Author Kathryn Smith first heard about Gertie from a friend who was gathering information online about Medway Plantation. The friend described Gertie’s adventurous life to Smith.
“When she got to the part about Gertie escaping from the Nazis over the Swiss border, I said, ‘Wait, wait! All of this happened to ONE woman?’ I was hooked.”
So Smith starting digging into the archives at the College of Charleston, scrutinized the two books Gertrude Sanford Legendre wrote — a World War II memoir and an autobiography — and interviewed many people who knew Gertie, including her daughter Landine and her grandson, Pierre Manigault, chairman of Evening Post Industries, parent company of The Post and Courier.
“One reason I am drawn to Gertie is because she is so different from me,” Smith said. “I am not the least bit adventurous, hate camping and am deathly afraid of snakes, so I got a lot of vicarious pleasure from reading about her travels and exploits in exotic places.”
Those exploits are numerous, and recounted in detail in “Gertie: The Fabulous Life of Gertrude Sanford Legendre; Heiress, Explorer, Socialite, Spy,” available for $29.95 from Evening Post Books.
A book launch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 28, in the College of Charleston’s Hollings Science Center auditorium. Smith will speak. The public is invited.
Q: Gertrude Sanford Legendre lived an operatic life. Her youth was largely devoted to travel adventures and high-society escapades. But it was not entirely frivolous and carefree. What were some of her formative experiences? How did this period set the stage for what was to come?
A: Gertie answers that question best in her autobiography, “The Time of My Life”: “I certainly have seen many things in my life, but I’ve always thought of my life as a natural progression of interests that led to events that led to more interests and events and so on and so on. Each sequence was an unconscious preparation for the next.”
Probably the most important formative experience was when the big-game hunter Paul J. Rainey was a guest at her parents’ home when she was a little girl. He showed a film of a lion hunt in British East Africa, today’s Kenya. Gertie snuck out of bed to watch and was just enthralled. Her determination to go to Africa began then, though she did not realize that ambition for many years. Her first hunting safari in 1928 was followed by scientific expeditions she led throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Q: During World War II, Gertie and her husband got involved in the U.S. war effort, and Gertie ended up serving in the Office of Strategic Services, an espionage arm of the government. Her wartime experience, which included capture and imprisonment, exposed her to suffering and tragedy. How did this change her worldview? What life lessons do you think she drew from it?
A: I think Gertie saw extensive human suffering for the first time when she was a POW in Europe. The Nazis moved her from place to place around the country, and she was often caught up in large-scale bombings. On at least one occasion, she was traveling in the midst of a refugee exodus, and desperate people were beating on the windows of her car. She was also haunted by a short visit to a large POW camp, where the American and Russian prisoners were being badly treated.
After the war, she and her husband, Sidney, and a friend started a relief program for the people of Europe, linking cities in America with cities abroad. She also helped some of the Germans who had been especially kind to her during her captivity. I believe she considered her experience in Germany her ultimate adventure. She never doubted she would be released, and she loved living on the edge every day.
To try to grasp her experience better, I went to Europe last fall and traced most of her trail, from the Ritz Bar in Paris (where a drink costs $35!) to the village in Germany where she was captured to several of the places she was held captive. I even got on a train leaving from the same station in Germany that she did when she made her escape and rode it over the Swiss border.
Q: Gertie’s life of adventure must have taken a toll on her family relations. How did it impact her loved ones, her children and grandchildren?
A: Certainly Gertie’s daughters, Landine and Bokara, suffered from her long absences. I describe her as a “distant and disinterested mother.” Landine, who is still living, has nothing good to say about her mother, and Bokara really let her have it in an autobiography she wrote before she died in 2017.
Gertie’s grandchildren, on the other hand, adored her, and she made up for a lot of shortcomings as a mother with these four kids. It must have been like having Auntie Mame for a grandmother! The other person who was affected by her adventures was her husband, Sidney. He loved her and truly enjoyed their expeditions, but he was not nearly as extroverted as Gertie and was often worn out by her boundless energy and need for constant company at Medway.
Q: She was a nature lover, hunter and expeditioner who, later, would devote herself to the preservation of Medway Plantation. What is her conservationist legacy in South Carolina (and beyond)?
A: Anyone who is turned off by Gertie’s love of hunting has to be heartened by her mid-life transformation into a conservationist. It was genuine and sincere, because she realized the teeming herds she had seen in Africa were being hunted to extinction, and habitat was being destroyed all along the South Carolina coast by development.
She donated to causes to save exotic species and was a founding director and active member of the Coastal Conservation League, which has helped protect 1.1 million acres of fragile habitat from development.
The most important thing she did was to place Medway house and its lands into conservation easements, which prevents them from being developed, even if the property is sold. She said she wanted to give the beasts a place to grow old and die, and she convinced other large landowners to do the same. Some years after her death, Medway was sold, but the current owner is of similar mind to Gertie, and it is being cared for just as she wished.
Q: Gertie’s life of privilege and adventure spanned almost all of the 20th century. She was the product of a bygone era, and in a position to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to her. How might 21st-century readers of the book learn from Gertie’s experiences? How does she speak to us today?
A: I think people will be interested in the personal view she gives to cataclysmic events, such as the world wars, as well as her insights into celebrated personalities such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Albert Schweitzer. She wasn’t easily impressed. Her descriptions of experiences that can never happen again because of modernization are simply mesmerizing.
I think the most pertinent message Gertie gives us today is to be open to anything, to say “yes.” That’s a big catchphrase today — there is even a website called sayyes.com — but Gertie used it back in 1987 in her autobiography. She wrote that half of the battle of life is the opportunity to do interesting things, and the other half “is the willingness to say ‘yes.’ For me, ‘yes’ was always easy.” I think anyone could relate to that philosophy of life.