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A bit of history

December 15, 2010

The Secret Lives of Wasps

From late icon Bobby Scott to present-day Biddles and Pews, Philadelphia’s elite families share — in their own words — the well-bred secrets of privilege, high stone walls, turtle soup, martinis and, believe it or not, “poontang”

By Amy Donohue Korman

In 1964, when Penn sociologist E. Digby Baltzell coined the acronym “Wasp” in his book The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy & Caste in America, that ­station-wagon-driving, club-habituating set was in full force around Chestnut Hill and the Main Line. The best-known were the Montgomery Scott clan, who famously lived at their Villanova estate, Ardrossan, and whose scion, Robert Montgomery “Bobby” Scott, died last month at age 76, having served as our preeminent Wasp since the death of his mother Hope a decade ago. While they no longer exclusively run the city, Biddles, Wetherills, Putnams, Dorrances, Pews (and, indeed, Baltzells) are prominent still — though these days, they choose to achieve in law, medicine and business, rather than rest on their good bloodlines. Traditionally known as conservative, as lovers of golf and tennis, supporters of the Museum and the Orchestra, and prone to living in stone houses that are rarely redecorated, Wasps were and are nothing if not predictable, which has made them especially treasured in this most practical of cities. One thing’s for sure: Whether they’ve been out-glitzed, subdivided, and forced to learn the joys of al dente vegetables, whether they’re now wearing Seven jeans and Manolos, your average Wasp can still drink you under your (inherited) Chippendale table.

Growing Up Wasp

Alfred W. Putnam Jr., chairman, Drinker Biddle & Reath, former president of the Philadelphia Club: My mother grew up at 2025 Delancey — she’s the real Wasp, a Beale. My grandfather, Leonard T. Beale, was a director of the Pennsylvania Railroad. My mother would go roller-skating in Rittenhouse Square — in those days, you couldn’t get into Rittenhouse Square without a key. In summer they would pack up the house and go out to Penllyn, where they had 100 acres. They would stay out there with staff, and my grandfather would take the train into the city; the trains only ran in the summer.

Thacher Longstreth, the late city councilman, in his book Main Line Wasp, 1990: “In her day, Gah [Longstreth’s maternal grandmother] was a formidable woman. … One day … over lunch at my parents’ house in suburban Haverford, Gah got angry at some perceived slight, and stormed imperiously out of the house.

Unfortunately for her, she left the keys to her car inside the house with us. We assumed she’d return sooner or later, but she didn’t.

“Later that afternoon, the phone rang. It was Gah, icily instructing my parents to return her chauffeur and her car. She was back home. …

“‘How did you get there?’ asked my incredulous father.

“‘Well,’ Gah replied, ‘I went out and stood in front of a car, and the driver stopped, and I told him I was Mrs. William F. Thacher and to take me to Locust Street. And he did.’”

Glenn Edgar Pew, real estate developer and descendant of oil mogul J.N. Pew: I have a brother Jimmy and a brother Randy, and people always got us mixed up. My mother told us early on that if people called us the wrong name, to say, “Right church. Wrong Pew.”

William Hewson Baltzell IV, retired surgeon and brother of the late Wasp sociologist E. Digby Baltzell: I’ve lived in this house [gestures around his Chestnut Hill Victorian] since 1938. My uncle lived here before that.

Virginia S. Baltzell, interior designer and real estate broker, daughter of William Hewson Baltzell IV: I was actually born upstairs in the house, as was my brother. My great-grandfather was the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. My father and his two brothers grew up here, where their father basically left them with their mother during the Depression. My father said that even with no money, there was always someone to serve them.

Anthony Joseph Drexel “Tony” Biddle III, banker and financial adviser to the national headquarters of the American Red Cross: In Paris [where Drexel’s father worked for NATO in the 1940s], Eisenhower lived down the street. We’d do barbecues. I grew up with David Eisenhower, who lives in Berwyn. Dad was asked by Ike to run as his VP. He said, “I can’t do that. I never wanted to run for elected office. Also, I’m a Democrat.”

Glenn Edgar Pew: I’ve been friends with Virginia Baltzell for 35 years, we both spent summers in Northeast Harbor. I grew up on the same street as my father, his father, and his father. Glenmede [the Pew house that is now part of Bryn Mawr College] was on that street. My great-grandfather had a farm that went between Morris Avenue and Mt. Pleasant Road and Harriton and Waverly roads, called Spring Brook Farm. But there are families much older than ours.

William Baltzell: At the turn of the century, everyone lived downtown. My father went to Episcopal Academy when it was on Locust Street. You’d go to the country in the summer. Chestnut Hill and Jenkintown were the country. You belonged to four clubs.

The Foundations of Waspdom

Tony Biddle: The Biddle family was here since one year before the city was founded in 1682 — we got here in 1681. William Biddle and William Penn were good friends — Biddle helped William Penn get out of debtors’ prison in England. Penn said, “I want to repay you, and the good news is, I have a lot of land. The bad news is, it’s about 3,000 miles that way.” [points right, at an imaginary America]

Nicholas Biddle was the president of the Second Bank of the United States, and the editor of Lewis and Clark’s journals; he traveled to Greece and brought back an appreciation for Greek architecture. So you have Greek Revival buildings in America, and he rebuilt Andalusia [the Biddle estate in Bucks County] in the way it is now. Nicholas Biddle’s grandson married A.J. Drexel’s granddaughter Emily in about 1872 in a big, big wedding right out on Rittenhouse Square. There were 2,000 people on the Square for the wedding.

Virginia Baltzell: My father will tell you that the way the word “Wasp” was coined was that Uncle Digby was writing ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ repeatedly. He got tired of writing it out. …White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, it’s a marketing tool now. People like to have an identification of sorts. What goes along with it is good manners; I think it’s funny that people associate “Wasp” with money.

William Baltzell: Most sociologists didn’t understand what Wasps were, because they weren’t Wasps. My brother had a unique point of view, and no ax to grind.

Glenn Edgar Pew: I knew Digby from St. A’s [St. Anthony Hall, the exclusive Penn fraternity]. He didn’t make up that term, he popularized it. It was used before that.

Virginia Baltzell: There’s a catalog, J. Peterman, that had a tweed jacket with vents and called it the Digby Baltzell jacket. Without anyone’s permission.

Tony Biddle: Aunt Cordelia Biddle was a Philadelphian who grew up at 2104 Walnut Street and married a Duke [the tobacco Dukes], and moved to New York. The story of Aunt Cordelia’s marriage to Angier Duke was made into The Happiest Millionaire. The book was written by Aunt Cordelia; it was a play on Broadway, and then Walt Disney picked up the phone and called Aunt Cordelia. Her father, Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, was extremely eccentric; he’d go down to Florida and capture alligators and bring them up and keep them in tanks in the conservatory at 2104 Walnut.

He also ran the Biddle Bible School, where he would bring what we would call street people into his carriage house, which he turned into a boxing gym where they would do calisthenics while singing hymns. And he wrote children’s fairy tales. Aunt Cordelia learned to box. … All of which horrified Aunt Mary Drexel around the corner. He was then enlisted by the Marine Corps in World Wars I and II to run their hand-to-hand combat training. He wrote a book about it, Do or Die; I was just talking to Ollie North and he said, “Oh my God, I have that book!”

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians, 1963: “The last Old Philadelphian townhouses were built around 1900, and from then on, fashionable city life was doomed. The 1920s saw the almost complete removal of upper- and middle-class Philadelphia from the city to the suburbs. … Meanwhile, in the bosky bumps and dells of the Pennsylvania countryside, up the rushy glens along the west bank of the Schuylkill as far as Valley Forge, out along the railroad tracks to Paoli, up the Wissahickon to Chestnut Hill, in the more flat and open reaches of Whitemarsh, Bryn Athyn, Ambler, Penllyn, Philadelphians from 1880 to 1930 built up their private dream world, a rural fantasy … of vast estates surrounded by miles of walls, with miles of driveway leading to great craggy mansions. …

Paul Fussell, professor of English at Penn, in his book Class, 1983: “Because the desire for privacy is a top-class sign, high walls — anything higher than six or seven feet — confer class, while low ones, or see-through fences, or none at all, proclaim the middle class. … If you’re not able to find some people’s driveways at all, you are safe to infer that they’re top out-of-sight [socially].”

Alfred Putnam Jr.: Chestnut Hill is older. The Main Line is a joke. [joking] The reason that there is a Main Line is the Pennsylvania Railroad told their executives that they had to live there. No one lived there in the 19th century. They lived in Chestnut Hill. It’s not got an age to it at all.

Virginia Baltzell: Chestnut Hill is a village. The Main Line is so different. We used to pick up Alfred Putnam Sr. every morning. I’d climb in the back of my father’s little sports car, and then Mr. Putnam would get in front and go downtown with my father.

Nancy Grace, socialite and writer: I was told that some old families in Chestnut Hill still considered the Main Line nouveau. Chestnut Hillers played golf at Sunnybrook; Main Liners, at Merion or Gulph Mills.

Dining and drinking à la Wasp

Nancy Grace, writing in Vogue, April 1st, 1957, “Entertaining in Philadelphia”: “Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Scott live in one of the big houses at Ardrossan Farms, the Scott family place at Ithan, Pennsylvania. … Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Scott have another house on the same land. The younger Scotts, who live in a house once staffed by eight starched and sparkling servants, have never, since their marriage five years ago, had more than a half-time cleaning woman who comes in three times a week. Mrs. Scott, however, has concluded that a big house is considerably easier to maintain than a very small one. When they entertain, usually over the weekend, two experienced Irish maids who have lived on the place for more than 20 years come in to lend a hand and do the washing-up. Mr. Scott cooks, quite often choosing the following menu:

Consommé Julienne
Roast Goose with Stuffing
Zucchini Baked in Foil
String Beans with Carrots Vichy
Fruit with Kirsch, Sponge Cake

Mrs. Scott does the shopping, and Mr. Scott doubles as cook and butler. In the latter role, he attained brief professional status last winter when a friend of his mother’s found, on the night of a big dinner party, that she was short one footman; Mr. Scott filled in. The professionals, he reported later, eyed him with a certain controlled distrust during the passing of the hors d’oeuvres, but accepted him completely by the time they finished cleaning up for the evening.”

Martha Baltzell, second wife of William Baltzell: It’s fun to go to the big parties. Although it can get quite boring.

Nancy Grace: Colonel Montgomery was proud of his herd of Ayrshire cows, and sometimes when entertaining guests for lunch, he had it driven to a spot outside the dining room, to create a Gainsborough-like effect.

Thacher Longstreth, Main Line Wasp: “In the mid-to-late 1930s, I found myself plunged into an awesome — and, in retrospect, ludicrous — round of debutante parties. … During the year that a girl ‘came out,’ she and her friends might be invited to a hundred parties. That’s no exaggeration: A single wealthy debutante like Frances Pew, the daughter of Sun Oil’s chairman, J. Howard Pew, might be the guest of honor at four or five different parties. If you lived on the Main Line in the 1930s … you were sent to the Wednesday Afternoon Dancing Class at the Merion Cricket Club. … If you lived in Chestnut Hill, of course, you attended the Tuesday Afternoon Dancing Class, which was conducted at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.”

Nancy Grace: For a dinner party there was no question as to what to wear: Ladies donned long dresses; men, black tie or a velvet smoking jacket. The first course was often terrapin. These diamondback turtles, an endangered species now, were kept in the cellars of the Philadelphia Club, where members could place an order to be picked up in the afternoon before returning home from work.

Martha Baltzell: The Putnams always had tea. She laid it out once a month, and it was a wonderful way to meet people. And you weren’t drinking, and it was only about an hour and a half.

Virginia Baltzell: Uncle Digby wanted to institute tea bars downtown. I had to explain to him that most people are working at teatime. We do tea here every day. With a little honey and rum in it.

William Baltzell: On Fridays at college, we’d get the white meal. Fish, creamed onions and creamed potatoes. So we formed the Gracious Living Society: Each week, we’d have a different cocktail — manhattans, sometimes gin and Dubonnet.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians, writing about the State in Schuylkill men’s fishing club, founded in 1732: “The most famous product of the State in Schuylkill club is its punch. Fish House Punch has by now become part of the national culture, and hosts are felling their guests all over the country with the soothing but deadly recipe. Few are aware, as they gently slip to the floor, of the background of what’s hitting them. Around 1900, it was unwarily released to the ‘public’ at a debutante tea. The ladies, never permitted in those days into the castle, of course, dropped like flies, and the night was hideous with dowagers roaring and hiccupping.”

Tony Biddle: State in Schuylkill? Charlie Biddle, Jimmy’s father, said, “Let’s move it, board by board, onto my property” when they built the Schuylkill Expressway. [Which explains why the exclusive club — members are basically born into it — is now located on the banks of the Delaware River.]

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: “[The Philadelphia Club] sits in a fine high handsome red-brick building, early Victorian but still classic, on the corner of 13th and Walnut streets, in a district of shabby businesses and dubious real estate values. … The club is a very handsome affair, and full of handsome members; but it lacks the Gemütlichkeit associated with most Philadelphia enterprises. … Crotchety, however, it and its members are and have been. Metaphorically, at least, bits of broken hearts litter the pavement in front of the chaste fanlit door on Walnut Street, memorial to those who tried to get in and couldn’t.”

Nancy Grace: In the 1930s the Pews, who hadn’t yet created their huge charitable trust, gave parties at which no alcohol was served. Guests spent much of the night outside, where they kept bottles in their cars. At Ardrossan on Sunday nights, the old Montgomerys always had the family and some old friends for supper — scrambled eggs, what Hope called vomit salad. Auntie somebody would be there, an elderly Miss Scott; when coffee came, Auntie would say, “No, thank you.” And they would say, “It’s Sanka, Auntie,” and she’d look at the butler and say, “Hello, Sanka!”

Benjamin Hammond, retired professor and Ardrossan resident: At the parties at Orchard Lodge, Hope Scott’s house at Ardrossan, the food was so stylishly served. Each napkin looked like it had been ironed all day; they were the best Irish linen. They had a gizmo on the wall when you walked in, a leather tablet that mapped out where you sat at the table. It must have sat 20. Orchard Lodge had two Augustus John paintings of Hope, and a Mary Cassatt. For the seafood, they would always serve vintage meursault, and they always had French champagne for the dessert course. The Annenbergs were always there.

Hope Montgomery Scott, early 1970s, to an Evening Bulletin reporter at an Ardrossan brunch: “We all have beautiful hangovers!”

Paul Fussell, Class: “The middle class eats at 7:00 or 7:30, the upper middle at 8:00 or 8:30. Some upper-middles, uppers and top out-of-sights dine at 9:00 or even later, after nightly protracted cocktail sessions lasting at least two hours. Sometimes they forget to eat at all.”

Virginia Baltzell: How many Wasps does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to call the electrician, and one to make the martinis.

Tony Biddle: My favorite speech that Jimmy Biddle gave was when he addressed the crew of the USS Biddle; it was being refitted at the Naval Yard, and he had the whole crew out at Andalusia. There was a little question-and-answer period, and a guy said, “Mr. Biddle, you look like you’re in wonderful shape.” Jimmy said, “Well, for lunch every day, I have a lettuce leaf and a glass of champagne!”

Horses, boats and leisure pursuits

Robert Montgomery “Bob” Scott, former president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, interviewed in 2004: My grandfather had given up horses, but his youngest daughter Charlotte Ives had horses, my mother rode horses, there were an endless number of horses on the place. My grandfather had developed angina after the First World War, and was told to stop exercising — a great mistake — and got cranky and fat, but I found him fascinating.

Nancy Grace: Wives shopped, went foxhunting, and played golf or tennis. In the summer, everyone went to Maine, where life continued much the same. We all turned up for the Devon Horse Show and the Radnor Races, but people seldom went into town.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians: “Biggest and most famous of all Philadelphia horse events is the annual Devon Horse Show. … The booths that sell everything from lipsticks to lemon sticks (a Philadelphia favorite consisting of a lemon with a piece of candy cane stuck in it for a straw) and the general decor reflect a charming sort of church-fair version of Philadelphia Taste, and it is all very jolly and exciting. … Children are all over the place, and those crops of beautiful adolescents that Philadelphia produces every year, along with the flowers and strawberries, gangle about on their own hilarious errands.”

Tony Biddle: We had a boat on Penn’s Landing, and we’d go up to Andalusia every weekend. Jimmy [Biddle, the recently deceased family patriarch and art historian] would say, “Here come the boat people.” Jimmy and my wife Karen organized a Biddle reunion in 1981; about 350 came. The Baltzells are cousins.

Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphians, on Wasp vacation areas: “For the very upper-class … Old Philadelphian, there is New England — Northeast Harbor in Maine. … For the general average suburban well-to-do Philadelphian, the Jersey Shore, in particular Bay Head and Mantoloking, and Cape May. Northeast Harbor sits back, rather smugly saying, ‘I told you so,’ and supports a full summer quota of Chestons, Clarks, Coxes, Lippincotts, Madeiras, Morrises, Newbolds, Peppers, Robertses, Rosengartens, Thayers and Yarnalls.”

Bob Scott: My grandfather liked to pilot, and fortunately he had a co-pilot; he particularly liked to pilot after lunch. Terrifying!

Sex and the Wasp

Thacher Longstreth, Main Line Wasp: “‘I’m Thacher Longstreth. I’m running for mayor of Philadelphia, and I hope you’ll vote for me.’ [addressing a woman in a bar, while campaigning in West Philadelphia in the 1950s] I mistakenly perceive a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. ‘How’d you like a little poontang, white boy?’ So there you have it: from grandmother to grandson, the decline and fall of Wasp authority in one easy lesson.”

William Baltzell: Women went wild for Digby.

Virginia Baltzell: I have old ladies come into my showroom and say, “I was in love with Digby.” And then they say, “He was my first date.” He was a lot of women’s first dates.

The Evening Bulletin, 1922: “Miss Helen Hope Montgomery [later known as Hope Montgomery Scott], the very pretty daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Leaming Montgomery, is the one debutante who defends bobbed hair. … and when it comes to a question of husbands, the ideal HE must be tall, good-looking, good-natured; he must have a million. Breathes there such a man?”

Hope Montgomery Scott, iconic socialite, interviewed in 1983: We [she and her husband of 71 years, Edgar Scott] saw each other 10 times, and then became engaged. Isn’t that great?

Hope Montgomery Scott and The Philadelphia Story

Pauline Pinard Bogaert, former society editor, Philadelphia Inquirer: The first time I met Hope Scott, I went to her house; she didn’t live at Ardrossan, she lived on Abraham’s Lane in a farmhouse on the estate’s grounds. I expected this big mansion, there was just this little house, nothing extravagant, a little worn here and there. I knock on the door and Edgar comes to the door, he has the top button of his Bermuda shorts unbuttoned and no shirt on. Edgar opens the door and yells, “Honey, there’s someone here to see you.” I expected a servant. It was just Hope. Hope was down-to-earth. She had that lockjaw thing [the classic upper-class Philadelphia accent]. But I would see her at the Acme; she would drive her Jeep with the dog in it and go shopping like anyone else. She was terrific.

Bob Scott: I adored my mother, but she was not easy, as my brother was quoted as saying: “Well, we couldn’t dance with her, so we might just as well go foxhunting.” She was wonderful in some ways, loved the family, loved tractors, loved horses, loved the cows, loved going to New York to parties.

Susan Gutfreund, socialite, interior designer and Ardrossan resident: “Hope made you feel like you’d known her forever. I remember coming from New York to dinner at Ardrossan with Bob Scott, each time I vividly remember walking out the door after dinner, looking at the trees and the quality of the air and the birds, thinking it was nothing short of a paradise and wishing that one day I didn’t have to leave. You feel at Ardrossan that people have had an awfully good time. There’s not a time I walk in there that I don’t feel the history. Rain, snow, I’ve been there when it was solid white with icicles, and it was magical. The mood is constant.

Bob Scott: The Philadelphia Story is said to have been modeled after my mother. I don’t think it’s true. I think it was definitely modeled after the Montgomerys, although Mrs. Lord [The Philadelphia Story matriarch] and my grandmother could not have been more different, and my grandfather wasn’t running away, although he might have wanted to at times. My godfather Philip Barry, the play and movie’s author, was influenced by their lifestyle, which was pretty grand. Katharine Hepburn’s character and my mother were not that similar. They were both privileged old Wasp families, but Katharine Hepburn was a Bryn Mawr bluestocking, and my mother went to school for a year and a half.

When Waspdom began to dim:

Thacher Longstreth, Main Line Wasp: “By the end of the mid-1930s, Gah’s day had clearly passed — and, come to think of it, so had the day of the Wasps throughout the Western world. Only Gah didn’t know it.”

Alfred Putnam Jr.: If you went to Prince-
ton in, say, the class of 1939, those guys came from exactly the same background, believed they were going to marry women who they probably knew when they were at Episcopal Academy, and that their children would do the exact same thing. The question is, when was that assumption blown up?

Nancy Grace: And then the Second World War came, and overnight, everything changed. I became an air raid warden; when a siren sounded, I leapt from bed into a station wagon and drove three miles on winding roads to Livingston Biddle’s Italianate mansion in Bryn Mawr. Passing under the enormous heads of gazelles and rhinoceroses that lined the paneled walls, one would descend into Mr. Biddle’s air-raid center, which was equipped with a billiard table, sandwiches and a bar.

Alfred Putnam Jr.: My aunt, Frances Randolph, was a Main Line matron, and then she and my uncle Evan moved to Society Hill. She had followed her own interests, and it was not at all the world she grew up in. At her funeral — she was 90-something — there were “art people.” But I would not mean to suggest that she was anything other than very Waspy.

William Baltzell: The Wasps used to control everything in this city. They used to have power, but they didn’t want it, so they lost it. The Irish wanted it, the Italians wanted it. It all changed, really, by the time of the Second World War.

Pauline Pinard Bogaert: The hardest thing for people to understand is how society changed after World War II. It started out as Mrs. Astor started the list of 400 in New York — that began the Social Register. I think Philadelphia was second to have a Social Register. And those were the people you socialized with, and who your children married. After the war, men came back and went on the G.I. Bill and got educated and got managerial jobs and were white-collar and started climbing the ladder. Today, it’s no longer an old family, old money thing — it was strictly Wasp, but now society includes everybody, as it should.

Wasp life, 2005:

William Baltzell: At the Philadelphia Club, we have Jewish members and black members. The only criterion is that you are companionable with the other members.

Glenn Edgar Pew: The Rittenhouse Club, the Locust Club — they’re gone. We don’t have those groups as much. When someone says Wasp, when someone struts around because of something someone did 200 years ago, no one’s going to take that seriously. I don’t define my gig by Wasp. I’m not anti it, but it’s an interesting anecdotal thing.

Bob Scott: It’s wonderful: The house is here, and the furniture is here. I have lived here with seven generations of my family, I have seven grandchildren. Our family Thanksgiving dinner is held the day after Thanksgiving for two reasons: There are no football games, and Jimmy Duffy the caterer doesn’t work on Thanksgiving. Last year, we seated 98. The oldest person was 86 and the youngest was three, and each had their own seat.

When I was growing up, 16 people sat down in the servants’ dining room for lunch. There were three chauffeurs, three footmen, one butler, various scullery maids, all gone. It was a little bit Upstairs, Downstairs, but those days are gone; it was lovely to have seen them, and I don’t miss them.

It’s changed. Not too radically. In fact, as change goes, it’s quite minor. I don’t solicit change. Why should I? I live such a privileged life as it is.

Originally published in Philadelphia magazine, November 2005.

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