Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Janny Scott who’s the author of the New York Times best-selling book A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother and her latest book, The Beneficiary: Fortune, Misfortune, and the Story of My Father. The Beneficiary was chosen as one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2019 and one of NPR’s Favorite Books of 2019. A reporter for The New York Times from 1994 to 2008, she was a member of The Times reporting team that won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. She currently lives in New York.

Welcome. Thanks for coming on the show, Janny.

Janny Scott: Thank you, Zibby. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Could you please tell listeners what The Beneficiary is about?

Janny: The Beneficiary is a family memoir spanning roughly three generations in my father’s wealthy, aristocratic, Pennsylvania family. It’s set almost entirely on a roughly eight-hundred acre, British-style country estate a half hour outside of Philadelphia, a place that has been compared to an American Downton Abbey sort of plucked from the pages of Henry James or Jane Austen and floated across the Atlantic and wedged in among the swimming pools of Updike and Cheever. It’s also a kind of detective story, one child’s attempt to understand a captivating but opaque parent and the family that produced them both. The question that drives that is how did the seemingly charmed life of my appealing, accomplished, but enigmatic father arrive at its self-destructive and perplexing end?

Zibby: That was a great description. Good job.

Janny: Thank you. I’ve been thinking about it for a while.

Zibby: I’m sure this isn’t your first time. It sounded great. What made you want to tell the story? What made you want to delve into your own family and approach it with your reporter’s eye?

Janny: I’d been a journalist for my whole career. There are limitations to journalistic writing. I had written a journalistic book, my previous book. I was really interested in trying to force myself to learn to write in a different way. I knew that one way, possibly, to challenge myself in that way was to take on something that had more emotional resonance for me than a lot of news stories do. It’s good if a news story has emotional resonance, but you can’t get too tied up in it, whereas this was — I had wonderful material just because of the nature of my father’s family and my own experience of growing up surrounded by them. I was also, for that reason, fascinated by the enigma of my father and felt quite devastated by his self-destruction. It was a combination of a literary urge to learn to write in a different way combined with an opportunistic response to wonderful material and a deeply emotional feeling about my father.

Zibby: Do you feel like you got answers? Do you feel like you got a sense of closure that you were looking for?

Janny: I certainly learned all sorts of things I would never have known before. Most people don’t have the luxury of spending years pouring over the papers and all the detritus that’s left behind in families because many of them get thrown out. We had the luxury that people had — there was space, and so stuff was kept.

Zibby: In the laundry room, right?

Janny: Yes, exactly, in the ironing room.

Zibby: Ironing room, that’s it. The ironing room.

Janny: I learned a lot. I don’t have any illusion that you can finally understand anyone, really, in the round, like completely. Sure, there are questions that remain for me about my father. I’m quite conscious of the possibility that if I read the book in ten years, I’ll think, why did you come to that conclusion? As for closure, of course I don’t know if there’s ever really closure, but I do feel like the experience — anyone who’s tried to do this, I think, has this experience of taking the random colliding stuff in your head and in your past and piecing it together into a narrative is somehow therapeutic. Whether it’s the narrative you would’ve produced ten years ago or you’d produce twenty years from now, who knows. There’s a feeling of, yes, of getting things kind of under control.

Zibby: There was certainly no lack of information. It was amazing, the depth and how much you could share with the reader about so many different things related to the time period about which you were writing, wealth in America, how things have changed. It was great, not just your family. Oh, my gosh, it was amazing. Your father was mostly cared for by a French governess. You wrote, “His parents were an intermittent presence.” They were called distant. He said they were unused to children. What effect do you think a childhood like this had on him?

Janny: Well, it wasn’t just a French governess. She lasted a few years and then was hastily fired. Then there was a series of Irish cooks and maids and butlers. My father used to claim, only half joking, that he spoke with an Irish accent to the age of nine because his parents were so absent a lot of the time. I’m not sufficiently well-versed in psychology and psychiatry to be able to speak authoritatively on this, but I think the experience of not having a single close parental bond with a parent or some kind of substitute parent over an extended period of childhood does have an effect on the formation of personality, etc. I think my father, not to go too far out on a limb here, was very good at presenting a version of his self to the public, but the interior life was very much hidden. Because I, in the course of this process, found his diaries which he had promised to me but then had not told me where they would be, it turned out that he was highly conscious of his interior life, but it was not something he ever shared with other people. There’s that. There was a sort of inaccessible quality to him that came from a self-protective thing that was related to his complicated relationship with his mother in particular.

Zibby: Would you ever consider publishing his diaries?

Janny: I’ve been asked that. I feel like I’ve invaded his privacy sufficiently already.

Zibby: I feel like in today’s day and age, you need to leave a letter to your ancestors being like, “Do not publish these works,” or what to do and not to do.

Janny: Yes, exactly. I think my father must have been ambivalent about it because he told me in my twenties, as you know —

Zibby: — That you would get to read them.

Janny: That he wanted to give them to me when he died. Then he never told me where he was leaving them. It’s as though he didn’t have the heart to burn them or destroy them or tell me that he changed his mind. He also was certainly not willing to have me see them while he was alive.

Zibby: It’s hard.

Janny: I wouldn’t want my children to read my diaries.

Zibby: Right. I was just thinking that. Although, my daughter did find my diaries from when I was kid, so it’s not like anything was really going on. She’s like, “Oh, yeah, I read that whole cabinet of your stuff.” I was like, “You what? Are you kidding me?”

Janny: Who taught you to read?

Zibby: Yeah, at least she was reading. That’s great. Your parents then had a relationship where your father had some extracurricular activities. You said that they just didn’t really make each other happy. I was wondering — this is totally private, and you don’t have to answer this. When you grow up with a marriage like that as a model, how does that affect your choice of spouse? Did you replicate that? Did you go the other direction? Did it have no effect at all?

Janny: I think it’s unquestionable it has an effect. I’m not entirely sure I can nail down all the ways. Their marriage was functional. They lasted for forty-two years before splitting up quite late. My father was an alcoholic. That was a subtheme that was not even acknowledged or articulated as a problem until quite late. There was a passive-aggressive quality to their interactions. I think I emerged from that with a real weariness about the institution of marriage. I thought for many years that it wasn’t something I was going to do. I eventually was in, pretty much, my mid-thirties, was in love with someone who wanted very strongly to get married and have children. I suspect that had I not encountered at that moment in my life, a person that determined, not to mention charming and appealing, I might not have gotten married. I’m very glad that I did because of course having children is an extraordinary experience that I would probably have missed. It left me with a real weariness. As for who I married, I was married to a man for fourteen years who was a totally different background from me, a Southern California Jewish surfer. Obviously, there’s many other qualities as well. That gives you some sense of the disparate nature of the two of us, but we got along wonderfully and still do. Then after that, I now live with someone who also comes from an entirely different background. I wasn’t consciously fleeing that world, but the fact is from pretty early on, certainly by the time I got to college, the men who interested me were not people who came from the world that I came from.

Zibby: It’s funny how we can’t really control who appeals to us even though we might want to. This is just something I’m armchair fascinated by, who we’re attracted to. Even if it’s self-destructive, why? Where did that come from?

Janny: Absolutely. The problem is that in the period in your life where you’re most open, in your, say, twenties and thirties, you don’t maybe even know yourself or understand your background well enough to know how it’s playing into those decisions. In other words, you’re not yet in therapy.

Zibby: Exactly. Time hasn’t yielded some important answers yet. Do you think if your family had confronted the alcoholism things would be completely different? It’s hard to say.

Janny: It turns out — I didn’t fully understand this when I was starting to work on the book. I knew that there were a lot of people who drank too much in my family, in all different sides of my family actually, but I didn’t fully understand how deep and how widespread and how far back it went. One of the stories in the family that had been buried was the death of my father’s paternal grandfather who was said to have died heroically in France in World War I; turned out to have shot himself. It seems, from everything I’ve pieced together, that he had a very serious drinking problem that was perhaps tied up with some kind of bipolar disease. Maybe all those things are sort of transmitted down the generations because there have been multiple suicides in the family. The presence of alcoholism is undeniable. That was at a time when people didn’t even really use the term alcoholism, so what would’ve happened — now of course, we’re so conscious of and guard against it. My children have been propagandized from an early age that you have to be very careful because there’s an innate vulnerability. Even now, alcoholism is — I would say its connection to mental health issues is not fully explained, at least to the point where a layperson can see how that applies to their life. So, I don’t know. Now that it’s much more in the open, there’s less alcoholism in the family. I don’t know what would’ve happened back then when it wasn’t really articulated in the way that it is.

Zibby: I was at this event yesterday — speaking of bipolar and its connection to things. Apparently, there’s a group of boys in Southern California who have been smoking pot all the time. It was somebody’s friend’s kid and all of his cohort of friends. Because of this, this entire group of boys has developed bipolar. From the pot smoking? I don’t know. Anyway, just throwing it out as something interesting I heard yesterday. To be investigated. Go ahead and do a whole piece on that.

This passage from your book really stuck with me. You wrote, “Land, houses, money. Wealth had tumbled into my father’s family from one generation to the next. You had a right to enjoy it, an obligation to protect it, a duty to pass it onto your own unsuspecting children. It was a stroke of good fortune, of course. But what you could never know starting out was how those things would influence decisions you’d make over a lifetime. You might resolve to live as though wealth didn’t exist, but sooner or later it would probably insinuate itself into your thinking about jobs, profession, marriage, children. Some beneficiaries flourished. Some didn’t. For some, the impact of all that good fortune appeared to have been mixed. My father, I began to think, had sensed the conundrum early on.” What do you make of all this?

Janny: In my thinking as I worked on the book, it became the theme of the book. It’s why I called the book The Beneficiary because I thought that word, although it’s a somewhat legalistic word, there was something wonderfully ambiguous about it. Is this good or bad? That’s what I began to think about inheritance. These things are passed along. Wealth is accumulated at different moments in American history. Families want to endow their next generation or for several generations, pass on money, land, and also other things, values, genes, etc. All of those things are kind of double-edged, I began to think. It’s not to say it’s universally bad or good. It’s just ambiguous. As for who benefits from the things that are passed on and who is hurt by it, that’s a complicated mathematical equation involving things like personality, genes, birth order, all sorts of stuff.

I’m not making an argument that wealth shouldn’t be passed on. I was struck by how all this attention goes into figuring out the tax ways of dealing with it so that the minimum amount is taken out by the government and how to carry it on multi-generationally and not so much thought is given to what effect does it have on the decisions that people make early in their life, decisions you might make about what kind of work do I want to undertake? How seriously do I need to take the obligation to support myself and a family? Will I always be kind of buoyed by this? decisions about what kind of a person to marry. I just think it was very striking to me in working on this to see how my father’s family, going back to the first Gilded Age, operated very much the way wealthy people are operating now in terms of figuring out ways to protect their wealth and carry it on. But I didn’t see a lot of evidence that a lot of concern was devoted to how do you, in that context, lead a productive, happy life where you feel the satisfaction of having created that life for yourself?

Zibby: Where’d you come out? How do you do it? How do kids do it, do you think?

Janny: I think, again, that depends on the person. I can speak for myself. I didn’t go back there to live in that compound, which was not that common in my generation. My father’s generation, it was expected that you would come back and live there. That was sort of your duty to the family. I didn’t choose to do that. To my parents’ credit, I was not encouraged to. It was like, go out and find out what you want to do that makes you happy. I moved around the country and worked for newspapers and lived with a completely different kind of world. Now I feel that the life I created was the life I wanted, but I don’t know that that’s the answer for everyone. My grandmother, my father’s mother who in many ways became the sort of emblem of that place, well-known, admired, it worked really well for her. It had something to do with her personality, she was the first in her generation, her relationship with her father. It’s just all quite murky, but I think deserves more attention than it perhaps gets.

Zibby: Then The Philadelphia Story was based on her, perhaps.

Janny: Perhaps, yes. As you know, my grandfather who married into the family wanted to be a playwright, studied playwriting at Harvard and met Phillip Barry who became one of the most successful playwrights of the twentieth century and wrote The Philadelphia Story. When The Philadelphia Story opened on Broadway in 1939, it was dedicated to my grandparents. Phillip Barry had gone many times to this compound and to the big house on the compound, which is called Ardrossan, named after a castle in Scotland. Barry clearly selected, designed the setting and that world around a lot of things he’d observed in that house. It’s full of small references to things that nobody else would notice but that anyone who knows that world and that particular place would see were taken from that. As a result, it came to be said years later that my grandmother was the model for Tracy Lord. Whether or not she was isn’t entirely clear. They clearly were involved as influences in the creation of the play. Tracy Lord was also heavily based on Katharine Hepburn. It’s clear from Barry’s papers. My grandmother used it very successfully for her own purposes. When she died at the age of ninety-one after being knocked down by her pet donkeys, her obituary was stripped across the top of the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer in type only slightly smaller than what was used a few years later for the death of the pope, so she made it work for her.

Zibby: She made her mark. Tell me about the process of writing this book. How long did it take to write? How long did it take to research?

Janny: I did a couple of years of research, maybe two and a half years of research before I even tried to put together anything like a proposal. My agent who I admire enormously, Andrew Wylie, said, “This kind of book, you want to know exactly where you’re going before you try to sell it. You don’t want an editor to determine that it ought to be something different.” I did what he suggested. Then I got to a point where I really — after a couple years, I really felt I had to put something down. For one thing, I wanted to feel legitimate by having an advance. I couldn’t do what he said, which was write a scene and give him an outline. I couldn’t do that without just writing the beginning of the book. I sat down and I spent six months writing the first chapter, which was just nine thousand words. I sent it to him. He then asked me for an outline, which was quite difficult. Then he sold it in a day just because his idea of how you do this turned out to be absolutely true. Then I sold it. I asked for a three-year contract, which is, as you know, a relatively long contract. I did get it in on time. Then I took it back. I got it in in early summer. After I made my deadline, then I said, “Can I take it back?” because there was a few things I wanted to discuss with my editor. I wanted to make some fixes. I took it back for a few months and then gave it back. Then the editing process and everything took a good year-plus. I’d say, all in all, I have to confess that it probably took six to seven years.

Zibby: That’s okay. Do you have a place you like to write?

Janny: I like to write — if I had a padded cell, it would be a padded cell. Working on a long project like a book, I can’t do it in my own apartment. There’s too many virtuous diversions like laundry and whatever. My partner, who’s also a writer, and I rented — also a former journalist — rented an apartment near our apartment. It was a one bedroom. We called it The Bureau. We would go over there every day. I had the bedroom. He had the living room. We wrote there in really almost complete silence. He’s even more focused than I am. We really didn’t speak much in the course of the entire day. It was great because there were no distractions. There are almost no pictures anywhere except stuff that related to the books we were working on. That works for me.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I like that image. That’s amazing. What’s coming next for you?

Janny: At the moment, I’m just doing some journalism. I definitely want to do another book. I’m torn because I did learn a lot in doing this book in terms of writing, the value of being able to invest something personal and emotional in the storytelling in that the response to this book is so different from the response to my first book, just qualitatively different. I’d like to be able to use that in a way. I don’t think I want to write another memoir. I’d like to be able to figure out how to use that and apply it to my journalistic skills. I haven’t figured out the topic that will allow that yet, but I hope to.

Zibby: You’re like, I’m just going to do some journalism. Meanwhile, you won a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times. I feel like your idea of just a little journalism might be different than some other people’s idea.

Janny: I was part of a team that won a Pulitzer.

Zibby: Okay, fine, part of a team. That counts in my book for a Pulitzer Prize winner. What advice would you have to aspiring authors?

Janny: Read. Read as much as you can possibly can. Read the great works of literature, I would say. That doesn’t mean they’re not contemporary. There is wonderful contemporary great works, but there’s also the last two hundred years of American and British literature I would strongly recommend. I would say give yourself plenty of time. I think that the value of time, mundane as it is, it seems almost pedestrian, but you just have to have time to go back and back and back over what you’re writing. I read somewhere recently that everybody’s first drafts are dreadful. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. You like to think that, and occasionally you read about people who’ve whipped the thing off in seven months. I think you even hear about EM Forster in some cases, but that’s not something I’m capable of. I suspect that’s a small class of genius that can do that.

Zibby: Agree. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing your family history with us all.

Janny: Thank you, Zibby. It was fun. You’re welcome.