The real-life Tracy Lord behind Allens Lane’s ‘Story’

Posted 1/27/20

Katharine Hepburn (right) who bore a physical resemblance to Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (left), won a “Best Actress” Oscar portraying Tracy Lord, based on Scott, in 1940. by Len Lear Our …

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The real-life Tracy Lord behind Allens Lane’s ‘Story’

Katharine Hepburn (right) who bore a physical resemblance to Helen Hope Montgomery Scott (left), won a “Best Actress” Oscar portraying Tracy Lord, based on Scott, in 1940.

by Len Lear

Our community theater reviewer, Hugh Hunter, wrote a rave review last week of “The Philadelphia Story,” which ran at the Allens Lane Theater until Jan. 26 in West Mt. Airy. It is not often that one can say he met and interviewed the person on whom a hit Broadway play and two Oscar-nominated and/or Oscar-winning Hollywood films were based, but that is the case here.

“The Philadelphia Story” is a 1939 American comic play by Philip Barry, one of America’s most prolific playwrights who had 23 plays produced on Broadway between 1921 and 1949, when he died of a heart attack in his New York Park Avenue apartment at the age of 53.

“The Philadelphia Story” tells the tale of a socialite whose wedding plans are complicated by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and an attractive journalist. Barry, who was educated at both Yale and Harvard Universities, said he wrote the part of Tracy Lord specifically as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn. He said in many interviews that the character of Tracy Lord was inspired by Helen Hope Montgomery Scott, a Philadelphia area socialite known for her hijinks and iconoclasm who had married a friend of Barry’s.

In 1940 the play was made into a movie starring Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

Hepburn and Stewart won “Best Actor” and “Best Actress” Oscars in 1941, and the movie won “Best Picture.” The film was so successful that it was remade as an MGM musical, “High Society,” in 1956 starring Grace Kelly as Tracy Lord, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. It gained three Oscar nominations but did not win any.

In 1986 I was lucky enough to interview Hope Montgomery Scott (she did not use the name Helen) when she was 82 (she died in 1995 at age 90) in her Downton Abbey-like 50-room, 33,000-square-foot Georgian Revival mansion in Villanova, surrounded by 800 acres of astonishing landscaped beauty. The property, known as Ardrossan (named for a town of that name on the coast in southwestern Scotland), has since been sub-divided. About 150 acres of Ardrossan are now part of the Radnor Township park system, and hundreds more are under conservation easements. (Historian David Nelson Wren published a wonderful book about the estate in 2017, “Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line,” Bauer and Dean, $75).

“All my life I have been asked about the fact that I was played in the movies by Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly, two of the most beautiful and glamorous actresses in movie history,” Scott said. “Of course I was so honored; who wouldn’t be? It was not something I ever asked for. When Philip Barry told me he was basing the Tracy Lord character on me, I thought he was kidding. After all, who was I?

“Philip was a very lovely, witty man and a wonderful conversationalist. It is a shame that we lost him much too soon. Although I tried to discourage him from writing about me, I must admit I was very proud of Ardrossan. My family has lived here since 1912, and it was built by Horace Trumbauer, one of the country’s greatest architects who also helped design the Philadelphia Art Museum. Interestingly, the filmmakers did not use Ardrossan in the movie because they said it was too big to be believed. So they shot it in Hollywood instead.”

Another local connection to the original “Philadelphia Story” play and movie was David Eichler, co-founder of the Eichler-Moffly real estate firm in Chestnut Hill, which was founded in 1960 and sold to William Lee Morse in 2000 and then to Prudential Fox & Roach in 2012. In the late 1930s Eichler, who was then chairman of the English department at Chestnut Hill Academy, wrote to Katharine Hepburn and asked if he could bring his students to see “The Philadelphia Story,” which was about to come to a Philadelphia theater from Broadway, and then meet with her backstage after the play.

In July of 2003, one week after Katharine Hepburn died at the age of 96, Eichler called me and asked me to come to his house across the street from Chestnut Hill Hospital. When I went to his house, Eichler, was who wheelchair-bound, showed me hundreds of letters hand-written by Katharine Hepburn to David over more than 60 years. Eichler, a life-long bachelor who had earned an MBA from Harvard University and was part of an Army Air Force bombing crew during World War II, said he wanted readers to know about his Platonic relationship with Hepburn.

“Kate had a townhouse on 49th Street in Manhattan as well as a home in Hollywood,” he said. “Every time she had a new play on Broadway, I’d go up and see her. In fact, in the early ‘60s she gave me a key to her place in New York. She said to me, ‘Don’t pay those God-awful hotel prices,’ so I stayed there dozens of times, many times when she was out of town.

“We’d see each other about eight to 10 times a year. We’d normally eat at her house because it was such a hassle to go out. We could not walk down the street without Kate being stopped over and over again by people who wanted an autograph or just wanted to shake her hand or say hello. She had many friends, but the last thing she said to me was ‘I’ve outlived most of my friends, and I’d glad you are still here, David.’”

Two weeks after I met Eichler, he died on Aug. 1, 2003, in his Chestnut Hill home at the age of 90.

Len Lear can be reached at