If the life of a woman is her legacy, then Gertrude Legendre has certainly left her family very rich. Gertrude lived a life few people dared, a formidable woman who truly lived larger than life.
Born Gertrude Ellen Sanford in Aiken, South Carolina on March, 29th, 1902 she was the daughter of a New York rug magnate and member of the US House of Representatives. She was also the daughter of Ethel Sanford, the daughter of Gertrude Ellen Dupuy and the Hon. Henry Shelton Sanford an accomplished diplomat, successful businessman and the founder of Sanford, Florida.
The youngest of three children, 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,” that was made into a movie starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.
Mrs. Legendre was reared in Amsterdam, N.Y. and in a Manhattan town house on East 72nd Street. She was educated at Foxcraft School in Virgina and made her society debut after graduating in 1920.
A debutante who forsook society to become a big-game hunter, Gertrude traveled the world after her first hunting trip to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming where she shot her first elk. For years, she pursued big game in Africa, India, Iran and Indochina, and contributed rare specimens to museums.
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 September 17th, 1929. After having two daughters, her husband died in 1948.
During World War II she worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mrs. Legendre began her wartime career as a secretary with the O.S.S. in Washington. In 1944, the agency transferred her to Paris giving her a WAC uniform and paperwork identifying her as a second lieutenant.
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, when she narrowly escaped on a train to Switzerland. As the train stopped just short of the border she dashed from the train while a German guard shouted orders for her to halt or be shot. She continued and secured her freedom.
After the war, Mrs. Legendre helped a German prison guard who had been kind to her emigrate to the United States. She also established the Medway Plan to provide medical help to countries devastated by the war.
In her later years, Gertrude established the Medway Environmental Trust for educational purposes and to ensure that her beloved home, Medway Plantation, (see Houses with History: Medway Plantation) would forever be managed as a nature preserve. She also wrote two autobiographies, ”The Sands Ceased to Run” (1947) and ”The Time of My Life” (1987).
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.”