A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist explores her charming but mysterious father’s life and family history.
Jestingly called “the Duke of Villanova” by Scott (A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, 2011) and her family, Robert Scott grew up the heir to a “middling American fortune” built by the author’s grandfather. Yet Robert, who did not have access to the trusts that “went to the oldest generation,” insisted on spending money he earned—first as a lawyer then, later, as president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—on maintaining a family mansion he did not own. Drawing on family letters and conversations, her father’s journals, and her own vivid memories, the author probes the secrets of her family. As Scott chronicles, Robert’s grandfather, who was reported to have died of illness during World War I, actually committed suicide out of fear of being publicly humiliated for “a bender involving a woman and booze.” Robert’s beautiful socialite mother, Helen, was the inspiration for the character Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, and his literary-minded father, Edgar, consorted with members of the Algonquin Round Table before founding a Philadelphia stockbrokerage. But for all their glamour, Robert’s parents remained a sadly “intermittent presence” in the life of a son who would later say that he had been “raised by Irish cooks and maids.” Reading Robert’s journals—discovered nearly a decade after his death—the author discovered that her outwardly breezy father suffered a deep existential anguish that came out in his lifelong addiction to alcohol. The family story the author tells is fascinating for the painful personal legacies it uncovers. At the same time, it is also compelling for the parallels it draws between an earlier age of inequality and our own and the questions it raises about how contemporary stories of new-rich families “will play out, one hundred years hence.”
A heartfelt and rich narrative tapestry.