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Cudmore: Sanford carpet mill heiress was held by the Nazis

Cudmore: Sanford carpet mill heiress was held by the Nazis

A biography of a socialite with family connections to Amsterdam makes the case that the heiress led an adventurous life, including being held by the Nazis in World War II.

South Carolina journalist Kathryn Smith is author of “Gertie: The Fabulous Life of Gertrude Sanford Legendre, Heiress, Explorer, Socialite, Spy”

The book is published by Evening Post Books of South Carolina, headed by one of Legendre’s grandsons, Pierre Manigault. Smith said the publisher never questioned some of the less flattering stories about Legendre found in the book.

In particular, Smith wrote Legendre caused family unrest as she was “not much of a mother,” farming her two daughters out to nannies and boarding schools.

Gertie Legendre was the youngest child of Amsterdam carpet mill executive John Sanford and his wife Ethel.

Gertie was born in 1902 in Aiken, South Carolina where the Sanfords and other wealthy northerners who were fond of horse racing spent part of the winter. 

Gertie grew up at the family’s New York townhouse, Bar Harbor Maine and Newport Rhode Island. She and her two siblings did spend time every year at their Amsterdam mansion on Church Street, donated by the Sanfords for use as the City Hall in 1932.

Her father inherited an estate worth an estimated $40 million when his father, Stephen Sanford, died in Amsterdam in 1913. The family operated Sanford & Sons, the older of Amsterdam’s two major carpet mills. The company merged with another firm to become Bigelow Sanford in 1929. Bigelow Sanford left Amsterdam in 1955.

Smith said Gertie’s father gave her a hunting trip to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming as a boarding school graduation gift. In Wyoming she shot an elk.

For years, she pursued big game in Africa, India, Iran and Indochina, and contributed important specimens to museums. During a family trip to England, Gertie met wealthy and handsome explorer Sidney Legendre. She and Legendre married in 1929.

Gertrude and her two siblings — Laddie (Stephen) and Janie (Sarah Jane) — were the inspiration for the Philip Barry stage play “Holiday,” which became the basis of two movies by that name, most notably a 1938 George Cukor production.

The movie character Linda Seton, played by Katharine Hepburn in Cukor’s film, is a strong willed woman based on Gertie.

In World War II, Gertie’s husband served in the U.S. Navy, primarily in Hawaii. Gertie served in Washington, London and Paris with America’s Office for Strategic Services (OSS), predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency.

She was not a spy in the field but worked in the OSS offices.

In 1944 Gertie and two colleagues in Paris drove to see the front lines. She and her companions were captured by German soldiers in Luxembourg.

Smith said Gertie was held and interrogated by the Nazis for six months. She finally escaped and boarded a 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 kept going and reached the border unharmed.

In Switzerland Smith said Gertie was debriefed by Allen Dulles, future head of the CIA.

Gertie’s husband died of a heart attack in 1948. Gertrude remarried for a few years then had an active social life until 2000, passing on at 97. 

She continued living at a home she and Sidney had purchased called Medway, a historic plantation near Charleston, South Carolina.

She also established an environmental trust and wrote two autobiographies. Medway today is still privately owned.

Smith’s book contains pictures of the Amsterdam Sanfords which Gertie donated to the collections at the College of Charleston.

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