The Real Philadelphia Story
The glamorous East Coast heiress whose story was to
rekindle Katharine Hepburn's career and, in 'High Society', provide Grace
Kelly with her most famous role, died earlier this year, aged 90. Ian Irvine
examines the legacy of the original Tracy Lord
by Ian Irvine
Sunday Telegraph, April 16, 1995 page 1
Helen Hope Montgomery Scott died, aged 90, on January 9 this year
at her estate, Ardrossan, near Philadelphia. Her 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.
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".
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
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
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
© 1995 The Telegraph Group Limited
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