Centenarian Sandy West wants to live out her days
on Ossabaw Island, but time may be running out.
Photo: Ossabaw Island is the third largest of Georgia’s Sea Islands and lies about 10 miles south of Savannah.
Ossabaw Island — The end is near for Sandy West, the doyenne of Ossabaw Island whose wondrous life of discovery and fierce love of nature inspired and beguiled generations of coastal Georgians.
At 103, with a once-strong body and keen mind failing, Sandy spends many of her days in bed cared for by mainland nurses and an adoring grandson who recently left New York to help care for her.
Her bedroom is well-equipped with life’s necessities — artwork, stacks of books, a refrigerator, a microwave, crackers for the birds that hover outside her window — within easy reach. Upright, in blue bathrobe, she can see the once-formal garden below, with two ponds and concrete statuary, designed decades ago by a Savannah landscape architect.
But the gardens appear weedy and forlorn. Her pink stucco mansion, too, has fallen into disrepair with tatty curtains, fraying carpets and pock-marked ceilings. Cobwebs and darkened hallways add to the foreboding.
Sandy wants to live out her days on Ossabaw, the largely unsullied barrier island twice the size of Bermuda that her parents bought in 1924. But money for the one-time millionaire, who plowed nearly every cent into her beloved island and its educational and cultural pursuits, is tight.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to keep the lights on, the caregivers on call and Sandy on Ossabaw. Unless $200,000 is raised by the end of March, though, the grande dame of Georgia’s coast will likely live out her days in a nursing home far from the oak-lined pathways, pristine beaches, golden marshes and menagerie of wild and not-so-wild animals that she holds dear.
Sandy, beset by earlier financial woes, sold the 25,000-acre island to the state of Georgia in 1978 for a deeply discounted price in hopes of staving off developers. Terms of the deal allowed her to keep the Spanish revival mansion and 30 acres. Upon her death, though, the property belongs to the state.
What happens next worries family, friends and Ossabaw lovers. Will the main house succumb to humidity and neglect? Will the state allow tens of thousands of visitors to tramp through woodstork rookeries, tabby slave cabins and 4,000-year-old Indian middens? Will developers grab a piece of the barrier island that sits just 20 miles below ever-expansive Savannah?
Photo: A loggerhead sea turtle hatchling hits the foam of the surf as it crawls out to sea after hatching from its nest on Ossabaw Island.
It’s a 20-minute boat ride in good weather from the mainland to Ossabaw. But don’t look for the ferry. Only invited guests can visit the barrier island 10 miles south of historic Savannah.
Jill Stuckey, a longtime friend of Sandy’s, commandeers a pickup truck at the dock and begins an island tour. Cabbage palms and moss-covered oaks line the sandy roads bolstered by crushed oyster shells. Wild piglets caught unawares scamper into the brush as the truck passes by.
Ossabaw is an island paradise, if you like your islands wild, timeless and bereft of commercial influence. Saltwater marsh, which changes color depending on the time of day, envelops two-thirds of Ossabaw. A thick maritime forest of oak, pine, palmetto and wax myrtle covers the rest, much of it replenished from plantation and logging days.
Boar roam the island in profusion, descendants of those brought here by Spanish explorers who carried their food across the Atlantic Ocean. But the hogs proliferate like rabbits, root up the roads and fields in search of acorns and eat the eggs of endangered loggerhead sea turtles. A state employee’s sole job is to keep the pig population in check via high-powered rifle.
Stuckey starts at the north end, where restored bunk houses host conference-goers, and meanders at 10 miles an hour to the South End Beach where dozens of dead oaks, palms and cedars have succumbed to the ever-rising sea. Deer and armadillo disappear into the swamp as the truck rolls by.
An occasional bald eagle soars overhead, as do many vultures in search of the pig hunter’s latest handiwork. Blue and white herons, wood storks, snowy egrets and hooded merganser ducks enjoy the sunny January afternoon.
Stuckey’s tour ends at the 1924 Spanish colonial revival mansion — Sandy’s home, called the Main House. It’s an imposing, 20,000-square foot, red-tiled, pink-stuccoed structure with a great lawn leading to the sound. Lulu Belle awaits upon entering the front hall. She’s a 75-year-old beeswax mannequin wearing a green gown from Ghana and flowery white shoes that belonged to Sandy’s mother. A paper tiara stenciled with “103rd Birthday” rests atop her thinning black hair in need of a wash. Most of her fingers have snapped off.
In days long past, Sandy’s father would position Lulu Belle throughout the house — on toilets, under bed sheets — in hopes of scaring the bejeesus out of guests. The dummy has also posed for pictures with five Georgia governors.
Sandy’s parents spared no expense on the 15-bedroom manse. All materials, including wrought iron balconies, mahogany beams, Portuguese tiles and plate glass windows, were barged over from Savannah. A solarium overlooks the garden. The great room evokes baronial splendor with a 25-foot-high ceiling and mounted heads of a water buffalo, black rhinoceros, Thomson’s gazelle and other trophies from African safaris. A lovely portrait, circa 1918, of Sandy, mother Nell and brother Bill offsets the otherwise masculine decor.
The 16-seat dinner table is set for eight and awaiting Sandy’s arrival. Many candelabra, all unlit, top shelves and sideboards. A window seat overlooks Ossabaw Sound. Another portrait of Sandy graces one wall.
But the hostess sends down word that she won’t be able to attend dinner.
I don’t feel like it, she tells a nurse. I’ve got a bone in my leg.
Sandy is fond of age-old sayings and other whimsicalities that get her point across and reveal a mischievous mind:
That’s how we apples float.
He’s not backward about coming forward.
We can’t all be Khanates of the Golden Horde.
“Much of what she says really makes sense when you think about it,” said Lisa White, a Savannah attorney and Georgia Humanities Council board member. “She’s eccentric in a good way and a deep thinker. She’s a wonderful combination of Grosse Point and South Georgia melded together.”
Captivated by nature
Eleanor Torrey “Sandy” West grew up in a wealthy Detroit suburb and wintered in Savannah at a mansion called Greenwich along the Wilmington River. Her father, Henry Torrey, was an ambidextrous surgeon who quit after witnessing the horrors of World War I. Her mother was the daughter of the founder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass, which made windows for skyscrapers and gobs of money for the family.
Hers was a life of privilege with touring cars, yachts and in-home squash courts. A debutante, Sandy attended a two-year finishing school in New York after high school. Mother Nell brought a staff of 18 — butler, chauffeur, laundresses, upstairs and downstairs maids — from Grosse Pointe when wintering in Savannah. Separate silverware was hauled along for the help. Nell ate breakfast in bed with fresh-cut flowers prettifying her tray.
Greenwich burned in 1924. Ossabaw had come on the market and real estate agents begged the family to buy it. Disinterested, at first — Sandy said the island “was considered a real white elephant” — they offered a paltry $150,000. Sold.
Like their fellow robber barons, the Torreys now owned a Georgia barrier island. The Carnegies possessed most of Cumberland; the Reynolds had Sapelo. A handful of wealthy Northern industrialists turned Jekyll Island into a wintertime playground.
Square dances were held at the nearby plantation of Henry Ford. R.J. Reynolds Jr. would send a yacht over to ferry the family to Sapelo for champagne brunches and formal dinners with an all-black orchestra.
As dazzling as the social scene was, Sandy grew captivated by coastal Georgia’s true charms. She rode horses down shell-covered paths to Ossabaw’s beaches, freshwater ponds or alligator-infested marshes. There were “rumrunners, poachers, real serpents” to be avoided and slave cabins, Indian relics and 800-year-old oaks to be discovered.
She and her brother would ditch their tutors and “sneak out the back door to run out and explore and play on the island,” she told biographer Jane Fishman in her book “The Woman Who Saved An Island.” “I learned so much by being outside. So much more than I could learn out of books.”
Ossabaw opened Sandy’s mind to the natural world. Her search for eternal truths, though, was just beginning.
Photo: Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist, enters the cedar house on Monday, July 22, 2002, part of the site of the historic Genesis Project on Ossabaw Island in the late 70's.
Haven for creatives
Sandy married businessman John Shallcross in 1935, had three kids and lived in Georgia and the Midwest. Sojourns on Ossabaw were interspersed with adventures in Bermuda, San Francisco, Nova Scotia, Natchez, New Orleans and Jamaica with Elizabeth Pool, her sister-in-law. The women shared a deep interest in spiritual enrichment. Together they embarked on meaning-of-life tours that inevitably detoured into Greek mythology, androgyny, the occult, metaphysics, semiotics and the supernatural, all rewarded at day’s end with four-star hotels and vodka martinis.
Hermes, the Greek god, aka The Divine Psychopomp, was their muse who “in stately procession leads our souls,” Sandy wrote in an odd little book she co-authored with Pool.
“Whatever place we choose for a trip becomes magic while we are there,” Sandy said in “The God of the Hinge: Sojourns In Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which chronicles the earthly and spiritual adventures undertaken by the two women.
The magic, though, wore off after Shallcross returned from World War II and they divorced. In 1952 she married Clifford West, an artist and art school professor, and had a fourth child.
Sandy’s mother died in 1959, leaving Ossabaw and a lot of money to her daughter and the children of her brother, who’d died. She and Clifford spent months at a time in Europe with their child Justin and co-produced 16 films on sculpture, architecture and the Italian Renaissance. Sandy wrote two children’s books and painted watercolors. She also produced a film on coastal preservation with renowned UGA ecologist Eugene Odum.
In 1961, Sandy and Clifford combined their two great loves — art and nature — into The Ossabaw Foundation, an artist’s colony where painters, scientists, writers, historians, mathematicians, linguists, sculptors and other intellectuals from around the world worked on their craft surrounded by the beauty and solitude of the island.
Thousands came for stays ranging from a couple of weeks to several months, some contributing as little as $50 a week for room and board in the Main House. Writers included Atlanta’s Olive Ann Burns, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood and Annie Dillard. Composer Samuel Barber, sculptor-designer Harry Bertoia, architect Robert Venturi and Irene Corey, who designed Barney the purple dinosaur, gathered in the dining room at night to drink wine, hear music, give readings or play cutthroat Scrabble.
“I didn’t care what they did here, I cared what the island did to them,” Sandy told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000. “I wanted to share (Ossabaw), I guess, because of my guilt of having such a wonderful place.”
Sandy created the Genesis Project in 1970, at the dawn of the environmental movement, for college kids and others to live off the grid while experiencing a slower, quieter, communal way of life. For $10 a week, students, including many from Shorter College in Rome, lived in treehouses, wooden shacks or old tabby cabins at the Middle Place, a former rice plantation along Buckhead Creek.
They cut down trees for shelter, milked cows, raised chickens and grew vegetables. They studied sea turtles, donkeys, pigs, plantation life and Native American archaeology. One researcher spent many quiet hours in a tree blind observing egrets. From his perch one day, he witnessed an alligator snatch a fawn from the bank of Egret Pond and eat him for dinner.
They baked bread while thinking only good thoughts to ensure good-tasting bread and after dinner engaged in impromptu jam sessions with pots, pans, spoons and a flute.
“I know hundreds of people from Genesis and the Ossabaw project whose lives or work were changed, for the better,” said Al Bradford, who co-directed both programs over nine years. “They were not there to play, except in a cosmic sense, perhaps, but to further their life’s goals. And Sandy learned from them, too, all these fascinating people from all over the place. Together, we all did something really great.”
Until it all came crashing down.
At dinner the other night, while Sandy remained upstairs, a caregiver explained that the lady of the house was tired from “all the hullabaloo” of the previous weekend. Sandy had spent a few hours riding shotgun in a pickup truck visiting some of her cherished friends, like Mary Helen, the diesel-sniffing Sicilian donkey, and favorite locales, like Middle Place.
Now, though, the old rice and indigo plantation is weed-strewn, the wooden huts collapsed and the tabby shacks over-taken by water moccasins.
Genesis and the artist’s colony closed in 1982 because Sandy had run out of money. Again.
The first time came in 1976. Sandy was spending her inheritance like water — maybe as much as $500,000 a year on staff, food, utilities and a 40-foot boat to ferry artists and students to the island. She couldn’t pay the island’s property taxes.
For eight “miserable years” Sandy fretted over what to do with her beloved Ossabaw. The island was appraised at $16 million. Friends and family suggested she sell it to a developer who envisioned another Hilton Head. Aristotle Onassis and wife Jackie Kennedy offered to buy it sight unseen.
One morning a helicopter landed on the front lawn. Out popped a self-described emissary of a very rich and powerful man. He pulled out a checkbook and pen and asked Sandy to name her price — money was no object. Sandy told him the island would be preserved and to bug off.
You had better leave, Justin recalls his mother saying. You are scaring my animals.
Sandy turned to the state of Georgia and a favorite son, President Jimmy Carter. Carter spent two days on Ossabaw brokering a deal that would turn the island over to the state but maintain its natural splendor in perpetuity. Sandy agreed, tentatively, to sell Ossabaw for $8 million — a bargain. Georgia taxpayers would put up $4 million. Robert Woodruff, of Coca-Cola fame, would add the rest.
Conflicted, Sandy took a walk on the beach trying to figure out the best course for her beloved island. That’s when she stumbled across a “huge, round, heavy metal disk lying half on the sand and half in the ocean,” she recalled in “The God of the Hinge.” It was bright red with distinctive white stenciling on it that said Coca-Cola.
“There was my answer,” she wrote. The sign now hangs in the Main House.
In May 1978 the state took ownership of Ossabaw. Sandy, as part of the deal, could stay in the mansion until she died. (A state-hired actuary predicted she’d live to be 78.) Public access was to be limited. No airstrip, ferry, paved roads or development of any kind were to be allowed. An executive order made Ossabaw Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve, restricting its use to “natural, scientific and cultural study, research and education, and for environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of the island’s ecosystem.”
The deal was purposefully squishy on public recreation (the “kiss of death,” according to Sandy) and its definition remains contentious. The state interpreted “research and education” as permission for hundreds of day-trippers and weekend campers to visit annually — few with notebooks or binoculars. Roads haven’t been maintained. The state ordered all horses and cows off the island, angering the animal-loving Sandy.
When wildlife experts said the pigs rooting up the island needed to be heavily culled, Sandy, who’d made pets of two pigs named Lucky and Mrs. Musgrove, exploded.
“I am not going to be pushed around,” she told the AJC in 2000. “I’m not going to let them destroy every bit of the power and magic we had. It would be so easy to do, the minute you put the hand of man here.”
President Carter felt the wrath — nay, passion — of Ossabaw’s protector.
“Fierce is a perfect word to describe Sandy,” he said last month. “She is a fearless fighter when it comes to what she feels is right for this lovely place.”
Others are less charitable, labeling Sandy “unreasonable” or “prickly” or “impatient.” Joe Tanner, admiringly, calls Sandy “a very unusual lady.”
“You’ve got to imagine what this was like for her — it was like we were going to buy her only child. It was an almost unholy thing for her to do,” said Tanner, who was then-commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, which now manages Ossabaw. “When the deal was finally done and the check was handed to her in the governor’s office, she threw it on the floor. It was like taking money for her only child.”
She picked up the check, though. Her brother’s heirs got half. She put the rest back into what was no longer her island. Four years later, she was near penniless. She still is.
Photo: The jaw bone of a white tail deer was mixed in with oyster shells by slaves when they built this tabby slave quarters at Middle Place on Ossabaw Island.
Part of the earth
“It got to the point where I was going to have to leave the island because I was going broke,” Sandy told the AJC in 1994, the year she turned over control of her remaining educational and research programs to the Ossabaw Island Foundation.
The Savannah nonprofit rebuilt the old Club House and Boarding House on the island’s north end, currently used for historic or cultural conferences. It also raised $1 million, much from actress Sandra Bullock, to restore three tabby slave cabins (tabby is concrete made with oyster shells).The foundation helps maintain the Main House and supervises the 1,500 or so people who visit Ossabaw each year.
Under an agreement with the state, the foundation will take control of the weathered and worn mansion upon Sandy’s death. What happens next is unclear. Elizabeth DuBose, the foundation’s executive director, would like to fix the plumbing, repaint the walls and re-plaster the ceilings. Maybe, at first, the relatively intact servants’ quarters could be used for guests.
“Certainly we want to share Ossabaw with more people,” said DuBose, an old friend of Sandy’s. “Extra people coming in and falling in love with Ossabaw only helps. It will be interesting to see what happens when Sandy’s not there.”
The state insists its deal with Sandy will remain in force.
State-owned property, though, gets scrutinized. It costs DNR about $200,000 annually to run boats to Ossabaw, keep pickups humming and pay a few salaries, including the full-time boar hunter’s.
DuBose and Tanner, the ex-DNR commissioner, suggest that Ossabaw may become like Sapelo, the mostly state-owned barrier island with ferry service, Reynolds Mansion, coastal research center and 30,000 visitors a year.
“It will develop over a period of time and see more activity, and they’ll probably have to put a ferry boat in place sometime and maybe turn the Main House into a conference center,” Tanner said. “But I don’t think you’ll ever see it turned into a Hilton Head-type development.”
Sandy, thankfully, won’t be around to see it. She’s increasingly “addlepated” — another of her favorite expressions. She has out-lived her long-term health insurance. Hospice sent her home because she wouldn’t die.
Friends who set up the GoFundMe page say it costs $10,000 monthly to keep Sandy on her beloved island. And Sandy has let it be known she never wants to leave Ossabaw. Ever.
“Ossabaw is Sandy West. Sandy West is Ossabaw,” said Jill Stuckey. “I can’t imagine the island without her. She has sacrificed her life and her money — everything — for this island. Sandy should never have to leave the place that she loves.”
In a 1975 typed letter to her husband and children, Sandy wrote that she wanted to be buried near the Middle Place in a plain wooden coffin which, one day, will disintegrate into Ossabaw’s rich, fertile soil.
“I so want to be part of the earth which I do so love,” she said.
“Ossabaw is still in pristine condition because (Sandy) is a fighter. Having little income of her own and always spending what she had to save the island, she now needs our help to continue living in her island home, which she has enjoyed and shared with others for —- years. I hope the people of Georgia – and the world – will join us in this noble cause.”
- Former President Jimmy Carter, who negotiated the sale of Ossabaw
“Sandy was terrific. She had a lot on her plate always — and was nevertheless great fun, an enthusiast, and outspoken. Of course she knew all her flora and fauna. We stayed in touch for many years.”
- Annie Dillard, author and Ossabaw Foundation participant
“She’s so multi-faceted it’s really hard to separate Moose the mother from Moose the person everyone adores. I am 62 and I think I know a good bit about life, but I’m still learning things from my 103-year-old mother.”
- Justin West, Sandy’s youngest son who gave her the nickname “Moose”
“Sandy is an extraordinary, unforgettable person. She is strong, witty and tough when she needs to be. I have enjoyed spending creative time with her: painting, picnics, walks, talks, making mosaics and repairing ceramics that her beloved pigs knocked over when they got into the house.”
- Craig Rubadoux, artist and Ossabaw Foundation participant
“I was on Ossabaw a few years ago at the foundation’s annual pig roast fundraiser when they escorted Sandy from her mansion to a podium to say a few words. ‘Hello, everybody,’ she said. ‘I am 98-years-old. Goddammit.’”
- Charles Seabrook, author and former AJC reporter
ABOUT THE STORY
I’d always intended to do a story on Sandy West and Ossabaw Island, but it wasn’t until her 103rd birthday that I realized I’d better do it now. Mutual friend Jill Stuckey invited me and photographer Curtis Compton to spend the night on Ossabaw and meet Sandy. Unfortunately, she wasn’t up for an interview. But the island, the mansion and Sandy’s friends and family filled my head, and notebooks with plenty of material. It isn’t easy writing a Personal Journey without the subject. Thankfully, other AJC reporters had interviewed her over the years. I also read her autobiography and a biography by Jane Fishman. Sandy truly is an amazing woman. A fund to keep her on Ossabaw for her remaining days can be found at www.gofundme.com/sandywest.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Dan Chapman has been a reporter for 30 years, starting in Washington, D.C. Ever since then he watched his career go south – to Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Atlanta. He has covered cops, government, politics, the economy, the environment, 9/11, the Middle East, Asia and all of Georgia.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.