Helen Hope Montgomery was perfectly suited to a life of excess. She regularly made the best-dressed lists beside Babe Paley and once sang a naughty song to the Duke of Windsor. She won a Charleston contest judged by Josephine Baker.
A legendary bon vivant, she would become the inspiration for Katharine Hepburn’s character Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story” — a spoiled Main Line heiress who remarries her debonair ex-husband, played by Cary Grant.
“She was charming, flirtatious, disciplined, competitive and driven,” writes her granddaughter Janny Scott in her new book “The Beneficiary” (Riverhead Books), out now.
Montgomery grew up on Ardrossan, a storied estate dubbed “The American Downton Abbey” that her father, an investment banker, built during the Gilded Age and named after a Scottish town and castle that supposedly belonged to his ancestors. On a plot of land the size of Central Park, the family compound — which they referred to simply as “The Place” — included farmhouses, stables, barns, kennels, swimming pools, a skating rink, a 50-room mansion and dozens of other homes that at one point housed four generations of the Scott family.
Helen once, at the age of 18, “fielded (and tossed back) four marriage proposals.” She’d been raised for “succeeding at parties and marrying well,” which she did — joining forces with the grandson of a 19th-century robber baron whom she loved deeply, becoming “the CEO of a blue-chip domestic union” which lasted all of their lives, Scott writes.
The playwright Philip Barry was a regular visitor to Ardrossan, and when his 1939 Broadway play, “The Philadelphia Story,” was published, it was dedicated to “Hope and Edgar Scott.” It would go on to become one of the most beloved movies of all time, winning two Oscars.
“She woke up every morning and asked herself, ‘How much fun can I have today?’” writes Scott of her grandmother.
“You could not argue that she was in any particular way burdened by the wealth and ease that was passed to her,” Scott tells The Post. “She lived a wonderful life.”
But her son, on the other hand, had a far more complicated relationship with his inheritance.
Robert Montgomery Scott followed the script he was handed without any hint of rebellion. He went to the same boarding school as his father, brother and paternal grandfather and then to Harvard. He graduated from the law school that had trained his great-grandfather and worked at the law firm that his great-uncle founded, Scott writes.
He entrusted his money to the stock brokerage that his grandfather and father had started. After marrying, the month after graduating from Harvard, he moved back to his family’s estate, setting up a home one field away from where he’d grown up, often visiting his parents or grandmother for a drink after work at the firm in the city.
To the outside world, he was a charming and successful figure, dubbed “The Duke of Villanova” by his family.
“He’d married a woman not only able but willing” to fit into his rarefied background, Gay Elliot, who came from another wealthy family.
At 40, he was appointed assistant to the US ambassador to Great Britain. After he returned home, he became the president and chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a position he held for 14 years.
“He’d slipped comfortably onto the boards of schools, hospitals, banks, cultural institutions. He was an admired figure — the civic-minded, public-spirited, socially alert patrician. At the hundreds of parties, receptions and openings all over the city that the museum president might be expected to attend each year, you could find him — face flushed, eyes twinkling, drink in hand.”
But soon, he was drinking not only after work but during it, spending his days inebriated, passing out in bed after a drunken dinner. Along with great wealth, land, status and power, he also had inherited a tendency towards alcoholism that was passed down through both sides of his family.
As a girl, Scott adored her father. “I wanted to be like him in a lot of ways,” she told The Post. “I tried to walk like he did. I learned to wiggle my ears like him. I wanted to be a lawyer like he was.”
She studied the items on his bureau, trying to learn more about her dad amid his mints and collar stays and toothpicks. She taught herself to make a perfect martini by age 12 to impress her dad.
“He was a captivating figure to me but elusive and somewhat unknowable,” she says.
The two had knock-down, drag-out political fights when she would come home from college vacations, which she now understands were fueled by his drinking. They took long cycling trips together around the world — he was always an avid cyclist — during which he would drink so much that others on the trip worried about him.
“Why hadn’t anyone gotten him help?” they wanted to know.
When his marriage ended after 42 years and much infidelity, he moved into the house where his mother grew up and spent more than what it had cost to build the entire house refurbishing it.
“He ended up restoring every one of the public rooms on the ground floor with no less attention to detail than would befit a curator of period rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Scott writes.
He began to throw lavish Thanksgiving feasts, and the guest list grew longer with each passing year. Soon he was feeding more than 100 family members and friends. A bagpiper in full regalia summoned the guests to dinner; afterward they mingled in the lavish downstairs rooms amid Rococo mirrors and polished marquetry chests.
In her 20s, after Scott had decided to become a journalist, he once casually mentioned that he was leaving his journals to her.
“Why me?” she’d asked.
“You’re the writer,” he replied.
After an intervention by his family and a brief stint with sobriety, her father relapsed and essentially drank himself to death. He died in 2005 at 76 of cirrhosis of the liver.
He seems to have been in denial that the drinking would kill him, saying to his lover when the doctor delivered the news that he was at the end, “How did this happen?”
Years later, Scott found her father’s journals stacked neatly in a wooden chest in the home he’d moved out of after his divorce. Reading through them, she realized he had understood himself and his drinking far more than he let on to others and that underneath the charming exterior, he hid a lot of sadness.
Coming off a weeks-long depression in 1955, he wrote:
I am now 26 years old, I live in a beautiful formal house with grounds which I cannot afford to keep . . . I am a graduate of law school, am paid to practice law by a rather stuffy good law firm, and I am quite mediocre about it. My life is now what many inner suburbanites strive for endlessly . . .
I am married to a charming spoiled wife with whom I have little in common but background. My failure at the tennis court eliminated what she felt to be the sphere in which we would have experiences together, and the result is that we have no common experiences, except our background. We live our background. Our house is our two generations of money flowing into more of culture. This is no way to live.
There is nothing which I find exciting, stimulating, except the things which I do alone, unanalyzed and unspoken. Work (perhaps), reading, drinking (perhaps). I am cold, in the sense of being dead to so much. Short in values and interests, my horizon is illumined by the glow of human admiration. Without that glow, I am undirected.
The journals went on to reveal the sadness and anxiety that he battled privately his whole life. He felt better when he drank, he wrote. Martinis made him feel “witty.” Dinner with his family was more pleasant than usual “largely because I had three Scotch and sodas,” he wrote.
Early on, he realized that his choice to follow in his family’s footsteps had trapped him, and he found escape in drink, Scott says.
‘As I got deeper into the complexities of the family I reflected on the ambiguities of inheritance — not just money but culture, and land and values and genes as well.’
“There’s something very touching to me about his struggle,” she writes. “I was left with a great sense of his complicated humanity.”
And, in writing her book, Scott came to question the wisdom of inherited wealth.
Ardrossan, which was placed in trust, she says, was first and foremost a way to avoid taxes for her great-grandfather. The well-being of his descendants was not the first thing on his mind, she believes. “In all the thought of tax avoidance, was any thought given to the way this privilege would play out in the coming generations?”
Scott raised her own children on the Upper West Side — in a manner nothing like her own childhood. After her father died, she was bequeathed some of her father’s personal cash but nothing of the estate, most of which has fallen out of trust and will be sold in chunks and developed in the coming years.
“I am certainly not making an argument that people should feel sorry for rich people,” Scott adds. “But as I got deeper into the complexities of the family I reflected on the ambiguities of inheritance — not just money but culture, and land and values and genes as well.
“The assumption [is] that the passing on of those things is an unalloyed good,” she says. For Scott’s father, nothing could be further from the truth.