The beneficiary : fortune, misfortune, and the story of my father

We hear a lot these days about “the 1%” -- those Americans who are wealthier than 99% of the nation’s population. Janny Scott, a New York Times reporter, who has also written a biography of Barack Obama’s mother, knows about this group from the inside, because she grew up in a family that was definitely part of the 1%--the Montgomery/Scott clan of Villanova, Pennsylvania, in the posh Philadelphia suburbs known as the Main Line. 

In 1909, Janny’s great-grandfather, Col. R. L. Montgomery, an investment banker, purchased about 800 acres of land along the Main Line and built a 50-room, 33,000-square-foot mansion there that he called Ardrossan, after his family’s hometown in Scotland. In the decades that followed, Ardrossan and its numerous outbuildings became the home to several generations of Montgomery descendants, including the Colonel’s eldest daughter, Helen Hope Montgomery, who was Janny’s grandmother. Helen Hope married railroad heir Edgar Scott, and they became leading society figures of their day, with friends who included novelist John O’Hara and playwright Philip Barry. Barry, a Harvard classmate of Edgar’s, dedicated his play The Philadelphia Story to Hope and Edgar Scott, and he clearly based the play’s setting on the Ardrossan estate. Hope herself is often claimed to be the inspiration for its heroine, Tracy Lord, but her granddaughter, who knew her well, feels that Tracy was really based on the actress for whom she was written--Katharine Hepburn--also a friend of the Scotts. 

It would appear that these people had everything they needed to make their lives satisfying and successful--wealth, intelligence, good looks, and a beautiful place to live. Indeed, Hope and Edgar seem to have had very happy lives during the 70 years they were married, aside from an infidelity or misunderstanding here and there. So why did their younger son, Robert Montgomery “Bobby” Scott, who also spent most of his life living at Ardrossan, wind up drinking himself to death, in spite of looks, charm, a law career, and a very successful 14-year stint as president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art? That’s what Janny, his daughter, sets out to discover in this penetrating look at her family’s legacy and what it did to “Bobby” Scott. It was no secret to his wife and children that Bobby kept a journal for most of his adult life, but he never left it lying around for others to read; his daughter admits that she would have done so if given the opportunity. When she was a young woman, he told her that he was leaving her his journals, because she was the writer in the family, but at the time of his death, their whereabouts were unknown. It was not until several years later that Janny discovered them packed neatly away in a closet and read them from beginning to end. 

She discovered that the father she idolized as a child and young woman was, from at least his mid-20s, deeply dissatisfied with his life. He felt he’d taken the wrong career path, married the wrong woman, but also felt powerless to break free from the choices dictated by his heritage and wealth. As the years passed, drinking increasingly served as a means of escape from his sense of hopelessness, and even a family intervention and a stint in rehab could not permanently alter the trajectory his life had taken.

While Bobby Scott’s troubling story forms the center of this narrative, his daughter uses her journalistic research skills to objectively examine other family members and how enormous wealth influenced their lives. The book’s title refers to Bobby’s position as one of the six beneficiaries of the Ardrossan estate trust, but Janny Scott also sees her entire family as beneficiaries--of a heritage that gave them options unavailable to others, but also came with challenging obligations and expectations.

Available in e-media.