Janny Scott, a former New York Times reporter, has staked her claim to an unusual beat: exploring secret family legacies. She roamed widely in pursuit of “the untold story of Barack Obama’s mother,” the subtitle of A Singular Woman, about Stanley Ann Dunham. This time, Scott’s terrain is her own family’s 800-acre estate, Ardrossan—a multigenerational compound outside Philadelphia that “had survived against the odds from one gilded age into the next.” The mystery she probes is her father, entranced yet also trapped by his inheritance.
The arc is classic: Robert Montgomery Scott—scion of fortunes made in finance and railroads—was born in 1929 to parents who specialized in élan, not children. (His dazzling mother was reputed to be the model for Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story.) He pulled off a debonair act himself. Sent away to pedigreed schools, he returned to Ardrossan and took up life as a lawyer, avid beagler, tireless bicyclist, “naughty” womanizer, lavish host, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—before succumbing, too soon, to drink.
Flair is in the DNA. As attentive to outré details as to psychological turmoil, Scott makes the most of the suspense built into her story. Her father, having promised Scott in her 20s that she would inherit his many diaries, made her hunt long and hard for them after his death in 2005. The bequest was brilliant: A man in unhappy thrall to a place lured his daughter further and further in—and she escaped with priceless insight into its, and his, hidden depths.