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Legendre was born in 1902 to an “ultra-wealthy family” in Aiken, South Carolina, and enjoyed an enviably privileged youth. However, she always yearned for adventure—a desire that biographer Smith (co-author: Eleanor Roosevelt Goes to Prison, 2019, etc.) stirringly depicts in these pages. In particular, Legendre developed a youthful “obsession with big game hunting…

Winner of the Benjamin Franklin Gold Award in Biography

Socialite And Spy

Gertrude Sanford Legendre was a woman whose adventurous life spanned the twentieth century, beginning in Aiken, S.C. in 1902 and ending at her plantation outside Charleston in 2000. She was a daring and fearless woman whose adventures included being the first American woman in uniform held as a POW by the Germans during World War II.

Heiress, Explorer, Conservationist

Gertie was a daring and fearless woman – a feminist when hardly anyone knew what that was. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy New York industrialist, Gertie lacked for nothing in her Gilded Age childhood. But she wanted more than the debut parties, suitable marriage and life of moneyed leisure that claimed so many of her female peers.


Her adventures began in her teens, when she shot her first big game – an elk – on a hunting trip to Wyoming, a graduation gift from her father. During the roaring twenties when, she said, “everyone seemed to be dancing,” she partied on the French Riviera with the iconic American ex-pats there, Gerald and Sara Murphy and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and drove Harpo Marx around in her convertible. Gertie’s hunger for adventure took her on dangerous safaris to Africa, the Far East, India, and Iran, usually in the company of her beloved husband, Sidney. They collected specimens for natural history museums that are still visited by millions of people today.

The most perilous adventure of all came during World War II, when Gertie, who worked for the first American spy agency, the OSS, was captured and held prisoner by the Germans for six months. Her daring escape over the Swiss border was the only time she ever admitted to being scared. It happened on the eve of her forty-third birthday, and the adventures continued until she was almost ninety-eight, including decades of passionate advocacy for wildlife habitat preservation on the South Carolina coast. She left her 7,000-acre plantation Medway in Berkeley County in conservation easements to protect it from development.

Gertie is a rollicking read about an extraordinary woman who took every opportunity that came her way to say “yes” to life.

All images of Gertrude Sanford Legendre courtesy College of Charleston Library, Special Collections