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”

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.