The Mistress of Medway
Left: Gertrude Legendre, left, and friend on a fishing trip off the coast of Guatemala. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library,College of Charleston. Right: Gertie on safari, likely the Abyssinia Expedition of 1929-1930. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston.
By Roger Pinckney
She dined with Haile Selassie, drank with Zelda Fitzgerald, shot quail with Bing Crosby, refused an interview with Adolf Hitler and left six thousand acres to coastal conservation.
Samuel Gaillard Stoney, owner of Medway Plantation outside Charleston, remembers his father praying, “Oh Lord please send us a rich Yankee.” It was a time when the landed aristocracy of South Carolina and Georgia, battered by the Civil War and buffeted by the Great Depression was going broke, hard sometimes to even make land taxes. God sent Andrew Carnegie, Bernard Baruch, Henry Ford, assorted Guggenheims and Vanderbilts, who snapped up islands and plantations for pennies on the dollar. And finally, Sidney and Gertie Legendre.
Sidney was an old time Creole aristocrat, a direct descendent of New Orleans Voodoo queen Marie Laveau. He wasn’t a Yankee but he had married one, Gertrude Sanford of New York, Bigelow Carpet money.
Gertie spoke French around the house, graduated from Foxcroft School for girls. Her momma was a Manhattan socialite. Her daddy and grand-daddy were US Congressmen, brother Laddie was an international polo star. The family owned a horse farm outside Aiken SC, raced thoroughbreds at Saratoga, and Hollywood made a movie about her big sister, Katharine Hepburn playing the lead.
Gertie was barely nineteen when she skipped the debutante parties and headed west to Jackson Wyoming, in 1920 no more than a hotel, a few saloons and a dozen houses. She bought a Stetson with a beaded band. She shot an elk. A brown bear in Alaska came next.
“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…Half the battle is opportunity. The other half is the willingness to say yes. For me, yes was always easy.”
One lovely October day in 1927, the Sanfords were joined in their private box at Saratoga by Harold and Peggy Talbott. Peggy was a society darling, the daughter of the man who had investigated the sinking of the Titanic. Harold was a politician and aviation pioneer from Dayton, Ohio, who would one day become the Secretary of the Air Force. They were heading out on safari. Would Gertie and Laddie want to come along? Saying yes was the easy part. But Father had to say yes too. Father did and Gertie was bound for Mombasa. “We were aboard an old Italian ship, the Giuseppe Mazzini…. full of noisy Italian children. One woman was called The Camel because she looked like one, chewing gum like cud. There was the seductive Latin girl with large bosoms who frequently wore low-cut gowns and hung over the railing. Everyone called her The Vampire. At night she danced the black bottom and the hula to scratchy records played on an old Victrola…. The ship’s fat doctor was especially intrigued.” Eighteen days at sea, across the Mediterranean, through the Suez, down the east coast of Africa. Temperatures soared, Gertie was seasick, the fans didn’t work.
Mombasa was a jabbering fetid squalor and Nairobi was three hundred miles away, uphill, via the Uganda Railway, the Lunatic Line, “from nowhere to nowhere.” The air got cooler and sweeter with each clattering mile. She traveled in the governor’s private coach and at daybreak just outside Nairobi, Gertie saw her first giraffe.
Legendre party move out for a day of hunting. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston.
The Giuseppi Mazzini, the Italian liner that took Gertrude to Mombasa for her first safari. Credit: www.wrecksites.com.
Sidney Legendre c 1936 in downtown Charleston. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston.
Medway from under the Oaks.
The safari outfitted at Nairobi, two professional hunters, two lorries, two cars, grub, quinine for malaria, whiskey to wash it down, trackers, skinners, porters, gun-bearers. Thus staffed and equipped, the party set off for the Serengeti Plain, crawling along at ten miles an hour over geography that boiled radiators, popped tires, stopped watches and loosened fillings.
The party shot birds and plains game for the table, five lions in what is now Tanzania, Gertie the first and the last, which charged and was finally stopped at twenty feet. She missed a buffalo, then boarded a steamboat on the Nile and headed to Uganda, where she hired an open cockpit bi-plane to fly the party to Cairo for the then enormous sum of five hundred pounds. Gertie had Africa in her blood by then, promising herself to return.
She got the chance a year later after visiting the Field Museum in Chicago. The Field had a display of Mountain nyala, while the American Museum of Natural History in New York, did not. She approached the director about sponsoring an expedition to Ethiopia, then called Abyssinia, to collect specimens.
It was the heyday of the great Carl Akeley, “the father of modern taxidermy,” who had worked for both institutions. It was no longer good enough to artistically and accurately make a dead animal look like a live one. The animal, or animals, had to be presented in a diorama of their natural habitat. Gertie would not be hunting for sport, the director informed her, but for science, with every relevant rock, leaf, twig, minor mammal on the trophy list. The display alone might cost thirty grand. “Hey Father! You remember all those polo ponies you gave Laddie?”
Father pretended not to hear her at first. And then there were the Legendre boys, Morris and Sidney. They’d partied on the Riviera with Zelda Fitzgerald just the year before. Scottie was there too, boorishly drunk. Gertie was equally smitten with
What’s girl to do? Simple, invite them both on safari.
The Sanford-Legendre Expedition, departed Marseilles just before Christmas 1929, bound for French Djibouti. From there it was overland in a train that dared not run at night, three days to Addis Ababa where the American ambassador arranged dinner with Haile Selassie, the direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Lion of Juda, Ras Taffari, the King of Kings, the Emperor of Abyssinia, the Son of God. They drank honey mead wine, conversed in French while eating a fourteen-course meal on gold encrusted plates. His majesty had never heard of a female hunter, much less one who hunted lions. Gertie presented him with a polar bear rug and he presented her with a mule and tack with a silver inlayed bit, but the safari crew refused to load it as it had once belonged to the Son of God. So, Gertie walked and the mule walked along behind, three hundred miles. The best they could make was twelve miles a day.
They collected a prime nyala, grasses, sedges, moss and rocks, three hundred mammals and one hundred birds in between the mud, dust and bugs, malaria, even smallpox. The safari hands got roaring drunk one night and enticed a bevy of local girls into camp. When Morris, weary of all the thumping and giggling, ran the girls off in the wee hours, the crew deserted. Morris would not let them return until they signed a loyalty pledge, using their thumbprints as they were all illiterate. It lasted almost two weeks before they got tore-up drunk again. The hands had no map, no compass and all parties to the negotiation needed each other to get back to Addis Ababa. After much palaver, it was an easy deal to strike. More promises and thumbprints.
By the time Gertie and the Legendre boys had returned to a rented villa on the Riviera, Gertie had chosen her husband. She would marry Sidney Legendre. Back in the States, finally, she broke the news to her father.
“That’s fine, Child, just fine. Come along now, let’s go watch Laddie play polo at Meadowbrook.”
After a honeymoon in a blizzard in a tent in British Columbia, husband and wife embarked on an East Coast road trip, looking for a home. Neither wanted New Orleans or New York, but maybe someplace in between? And that’s how they found Medway.
It was a wreck of a place, no plumbing, no wiring, only fireplaces for heat. But it dated from 1704, the oldest masonry house in South Carolina still standing, if barely. House, barns, outbuildings, 6700 acres of pineland and overgrown rice fields for $100,000. Daddy helped.
The Legendres restored and modernized the house, while keeping its original appearance. Sidney tried to make Medway pay, corn, rice, chickens but the only thing that worked was pine timber, the cutting of which made quail habitat, fine with Gertie. There were duck blinds in the old rice fields and the shooting was good, a staff of twenty-two, horsemen, huntsmen, boat men, dog men and domestic help. Jonathan Daniels, North Carolina newspaperman and later White House press secretary for FDR and Harry Truman, came calling, Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer later famous for the Time Square “kiss photo” in tow. The feature never ran but Life retains Eisenstaedt’s photos of a glorious driven deer hunt on Medway in 1930, double guns, tweed jackets, hounds and mule wagons and they are still online, nearly ninety years later.
Gertrude Legendre pencil sketch by SS guard during captivity by the Nazi army. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library,College of Charleston.
Gertie all dressed up and ready for the kill. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library,College of Charleston.
Dating from 1704, the 6,200 square foot Medway Plantation house is the oldest masonry structure in the Carolinas. Photo circa 1930. Credit: Special Collections, Addlestone Library, College of Charleston.
The author on a fishing expedition to the Bahamas with the last half of the last cigar on Norman’s Cay.
There were other expeditions, Indo-China in 1933, Africa again in 1936, Iran in 1938. But then a war got in the way. Sidney joined the Navy and was sent to the Pacific. Gertie went to work for the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, predecessor of the CIA, as a cable clerk in Washington and had casual access to top secret information. She was transferred to London and after the D Day invasion, to Paris, where she was given a fictitious ID indicating she was a second lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps. Several weeks later near the German border, her jeep came under enemy fire. Of the four aboard, one was mortally wounded, another later died when his hospital was hit by Allied bombs. Gertie and a captain, splattered with mud, blood and motor oil, were taken prisoner.
Back in Paris, there was major panic. Gertie had seen too much. If she cracked under pressure or torture, it would be an intelligence disaster, perhaps the greatest of the war. But it was the Germans, even the dreaded SS, who cracked.
Her guard, totally smitten with the lion hunter, presented her with a pencil portrait. Her SS interrogator, a reluctant Nazi with a wife and kids in the US, brought cognac to their sessions and Gertie made sandwiches of whatever she had, events highly anticipated by both parties. Other guards smuggled smokes and slivers of chocolate. Gertie played dumb. She was just an Army file clerk who got too close to the shooting.
The Germans weren’t buying it. The Gestapo had a dossier. They knew all about Haile Selassie and the lions. She was offered an interview with Hitler, which she refused. She was ordered to a death camp, countermanded at the last hour. But still, she did not crack.
Gertie and other high value prisoners were shuttled across Germany, just hours ahead of the relentless Allied advance. Finally, her SS interrogator caught up with her with orders she would be released at the Swiss border, but the train stopped two hundred yards short. Gertie jumped onto the tracks and ran. Her guard had a 98 K Mauser, the standard German issue, an exceptionally powerful and accurate rifle and one single shot between her shoulder blades would have ended this tale right then and there. Perhaps the guard did not want to meet his Maker after shooting a woman in the back. Or maybe he was instructed to let her escape.
One way or the other, he barked commands but did not pull the trigger. Gertie dove head-first into Switzerland, screaming the French she knew so well. Je suis un Américain !
Gertie had two daughters by then, Landine and Bokara. The children were raised on Medway by a black mammy, as was the custom in those days. Bokara was four when a strange and somewhat haggard woman appeared on the doorstep. “Come here, child,” her mammy said, “and meet your momma!”
Gertie and Sidney made a final foray into unknown lands, to the Indian-Burmese border in 1946 where they hunted tigers from the backs of elephants. Sidney was stricken with a fatal heart attack on Medway the following year. Gertie was devastated but kept travelling, the first white woman to see the far side of Mt. Everest and perhaps the first to break her collar bone drunk on rice wine in Nepal. On a final trip to French West Africa, she watched Albert Schweitzer peddle a bike that ran a generator that powdered an automobile headlight for surgery.
Gertrude Sanford Legendre died in 2000, at the age of 97. Her ashes were spread on the grounds of her beloved Medway, atop the ashes of her beloved Sidney. She had her will brought to her bedside, sometimes daily, tuned and fine-tuned, to keep Medway just the way she loved it forever. The Historic Charleston Foundation was granted an easement on the house. The exterior appearance would never change. Wetlands America Trust held easement on the land--no subdivision, no clearcutting, no commercial use ever.
Journalist and poet Billy Baldwin interviewed Gertie a few years before her death. He remembers a small woman, no more than five-three, with a commanding presence, husky voice and a hearty brassy laugh. “Mrs. Legendre, I’ve read about your many adventures. Was there ever a time when you were actually afraid?”
Gertie thought long and hard. “No, not really afraid, but I hated it whenever things got beyond my control. In London during the Blitz when the buzz bombs came at us sounding like outboard motors out of the water. Then the engine would shut off and there were ten or fifteen seconds when we did not know where it might land. Of course, when I was wondering if that German guard was going to shoot me when I ran. Bing Crosby stayed on Medway for a week and I had absolutely no idea what to do with him, but he made friends with my dog handler and they hunted quail every single day. And in India one night when I was in a tiger blind and the tiger crept in with me and I could feel his hot breath on my neck. I shot him the next night. He was a magnificent animal. I am really sorry I did that.”
Roger Pinckney is an award-winning essayist and novelist, author of fifteen books of fiction and non-fiction, including Reefer Moon, Blow the Man Down and Little Glory, optioned for film. Pinckney lives and works on Daufuskie Island, SC, beautiful, remote and sparsely settled.