Helen Hope Montgomery Scott would not have approved of her granddaughter’s outfit. Rest assured if she’d published a memoir, the socialite heiress who purportedly inspired Katharine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story would’ve worn something fabulous to her book-release event. Janny Scott, however, wore a long-sleeve black sweater, dark slacks, sensible loafers and not a trace of makeup.
For decades, Janny’s grandmother, and her husband, Edgar, presided over Ardrossan, an 800-acre Villanova estate established by the Montgomery family in 1912. It was the Main Line’s Downton Abbey, a 50-room manor laden with art and antiques—a place where glamorous people lived glamorous lives. Hope died in 1995, but if she were alive today, her stunning wardrobe, globetrotting adventures and famous friends would earn her millions of Instagram followers.
Ardrossan was once again the attraction on a Monday night this past April, with Janny on stage at the Free Library of Philadelphia talking about her new memoir, The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father (Riverhead Books, 288 pages). Her version of the 100-year history of the Montgomery Scott family delves into the mixed legacies of Hope and Edgar Scott and their son, Robert Montgomery Scott (RMS)—Janny’s father. Not surprisingly, much of the publicity for the book has focused on the wealth and influence of the Montgomery Scotts and the grand opulence of Ardrossan. Reviews have cited darker aspects like RMS’s alcoholism and extramarital affairs as evidence that a privileged life is never a perfect life.
None of that was news to those gathered in the Free Library’s (fittingly named) Montgomery Auditorium. The space was filled to near capacity with Main Liners and leading members of the city’s philanthropic, arts and cultural organizations. They know all about Ardrossan, Hope and Edgar. Many of them knew RMS, and no one even blinked as Janny described the extent of her father’s drinking. His alcoholism was well known among the executive staff at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of which RMS was president for 14 years. It was likely the same situation at the Academy of Music, where RMS also served as president, and at the law firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, where he was a partner.
Wealth and privilege can’t inoculate anyone from addiction or mental illness, nor is adultery scandalous or even unique. Many families in all walks of life grapple with these issues. On stage, Janny was careful not to focus solely on her father’s foibles, also stressing his intelligence, wit, charm and other attributes. She is, after all, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, so she knows how to write a balanced story. To become a success story in her own right—to forge a life independent of her family’s various overwhelming legacies—Janny did something her parents and their parents would not and could not do: She left Ardrossan.
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No one ever asked 14-year-old Janny Scott if she wanted to attend an all-girls boarding school in the English countryside. That’s what happens when your father is appointed special assistant for the American ambassador to England. In 1969, Robert Montgomery Scott transplanted his family to London so he could work with communications billionaire and fellow Main Liner Walter Annenberg, the newly appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James.
Though RMS returned to Ardrossan several years later, Janny never did. She attended Harvard University, reveling in the co-educational environment. “I had a very good time at Harvard,” she recalls today. “Aside from the stimulating intellectual environment, it was nice to be with men.”
A friend urged Janny to write for Harvard’s school newspaper, The Crimson. “My first reporting gig became my career,” says Janny, who kept a diary as a little girl, penning “goofy little poems.”
Working at The Crimson was a turning point. “I met lots of intellectuals, some with radical politics,” she says. “It was a whole different crowd, and that became my life.”
After Harvard, Janny paid her dues at a number of weekly newspapers and The Record of Bergen County, N.J., before landing a plum gig working for the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times. It’s where she met her first husband, Bill Ritter, who later became co-anchor of Good Morning America Sunday and a correspondent for 20/20 before landing his current role as evening news co-anchor for WABC-TV, the network’s flagship station in New York. “He was a surfer—a real Southern California guy,” says Janny of Ritter. “That was a new experience, but I loved everything about it.” Ritter is also Jewish. If the Montgomery Scotts disapproved of his lineage, they didn’t say so. “My parents were proud of me for doing work that was interesting and supporting myself,” she says. “They knew I was happy.”
Soon enough, Janny moved to the paper’s main offices, where she covered medicine and politics in L.A. In 1992, when the city erupted in violence sparked by the acquittal of police officers involved in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, Janny wrote about the riots and their aftermath. Soon after, she and Ritter relocated to Manhattan, and Janny defected to the New York Times, juggling her reporting job and being a mother to two young children.
Six years later, Janny was at her home on the Upper West Side when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. By the time the second plane hit, she was on her way to the office. “Within an hour and a half of the second plane hitting, my editors assigned me to do a piece on the victims,” Janny remembers. “At the time, all we knew was that it was an accident with mass casualties. But of course, it wasn’t a normal accident.”
Janny hit the streets of Manhattan to find stories that would illustrate the scope and surreality of the attacks. On Sept. 12, she and a colleague went to one of the city’s biggest hospitals to seek details on victims. “That was the day we became aware of the flyers,” Janny says.
In what quickly became a grim phenomenon throughout Manhattan, people desperate for information began distributing flyers with pictures of their missing loved ones. Calling the numbers to get information, Janny and five other reporters wrote vignettes about the victims. On Sept. 15, the first 60 stories were published in a section called “Among the Missing.” It was soon retitled “Portraits of Grief.” Over the next five months, the Times published nearly 2,000 vignettes written by 140 reporters, and “Portraits of Grief” became a public way to mourn for readers around the world.
For their coverage of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, Janny, her fellow reporters and their editors were awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. When the vignettes were published in book form, Janny wrote the introduction. “It was a profound experience for me as a reporter and as a New Yorker,” she says. “Nothing I ever do in journalism will ever have that effect.”
Scott with her book, A Singular Woman. Photos by Ed Williams.
Writing about the white mother of our nation’s first black president did come close. In March 2008, shortly after Sen. Barack Obama announced his run for president, Janny was assigned a series of biographical pieces about him. At the time, Obama was a little-known upstart trying to unseat Sen. Hilary Clinton as the Democratic Party candidate for president.
Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance was already a bestselling book. Janny wanted to know about the other half of Obama’s parentage: his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995, just as her son was launching his career in the Senate. “For years, he’d been describing his mother as a white woman from Kansas, and that served his political narrative,” Janny says. “There was much more to her story.”
Janny researched Dunham’s unconventional life. A mother at age 17, she had two interracial marriages with two children, raising one who had the audacity to think he could be president of the United States. “That’s a woman I wanted to know more about,” says Janny.
The day after her story ran on the front page of the Times, Janny received an offer to write a book about Dunham. “He wasn’t even the nominee yet—let alone the president—and I’m not sure the publisher thought he would be,” Janny says. “It was less about that and more about this being a great story.”
Photo by Ed Williams.
Over the next two years and three months, Janny conducted more than 200 interviews, traveling to Indonesia and Hawaii, combing through Dunham’s personal papers. She interviewed Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s Indonesian-American maternal half-sister, and other close friends and relatives. But Janny admits to being a bit hesitant to interview the man who had, in fact, become the president of the United States. The White House press office arranged an interview, albeit on short notice. “They called and said, ‘Can you be here tomorrow? We’ll give you 20 minutes.’”
The next day, Janny was in the White House armed with 10 questions. She’d never been inside the Oval Office, interviewed a president or met Obama face-to-face. “I went down a hallway … and there he was,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, how are you?’ with a lot of warmth, like he was welcoming me into his home.”
Obama gave her 30 minutes, not 20. She asked all of her questions; he answered them. A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother was published in 2011, quickly becoming a bestseller.
Janny wasn’t fully prepared for what came next. Inside a locked chest in a storage closet at Ardrossan, Robert Montgomery Scott’s diaries awaited her. At 59 years old, she finally returned to the estate—to tell her father’s story.
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Janny Scott arrives at Radnor Memorial Library for our interview dressed in olive-green slacks, another black sweater and the same black loafers. Journalists are notoriously difficult to interview, and Janny is no exception. She always seems to be three questions ahead, and asks as many as she answers. Yet she’s warm, funny, forthright and generous with her time.
She begins where the book begins, with the 2005 death of her father and his extravagant funeral. Janny was there, of course. She writes about it in the book just as she writes about everything else—focusing on only the facts she could prove, either by interviewing family members or with scrapbook mementos, telegrams and other correspondence.
Those materials provided details of life inside Ardrossan’s big house, from the time it was built by Janny’s great grandfather, Col. Robert Leaming Montgomery, in 1911. “The Colonel” insisted that the gin be Bellows, not Gordon’s. He employed 16 servants—cooks, maids, butlers, valets, chauffeurs, handymen, gardeners and security personnel—to work at Ardrossan. The estate had swimming pools, tennis courts, stables full of horses, a kennel for the beagles, and a dairy that housed a herd of 300 Ayrshire cows.
Hope Montgomery Scott, the Colonel’s daughter, comes to life in Janny’s book. The Hope of The Beneficiary is fun, wild and unconventional. Hope and Edgar regularly went skinny-dipping in Ardrossan’s “cold pool,” even when they were grandparents. Hope loved her husband completely, but she did have protracted flirtations with other men—and Edgar gave as good as he got. It seems the couple purposefully incited jealousy in one another. “The stories piqued their attraction to one another,” says Janny. “I think they were jazzed by it.”
They were also jazzed by their friendship with Philip Barry, who wrote The Philadelphia Story. But Janny reveals what the family has always known: Hope was not the model for Katharine Hepburn’s character. That was Tracy Lord, the daughter of a wealthy family and a graduate of Bryn Mawr College. Hope didn’t mind the misperception. “In a lot of ways, I’m a fan of my grandmother,” says Janny. “I hope readers will find a more complex human than they’d grappled with before. People are complicated and multi-shaded, not the narrow caricatures we see in the media.”
Robert Montgomery Scott on the steps of
Helen Hope Montgomery Scott with
When she wrote about her father, Janny wanted only the truth. She found it in his diaries. In volume after volume, she read about his ambivalence over wealth and privilege—that those 800 acres tied him to a life that he didn’t want. Discontentment with his marriage and law career, coupled with an apparent genetic disposition to alcoholism and depression rendered RMS an unhappy man who was fully aware of his demons and often felt unequipped to battle them. “To me, it was one of the biggest revelations of his diaries. He’d spent years arguing that he loved to drink but it wasn’t a problem,” Janny says. “He knew he had a problem in his 20s. He spent decades struggling with it. He occasionally attempted to do something about it, rather feebly, all the time while misrepresenting the situation to us. That was stunning. And sad.”
Janny is less saddened by the details of her father’s extramarital relationships. “Frankly, I grew up in a family where infidelity was not uncommon,” she says. “The idea of absolute fidelity over a 40- or 50-year marriage may work for some people, but not all people. I don’t take infidelity as a character flaw. I take it as a character fact.”
All told, this was not an easy book for Janny to write. She spent months on research, and she struggled with the writing. It took her six months, for example, to finish the 9,000 words that are the first chapter of The Beneficiary. “That’s emblematic of how hard it was for me to write this,” she says. “I wanted it to read like a novel, with compelling characters and the right tone, which is the central thing I struggled with from beginning to end. I didn’t want to slide into sentimentality and nostalgia or bitterness, which I don’t feel at all.”
Janny insists that The Beneficiary is not in any way a salacious tell-all. “I wasn’t settling scores,” she says. “Nor did I want to write a hagiography. I wanted to get as close as I could to the truth, and to capture the personalities of some of the people in my family with texture and granular detail.”
Finally, she gets to the point of it all—why she wrote The Beneficiary. “I’d always been fascinated and puzzled by my father, and I had the idea that taking on this project might help me understand the mystery of him,” says Janny. “I feel that I understand him better. I have deeper sympathy toward him than I did.”
And then there’s Ardrossan itself. The big house remains intact. The family has thus far managed to keep what really matters. But unused parcels have been sold—cast aside, as it were. On that land, developers are building houses, where new families will start their own Philadelphia stories.