The Real Philadelphia Story
by Ian Irvine, Sunday Telegraph, April 16, 1995
Helen Hope Montgomery Scott’s (April 8, 1904 - January 9, 1995) obituaries were long and respectful, as befitted someone who had been prominent in wealthy Philadelphia society for more than 70 years. They emphasised her career as a highly eligible heiress and party girl in the Twenties, and as a lavish hostess after her marriage. They mentioned her doing the Charleston with Josephine Baker in Paris, dancing a foxtrot with the Duke of Windsor at El Morocco (“He was pretty good”) and lunching with Sir Winston Churchill on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. But all the obituaries opened with the element in her life which had had some curious consequences far from the ordinary life of a wealthy socialite - and which made her indirectly responsible for James Stewart’s only Oscar, the establishment of Katharine Hepburn as a major film star and, later, the popularity of the Christian name Tracy. For Hope Montgomery Scott was the inspiration for Tracy Lord, heroine of The Philadelphia Story.
In 1940 the film was “socko boffo” in Variety-speak: winning Oscars and breaking box office records. But since then it has retained its popularity, regularly featuring in lists of favourite films. The charm of this screwball comedy is obvious: a rich girl has doubts on the eve of her second marriage and, after an episode of self-discovery, remarries her first husband. Cary Grant as the husband and James Stewart as an intrusive reporter both give excellent performances. The humour is sophisticated, witty and bracingly anti-romantic. But it is the personality of Tracy Lord, incarnated by Katharine Hepburn, that compels: a character compounded of beauty, brains, wit, wealth, pedigree, position and, eventually, vulnerability.
It had begun as a stage play. Philip Barry, a leading Broadway playwright, first had the idea early in 1938. His initial thought was of the dramatic potential of a wealthy family in the process of being studied for an article in Fortune magazine. He wrote well and amusingly about the lives of the rich because that was the world in which the Yale-educated, drawling, cocktail-drinking Barry moved. When he mentioned his play idea to his wife, she suggested the Main Line area of Philadelphia, the city’s most fashionable address, as a setting. Barry agreed and began writing using Hope Montgomery Scott, the Main Line’s most famous socialite, as a model for his heroine.
Philadelphia society then exhibited an extreme type of class-consciousness. The flood of wealth that created American family fortunes in the late 19th century settled around a handful of cities and was expressed in different forms of conspicuous consumption and elaborate social behaviour - as chronicled by Edith Wharton in novels such as The Age of Innocence. In dynamic New York and Chicago, Vanderbilts and Astors, Fields and McCormicks vied with each other in glitter and the acquisition of European titles through their marriageable daughters, but mere wealth usually provided a sufficient entree to their society.
In more traditional Boston and Philadelphia, however, society turned almost feudal, almost English in its attitudes - “old” money and “old” families counted for everything. The very term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) was coined to describe members of Philadelphia society - its most characteristic institution was the Philadelphia Assemblies Ball. This is the oldest and most exclusive social gathering in the United States. Held every year since 1748, it is strictly reserved for members of the city’s Social Register - no amount of money will allow entry; blood is everything. It was here, down the staircase to the great ballroom of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, that Hope Montgomery, in ballgown and elbow-length white kid gloves, made her entrance as a debutante in 1922.
The daughter of Colonel Robert Montgomery, head of a wealthy and ancient Philadelphia family, she immediately made an impact. That evening she received four marriage proposals - none of which she accepted. The following year she met “an older man” at a Main Line dinner party, the 24-year-old Edgar Scott, heir to the Pennsylvania Railroad fortune (and an old classmate of Philip Barry). After a dozen dates they decided to marry, but her parents insisted they wait nine months. “I always knew what I wanted, and so did Edgar. We both had the idea from the start that marriage should be something that lasts forever. And it did.” It was inevitably described as the Society Wedding of the Year, and exhaustively chronicled by the press down to the orange blossoms that banked the church.
The couple moved into Orchard Lodge, a 1720 fieldstone house which her father had given her as a wedding present. It lies on the Montgomerys’ 750-acre Ardrossan estate on the Main Line, only a mile across an enormous lawn from “the big house”, the 45-room Georgian mansion where Hope had grown up. As a young wife, Hope Scott began to feature on the New York Couture Group’s annual list of best-dressed women, and patronised the salons of many famous names, both in New York and Paris, such as Mainbocher, Falkenstein and Piguet. Her beauty and her slim, angular figure (size eight throughout her life) was much photographed and painted. Cecil Beaton took several portraits of her, and Augustus John painted her twice during her visit to Ireland in 1930.
“Though I was sitting for Augustus John, I did not lack exercise. Most of his models found themselves doing a good bit of sprinting round the studio,” she later recalled. One night John was prevented from climbing into her bed by the presence of a bolster beside her, which he angrily mistook for a fellow painter staying in the house.
The Scotts entertained, and were entertained, in a grand manner. “Everybody had so much money - there were so few taxes. People gave grand dinner parties and dances: women wore wonderful dresses and men came in fine evening clothes,” she remembered.
“It’s a way of life that’s completely gone now. It was really an imitation of Edwardian days in England. It was all quite artificial.”
“When Phil told me he had written this new play, and that Katharine Hepburn would play me, I thought it was great fun, but I really didn’t pay that much attention. I don’t really think Tracy Lord was like me, except that she was very energetic and motivated.” Barry took his idea for a comedy, based on the glamorous figure of Hope Scott, to Katharine Hepburn - who had made a great success of the society girl with brains and beauty in the film version of his play Holiday. His proposal came at just the right moment for Hepburn: her career as an actress both on Broadway and in Hollywood was at a turning point. Her films, including some which we now consider among her finest, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, were not commercial successes, and the studios considered Hepburn too independent and unconventional.
Shortly after Bringing Up Baby’s release, Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theatre Owners of America, published as an advertisement a list of stars who were “box office poison”; Hepburn’s name was at the top. She was in good company, with Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, but the publicity damaged Hepburn in the eyes of both studios and public, and after being offered a very B-movie project, she bought her way out of her contract with RKO, vowing to return only on her own terms.
Hepburn liked the idea for The Philadelphia Story, and after she had been rejected for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (the part for an actress in 1938) she threw herself into assisting both the writing and production. Barry developed the play as a vehicle for Hepburn. The focus moved from the family under threat from the press on the eve of Tracy Lord’s second wedding, to its heroine’s transformation from priggish “ice goddess” to vulnerable and compassionate “real woman”.
Hepburn, like Hope Scott, was of wealthy East Coast patrician stock, but of an entirely different stamp. Her mother was a Houghton, a member of one of the leading business dynasties in the United States: Hepburn and her cousins today share a family fortune of around $500 million. Kit Houghton Hepburn, a strong-minded and independent woman, chose a husband against her family’s wishes. He was Tom Hepburn, a surgeon, the son of an Episcopalian preacher - impoverished but of good family. Their first child, Katharine, grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, as sporty and outdoorsy as Hope Scott, but also in a household that was filled with books and radical ideas - campaigns for female suffrage, family planning, prevention of venereal disease. Educated at the Ivy League college Bryn Mawr, Hepburn also took pride in belonging to the breed of Connecticut Yankees - clever, principled, disciplined, and smart as a whip.
Barry turned the part of Tracy Lord into a showcase for Hepburn’s character, wit and intelligence. The critic David Thomson wrote: “Like Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, she was a moral being, sometimes at odds with herself, deluded or mistaken, but able to correct herself out of a grave and resilient honesty. Nobody on the screen could be so funny and so moving in making a fool of herself, or so touching in reclaiming her dignity.”
There were difficulties raising money for the Broadway production, but eventually half the costs were met by Howard Hughes, at the time the richest and most eligible bachelor in the United States. He and Hepburn had had a summer affair in 1937, which, after much speculation about marriage, had dwindled into good friendship. Presciently, Hughes suggested that Hepburn should obtain the film rights to the play, and eventually bought them for her.
The Philadelphia Story opened at the Shubert Theatre in New York on March 29, 1939. The audience loved it, and the critics complied with rave reviews. Hope Scott commented after the first night: “We were thrilled. But I was amazed because I didn’t think we were all that interesting to write about.” The public disagreed. Its final takings (for 415 performances) were over $1,500,000 - which was good news for Hepburn, since she had foregone any salary in return for 10 per cent of the gross.
Within weeks of the opening, offers were arriving from Hollywood for the screen rights. Hepburn finally accepted $250,000 from MGM, not the highest bid, but MGM would give her approval of her leading men and director. She naturally chose George Cukor to direct (he was a key supporter of Hepburn’s film career and had directed her in Bill of Divorcement and Holiday). For leading men she wanted Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, but neither was available. She settled for Cary Grant, who insisted on top billing (which he got), and James Stewart. The Bristol-born Grant eventually gave his entire fee of $150,000 to the British war effort.
The film opened to enormous critical acclaim and broke box-office records around the country. Among its Oscar nominations in 1940 were Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. In the end only James Stewart (Best Actor) and Donald Ogden Stewart (Best Screenplay) won. Hepburn lost to Ginger Rogers, but there was no doubt that it was her picture. The slur of “box-office poison” had finally been refuted. Hepburn had made the part of Tracy Lord so much her own that it might have seemed hubris for anyone to try to compete.
But when MGM decided to add Cole Porter to The Philadelphia Story and make a musical called High Society, Grace Kelly had just become engaged to Prince Rainier of Monaco and thus become the most famous Philadelphian in the world. In her short film career between 1951 and 1956, Grace Kelly became Hollywood’s own princess. As with Hepburn, anything she did reeked of class. In fact, although she came from a prominent and wealthy family in Philadelphia, Grace Kelly was not part of the city’s exclusive society. How could she be - an Irish-American Catholic, whose brilliantly successful but self-made father had begun his career as a bricklayer?
Kelly later revealed to her friend Judy Kanter that it had been one of her dreams to “come out” as a debutante at the Philadelphia Assemblies Ball in a white dress and elbow-length white kid gloves, as Hope Montgomery had. But that had been an impossible fantasy. As her biographer, Robert Lacey, observes, she “was an outsider, an excluded observer of a world that was held to be the ultimate in terms of class and privilege - which may be one reason why she made such a good job of mimicking the style and customs of that world in her later life”.
Kelly, also, was famously described as a “snow-covered volcano” by Alfred Hitchcock. The director knew so well how to hint on the screen at the passion beneath the pure exterior, just as the besotted Spy journalist Macaulay Connor delightedly discovers the “fires banked down, hearthfires and holocausts” in the champagne-fuelled Tracy Lord.
In the event, Cole Porter’s music filled the gap between Kelly’s creditable performance and the memory of Hepburn’s virtuoso one, and the 1956 film of High Society was a huge success. Such was the glamour of Kelly’s Tracy Lord, that in Britain, a generation of now-thirtysomethings were named after her. The critic and star-worshipper Kenneth Tynan had already named his daughter Tracy in 1952 - and had taken care to have Katharine Hepburn as the godmother. For him, of the three versions, Tracy Lord would always be Hepburn: “the keeper of the flame, the woman of the year, Adam’s rib, and the star-spangled girl”.
© 1995 The Telegraph Group Limited