Janny Scott, a descendant of a famous Main Line family, wasn’t expecting to find her father’s diaries years after his death.
But the secrets of her family’s massive Ardrossan estate — and her father’s struggles with alcohol — propel her captivating book, The Beneficiary, from which she’ll read at the Union League of Philadelphia next Tuesday, Sept. 10.
Scott’s grandmother, the inspiration for Katharine Hepburn’s character in the film The Philadelphia Story, was Philly’s best-known socialite, but a distant parent. Her son, Robert Montgomery Scott, was a Philadelphia lawyer and fixture, who spent a half-century tending to the city’s arts and business realms.
He also kept decades’ worth of secret diaries recounting his struggles with depression — “the moods,” he called them — and progressive alcoholism. Those feelings he hid from his wife and children, including Janny, until an intervention in his later years.
Janny Scott and several generations of her family grew up at the 800-acre Ardrossan mansion on the Main Line. But the book foretells what happens when no one makes a plan to save the family legacy.
It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to preserve capital, pass on family treasures, or decide who has the right to tell the truth about the family history.
In an interview, Scott, a New York Times reporter for 14 years, who was part of a team that won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize, said, “I didn’t set out to tear the lid off my family, or do an exposé of my father.” Instead, she discovered a trunk full of diaries and began reporting out her father’s life using her skills as a journalist. She’ll give several readings in the Philadelphia area this fall (See https://jannyscott.com/news-events/).
“How did my father’s seemingly charmed life come to the perplexing end that it had? I wanted to explore what struck me as a fascinating bit of social history. It was the creation of Ardrossan and its evolution over the 20th century,” she said.
In addition, “I blundered into the more complicated, darker parts of the story,” including her father’s recognition in his 20s that he faced a towering drinking problem.
“I told it with love for my father and my family, not out of any desire to cause any harm,” said Scott, who also wrote A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother. “Personally, I ended up with an enormous amount of empathy for my father about his very private struggle that he hid from all of us.”
For those who wonder what ever happened to the massive Ardrossan estate, Scott’s book pulls back the curtain. Much like the castle on the television show Downton Abbey, Ardrossan was an expensive estate to maintain. Her father’s drinking contributed to indecision on what to do about the property before his death from cirrhosis of the liver.
“For a long time, I saw nothing ominous in my father’s drinking. Pretty much every adult I’d ever encountered drank. As I moved through the diaries, I began to see that he found an antidote to his troubles in drinking. Alcohol allowed him to override his anxieties and inhibitions,” she wrote.
Descended from a long line of patrician families in old Philadelphia, her father was “the beneficiary of extraordinary good fortune. It wasn’t only the privileged life into which he and the rest of us had been born; he’d found work that he loved and for which he was treasured. He’d had the company of his parents for sixty-five years. One might have imagined he’d carry on cheerfully for another thirty, then fade out in mid-flashback, like his father, at ninety-six, or pop off briskly, like his mother, at ninety, after perhaps a fall from his bicycle and a timely blow to the head," she wrote.
But that wasn’t how it went. In his last years, her parents’ marriage dissolved, his job ended, and his health imploded. He spent so much money restoring Ardrossan, which he didn’t own outright (it was held in trust), that when he died at 76, the lawyer had left his own estate in shambles.
“He passed his final days in an intensive care unit, too sick to be transported fifteen minutes home, where he’d hoped to die,” the book explains.
The diaries “were an inheritance of sorts — unanticipated, undeserved, a stroke of fortune. But, like an inheritance, they came at a cost.”
Land, houses, money: Wealth had tumbled through Scott’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. It 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. You might resolve to live as though that wealth didn’t exist, but sooner or later it would probably insinuate itself into your thinking about jobs, profession, marriage, children. Some beneficiaries flourished. Some didn’t," she wrote.
Unfortunately for Ardrossan, there’s no nonprofit acting as steward or community-supported agriculture farm. There’s no master plan, no strategic plan, no land-use plan. Those proposals died with Scott’s father.
Instead, a few hundred acres have been sold for development. Radnor Township bought some of the land, and fields will be preserved as open space. Other chunks were sold or donated, including dozens of acres that became part of the township park system, and 300 acres were put under conservation easements.
For future generations, Janny Scott’s book warns: “A bumper crop of billionaires was bringing about a new age of disparity and excess. Now they were erecting monster houses and nailing down the class position of their children, like another generation had done a century before. Did they ever wonder how the wealth and position they’d manage to amass would play out in the lives of the generations that would follow?”