Insider for Life

Former Inquirer Society scribe David Iams may be officially retired from the party circuit, but he’s still making the rounds among the Main Line’s elite.

It’s Sunday at the Devon Horse Show, and while the horses and carriages are out on their traditional 4-mile Main Line pleasure trot, David Iams is making his rounds as a volunteer for the Turf Club, a little-known bar and restaurant under the grandstands. It’s the retired Philadelphia Inquirer columnist’s job to convince the show’s busy vendors to take advantage of a weekday deal beginning on Memorial Day. From 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., they can get lunch and a drink (with alcohol) for $5, compared to the $11 “the plebeians” must pay.

Iams has landed in Outback Survival’s rented booth, where Pam Felker asks him to prop his left dress shoe on her polishing stool. “These are modestly expensive shoes, and I really ought to take better care of them,” Iams says sheepishly.

With her cowgirl hat and shirt full of cleavage, Felker is selling the Original Australian Leather Seal, a combination of beeswax, lavender and other organic ingredients. Iams, of course, is selling the Turf Club lunch, and it’s clear a deal is in the works: He’ll pay $10 for a tin, and she’ll have lunch Tuesday when he returns for a volunteer shift as bartender.

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“Now, do I get the other shoe done?” Iams asks.

“Well, no,” Felker says in a strong Southern drawl, before asking for the shoe. “I had you fooled, didn’t I?”

“Otherwise, I could see it now,” Iams replies. “That drunk Iams. He walked out of the house and only polished one shoe!”

Even at 70, Iams has a boyish, pink face. Dressed in a suit and striped tie, he rarely makes eye contact. Perhaps it’s a function of his shyness, though he’s not incapable of outgoing personality surges.

“I’ve learned that if you have white hair and are wearing a necktie, you can talk your way into anything,” says Iams, who’s had white hair since his 20s. “One white hair for every hangover.”

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For 15 years, Iams wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer’s popular Society column, a job not unlike spending every evening at the Capulets’ ball. As such, few are better suited to objectively measure Main Line society and its Gatsbian excess.

On busy Saturday nights, a stack of invitations would often net several parties—among them the legendary dinners hosted by Suzanne and Norman Cohn at their Radnor estate—where Iams would rub shoulders with Clothiers and others from fine old Philadelphia families like the Pews, Biddles and Drexels. There were Radnor Hunt race parties, countless benefits for hospitals and facilities like St. Edmond’s Home for Children, and lavish events like the Yellow Springs Ball. The next morning, Iams would attend nearly as many brunches.

Big pharmacy’s Otto Haas and Laura and Bill Buck (Smith-Kline money) were Society column regulars, as were Sandra and G. Thompson Pew (Sun Oil) and various Binswangers, Kormans and Woods (the Wawa clan). Iams also ventured into the country for George “Frolic” Weymouth’s spring bashes at his 3,400-acre Chester County estate, Big Bend.

Everywhere Iams went, he had a ball—drinking, dancing, mixing and mingling with all the right people who made all the right lists by sitting on all the right boards and committees, or by donating the right amount of money or time. Iams was on hand because it was his job. And while he felt like a peer, he didn’t have their fortunes or standing. Though a far-distant relative of the Iams pet food family, he’s far from its scion. Iams did, however, share a proud education, cultural interests and the ability to make small talk. And he liked to drink—as did they.

“I knew all the names, so I was a natural fit,” he says. “I could speak French, German and Italian. I wrote songs; I played the piano.”

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Yet Iams never felt like he fit in at the Inquirer, where he arrived at age 40 as a copy editor, and where he still freelances a weekly antiques or auction story. He officially retired in 2000 after taking one of a series of buyouts. He was 62, and feeling the strain. “I was averaging about 1,000 events a year,” Iams says. “And it was no secret I was a drinking man, so it wasn’t good on my health.”

His column, though, had quite a profound effect. It was integral in motivating Main Liners to do more, give more, socialize more, entertain, contribute and volunteer. Iams’ work prompted a need to see and be seen—in his “sea of boldface,” as one editor once put it.

For his many fans, to read Iams was to love him. Society’s weekly chronicle was gossip-less and devoid of frilly details and editorial commentary. Iams covered everyone, including those in the black and gay communities.

“He wrote with a flair that caught your attention, that hooked you—and it was all so very positive,” says Shelly Margolis, a longtime Philadelphia Opera, Philadelphia Art Museum and English-Speaking Union devotee who made his money in the wine and liquor business. “He just had a knack for saying the right things about the right people at the right time. And without knowing it, he helped raise the conscience of the philanthropic and charitable world in Philadelphia.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Iams had big shoes to fill. His father, Jack, was a Princeton man (as he would become) and a prominent international journalist for Newsweek and the New York Daily News. He was also a popular humor novelist and mystery writer.

“Deep down, I knew I’d never be his equal, but it drove me,” Iams says. “When I began covering society, I wasn’t writing novels. But I knew I could make a name for myself—and I did.”

When they were kids, David and his three younger siblings moved with their parents to Bay Head, a Jersey Shore haven founded by well-to-do Philadelphians. It’s 70 miles from where Iams now resides, on the south side of the Pine Barrens in a rustic, blue-collar stretch of solitude.

Like his father, David was sent off to St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H. At Princeton, he discovered booze and girls while editing The Princeton Tiger, the college’s humor magazine. Though witty, he was never entirely sure of his career path. “I would tell girls that I wanted to be a court jester,” Iams says. “But I was at Princeton, so I was supposed to become a lawyer.”

Ultimately, he was recruited by peacetime Army Intelligence in 1962 and assigned to Verona, Italy. But a family illness (his mother died when he was 24) brought him back to the United States, where he conducted personnel security investigations and aimed for a foreign-service position with the State Department. Though he passed his exams, his reputation caught up with him. “I surmise I was a little too much of a party animal for their tastes to have been a serious foreign service officer,” says Iams.

After jobs at smaller newspapers, he landed a position with the Baltimore Sun in 1964. By 1967, he realized he “wasn’t going to be named bureau chief,” so he re-entered the intelligence field and was assigned to Munich, Germany, in 1968. For the next 11 years, he wrote for Stars and Stripes while living on the south side of Frankfurt.

Iams began as a copy editor at Stars and Stripes, then became a reporter and the entertainment editor. He covered Bob Hope on tour, and he met other influential people with whom he’d later reunite. Among them was Willard Pearson, who led the Berlin Brigade before turning around Valley Forge Military Academy & College in the 1980s.

Because of his overseas work, Iams’ two children—Tony, now 44 and a Wall Street computer industry analyst, and Sarah, 42, a theater costume designer in Manhattan and a designer for the Madame Alexander doll line—grew up cultured. Educated in German schools, they took fall theater trips to London and summer excursions to the south of France to visit Iams’ father. In the winter, the family skied in Grindelwald, Switzerland.

When the kids were in high school, the family moved back to the United States “against my will,” Iams says. It was all part of his rocky marriage to Dorothy. Though the two have never divorced, they’ve been separated for 20 years.

Back home in 1978, a 40-year-old Iams took a job on the copy desk at the Inquirer, where his work for Stars and Stripes—“the lap dog of the military,” Iams says—was held against him. He wrote and helped edit a zoned Sunday supplement called Jersey Life, and bounced around the paper’s Neighbors sections. He was nearly 50 and growing increasingly frustrated.

“All my boyhood classmates and college roommates were more successful than I was,” Iams says. “I felt I had more to offer, and the old man (his father) was looming over me.”

Then his predecessor, Ruth Seltzer, became sick. No other Inquirer reporter wanted to touch the society beat with a 10-foot tuna.

“It wasn’t for the young liberals,” Iams says. “You weren’t going to win a Pulitzer. You weren’t getting assigned to Washington, D.C. Instead, you were required to write admirably about people you probably should be trying to put in jail. I raised my hand—and that was it.”

Iams took over the column in 1986, the day after Seltzer died. He nearly lost the position several times. “I wasn’t going to be Ruth with a bottle of seltzer,” he says. “They called her the beige refrigerator because she always wore the same beige evening dress and basically ate herself to death. She couldn’t resist the food.”

Iams couldn’t resist the alcohol, and occasionally, a junior editor would let him have it when reports trickled back to the office about his antics. Iams always explained it away as “making friends.”

“With a drink in my hand, I became a guy they could trust,” he says. “I watched plenty of other Inquirer reporters cover events, like an Italian Day or something, just to try to get guys like Vince Fumo. They were out to prove he wasn’t Italian—on Italian Day! I went to school with many of the people I was covering. I couldn’t do it.”

Then came the one near-fatal blow that almost had Iams writing obituaries instead. As time and a confession bore out, an industry cohort who was romantically involved with one of Iams’ editors wanted his Society gig. She wrote a series of bogus letters lambasting his behavior on the beat, even suggesting he attend alcohol-dependency classes.

Upset, Iams submitted a letter of resignation, effective immediately. The newspaper sat on his letter. In the end, notes from Iams’ diary helped disprove the accusations of excessive drinking that nearly cost him his job. “Still, it was my darkest moment,” he says.

Iams always took copious notes, and still is never without a pen and a small notepad. He needed them. “After a big night, everything was a blur—even if I wasn’t boozing,” he says.

Toward the end of his tenure, the Inquirer pressured Iams in different ways. In 1996, when John E. du Pont murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz at his Foxcatcher estate in Newtown Square, the paper pushed him to use his Society contacts to write the hard news himself “or dish the dirt” to other staff reporters. The same push came in 1999 after the murder-suicide in Haverford involving divorced socialites Mark Hampton Biddle and Melinda Clothier Biddle. “I was reluctant,” Iams confesses.

After he retired, Society disappeared. Pauline Bogart wrote something called Social Scene but retired a few years later. The Inquirer was the country’s last major newspaper to print such a column. “The reality is that the paper never was keen on it,” Iams says. “It was elitist, but it was kept alive by the publishers’ wives—those who would be dragged into sitting on committees—and so everyone put up with my ways. If I was drunk, I still almost always got it right, and the column helped make Philadelphia sound like a fun place to be.”

As for his diary, he’s always threatened to burn it or turn it into a fictional book, which he’s now a third of the way finished. Semi-autobiographical, it’s about all the people he met in the column, and about when he first met them in his adolescence. Iams compares it to the English novel A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, about the British elite.

“But it’s not just an Anthony Powell sequel,” he professes. “I won’t say more, but I have a McGuffin (Alfred Hitchcock’s term for a little plot twist) in it—but I’m not sure if I will ever finish it. I hold myself up. I’m lazy. I’d rather garden. But the old man is still there. I have to write one piece of fiction.”

Iams has spent most of this Sunday at the Devon Horse Show spreading the news about the Turf Club, at the request of longtime socialite and friend Wendy Drexel Paul, a horse show committee member. It’s a reunion of sorts for Iams, who runs into an old friendly face every six steps. “I’m no slouch at knowing people,” he admits. “I’m a close second to Wendy.”

For her part, Paul has confidence in Iams’ spiel. “He’s doing excellent,” she says. “He was always so terribly shy. I think it’s why he always drank so much—because he was so shy.”

In an art gallery, numerous red dots indicate the many pieces already sold. “I once went to a student art show, and there were so many red dots, I wrote that the show had the measles,” Iams recalls.

Inside Lilly Pulitzer, he directs his Turf Club pitch at a 22-year-old young lady.

“It’s funny. When I started out in journalism, I was so shy I could never have done this,” says Iams.

Soon enough, he heads over to Barbara (Didi) Wanamaker’s grandstand box for a “fortifier,” as she calls it, pouring him a vodka on the rocks from a Poland Spring water bottle. “I prefer a bloodless Mary,” Iams chirps.

At different times throughout the day, Iams suggests possible headlines and captions for this story: “David at Devon” is among his musings. When a photo at the top of the Ferris wheel is mentioned, he says, “I can see it now: ‘David Iams as high as a kite as usual.’”

From up there, though, he couldn’t mix and mingle—or reminisce—with the likes of Thorncroft’s Saunders Dixon, who sparks memories of the therapeutic riding center’s former dinner dance, the Thorncroft Victory Gallop. “A lot has changed,” Iams laments. “A lot of the black-tie benefits are no longer held.”

Then he crosses paths with Lillian Wister, who is “among the many who made it easy for me [to cover society],” Iams says. “She, or someone in her family, knows everyone.”

Standing in the sandy entry ring, Iams greets Middy Dorrance. Then he sees Don Rosato, the retired Main Line nutritionist and dietician, who dismounts and delivers to Iams what must be one of his long-mastered lines: “I have bad news for you: My ex-wife likes you.” Rosato is among those who provided Iams’ “first introduction to real fancy society.”

“Plus, we both like to raise hell,” Iams says.

Iams chats with Ed Proudman, the de facto majordomo at Ardrossan for the last 30 years, about a book in the works on the fabled Scott family mansion and 750-acre estate whose future is still uncertain. “I wasn’t asked to write it, goddamn it,” says Iams in jest.

But the thought prompts more insights. “Bobby [Scott] never liked being called ‘Bobby,’” Iams says. “He wanted to be called ‘Bob.’ Bobby was somehow diminutive to him. When I first met him, he took me to The Garden restaurant (then on Locust Street in Center City). He was president of the art museum, and we had a wonderful time. We had so much in common. We both liked to drink. We both had serious marital problems. We loved opera music. We had a glorious time for the next 20 years.”

Of course, Scott was a regular in the column, as was the late Thatcher Longstreth and then-mayor Ed Rendell. Some quips remain memorable, even if Iams took the liberty of self-crafting them. When Liberty Place was built above the cap of William Penn, he quoted a member of Philadelphia’s esteemed Yarnall family as saying, “We’ve broken a Quaker tradition of having all tombstones the same height. Philadelphia is no longer a Quaker graveyard.”

“I said it,” Iams recounts, “but then said to him, ‘Don’t you agree, sir?’”

Just as memorable was a Barnes Foundation black-tie fundraiser. Iams remembers thinking how long-deceased namesake Dr. Albert C. Barnes, with his anti-establishment mindset, would’ve never permitted such an event. Just then, “a near tornado blew in and blew the tent over,” Iams says. “As Society said, ‘It was as if [the storm] was Dr. Barnes himself.’”

To Iams, the Main Line will always exist as a separate entity, even as the intermarriage between its most prominent families has gradually diluted while the growth of the general population—“the plebeians”—has boomed.

In the meantime, conspicuous consumption has become unfashionable. The affluent now crave privacy, and they’re less concerned about showing up in boldface. As time went on, Iams attended the same parties—but as himself, not the Inquirer.

“There are still debutante parties, and still the kernel of the old guard and organ-izations like The Assembly, the private dance that’s 200-plus years old,” he says. “There’s still a nucleus that will intermarry and kill each other and divorce each other more often than not.”

Then, mid-grandstand at Devon, Iams waves an imaginary wand over high society’s storied arena and links the Main Line to the 1998 movie Merlin, about King Arthur’s court. In it, Queen Mab says that if the old religion she represents gets too old and too weak, it will disappear—and no one will remember it.

“Part of me wants to say the old social society will be like the old religion. It may get weak enough that it might just disappear, or it might be there but no one will notice it,” Iams says. “That doesn’t mean I’m not wrong. But maybe others just haven’t thought about it like I have.”

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