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High society espionage

By: Bob Cudmore

Date: 2017-03-25

High society espionage
By Bob Cudmore, Focus on History. Daily Gazette, 03-25-17

Gertrude Sanford Legendre, the youngest child of wealthy Amsterdam carpet mill executive John Sanford and his wife Ethel, was held by the Nazis for six months during World War II for being an American spy.

Gertrude was born in 1902 in Aiken, South Carolina but grew up 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.

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 first 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.

According to her New York Times obituary, “Gertrude Sanford was in her teens when she took a hunting trip to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and shot her first elk. For years, she pursued big game in Africa, India, Iran and Indochina, and contributed rare specimens to museums.” She married fellow explorer Sidney Legendre in 1929.

Gertrude and her two siblings--Laddie (Stephen) and Sarah Jane--were the inspiration for the 1929 Philip Barry stage play “Holiday,” which became the basis of two movies by that name, most notably a 1938 production directed by George Cukor.

The movie character Linda Seton, played by Katharine Hepburn in Cukor’s film, is a strong willed woman based on Gertrude. Hepburn was the understudy for the part when the play was produced on Broadway.

In World War II, Gertrude served in England and France with America’s Office for Strategic Services, predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, until she was captured by the Germans when she went to the front lines in France in 1944.

The Times reported, “Held as a prisoner of war for six months, she escaped and went by 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 continued, and reached the border.”

In Switzerland Gertrude had dinner with Allen Dulles, future head of the CIA, and told him the story of her captivity as a secretary transcribed the tale.

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 held a New Year’s Eve costume ball for 50 years. She also established an environmental trust for educational purposes. She wrote two autobiographies, ''The Sands Ceased to Run'' (1947) and ''The Time of My Life'' (1987).


A reader wondered why many of the houses on the west side of upper Market Street in Amsterdam were not built parallel to that major thoroughfare.

Jerry Snyder of Historic Amsterdam League said the lots on the west side of Market Street were laid out at right angles to the side streets, such as Arnold and Lincoln Avenues, which intersect Market Street at an angle. The houses built facing Market Street therefore do so at an angle.

Snyder wrote, “I surmise this was done to allow them to place the largest house possible on the lot. If they had built with the front parallel to Market, the house would have had to be narrower to fit into the same side-to-side allowance on the lot.

“The lots on the east side of Market Street are laid out at right angles to Market, and the structures there are built with the fronts parallel to the front property lines.”