August 13 – Happy Birthday Mary Duncan


By the time Laddie Sanford was born in Amsterdam in 1899 the family’s fortune had been secured. His father was John Sanford who had succeeded Laddie’s grandfather, Stephen Sanford as the head of the Sanford carpet mills. The original Stephen Sanford had been the most effective leader of the family business, rebuilding it after a fire destroyed the firm’s factory in the 1850’s and growing it into the largest rug company in the world. Laddie’s father John also proved to be a skilled executive when his turn came to run the company. He engineered the merger in 1929 with Bigelow Carpets in Connecticut, which helped the company remain competitive and survive the great depression. Both Stephen and John Sanford also served as US Congressmen. As it turned out, Laddie would follow in neither of their footsteps.

Instead, after graduating from Yale in the early 1920’s he became a poster boy for “the idle rich.” He was given a seat on the Bigelow-Sanford Board of Directors but where he spent his most time sitting was in the saddle of a polo pony. He was a very good polo player, one of the worlds’ best, riding for five different National Championship teams between 1926 and 1949.

When he wasn’t competing in international polo matches he could be found participating in foxhunts or in attendance at the world’s finest racetracks where the elegant thoroughbred products of the family’s Sanford Stud Farms competed in the biggest and most glamorous stakes races.  In 1923 the farm made history as the first American owned thoroughbred, Sergeant Murphy, won the Grand National Steeplechase in Aintree, England, and Laddie Sanford’s picture was on the cover of Time Magazine, the only native of Amsterdam to be so honored.

So it was horses instead of carpet that excited young Laddie and beautiful women too. According to the things I’ve read about him, he dated some of the most glamorous women of the world in his day including a few who were married, like the stunning wife of the Earl of Mountbatten. But when it came time to settle down with a permanent partner, Sanford chose today’s Amsterdam Birthday Celebrant, the late Hollywood film actress Mary Duncan.

She was born in Virginia on August 13, 1895. Her dad was in the military and her real last name was Dungan. She got into acting as a child and made it to the Broadway stage by the time she was fifteen years old. But her father wanted her to become a lawyer so she went to Cornell University as a pre-law student for a year and a half before deciding to return to acting as a career. Her big break came in 1926, when she landed the role of Poppy in the smash hit play, The Shanghai Gesture. The following year she signed a contract with Fox Studios and appeared in Very Confidential, her first movie. She would go on to appear in starring roles in a total of sixteen films and was considered a leading actress of her era.

In 1931, while making the movie, Five and Ten, Duncan became friends with the film’s leading lady, Marion Davies. Davies loved polo and took Duncan to a match during a break in the filming, It was at that match that Duncan was introduced to Laddie Sanford. The two were married in 1933. Once wed, Duncan retired from her film career and began a long stint as one of this country’s leading philanthropists and socialites. Her and Sanford maintained homes in New York City, Saratoga and Palm Beach, Florida. Duncan would go on to become a noted philanthropist and socialite. She was active in the American Cancer Society, American Red Cross and Planned Parenthood. Her specialty was organizing and hosting glamorous fund raising balls and inviting the very upper crests of society and the world of entertainment. She became close friends with Rose Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and the Queen of Jordan.

She remained married to Laddie for the rest of his life. He died wheelchair-ridden in 1977. Amsterdam saw very little if any of Duncan during her 46-year marriage to Laddie Sanford. By the time the couple wed, Laddie’s father had merged the Sanford mill with the Bigelow carpet-making firm and was pretty much retired full-time and living in a huge suite at Broadway Lodge in Saratoga. Whenever Laddie and his wife were in this area they stayed there as well. But when Duncan died in her sleep on May 9, 1993, she finally became a full-time resident of our city. That’s because her body is buried next to Laddie’s up in the Sanford family plot in Amsterdam’s Green Hill Cemetery



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