About Gertrude Sanford Legendre
Gertrude Sanford Legendre (1902–2000) was an American socialite who served as a spy during World War II. She was also a noted explorer, big-game hunter, environmentalist, and owner of Medway plantation in South Carolina.
Born in Aiken, South Carolina, she was the daughter of New York rug magnate and member of the United States House of Representatives from New York's 20th congressional district, John Sanford (1851), and the granddaughter of Sarah Jane Cochrane (1830–1901) and Stephen Sanford (1826–1913), an American businessman and president and CEO of the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, who also served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from New York's 18th congressional district.
She was also the daughter of Ethel Sanford, the daughter of Gertrude Ellen Dupuy and the Hon. Henry Shelton Sanford, an accomplished diplomat and successful businessman and the founder of Sanford, Florida.
She was educated at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, and made her debut after her graduation in 1920.
During World War II, Legendre worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), essentially as a spy. She was the first American woman captured on the western front in France by the Germans. Legendre was held as a prisoner of war for six months and then escaped into Switzerland.
She spent 1923 to 1929 travelling the world as a big-game hunter in South Africa, Canada, and Alaska.
Shortly after exploring Abyssinia for the American Museum of Natural History as part of the Sanford-Legendre Abyssinia Expedition, Gertrude Sanford married the expedition's co-leader Sidney J. Legendre on 17 September 1929; he died in 1948. They had two daughters, Bokara and Landine. Landine was married to Peter Manigault, chairman of The Evening Post Publishing Company in Charleston, South Carolina.
Katharine Hepburn’s character of Linda Seton in the 1938 version of Holiday was loosely based on her. She lived to be 97 and wrote two autobiographies, one in 1948 and another in 1987. Regarding the trajectory of her life, she once said, "I don't contemplate life. I live it."
Her obituary was titled "Gertrude Sanford Legendre, 97, Socialite Turned Hunter and Prisoner of War." It didn't do her justice.
One is tempted to chide the newspaper (New York Times, March 13, 2000). People don’t “turn” prisoner of war. However in headline writing space triumphs over suggesting.
Gertrude Sanford, Debutante and Heiress
The remarkable Gertrude Sanford was born into families of wealth. Both parents were Sanfords. Gertrude’s father, John, and his father, Stephen, headed the Bigelow and Sanford carpet companies. Both men also served as congressmen from New York. Her mother, Ethel, was the daughter of Henry Sanford, businessman, diplomat and founder of Sanford, Florida. The grandfathers of John and Ethel were brothers.
The Sanford family originated in Connecticut. Gertrude was a descendant of that state’s Colonial Gov. Thomas Welles (1590-1658).
The family was part of the elite social circles of both New York City, and Charleston, South Carolina. Gertrude was educated at the posh Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, and made her debut after her 1920 graduation. Internationally recognized polo player Laddie Sanford was her brother. Gertrude reportedly was the inspiration for Philip Barry's 1929 play "Holiday", a 1938 classic movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant
Gertrude Sanford, Big Game Hunter
Gertrude was still in her teens when she shot her first elk during a hunting trip to Wyoming’s Grand Tetons. For years she tracked big game in Indochina, India, Iran and Africa. She fell in the Himalayas and broke her collar bone but refused to turn back then or from any of her primitive trips to collect plants and animals for the Smithsonian Institution and other museums.
It was while exploring Abyssinia for the American Museum of Natural History that she met Sidney J. Legendre, the expedition’s co-leader. It was known as the Sanford-Legendre Abyssinian Expedition. She and Sidney were wed in 1929. They had daughters Bokara and Landine. Sidney served in the Navy during World War II and died in 1948.
World War II Work
Gertrude could be said to have been a CIA agent before there was a CIA. (Her maternal grandfather had coordinated northern secret service operations during the Civil War.) She began her wartime career as a secretary of the Office of Strategic Services. This wartime intelligence agency was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1944, the OSS sent her to Paris, giving her a WAC uniform and identification as a second lieutenant. She became the first woman captured in France when, during a visit to the front, she was pinned down by German sniper fire. After six months as a German POW, Gertrude escaped by train to Switzerland. Her obituary gives this account: “The train stopped short of the border; as she dashed to the frontier, a German guard ordered her to halt or be shot. She continued and reached the border.”
Philanthropist and Environmentalist
Following World War II, Mrs. Legendre established the Medway Plan to provide medical help to war-ravaged countries. It also developed a plan for American cities to adopt and help rehabilitate French towns. Years later, she established the Medway Environmental Trust for educational purposes and to provide the means for Medway, her 6,700-acre plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, to forever be managed as a nature preserve. She also built the Promised Land School at Medway for local black children who had no school and supplied a hot lunch each day.
Gertrude Sanford Legendre’s Later Years
Gertrude wrote her first autobiography, The Sands Ceased to Run, in 1947. Still leading an adventurous life 40 years later, she wrote a second one titled The Time of My Life.
She was famed in Charleston for the New Year’s Eve costume party she hostessed for more than half a century. At one of those last parties, she offered a toast: “I look ahead. I always have. I don’t contemplate life, I live it. And I’m having the time of my life.” She also had a home on Fisher’s Island, off Long Island. She died at Medway.
Charles Duell, longtime friend and president of Middleton Place Foundation, said of Gertrude: "She lived with such elegance, sensitivity and style. She was certainly a heroine of mine, and so many people admired her stewardship, leadership and sharing.”