Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Janny Scott about her new book "The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune and the Story of My Father."
Book Excerpt: 'The Beneficiary'
by Janny Scott
On a rainy October afternoon in the early years of the twenty-first century, in the prosperous suburbs that roll west from Philadelphia along what was once the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line, a crowd gathered at a church, founded three hundred years earlier as an outpost of the Church of England, to mark the untimely passing of the Duke of Villanova. After the service, in which men mumbling incantations dispensed wafers and wine to congregants lined up before the altar, the crowd spilled from the church, dispersed into cars, and bolted for what many must have anticipated would be the Duke's final bash. Vehicles lurched out of the parking lot, accelerating past the mossy churchyard where his ashes lay freshly deposited beneath a blanket of mud. A conga line of SUVs, hybrids, and limousines soon stretched the entire two-mile route to the reception, which, as everyone in that crowd could have guessed, was to take place in the fifty-room hilltop pile that had served as headquarters for the deceased's family for ninety-one years. The house had acquired a certain mystique in those parts, not merely for the hundreds of acres of rolling fields and woods over which it still presided at a time when single acres in the area were going for a quarter of a million dollars, but for the predilection of its owners, through three long-lived generations, for carrying on in a vivid, anachronistic style, and for throwing some unforgettable parties.
The route from the church that afternoon wound past the traces of a vanishing past, when fortunes made from sugar refining, liquor distilling, and the condensing of soup had made possible the creation, a century earlier, of dozens of country estates modeled unapologetically on those of the British. Most had flourished for a generation, maybe two, before taxation, the Depression, and dynastic vicissitudes did them in. Manor houses, baronial in scale, were hastily demolished or unloaded onto colleges and schools. Some survived as the stately centerpieces of retirement communities, adrift in an archipelago of villas. Where lawns had once spread, present-day palazzi sprouted. Pharm Belt millionaires, flush with profits from the sale of antidepressants and statins, poured in. As the old road from the church dipped and wove, the procession rumbled past home-security-system signs, duck ponds, and the occasional vestigial stone gatepost bearing the name of one more family in the latter stages of being forgotten. At the top of a hill a mile from the church, cars climbed to a T intersection and slowed to a stop, their drivers idling for a moment to peer down the other side of the hill for oncoming traffic. Beyond the road, a panorama spread before them like the backdrop of some enormous outdoor stage at opening curtain. To the left of the road, a hayfield plunged and majestically rose, its contours undulating like ocean swells. Beyond it, a pasture spilled toward the horizon; another, beyond that. To the right of the road, a cornfield sloped downhill toward the dark margin of a wood. A farm road arced through the rows of khaki stubble. No driver that afternoon, pausing, could have missed the sight-the northeast corner of the largest piece of open land left in the township, vast enough in its golden era to have spanned four unincorporated communities. Each car idled for a moment, then pressed on, accelerating across the opposite lane onto a long, straight road that ran alongside a stone wall stretching as far as one could see. Near the wall's midpoint, a high, wrought-iron gate interrupted the ribbon of gray stone. Cars slowed, turned, and glided through the entrance to the place.
There was no dukedom, of course. The title was a private joke, deployed by his wife and children in moments of exasperation with flights of grandiosity now long forgotten. My sister and brother and I used it mockingly but not without affection; we'd never have let it slip in his presence. He'd been cast in a role in life, which he seemed to have embraced out of duty, filial devotion, family pride. That he'd played the part to acclaim was evident in the funeral turnout, which included people from the dozen and a half cultural and civic institutions in and around Philadelphia that he'd served-all listed on the back page of the program. There were museum curators, philanthropists, smaller donors, musicians, newspaper reporters, men and women who'd spent their lives working in the houses and barns of his grandparents and parents. There were a few rubberneckers, too. He wouldn't have minded; he'd have been flattered. In his later years, he'd taken to sending us copies of articles about himself clipped from city magazines and local newspapers, which never tired of him as a subject. For all their well-intentioned fawning, it seemed to me, journalists rarely got him right. He'd mail out copies anyway, with a note on a Post-it affixed, simultaneously self-mocking and pleased. He knew as well as we did, maybe better, what the scribblers missed. He'd been catching sight of himself for years, as though brought up short by his reflection in a store window. To the extent that his performance was sometimes over the top, he'd never quite managed to look the other way.
A few months before his death, he'd been the guest of honor at a dinner at a private club in the center of Philadelphia, one of those once all-male establishments with a brownstone-and-brick clubhouse and a venerable history dating back to the Civil War. Tuxedoed, with a cabernet-colored waistcoat and a black bow tie, he'd been maneuvered, in a wheelchair, onto the dais to be presented with a slab of glass recognizing his manifest contributions to the arts. He'd been drinking since morning. His face, perpetually boyish, had become, in his last years, blotchy and swollen. His blue eyes, habitually merry, looked watery with pain. Organs were failing. Arthritis had corroded the joints in his knees. Several hundred friends, former colleagues, civic leaders, and family members watched with curiosity, sympathy, and some trepidation the wheelchair's progress up a wooden ramp onto the stage. The pilot, who was employed by my father and had become something of a surrogate son in those years, pivoted the chair to face the room, locked the brakes, and withdrew. Then, like a man on a high wire, the seventy-six-year-old honoree launched into his acceptance speech. He was winging it, it seemed, lofting sentences out over the heads of the audience-clauses looping, hovering, teetering-and reeling in his catch, hooked by his weather-bitten charm and occasionally self-lacerating humor. "When I was told that I was being given the Crystal Award," he growled, eyes twinkling, "I thought, 'Perfect. You can see right through it.'"
The line of cars on the driveway dipped through a wood, rumbled over a stone bridge, and came to a place where two approaches to the house intersected. To the left, plane trees made a canopy over a curving drive. To the right, a lane descended through a cow pasture toward a cluster of barns. Straight ahead, atop a small hill, one could make out through the trees the slate roof, stone-trimmed gables, and Palladian dormers of a large English Renaissance Revival-style house. Parking attendants were commandeering cars, racing them back up the driveway, parking in an adjacent field. Guests arriving through a second gate were bailing out of their cars and setting off toward the house in the drizzle. A trolley, leased for the occasion, was shuttling people to the foot of the final hill. From there, they trudged uphill toward a paved circle blanketed in butter-colored pebbles, and entered the house through a massive, double front door.
Inside, the atmosphere was not exactly sepulchral. A large crowd, roaring and chattering, filled a long, walnut-paneled, transverse hall that ran the full width of the main body of the house. To the left of the entrance, a capacious alcove had been converted into an open bar. Ten bartenders stood by, provisioned with what looked like enough booze to fuel a political convention. Through a set of doors at one end of the hall, waiters beetled from a bustling pantry, maneuvering trays of hors d'oeuvres past the stuffed head of a moose and into the stream of guests. In the dining room, a table, designed to seat thirty, groaned under a payload of hams, seafood, platters heaped with slabs of rare steak. When I try to summon the specifics of that event all these years later, all that comes to mind is a blurry impression of excess. Someone had chosen to believe that seven hundred mourners might turn up, all in the mood for a hearty, multicourse meal at four in the afternoon. Out of the corner of one eye, I could swear I caught sight of a bubbling fountain of melted chocolate. I know for sure that I glimpsed a slab of something, chessboard-size but thicker, the color of cream, embossed with a heraldic shield bearing the first letter of the name of the family or the house. Butter, really?
In the fogbound days between the death and the funeral, the call had gone out to the usual catering company-one that, I now know, had enjoyed a lock on the family's entertainment budget going back to Prohibition. (The founder had been a bootlegger back then; the family, an energetically convivial client with abundant social and political connections.) Arrangements for the reception had been made in grief and haste, a contract signed, perhaps a deposit made. But when the bill landed like a stink bomb sometime later, no one could quite remember having signed off on a banquet of blowout proportions. Economizing had not been my father's style in his declining years. To be fair, the caterers may have known exactly what he'd have wanted. Then again, they may have sensed in his death the end of an era-justification, albeit self-interested, for going for broke one last time. That evening, after the reception was over and the house had gone quiet, my mother, living alone nearby, received an unexpected visit from members of the catering crew. Because her marriage to my father had lasted forty-two years before the two of them had called it quits, the caterers were not strangers. Could she use a few leftovers? they wondered. (A ham, maybe? Six dozen rolls?) She couldn't. A few weeks later, my brother, sister, and I, as executors of our father's will, balked at the caterer's bill and tried drop-kicking it back. The total, after all, exceeded the median household income in the country that year. Not including the $8,200 tip.
Counterintuitively, that house was in better shape on the day of the funeral than it had been during most of my father's lifetime. He'd spent what had proved to be his final years in a protracted, low-grade fever of restoration, lavishing his attention and inherited money on a white elephant whose days, an outside observer might have declared with certainty, were surely numbered. When my parents' marriage had ended, my father had moved out of the fieldstone house where they'd lived together for forty years and into the nursery on the third floor of the even bigger house where his mother had grown up. For a sum that he said exceeded what his grandparents had spent to build the entire house, he'd restored the eighty-year-old slate roof. Next, he'd converted the nursery into a flat for his newly singled self: two living rooms, a dining room, library, kitchen, master bedroom, two guest rooms, two bathrooms. Then he'd set his sights on the ground floor, which had been uninhabited for a decade and a half, used only for occasional weddings, parties, and charitable events. He'd 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, where he'd been the president and chief executive officer for fourteen years. Ceilings were repaired, light fixtures rewired, draperies reproduced, paintings cleaned and lit. A carpet, bigger than a tennis court, was custom woven for the living room; a round-trip ticket was purchased to send the ballroom rug across the Atlantic for rehabilitation. Furniture was dismantled, rebuilt, refinished, and reupholstered. Needlepoint sofa covers were removed, cleaned, and reapplied. Smoke stains were scrubbed from limestone walls. Plaster walls were not simply restored but "underrestored" to allow the house to look like "the beautiful old lady that she is," as my father put it. The work was scrupulous, no expense spared.
The scale of the undertaking was bewildering-not least because the house didn't belong to my father. It was held by a trust set up by his grandfather, the beneficiaries of which were the members of succeeding generations who numbered in the dozens. Because the trust lacked the cash to keep up with the decay, the manse and everything in it had been deteriorating for years. No one had occupied it in its entirety for a quarter of a century. A cousin of mine was living with her partner and their daughter on the second floor, raising bull terriers in a kennel on the lawn and running a dog-training school out of the basement. My father, from his lair in the nursery, bankrolled most of the restoration out of his own pocket. Privately, more than one of his cousins wondered how he could afford it. He spoke of the house, in those years, with a tone of fond indulgence, as though it were an aging family member with a colorful history deserving deference. "This house loves a party: It was built with entertaining in mind," he'd say, squiring astonished visitors from room to room. "Something like this is too wonderful to let disappear. It represents the last of its kind." Which, incidentally, was not unlike the way he allowed himself to be presented-as the last of a breed on the cusp of extinction. As the years rolled by, the big house, as it was known in the family, looked better and better. Its benefactor, truth be told, looked worse and worse.
By his final Thanksgiving, the contrast between the two was alarming. Some years earlier, my father had begun hosting a Thanksgiving feast on a grand scale in the dining room on the ground floor. To maximize attendance by avoiding any scheduling conflicts with other family members' Thanksgiving festivities, he staged his banquet on the Friday evening after. With each passing year, the guest list grew longer. The acceptance rate was high, in light of the host and the venue: Soon he was feeding nearly one hundred relatives and friends. There were descendants of his maternal grandfather's generation, in which there had been eleven siblings. Cousins on his father's side traveled from Washington and Maine. To summon the troops to the table, he hired a bagpiper in kilt, sporran, kilt hose, and clan accessories. He choreographed the seating on sheets of yellow legal-pad paper. Children cantered along the transverse hall and darted up and down the broad staircase, running their pink palms along its pierced balustrade to where it terminated in finials carved into baskets of fruit. With the dining-room table extended to its capacity, smaller tables filled the rest of the room and spilled into a limestone-walled conservatory next door. The host, red-faced and congenial, seated himself in the middle of one side of the big table, his back to the fireplace beneath a portrait of an august ancestor who'd served for a time in Congress. On his right, he'd seat an aged aunt or other especially honored guest. Across the table, he'd station younger women whom he wanted in his line of sight. On his final Thanksgiving, as his guests circulated through the ground-floor rooms, admiring the polished marquetry chests and a pair of gilded and newly restored Rococo mirrors, he made his entrance late, in a wheelchair, his skin ravaged. Before dessert was over, he asked to be wheeled upstairs on the rattling, sixty-five-year-old Otis elevator; pushed down the long, carpeted hall of the nursery; steered into his bedroom with its oriel window framing the blue-black sky; and helped out of his party clothes and into bed.
Excerpted from The Beneficiary by Janny Scott. Copyright © 2019 by Janny Scott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on April 16, 2019.