My career as a chronicler of the upper classes for Town & Country and other magazines yielded two useful insights: First, the happiest rich people are those who’ve managed to maintain some semblance of a middle-class lifestyle; and second, the two most important things parents can give their kids are a good education and a strong sense of self-esteem. Money can't buy the keys to a rewarding life—like love, wisdom, and patience—and great wealth is often an impediment, a truth journalist Janny Scott explores in The Beneficiary, her elegant lament for her father, Robert Montgomery Scott.
Robert, the late president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and, before that, of the Academy of Music), inherited a legacy that many of us might envy: “Land, houses, money,” his daughter writes in The Beneficiary. “Wealth had tumbled in my father’s family from one generation to the next. Each new descendant arrived as an unwitting conduit for its transmission. You had a right to enjoy it, an obligation to protect it, a duty to pass it on to your own unsuspecting children.”
A lot to live up to
That burdensome legacy included “Ardrossan,” an 800-acre estate on the Main Line, as well as legendary ancestors whose fingerprints can still be found not only all over Ardrossan but also all over Philadelphia. Bob Scott’s 19th-century great-grandfather Thomas A. Scott built the Pennsylvania Railroad from a struggling experiment into the world’s largest corporation twice over. His maternal grandfather, Colonel Robert L. Montgomery, founded what is still Philadelphia’s largest locally based investment house, known today as Janney Montgomery Scott. Another ancestor, Horace Binney, was the pre-Civil War idol of the Philadelphia bar (he also served a term in Congress before resigning because, he explained, he preferred to associate “only with gentlemen”). Bob Scott’s cousin, the Philadelphia lawyer R. Sturgis Ingersoll, presided over the opening of the Art Museum’s current main building in 1928. And of course Bob’s mother, the free-spirited Hope Montgomery Scott, was the model for the vivacious Main Line heiress Tracy Lord in Philip Barry’s 1939 play, The Philadelphia Story, as well as its 1940 film adaptation starring Katharine Hepburn.
Alcohol and suicide
Yet as Janny Scott describes in painful detail, beneath his jovial public façade Bob Scott was beleaguered by alcoholism and literally drank himself to death in 2005, when he was 76. Worse, the author discovers that Bob Scott’s illustrious ancestors themselves suffered from alcoholism for generations, and one of them died by suicide.
To be born into such wealth and accomplishment, Janny Scott writes, “was a stroke of good fortune, of course. But what you could never know, starting out, was how those things would influence decisions you’d make over a lifetime.” In Scott’s credible telling, Bob Scott seems the real-life embodiment of the poet Edward Arlington Robinson’s fictitious Richard Cory of 1897, the “gentleman from sole to crown, / clean-shaven and imperially slim,” whose sophisticated façade was the envy of the townspeople, until the summer night when he shot himself.
I read The Beneficiary as someone who knew Bob Scott and admired him (or at least thought I did until I read this book). In my own mind, Scott was a Philadelphia civic hero. And his value to the community lay not in the breadth of his civic activities, nor in the time he devoted nor the dollars he raised, but in the rare combination of common sense, courage, and self-deprecating grace he brought to whatever role he took on.
In 1990, for example, when a local populist groundswell embraced the absurd notion of permanently installing the statue of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky at the top of the Art Museum steps, Scott alone brought the city to its senses by quietly stating the obvious: The statue was merely a movie prop whose permanent presence on the museum steps would debase the museum and Philadelphia alike. (The Rocky statue was subsequently installed on the museum’s grounds nearby, but only after Scott retired.)
A few years later, when a Ponzi scheme called the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy bilked some 300 East Coast museums, colleges, schools, churches, and arts organizations into “investing” more than $200 million in the ludicrous hope of doubling their money, Scott as president of the Art Museum was virtually alone in declining to participate—explaining in his customary self-deprecating manner, “We didn’t understand the economics. … We were too stupid to participate.” Scott was precisely the example the late Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell had in mind when he declared, “I believe in inherited wealth; society needs to have some people who are above it all.”
WASPs and Jews
Janny Scott neglects to mention these examples of her father’s exemplary civic leadership in The Beneficiary. The man she portrays instead is a failed husband and father who took the path of least resistance into a succession of preordained roles, first as a lawyer and later as a civic figurehead. But she writes not to pass judgment on her father but to shed light, often in painstaking detail, on his seemingly inexplicable squandering of his most precious asset: his life. She draws sensitively on the personal diaries he kept since his young adulthood; here he introspectively acknowledges his drinking problem as early as his twenties. But he apparently never voluntarily sought medical or psychiatric help for his drinking. Late in life, to placate his children, Scott spent time in rehab and briefly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. But at the end of the day, it seems, he genuinely enjoyed drinking more than just about any other activity—a point he despaired of explaining to his daughter.
I write as one whose own legacy is in some respects the opposite of Bob Scott’s. My Eastern European Jewish ancestors—chased from country to country, usually denied the right to own land—necessarily developed a simple survival formula: The only permanent wealth in this world is what you carry in your head. To be sure, I was fortunate to grow up in an upper-middle-class home, sheltered from material concerns. But the greatest bequests I received from my family were intangibles like optimism, curiosity, an open mind, and a willingness to take risks. The apparent upper-class WASP cultural affinity for alcohol used to mystify me. But reading Janny Scott’s descriptions of life at Ardrossan—where Scott siblings and cousins have lived rent-free for four generations—I found myself thinking, “If I had to spend my life raising beagles, hunting foxes, tending dairy cows, and living at close quarters with my relatives day after day, year after year, with no opportunity to develop my own individual sense of self-worth, I, too, would turn to drink.”
Toward the end of his life, his daughter reports, Bob Scott became obsessed with renovating and refurbishing Ardrossan’s huge main house, at a cost of millions he didn't possess—a monumentally futile gesture, since Ardrossan is doomed to be demolished and redeveloped in the foreseeable future. But if he was ultimately a man possessed by his possessions, whom should we blame?
“It is not the rich who are powerful,” the French actress Jeanne Moreau once famously remarked. “It is the people who feel themselves free.” Janny Scott’s unblinking journey inside her father’s head and those of his forebears provides a cautionary tale for anyone—rich or poor—who yearns for that kind of liberation.
What, When, Where
The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father. By Janny Scott. New York: Riverhead Books, April 16, 2019. 288 pages, hardcover; $25.76. Get it here.