When the last of the Wendel siblings died in 1931, the world assumed that the childless family had no heirs to inherit their vast wealth and New York real-estate empire. Thousands came forward to try to make a claim to the fortune, but the only ones with a legitimate case, a young boy and his mother in Santa Monica, remained silent and largely unknown – until recently.
Through years of research and hours spent combing through old documents, letters and diaries, British Author Claire Prentice has uncovered new and enticing details about the story of the Wendels – “New York’s richest, strangest family you’ve never heard of,” as she put it – and the secret love affair that linked them to Santa Monica, which she shares in her newest book, Curse of Riches.
In the book, Prentice traces the lives of the seven Wendel siblings and the measures they went to in attempts to protect their fortune that ultimately resulted in their downfall. John Wendel, the only son of seven siblings, kept his sisters from marrying and having children for fear of dispersing the family’s wealth and diluting the Wendel name.
However, he fell in love with one of the family’s maids, Martha Schroeder, who eventually became pregnant with his son. Concerned with word getting out about the affair, he sent her across the country, arranged for her to marry architect Henry Hollwedel and paid for them to live in a house in Santa Monica, where he visited regularly.
While the book is rooted in the history of the Wendel family and their role in shaping the real estate landscape of New York City, it contains plenty of intriguing Santa Monica-related details.
The Hollwedels home was located at 958 4th street and was considered an architectural gem of the time. Henry had a hand in bringing to life several formerly iconic local buildings including the Mayfair Music Hall and the Henshey’s Department Store and was active in local politics. Martha struck up a friendship with a local artist called Ms. Treadwell and was a member of the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club. John Wendel eventually died in the Hollwedel home and sparked a media frenzy as reporters and the public sought to understand the family’s connection to such a wealthy man.
Prentice used resources including local libraries and the Santa Monica History Museum to research the book, which she said is entirely based on the facts of Wendel’s story.
“It’s all all truthful,” she said. “Some of the turns that the story takes are really bizarre and hard to believe, but it’s all fact, it’s not dry history at all. You might think it was fiction because there’s so much incredible stuff happening.”
Prentice added that she hopes sharing the story with the public could bring out even more details of this largely forgotten history.
“What would delight me is if there’s anybody who knew the family at all,” she said. “I just think that it’s really interesting, these stories that kind of disappear and then resurface.”
Curse of Riches is currently available as an audiobook through Audible (https://www.audible.com/pd/Curse-of-Riches-Audiobook/B0BNQWB836) and will come out in print later this year. To purchase the audio book and learn more about the author visit: https://claireprentice.org/