Gertrude Sanford Legendre

Portrait of Gertrude Sanford Legendre by Sir William Orpen
Portrait of Gertrude Sanford Legendre by Sir William Orpen

Gertrude Sanford Legendre 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.

Mrs. Legendre was born in 1902 in Aiken, S.C., the youngest of three children of John and Ethel Sanford.  She, her brother, Stephen Sanford, an internationally recognized polo player known as Laddie, and her sister, Sara Jane Sanford, were said to have been the inspiration for Philip Barry’s 1929 play ”Holiday,” made into a classic movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Gertie was in her teens when she took a hunting trip to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and shot her first elk.

Horseback riding with her new husband, Sidney Legendre, in 1929 the couple came upon Medway Plantation in Berkeley County. They purchased the circa-1705 main house and bought neighboring land to form a 6,700-acre estate.  Gertie restored the house, putting in bathrooms and electricity, and filled its rooms with trophies from the many expeditions she and Sidney took to Africa and the Far East.  Here they hunted, entertained, and raised two daughters.

Gertie hunting Photo credit: College of Charleston Archives
Gertie hunting Photo credit: College of Charleston Archives
Portrait of Legendre family ca. 1940 by Toni Frissell
Portrait of Legendre family ca. 1940 by Toni Frissell
The Trophy Room at Medway. Photo from College of Charleston
The Trophy Room at Medway. Photo from College of Charleston
Gertrude with photographer Toni Frissell from College of Charleston
Gertrude with photographer Toni Frissell from College of Charleston
Gertie playing golf
Gertie playing golf

But the world was constantly calling to Gertie. In 1927, she and Laddie had gone off to East Africa, where she killed her first lion. Two years later, she financed an expedition to Ethiopia to gather specimens for the American Museum of Natural History. The Legendres went next to French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) to find more exotic creatures for the museum’s collection. In love with places off the map, they came across Laos’ megalithic Plain of Jars, and their photographs remain some of the earliest known images of it. Sidney documented their adventures in his 1936 book, The Land of the White Parasol highlighting his wife’s bravery and drive.

The pair’s wanderlust was inexhaustible. In 1936, they took a brutal three-month expedition through Southwest Africa, this time for the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. “When we weren’t dripping under the tent flies, we were getting stuck in ant bear holes as big as subway tunnels,” Gertie later wrote. Undaunted, she next financed a museum expedition to Iran.

1952 Gertie Legendre treking in Africa for National Geographic
1952 Gertie Legendre treking in Africa for National Geographic

Gertie with her Sister-in-Law Mary Sanford quail hunting.

When World War II erupted, Sidney signed up while Gertie volunteered, eventually being placed with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.  She became the first American woman captured in France when, on a visit to the front northeast of Paris, she found herself pinned down by German sniper fire. Held as a prisoner of war for six months, she escaped and went by train to Switzerland. 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.

Military sketch of Gertie Legendre
Military sketch of Gertie Legendre

Two years after the war, Sidney and Gertie were in India, collecting birds and mammals for the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Known as one of the grand dames of Charleston, Mrs. Legendre gave a New Year’s Eve costume party that was a tradition for half a century. At one of the last of those 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.”

Gertume in showgirl costume ca. 1950
Gertume in showgirl costume ca. 1950

Despite Sidney’s death in 1947, Gertie kept traveling, visiting Nepal for the Peabody and financing an expedition to French Equatorial Africa under the aegis of the National Geographic Society. But she always returned to Medway. Before her death in 2000 at the age of 97, she had the land protected with conservation easements so that no matter who bought it, it would always be wild and untamed, a bit like Gertie herself.

Oak Avenue, Medway Planataion (c) Brandon Coffey
Oak Avenue, Medway Planataion (c) Brandon Coffey

 

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