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The Real Story Behind Villanova’s Ardrossan and The Philadelphia Story

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What you didn’t know about the Main Line’s most iconic estate and its connections to the classic film.

By David Nelson Wren

The Missing Brother 

When Robert Alexander Montgomery died at the age of 85, he was identified in his 1997 obituary as the brother of Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, “considered the inspiration for the role played by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.” It turns out he was the inspiration for Alexander Lord, the brother of Hepburn’s character in the original play. Alas, producer Joseph Mankiewicz cut playwright Philip Barry’s character in the screen treatment of the 1940 film.

In Barry’s play, the character lived in New York with his wife and new baby, visiting the Main Line most weekends. It’s also Lord who sets the stage for a reporter and photographer to attend his sister’s wedding to cover “The Philadelphia Story.” The film treatment gives the lines and screen time to C.K. Dexter Haven, played by Cary Grant.

Estate Living

Public perception of the Montgomery-Scott influence on Barry and his time at Ardrossan has always been surrounded by misinformation. In both the play and the film, taking a swim after a party was frequently done to cool off—and sober up. This is a fact. Mac, the night watchman, was an actual person, as was Uncle Willie (William Woodrow Montgomery), who lived nearby.

Plenty of references in the play were removed from the film version on the grounds that they’d be unrecognizable to broader movie-going audiences. Those omissions included mentions of Radnor, Rittenhouse Square, Devon, St. Davids, Bryn Mawr College and scrapple. Family names like Cadwalader, Drexel, Biddle and Cassatt were also red lined in the screenplay. The Chester County horsey hamlet of Unionville, however, did make the cut.

College Chums

Hope Montgomery Scott used to say that her husband and Barry were college roommates. That was somewhat misleading, as Edgar Scott went to Harvard and Barry went to Yale. After graduation, however, Barry took a playwriting course at Harvard with esteemed dramatist George Pierce Baker. Scott was in the class, and the two became fast friends. Scott was a groomsman in Barry’s marriage to Ellen Semple. Barry was godfather to his friend’s youngest son, Robert Montgomery Scott.

Ardrossan inspired at least two of Barry’s plays. The other, Holiday, became a motion picture in 1938. He was a regular guest at the estate and accepted as one of the clan, spending countless hours on the terrace. He drank as much—if not more—than anyone else. It’s a pastime he also allowed his characters to enjoy.

On the Set

Contrary to myth, nothing in The Philadelphia Story was shot on location at Ardrossan. An apocryphal story did circulate in which director George Cukor claimed the estate’s main house was far too grand for the American public to believe, so a residence at 221 Merion Road in Merion Station was used as a model.

Among Cukor’s papers is a May 1940 telegram sent by Barry just before shooting began. It advises the director that screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart could weigh in on the Lord mansion: “Just ask Don what it’s like inside the Montgomery house in  Villanova, the Bigger Mouse Hole in Manhasset or the Plunket Stewart residence in Unionville. He will know.”

The Philadelphia Story was shot entirely on a sound stage in six weeks, coming in under budget. There was also a rumor that the swimming pool scene was shot at what’s now Academy of Notre Dame de Namur. From 1926 until the school took possession in 1944, the estate (then known as Launfal) was home to utilities magnate Clarence Geist, who died there in 1938. Hepburn actually took her dive into a pool on Stage 30 at MGM, which had been built for swimming sensation Esther Williams.

When the Oscars rolled around, The Philadelphia Story received six nods from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hope and Edgar Scott both died in 1995. As the Scott’s Ardrossan home was being emptied in the weeks after their deaths, hardbound copies of Barry’s plays—personally inscribed to Hope and Edgar—were found in their library. Somehow, they ended up
on eBay.

David Nelson Wren is author of the 2017 book Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line.