fickle girlfriend, Maara, who had grown tired of the relationship and was thus happy to escort Willy back to Papeete without so much as a backward glance at her former lover (a comment on female psychology perhaps?). The writer’s energy faded, however, and the story was never finished. Although no great loss to Swedish literature, it was a source of disappointment to many Vidi readers who were left “hanging.” Whatever happened to Salott, Geheri and Choo Chong? Did love triumph? I have the impression that this stuff was primarily written to interest women but, of course, gay male readers can imagine themselves in any role they desire. At the end of the day, Willy’s erotica, whilst demonstrating a keen interest in human sexuality, proves nothing about his own sexual inclinations. He was an artistic man mixing in artistic circles and, in my mind’s eye, I have no difficulty seeing him as a Gore Vidal bisexual who minded his own business. Maybe I should do the same?

[1] Nils Weijdegård, ”Barthold Lunden - en gåtfull göteborgare,” www.rfsl.se
[2] Willy Andersson Grebst, En bröllopsresa i Eldslandet (Göteborg Förlagsaktiebolaget Västra Sverige, 1913) pp 166-168, translated by A. Thelander
[3] TROTS p. 71
[4] Bengt A. Öhnander, Göteborg Berättar Ännu Mer (Tre Böcker Förlag AB, 1992) p. 72


  1. Found this link when searching for information about the Vidi newspaper: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=48273888

    1. Wow, thanks Anonymous - a whole new angle to pursue! Let me know if I can help with anything about Vidi.

  2. Some more links: http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/newspapers/?kwexc=&formDateFlex=10&group=&fname=&kwinc=&formDate=&lname=grebst&rgfromDate=&rgtoDate=&dateType=range&type=historical_obituaries



  3. And also :

    Its a payservice to get into the records, but I think it will give you some answers.

  4. But the records are free at:

    The family seems to be living in Boise, Indiana in the USA. Strange that the wife returned to USA early august 1920 - but in the registers of deaths in Gothenburg it is noted that Willy died at the Palace hotel.

    Ps - and yes, I´m working at the Swedish National Archives and found the Vidi, Grebst and your blog as I was doing some research about the spies in Sweden during WWI.

    1. Hi Anonymous. Thanks so much for your input. It's exciting to discover new facts. Will your research on spies be published? You are welcome to use my email thelander.a@gmail.com anytime.

  5. Note of the marrage in the Church Records of Gothenburg:
    6790 s87 317 1905-10-15 1905-10-30 Litteratör Daniel William August Simon Grebst Domkyrko fs Stella Frances Boomar 11R:11/4 7
    Hon tillhör pres.episkopalkyrkan i England. Obs! hon ej lämnat bevis om konfirmation. Vigselattest fr Sv. Viktoriaförs i Berlin den 8/11 1905.