The Old Lady of Ossabaw

Sandy West is a living link to the days when Georgia’s coastal islands were owned by industrial barons

Photograph by Kendrick Brinson

In the evenings, when she closes her eyes, Eleanor Torrey West pulls on her riding boots and descends the back stairs of her pink stucco mansion on Ossabaw, an all but deserted barrier island twenty miles south of Savannah that only the luckiest people in the world get to see. Sandy, as she’s called, is more than lucky—she inherited the heart-shaped mass of thick forest and wistful marshland from her richer-than-Croesus parents. As she sees it, that makes her blessed by the gods.

In her remembered twilight, Maria, Sandy’s brown and white pinto, is still waiting. So is her estate manager, Roger Parker, a rugged fellow in his signature black Stetson. The riders leave behind guests—some of the nation’s most prominent artists, musicians, and writers—as well as a staff of eighteen.

It is dark out, but the sky is popping with stars. Sandy and Roger know Ossabaw’s 26,000 acres blindfolded. They take off down the main road, Spanish moss dangling from the twisty live oaks that line their way. They pass the oyster-shell-and-lime slave cabins built when plantations of rice and indigo and cotton dissected the land. Three miles away at Middle Place, a plantation turned artists’ colony that grows its own food and draws its water from an artesian well, aspiring painters and poets sleep in tree houses built from lumber they’ve harvested themselves. Their craftsmanship can’t match that of the one-room wood hideaway that Roger constructed between an oak and a magnolia, a place where Sandy, a social recluse of sorts, reads and writes and thinks.

Tonight, Sandy and Roger hunt down poachers looking to make bacon from the feral hogs. They cross paths with alligators, rattlesnakes, and armadillos. Blue herons, bald eagles, and white wood storks with black-tipped wings that resemble fancy dinner gloves soar overhead. The riders take special delight in the snowlike egret rookery before salt air from the Atlantic smacks their faces. Stretched before them is a seemingly endless coastline of white sand and dunes, untouched by man. Loggerhead sea turtles have dibs here.

At the end of the journey, Sandy’s soft blue eyes open. She looks around her room—at the stacks of books piled up around her bed, at her dog sleeping nearby. The poets and painters who attended her artists’ colonies and filled the evenings with talk and laughter are all gone. The pinto died long ago. Sandy herself is now ninety-eight.

As for the island, Sandy no longer owns it. She sold it—no, gifted it, really—to the state of Georgia three decades ago after exhausting her fortune on the Ralph Ellisons, Aaron Coplands, Annie Dillards, and hundreds of other artists whose words or brushes or notes her island inspired. But Sandy has no regrets. The way she sees it, no one has lived a richer life. Although she could have gotten millions more for her island from Jackie Kennedy Onassis or Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser or others who came calling over the years, she did exact a steep price from the people of Georgia. She gets to stay in the pink house as long as she wants. But the real coup: Ossabaw must remain off-limits to developers, and the masses, for the most part, remain stranded on the mainland. Even after she dies, Ossabaw will continue on as one of the last unspoiled places in Georgia and on the planet. “I fought. And I won,” she says. “Unbelievable. An old crock like me.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Sandy West on this trip to Ossabaw. My one and only visit here was eleven years ago, when I was working on a story for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about how the state was neglecting its stewardship of the place. Sandy, a mere eighty-seven then, watched over the island as if she still owned it and was only too happy to tattle on her landlord. “I am not going to be pushed around,” she told me. “I am not going to let them destroy it.”

In 1978, Sandy and her late brother’s heirs, who also wanted Ossabaw preserved, sold the island to the state for $8 million—half its appraised value at the time. Ten miles long and seven miles wide, Ossabaw is Georgia’s third-largest barrier island, sandwiched between Wassaw to the north and St. Catherines to the south.

Ossabaw takes the punch of the storms headed for Savannah. Two-thirds of the island is marsh, while farther inland, 9,000 acres of forest are an arborist’s delight—stands of live oak, loblolly pine, magnolia, and wax myrtle battle for prominence with thick, green saw palmetto.

But most stunning to first-time visitors is the beach—thirteen miles of sand and waves that have been washing away human footprints for 4,000 years. Hundreds of loggerhead sea turtles crawl ashore here each spring and summer to nest, making the beach a crucial habitat for the endangered animals. Indeed, Ossabaw is one of those rare places that have gone back to the wild. Although Sandy lives on the island with only a handful of people, in antebellum days the place bustled with slaves working four different plantations. After the Civil War, the island fell into the hands of various owners who mostly used it for hunting.

When I first visited in late 1999, the few historical buildings left on the island—including a cluster of slave cabins—were crumbling, so much so that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had put the island on its list of endangered places. A spill of the fuel barged in to power the island could have wiped out the wood storks and sea turtles. Under the terms of the sale, the state can use the island for educational and research programs, but there wasn’t much of either going on. Instead, the state seemed more intent on returning Ossabaw to its glory as a hunter’s paradise, viewing hunting as a tangible way to get people to the island.

Officials also argued that hunting was necessary to keep the deer and wild hog populations in check, but they couldn’t defend the turkey and duck hunts; turkeys were scarce on the island, and ducks, which are migratory, didn’t stick around long enough to upset the ecosystem. As Sandy was quick to point out, hunting purely for recreational purposes—actually, anything (except fishing) done purely for recreational purposes—is not allowed on Ossabaw under the sales agreement.

Sandy stands about five feet tall. At our first meeting, she was as self-conscious about her aging neck and speckled arms as any woman half her age would be. But the wicked laugh and sense of humor that she inherited from her mother made her irresistible. When I met her, she was wearing an oversized T-shirt with a bikini silk-screened on the front.

Sandy was at her most irresistible when she started talking. Her gravelly voice drew out and punched almost every other word for effect. When it came to talking about the hunts or the state’s stewardship of Ossabaw, almost every other word was a variation of the f-word. Sandy knew precisely the shock value of profanity when it comes from an old woman, and she employed it liberally.

Over the years, Sandy’s feuds with the state have generally centered on two issues, both steeped in ironies she doesn’t acknowledge. One issue is hunting. In the pink house’s two-story great room, with its rich paneling and exposed wooden beams, mounted heads of a rhinoceros, a lion, and other imposing glass-eyed creatures hang from the plaster. They were trophies bagged by Sandy’s father on his African safaris. But on Ossabaw, Sandy’s love of the indigenous animals has made her virulently antihunting. Indeed, one of the island’s most famous inhabitants was a 200-pound boar that lumbered in and out of the house as it pleased. Some of the hogs, believed to be descendants of swine brought to the island by Spanish boats in the sixteenth century, were shipped to the mainland decades ago. Today, chefs covet pork carrying an Ossabaw lineage.

Sandy has tacked up her own trophy near the massive stone fireplace: a child’s stuffed animal that resembles Bullwinkle. “If you have to have a head on the wall, there’s my answer,” she says.

Sandy also has had persistent run-ins with the state about its efforts to open the island to more people. Her position, plain and simple: Ossabaw is the way it is supposed to be. Human beings cannot leave well enough alone. The irony here is that Sandy has spent years trying to restrict the very access that her family’s wealth made possible for her. “I love this island so much that I would do anything to save it,” she says. “I have no faith in the public.”

Sandy’s maternal great-grandfather, John Baptiste Ford, founded the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in 1883. One of its products—a twelve-by-fourteen-foot picture window in Sandy’s great room, which overlooks Ossabaw Sound—was one of the largest of its kind when her parents built the Spanish Colonial Revival house back in 1924.

Sandy laments that her father’s brilliance often gets lost in the family narrative. Henry Torrey was a gifted surgeon—he could operate with either hand—but moved away from surgery after the trauma of World War I.

Sandy grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a wealthy suburb of Detroit. In photos, her childhood home resembles the White House. Her family spent the winters at their forty-room house in Savannah. After the Georgia home burned down in 1923, Sandy’s parents bought Ossabaw from a shipping company that had used the land as a hunting preserve. They paid $150,000 and built the 20,000-square-foot pink stucco mansion.

At the time, Georgia’s barrier islands were playgrounds for America’s industrial barons. The Carnegie family owned 4,000 acres of Cumberland to the south, and Howard Coffin, who’d started the Hudson Motor Company, owned Sapelo. Coffin was good friends with Sandy’s parents. “He said, ‘I want to build you a car,’” Sandy recalls. “I was just a teenager, but I told him I wanted a roadster with a pointed back. And I wanted it to be half yellow and half red. Can you imagine anything more hideous? But he built it. I drove it all around Grosse Pointe for years. It was that kind of a life.”

When Sandy and her family traveled to Ossabaw, they brought along their cook, waitress, butler, maids, housekeeper, and chauffeur. But the island transformed Sandy and her older brother, Bill. They went from pampered children to young adults who could fend for themselves.

“It changed our lives. I could change a tire, I could ride a horse, I could run a boat,” Sandy says. “I can’t tell you what confidence that gave me.” Sandy and her brother each had a tutor on Ossabaw. “Mother and Dad would be downstairs having breakfast, and we’d say we have to go to the schoolroom on the second floor. We’d go up one flight of stairs and down the other, and they never knew. The tutors were just as bad as we were. We knew so much more than the kids who were sitting in school.”

Private boat is the only way to get to Ossabaw. There is no ferry, no causeway. When I went in early December, the water was calm and the ride from Savannah took just twenty minutes. The road from the dock is flanked by cabbage palms and passes through breathtaking canopies of live oak.

Sandy’s house was showing signs of neglect. There were few traces of her mother’s gardens, designed in part by the pioneering landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman. Some of the windows were broken. And everything, it seemed, could use a fresh coat of paint.

But the front door, rimmed in stunning bright yellow tile featuring deep purple grapes and bright green leaves, was still inviting. The fifteen-bedroom house looked much as it did a decade earlier—actually, much as it did when Sandy’s parents built it. The same drapes. The same Jacobean chairs. The same LuluBelle. I had forgotten all about the life-sized mannequin that Sandy’s father hid around the mansion to scare the bejesus out of guests. Featured in photographs with presidents and governors alike, LuluBelle scared me when she was merely sitting in plain sight.

I made my way up the back stairs and down a long hallway of photos and tributes that spoke to Sandy’s remarkable years and range. The 1972 diploma from Witch Gundella certifying Sandy as a witch’s apprentice. The award Sandy received from the Garden Club of America recognizing her work in environmental protection. Photos of past Georgia governors—George Busbee, Jimmy Carter, Roy Barnes. Sandwiched between the pictures of art historian H.W. Janson and linguist Roman Jakobson was one of Sandy with a very tattooed Gregg Allman (yes, the rocker), who lives in nearby Richmond Hill and comes calling from time to time.

I knocked on Sandy’s bedroom door. A maniacal reader, Sandy was in bed with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I pulled up a rocking chair. “These shitty politicians are ruining this country,” she announced. I told her I had prepared myself to find a different Sandy at ninety-eight. She let out that beautiful wicked laugh.

Not far from the pink house is a modest, single-story, white frame one built by Sandy’s late brother, Bill, who took over management of the island at one point and used it to raise cattle. Today, Roger Parker, the pensive island cowboy who has worked for Sandy or some member of her family for sixty years, bunks there. Sandy and Roger have fought and made up so many times that they have stopped counting. “I love Mrs. West to death, but if I’ve told her once, I’ve probably told her fifty times—there ain’t going to be no man who can stand to live with her, because she’s got to run the show,” Roger said. He recently turned seventy-five but is still fit and trim.

The state’s island manager and his wife live close by, while Jim Bitler—who works for the Ossabaw Island Foundation, a nonprofit that runs the educational programs and oversees the buildings—lives in a trailer not far from the boat dock. Every spring, Bitler accompanies Sandy to Hell Hole Road to look at the dogwood blooming. “I told her that I didn’t know what I would do when she was gone,” Bitler said. Her answer to him: “If you don’t see me behind every bush or tree, I have not done something right.”

Sandy’s Savannah friends tag-team visits so she won’t be left alone. But mostly Sandy keeps to herself. She has been doing a lot of listening, she told me. Not to the radio or TV—she does not own either. “Archimedes said, ‘If I could only sit on the edge of the universe and forget everything that I ever knew, I might have an idea that could save us.’ That is sort of what I have been doing,” she explained. Not too long ago, she would have contemplated such things across the island in the hideaway that Roger built. Today, her bedroom is the edge of her universe.

The room is stocked to conserve steps. There is a refrigerator, a microwave, and a table full of crackers to fling out of the window to the resident goose, Christmas; Sandy’s aging horses, Poco and Phoenix; and a boar named Paul Mitchell, born in need of a good coif. Sandy shares her inside world with her well-fed beagle, Toby.

Sometimes anxious thoughts invade the listening, especially in the mornings. Sandy worries about her four children—products of two marriages that ended in divorce. There are thoughts about what would happen if she ran out of money. I asked where she wanted to die. “It doesn’t matter where I die. I’d just as soon croak at Belk’s,” she snapped. “But I do want to live the end of my days here.”

She insisted she is not lonely. “I was tremendously social when I was fairly good-looking,” she told me. “I always had lots of boyfriends, and two husbands, but I always liked being by myself. I have my books.” Some of the books lying about were written by the people who came to Sandy’s artists’ colonies. One of her favorite authors? Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man. “He was so gentle,” she said. “I just adored him.”

In the great room downstairs is a luscious oil painting of a fair-haired child version of Sandy leaning against her striking mother, who is dressed in a flowing green dress and pearls. It is a reminder of the money that brought the Torreys to Ossabaw. On the desk, not far from the Bullwinkle head, sits a chocolate-brown leather register embossed in gold with the words Ossabaw Island Project, the artist colony that Sandy ran in the sixties, seventies, and eighties and the answer to the frequently asked question: Where did all the money go?

In the front of the register is an old contract spelling out the mission of the program, dreamed up by Sandy’s second husband, a painter. “The Ossabaw Island Project wishes to offer the Island and its facilities to men and women of creative thought and purpose as a place . . . to interpret their ideas and to gain understanding in ordinarily distant fields,” the contract reads. Living quarters, workspace, meals, etc., would be provided “for a nominal sum of twenty-five dollars a week”—a fee that Sandy says didn’t cover the lemon in their tea.

Sandy and her husband wanted their program on Ossabaw to be on a scale with MacDowell in New Hampshire and Yaddo in New York, artists’ colonies started by wealthy patrons in the 1900s that continue to exist today.

“I fell heir to this island,” she explained to me. “All I wanted to do is give people a place that had no demands on them and where they would be with other interesting people in different fields. I didn’t care what they did here. I cared what the island did to them.”

Ellison and Aaron Copland sat on the project’s advisory board. Composer Samuel Barber, novelist Margaret Atwood, and sculptor Harry Bertoia were among those who attended the project. Olive Ann Burns read the first pages of Cold Sassy Tree in the great room, where the group gathered every night after a dinner at the walnut table in the elegant, blue-tiled dining room.

Sandy used her own money to pay the cooks, butlers, boat captain, and other staff. She took offense when I asked if she spoiled the artists. “You couldn’t spoil people like that. Spoiling is for people who don’t know anything.”

The Ossabaw Island Project fellows stayed in the pink house. But the accommodations for the fellows of Genesis Project—an off-the-grid artists’ colony for students that Sandy had at the Middle Place plantation site—were rustic. There was no running water or electricity.

Most who participated in the programs—writers, linguists, photographers, pygmy experts, conservationists, even a taxi driver—weren’t well known and were never going to be. That was part of the plan. Not part of the plan was for Sandy to sap her own fortune to keep the programs going.

Dr. Mark Finlay, a history professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, is researching a book on the history of Georgia’s coastal islands. He’s been going through the dozens of boxes that Sandy donated to the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah. His research indicates that Sandy spent about $100,000 a year to keep the programs running, totaling about $2 million over the years. Sandy herself wouldn’t discuss money with me, however, saying simply, “I never realized how fast the money would go. Maybe it was asinine.”

Painter Craig Rubadoux doesn’t think so. All of the fellows took a piece of Ossabaw with them, says Rubadoux, who spent time on the island not long before the programs ceased. “It was just amazing to be in an environment like that. You don’t forget experiences like that—they are engraved into your psyche,” says Rubadoux, now seventy-four, from his Florida home.

Sandy’s youngest child, Justin, an electronic media professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, doesn’t begrudge his mother’s decision to spend her money—and his inheritance—on all of those artists. “Was it a good investment? I’d probably say no,” he told me. “On the other hand, was the money worth a Cold Sassy Tree or a piece of music? Could it have all been done smarter? Probably. Could it have been done better? I don’t think so.”

When the money ran out the first time, Sandy began hunting for a sympathetic buyer who would allow the island to continue on as it had. The state of Georgia was an unlikely choice, says Joe Tanner, a lobbyist at the Gold Dome. Tanner served as commissioner of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for four governors.

In the hallway outside of Sandy’s bedroom is a picture of a much younger Tanner sitting on a tree swing on Ossabaw. He and Sandy are now close friends, but their relationship got off to a rough start when Tanner began inquiring about buying her island for the people of Georgia. Unlike the tycoons and developers and foundations, Tanner understood something about Sandy: She had no interest in selling.

“What I realized with Sandy was that Ossabaw was like her only child, and here comes the big, bad state of Georgia and it wants to buy her child from her. Think about the mentality of selling your own child. Period. Much less to someone you are very suspicious of,” he told me. Sandy was convinced that the state would turn Ossabaw into another Jekyll with oceanfront hotels and miniature golf. Tanner finally gave up trying to convince her otherwise. Why? The state lacked the money to buy Ossabaw, even at a bargain price.

But one day in 1977, Tanner was summoned to the office of George Busbee, Georgia’s governor at the time and a lover of the coast. Busbee explained that Robert Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate turned philanthropist, wanted to help the state purchase Ossabaw. Woodruff would end up writing two personal checks of $2 million each, and the state matched his donations. It was enough. In 1978, Busbee signed an executive order dedicating Ossabaw as the state’s first heritage preserve to be used for “natural, scientific and cultural study, research, and education.”

Public recreation—which Sandy calls the “kiss of death”—would have scuttled the deal. As it stood, Sandy and her brother’s heirs likely could have held out for a lot more money, given the island’s proximity to Savannah. Imagine the place today if a developer had taken over.

“Ossabaw got preserved because, quite candidly, Sandy West was very hard-headed—bull-headed—and just wouldn’t waiver to the very end,” Tanner said. “If you want to go lay on the beach in your bikini and drink beer, go to Tybee. If you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you can go to Sea Island. Ossabaw is different.”

Under the terms of the sale, Sandy retains a life estate that includes the main house and twenty-six acres surrounding it. Tanner chuckled at the notion of the actuaries who grossly underestimated her lifespan. “I told someone, ‘I bet she lives to be eighty or ninety.’ I had no idea that she would live to be ninety-eight years old and still functioning. I am glad she is,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, she can stay there as long as she wants to. And we have to be respectful of that. I certainly am. I am more than respectful of it. I love her.” He choked up.

Over the years, Tanner has thought often of that image of Sandy selling her only child. “She had to sell. She had spent her last dime trying to save that island,” he said. At the closing at an Atlanta law firm, Tanner remembers Sandy taking the check for her cut and throwing it on the floor in disgust.

Five years after the sale, Sandy, who had continued with her artists’ programs, was out of money again. Today, even the desk that the brown leather register sits on doesn’t belong to her. She sold all of her furnishings to the Ossabaw Island Foundation so she could remain on Ossabaw. Even so, she seemed more upbeat, less worked up than when I was last here—as long as you don’t bring up the hogs. The state has cut the population by 60 percent through trapping and public hunts, a measure it says is necessary to protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtles’ nests.

But the number of annual hunts has dropped to a half dozen. The turkey and duck hunts have ended. Power now flows to Ossabaw through a line from the mainland. The Ossabaw Island Foundation has raised more than $4 million in the past decade. Two of the three cabins are being restored through grants and private donations—including money from actress Sandra Bullock, who owns a house on Tybee and has visited Ossabaw. A beautiful restoration of a century-old boarding house where island staff once lived is now complete and available for writers and think tanks. Sandy’s house now has a $300,000 new roof—the old one leaked so badly that the plaster ceilings crashed down around her. The foundation wants to do more to restore and spruce up the house. But Sandy vacillates between wanting workers to patch the walls and wanting to slam the door in their faces. Right now, the welcome mat is up.

Fewer than 1,000 people visited Ossabaw last year through the foundation’s programs, which include day trips and primitive camping. Most were students. That’s a far cry from the almost 40,000 who go to Cumberland every year. The foundation is currently brainstorming what to do with the pink house when Sandy dies. It may be an artists’ retreat yet again.

“So which you is on horseback—the young you or the ancient you?” I asked after Sandy recounted the dream where she travels the island with Roger. “As I am today, of course, lovey,” she told me. “You know I believe in natural systems. This is nature’s thing—you do not look back. I have just decided that I would sit back and be this age. It is very interesting, because most nobody else is.”

I worked up the nerve to ask if she was afraid to die, an altogether different question from where she wished to die.

“Oh, heavens no,” she said. “Again, thinking about the pattern of nature and everything. It doesn’t look like it would be terrible. Why? Are you?”

My husband, two children, and I had spent the last two days on Ossabaw. Walking on the beach, watching the kids run barefoot down the unspoiled coastline, collecting sand dollars by the fistful and hanging from driftwood branches, I’d felt closer to a higher power than I ever had before. At that moment, dying there didn’t seem like it would be terrible at all.

Sandy understood right away. “I do know there is a higher power, because I see it here every day,” she told me. “It just isn’t Christian or anything like that.” She had imagined that when her time came, she’d shove off in a boat from that very beach with a bottle of something stiff. Her kids have talked her out of it, she said, given what a pain it would be for them if she loses her nerve out there.

We said our goodbyes. I didn’t know when I’d be back. If it’s another eleven years, chances are that things at the pink house will be very different. But Ossabaw won’t be.

When night falls, Sandy West will jump on her horse and explore an island that looks much the same as it did almost a century ago when she came here—and as it will a century from whenever she leaves.

This article originally appeared in our March 2011 issue.