The Baroness Of Hobcaw

Written By: 
James Hutchisson
Photographs by: 
courtesy of The Belle W. Baruch Foundation

Well-ahead of her time, Baruch was a renowned aviator, equestrian, and suffragist

About 10 miles south of Pawley’s Island lies Hobcaw Barony—a verdant expanse of land jutting into Winyah Bay and covering most of the peninsula between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean. Hobcaw’s 16,000 acres and more than 100 miles of road are vast, comprising an ecological wonderland of pine forests, salt marsh, and cypress swamps in which all manner of wildlife coexist in inviolable protection from the outside world.

The preservation of this pristine living laboratory was made possible by the extraordinary foresight of Isabel Wilcox Baruch, known to all as “Belle”—a remarkable woman well ahead of her time. She was a conservationist in an era when that word was barely understood, much less widely used. Belle was also an intense competitor who thrived on challenge, fought against long odds with grit and tenacity, and was determined to govern her own destiny in a world that, because she was a woman, often sought to limit her.

The Baruchs had been famous practically since setting foot on the shores of America. But before Belle, it had been the men in this Jewish-German family who made their marks. Belle’s grandfather Simon emigrated to Charleston from Hamburg in 1855, studied at the Medical College of South Carolina, and served as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. When the war ended, he moved his family from Camden, South Carolina, to New York City and rose to the top of his profession, lecturing in medicine at Columbia University and pioneering several now-standard surgical procedures, including the appendectomy.

Of Simon’s four children, the most famous would be Bernard, who was drawn to the world of finance. Bernard started out as an errand boy on Wall Street, soon made partner in a brokerage house, and honed an ability to foresee market trends. Known as a “plunger,” he took big risks but reaped even bigger rewards. He once said he had a talent for making money the way virtuoso Fritz Kreisler had a talent for playing the violin.

It wasn’t far from the truth. Baruch’s wealth and growing renown eventually bought him access to the highest circles of power. A consultant on matters ranging from finance to national security, he was a key figure in the Paris Peace Conference following the end of World War I. And, although he was never given a title or a government paycheck, Baruch was a trusted advisor to seven US presidents, from Wilson to Eisenhower. His daughter would inherit much of her father’s intensity and drive.

In 1905, seeking an escape from New York, Baruch purchased Hobcaw, which was comprised of 14 plantations that had once thrived in the 19th century as the so-called “Rice Princes”—tracts of land that were the primary producers of grain for much of the country. The idea at the time was not original: Baruch was one of several prominent Northern families, among them the Luces, the Vanderbilts, and the Huntingtons, who purchased vast Lowcountry estates as winter retreats (“the second Yankee invasion,” it is sometimes called)—but it served his purposes well. He could hunt duck and quail, ride horseback seemingly into the sunset, and also entertain visiting dignitaries on a grand scale. At different times, both FDR and Winston Churchill were houseguests.

(Left) Belle rides a motorcycle at the family’s rented summer estate in 1915; (Right) Aboard “Miladi” on Great South Bay in 1916; Belle went on to become the first woman to win a major race there.

Blazing a Trail

Belle, born the eldest of Bernard and Anne Baruch’s three children in 1899, led a life of great accomplishment, though she shied from publicity and was intensely private. While researching her book, Baroness of Hobcaw: The Life of Belle W. Baruch (USC Press, 2006), biographer Mary E. Miller had to rely on interviews with those who had known Belle. There was abundant material in the public record about her father, but virtually nothing about Belle. Her life was also highly unorthodox, both because of and in spite of her upbringing. She competed in areas usually dominated by men, lived openly as a lesbian, and championed progressive political causes that often led to clashes with her Democratic but still conventional father.

Before she had entered her twenties, it was clear that Belle was a natural athlete, and extremely tenacious. By age 17, she had won more than 50 sailing trophies and in 1916, in a Bellport Bay one-design yacht, became the first woman to win a major race on Great South Bay, Long Island. Unfortunately, the second-place winner filed a challenge based on the size of Belle’s boat, the Miladi, and it was found that the vessel exceeded the maximum length by 18 inches. “I am sorry that I did not win the cup,” she stated. “Now I must go out and win the championship.” A few months later, she did.

On Hobcaw, Belle followed her father in his passion for riding and hunting. As much as she thrilled at bringing down a young buck as it burst through the trees, she found mastering horses even more compelling—not stately dressage, but the more active show jumping and steeplechase. Fearless and intoxicated by the dangerous curves and headlong plunges, she could guide her horse with the delicate touch of a jeweler but also blow furiously past her competitors like a V-2 rocket. At the time, equestrianism was not that popular in the US, but for Belle, as Miller has said, “If it was new, she wanted to experience it. If it hadn’t been done, she wanted to do it.”

When her father was dispatched by the government to Paris in 1919, Belle began a long period of living abroad off and on. In Europe, she indulged her passion for riding, winning more than 300 medals there between 1928 and 1937. But in the elite world of equestrianism, Belle had challenges, too. When she first applied to ride in international shows, the US embassy in France would not issue her a license because she was a woman. Ultimately, she did obtain one from the French. Her greatest ambition was to compete as an equestrian in the Olympics, but it would be 1952 before women could join that team.

Forging an Identity

During World War I, Belle worked for the Red Cross and also studied radiotelegraphy, activities that pleased her father. She later became an inspector for the US Signal Corps and taught Morse code at two aviation camps as part of the Women’s Radio Corps. But to her father’s dismay, she was also a suffragist who threw herself into working to advance the rights of women. After the war, she became close to Evangeline Brewster Johnson, heiress to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. The two women traveled the world speaking on behalf of the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association and doing what they could to prevent another war.

Female relationships always formed the emotional core of Belle’s existence, and when Johnson fell in love and married in the mid-1920s, Belle had an epiphany about her sexual identity that she had for too long ignored. She had one serious affair with a man, Charles “Chita” Davila, the Romanian minister in Washington, DC, and rumors of their engagement circulated. But powers conspired against them. The king of Romania scoffed at the idea because Belle was a Jew. And Baruch would not allow it (ironically, as it would turn out) because it was too unconventional. He offered his daughter $2 million to call it off. At first, she refused, but when the relationship ended, Belle “collected her consolation prize… which she used to build one of the finest stables in Europe,” according to Miller.

After the debacle of her botched engagement, Belle kept mostly to the company of women, forming many profound and abiding relationships. These women were vivacious, creative, and endlessly interesting, and Belle valued them not for sexual intimacy so much as intellectual stimulation, believes Miller, noting that Belle “could hold her own in any conversation.” However, she felt terrible guilt about her sexual orientation because it so displeased her father. Belle’s “character” was not talked about within the family, who preferred discreet silence to open discussion.

Belle also desired to live her life outside the long shadow cast by her famous father. Everywhere she went, she was Bernard Baruch’s daughter—a fact also borne out by the overt physical resemblances between them: great height, long limbs, and an aristocratic bearing. Emphasizing her sexual identity was one way to proclaim her autonomy. Perhaps as a small gesture to publicly acknowledge this, Belle often dressed in tailored coats and wore neckties. At one point, too, she legally changed her name from Isabel, her given name, to what she preferred, “Belle.” As “Isabelle” had been the name of her paternal grandmother, this act must have hurt her father on some level. To make the change, Belle had to have him write a letter giving his permission. Their relationship was complicated, but it would seem that each one also wanted the other to be happy—in his or her own way.

(Left) Belle with students in Hobcaw’s Strawberry Village, circa 1930; (Right) Belle at her airport hangar in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1942; the US Army commandeered it and her planes during World War II. 

Great Privilege, Great Responsibility

Money also created an awareness of noblesse oblige, or social responsibility. Most of the inhabitants of the original four Black villages on the property had been born there and feared being forced out, but Baruch not only kept them on to work when he bought the land, but also improved their houses, enlarging them and adding amenities. Yet, Baruch reportedly called the African Americans that lived and worked at Hobcaw “my Negroes” and organized barn dances in which they were “asked” to perform for white people and rewarded with prizes for the most colorful costumes.

Belle was more solicitous. She took an interest in the welfare of the residents and particularly in the schools (one for whites, one for Blacks) located there, serving as the self-appointed truant officer of Hobcaw. Once, she saw a group of boys skipping school and pursued them on horseback. They ran into a swamp, figuring that she would not continue after them, but they were wrong. She wrangled the wayward group and delivered them back to the school principal to face their punishment. She also established organizations on the property to work with disabled children and those who lived in extreme poverty.

But of everything that concerned Hobcaw, it was above all Belle’s passion for the natural environment that characterized her life. It was again something that distinguished her from her father, who did not possess her sense of responsibility for preserving the land. In 1936, Belle persuaded her father to sell her 5,000 acres of the property. Then two decades later, she bought the remaining acres, and Baruch purchased several smaller properties nearby and combined them into one small plantation he named “Little Hobcaw.”

Belle wanted control of the property because she saw how development had increased in South Carolina’s coastal counties, and she worried about the endangerment of wildlife. She knew that habitats had to be replenished to maintain fish, animals, and birds. Vegetation had to be propagated to feed the creatures. She therefore altered her will so that the major part of her estate went to establish a private educational trust for conservation. She wanted to name the foundation after her father, but perhaps realizing that this was Belle’s world and not his own, Baruch declined the honor and persuaded the trust to name it for her: The Belle W. Baruch Foundation. Sadly, Belle died from brain cancer in 1964 at the age of 64. Her father outlived her by one year, passing away at age 94.

Today, the foundation hosts researchers from more than 50 colleges around the world and, since 1968 and 1972, has worked hand in hand with Clemson University and University of South Carolina, respectively, to conduct studies and foster research on the preservation, wise use, and sustainability of coastal ecosystems. More recently, the foundation developed partnerships with Francis Marion and Coastal Carolina universities for the study and research of cultural, historical, and archaeological heritage of the property. None of this legacy would have existed without the visionary Belle, whose keen curiosity about how people interact with their world drove her to safeguard this piece of history for later generations to both admire and preserve.

Belle with her pet Deary-Deer in 1963; the fawn had full run of the house and property at Bellefield Plantation, Belle’s home on Hobcaw Barony.

A Beautiful Legacy

Want to see Hobcaw Barony for yourself? The foundation’s Discovery Center, as well as public tours and special events and programs for all ages, help preserve the legacy of Belle Baruch

*Take the two-hour Discover Hobcaw Tour,  a bus tour of the property with information on its coastal ecosystems, native wildlife, and endangered species, as well as stops at the mansion that played host to Winston Churchill; Belle’s home and stables; and Friendfield, one of the villages occupied by enslaved Africans and their descendants. $32. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. $25 per person, reservations required.

*Take part in special events and tours, including an in-depth tour of the four villages for the enslaved (September 13 and October 25), the Rice Fields Boat Tour (October 11 and November 11), and a look at Hobcaw’s Native American history especially geared for children (October 10 and November 8), as well as guided themed hikes and classes in sweetgrass basket sewing and photography.   

For more events, classes, and information, visit