Cudmore: Amsterdam’s Sanford family inspired a major motion picture


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Members of Amsterdam’s Sanford family, famous for making carpets and raising fast horses, once inspired a Broadway play that became a major motion picture starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Gertrude Sanford Legendre’s New York Times obituary said the three children of John and Ethel Sanford — Gertrude, Laddie and Sarah Jane — were the inspiration for the 1929 Philip Barry Broadway stage play “Holiday,” which became the basis for two movies.  Barry also wrote “The Philadelphia Story.”

John Sanford had inherited an estate worth an estimated $40 million when his father, industrialist and thoroughbred horse breeder Stephen Sanford, died in 1913.  That was a tremendous amount of money at the time.

Gertrude, the youngest in the family, was born in 1902 in South Carolina but spent time growing up with her two siblings at the family’s New York townhouse on East 72nd Street and their Amsterdam mansion on Church Street, donated by the Sanfords for use as the city hall in 1932.

In the 1938 movie, the fictional family has a fourth-floor playroom for the children.  The Sanford family actually had a playroom on the third floor of their Amsterdam mansion.

In real life Gertrude Sanford enjoyed big game hunting and married explorer Sidney Legendre.  She was a spy for the American government during World War II in France.  Captured and held by the Nazis for six months, she escaped by train to Switzerland.

Her husband died in 1948 but Gertrude lived until 2000, passing on at age 97.  She made her home at Medway, a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, where she had a New Year’s Eve costume ball for 50 years.

The movie character Linda Seton, played by Katharine Hepburn, is a strong willed woman based on Gertrude Sanford.  Hepburn was the understudy for the part on Broadway. 

Laddie Sanford usually went by that nickname, but he was officially named Stephen after his grandfather, who doted on him. The “Holiday” character Ned Seton, portrayed by Lew Ayres, is loosely based on Laddie.

More a horseman than industrialist, Laddie was born in 1899 and became an international polo playing star.  He married stage and screen actress Mary Duncan in 1933.

Actress Marion Davies, the mistress of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, introduced Duncan to Sanford after a polo match.  The Sanfords lived an active social life mainly in Palm Beach, Florida. 

Laddie, who passed away in 1977, and Mary, who died in 1993, are both buried at Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam, adjacent to the former Sanford mansion.

The “Holiday” film character Julia Seton, played by Doris Nolan, is based on Sarah Jane Sanford.  Named for her grandmother, Sarah Jane was married in 1937 to Signor Mario Pansa, an Italian diplomat in Mussolini’s government who was also a polo player.

The Pansas lived in Italy during World War II but Sarah Jane was back in America in 1946 after her husband drowned in a swimming accident near Rome.  Sarah Jane died in 1985 and is buried at Green Hill Cemetery.

The late University at Albany film history professor Rob Edelman, who lived in Amsterdam, was impressed with the 1938 movie, “Put forth in ‘Holiday’ is the idea that money isn’t everything.  What matters in life is to live as you see fit.  Do not be a slave to the almighty dollar.  Life is short.  Live, have fun, and keep the child alive within you.”

There was an earlier film adaptation of “Holiday” released in 1930.  In that version, directed by Edward H. Griffith, Ann Harding played Linda Seton, Monroe Owsley portrayed Ned Seton and Mary Astor was Julia Seton.

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