Mary Duncan Sanford

December 9, 2003

I am easily distracted. The other day, in search of information on polo player Stephen “Laddie” Sanford, whose Hurricanes won the U.S. Open five times in three different decades, I learned that Laddie had graced the cover of Time magazine, knew Cole Porter, played polo on Long Island and in Hollywood, summered on the Riviera. Heir to the Bigelow-Sanford carpet fortune, he could afford the best ponies and an elevated lifestyle. He was a playboy before the word belonged to Hugh Hefner and played polo before the word belonged to Ralph Lauren.

His sister, Gertrude Sanford Legendre, was a debutante, big game hunter and a spy with the OSS during World War II who was captured by the Germans, held captive for six months, and then escaped into Switzerland, sprinting the last 50 yards to the border as a sentry shouted at her to stop. She lived to be 97, an amazing woman, now almost completely forgotten.

As is Sanford’s wife, actress Mary Duncan. She starred on Broadway, most notably in 1926’s The Shanghai Gesture, and then went to Hollywood and appeared in 16 films, including 1931’s Five and Ten with Marion Davies, with whom she weekended at San Simeon. But in 1933, after a delightful performance in Morning Glory, a film that brought its leading lady, Katherine Hepburn, her first Oscar as Best Actress, Mary retired and married Laddie. They settled in Palm Beach. Their oceanfront villa, Las Incas, featured a room decorated entirely in sea shells. Mary played tennis, at first shocking and then inspiring a generation of wealthy women who had been taught indolence was their proper role. She lived to be 98, the Grand Dame of Palm Beach, whose work for charity surpassed all her other accomplishments.

They had the world by the tail, but now you can barely find a word written about them. So passes fame. But I remember them today, and salute their style.

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5 comments

  1. Gabrielle H.Manigault · · Reply

    I was excited to read you speaking of Mary Sanford. She was my great Aunt (Gertrude Sanford Legendre was my maternal grandmother) She was my favorite! She was glamorous every day of her life.When I was little and staying with her in Palm Beach,she would ask me which ball dress she should wear and then to pick out her jewels. Of course she would let me put on a ball dress too and put as many jewels on as a 10 year old could fit.Then we would sit down at her dressing table and put on makeup. When I was in boarding school and college,I would go stay with her in Palm Beach and Saratoga or the Pierre in New York. She put me on the Jr. Committee of The April and Paris Ball and had Scazzi dress me,and of course she added the jewels to complete the look! She took me to every party she went to,and I have to say, she had the rare talent of making whoever she may be seated next to feel as though they were the most divine,interesting and dazzling person that ever lived, the fact that they may be as dull as dishwater mattered not, because for a brief,shining moment, because of her,they weren’t! She used to tell me,”Darling,I have always told myself, if they like me,they can’t be that bad,now can they?” I never saw her in a bad mood,and I never saw her look anything but perfect. I miss her every day. At the risk of sounding cliche,they just don’t make people like that generation any more. Grandma was great too. Not quite as glamourous as Aunt Mary (like who could be) but very athletic and great fun. Aunt Mary was very athletic too,and looked great doing whatever sport! Uncle Laddie was already paralyzed in a wheelchair by the time I came along, but I would go for drives with him and Charles the chauffer. What a marvelous group of people they were, I’m glad I got to catch the tail end of that era,and I’m glad some people still remember them,because they should never be forgotten. Sorry to rattle on! Thanks again, Gabrielle Manigault

    1. Gabrielle, Thank you so much for writing and adding to this; hearing from family members is one of the most rewarding parts of writing these stories. Kihm

  2. Hi.
    There may well be renewed interest in Stephen “Laddie” Sanford and his family. A Bentley car from 1922 associated with Laddie Sanford and his horse Sergeant Murphy which won the Grand National in 1923 is in Australia and its story will be told.

  3. CLAY MARSTON · · Reply

    My parents were long time Palm Beach society friends of the Sanfords and I remember speaking about polo with Mr. Sanford many times at the various Palm Beach clubs or at Palm Beach Polo in the 1950s …

    He very kindly gave me a miniature polo mallet and miniature ball along with a signed full sized ball which I still have to this day, almost 60 years later …

    Laddie Sanford was, without doubt, the greatest American-born polo player and everyone wanted to meet him in those days …

    It is nice you wrote this fine remembrance piece as names like theirs should be remembered forever and then received that first informative comment … COLONEL77

    1. Thank you so much for writing.

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