A Local Life: Isabelle Scott, 70; heiress assumed many identities, endured hardship in a life of giving

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:11 AM

One Christmas Eve, Nathan Baxter, the former dean of Washington National Cathedral, was in his study and left instructions not to be disturbed while he prepared his Christmas sermon. Awhile later, his secretary interrupted to say a woman had come to see him.

Baxter said he was busy, but his secretary said she had a feeling he'd want to see this visitor. It was Isabelle Scott, who handed Baxter an envelope. He noticed that it contained a check, offered his thanks and was returning to his sermon when he took a closer look.

The check was for $1 million.

With that gift, Ms. Scott established the Girl Choristers for students at National Cathedral School, from which she had graduated in 1958. When the group was formed in 1997, it became one of the first girls' choirs at an Episcopal cathedral in the United States.

When the choristers gave concerts or sang at religious services, Ms. Scott often attended. But she always stayed in the background and never interacted with the girls.

"She was always discreet," Michael McCarthy, the National Cathedral's director of music and the leader of the choristers, said Saturday. "She would always stand far off. The girls had no idea. She was referred to as the guardian angel."

The Girl Choristers did not learn the identity of their guardian angel until Ms. Scott died of leukemia on Nov. 15 at her home in the District. In the months before her death at age 70, Ms. Scott gave an additional $3 million to create an endowment for the choristers and provide scholarships for girls in the group.

"It was a legacy she felt she had to leave," McCarthy said. "She was very aware of other people's needs. It was striking, the impact she had."

In the final five years of a life remarkable for its challenges, setbacks and triumphs, Ms. Scott became devoted to music. As well as supporting the Girls Choristers, she became a singer in her own right.

She began taking vocal lessons with acclaimed soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, who started her at a child's level by teaching her "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." After three years, Ms. Scott was able to audition for the National Cathedral's volunteer choir, the Cathedral Voices. She was accepted.

About two years ago, she took up the piano, yet no one close to her - not her teachers, not her choir director, not her fellow singers - fully understood how great that achievement was: Isabelle Scott, it turns out, was deaf.

With the help of powerful hearing aids, which she concealed beneath her shoulder-length hair, and by teaching herself to read lips, she managed to compensate so well for her hearing loss that most people in her life - many of whom knew her for years - had no idea.

"I had no knowledge of her hearing issues," said McCarthy, who auditioned Ms. Scott for the Cathedral Voices and who had previously kept the secret of her anonymous donation to the Girl Choristers.

Her deafness and her anonymous philanthropy were only two of the many surprising secrets about Ms. Scott. First of all, Isabelle Scott was not her real - or at least not her original - name.

She was born Fredrica Linda Lehrman in Washington on Oct. 16, 1940. When you account for her three marriages, she was Fredrica Lehrman Rosenberg Saunders Carmichael before legally changing her name in the late 1990s.

She grew up in one of Washington's most prominent Jewish families and was the oldest grandchild of Samuel Lehrman, a founding partner of the Giant Food grocery chain. She ended up as a confirmed Episcopalian, but even in death there were traces of her mixed identity. After a grand funeral at the National Cathedral, the family went to Ms. Scott's home nearby to observe the Jewish funeral rite of shiva.

She was an heiress "easily worth $100 million," according to published reports, who wore bohemian outfits and drove a beat-up Volvo station wagon. Before her emergence as a benefactor of sacred music at the National Cathedral, she was at various times a college English professor, a lawyer, an advocate for abused women and, in 1989, a central figure in one of the most notorious divorce trials in Washington history.

As the oldest child of Jacob Lehrman, who joined his father as an officer of Giant Food at its founding in 1936, Ms. Scott felt out of place as a child. Her family did not realize she was deaf until she was in the second grade.

In the meantime, her younger sister Heidi became the family darling, and baked goods at Giant were named in her honor. Later in life, as Heidi Berry, she became a well-known arts patron in Washington. She died in 2009. Two brothers, Sam Lehrman and Robert Lehrman, still live in the District.

When experimental treatments failed to cure Ms. Scott's deafness, she began to wear an awkward hearing aid connected to a box on a table. She immersed herself in reading and, after entering National Cathedral School in the seventh grade, wrote for the school's literary magazine.

"I sat in the front row," she recalled, "I lip-read, and I paid careful attention and I studied very, very hard."

Her classmates recalled that she often wore her socks pulled high, and only a few knew that they hid yet another of Ms. Scott's painful secrets: the bruises she received at the hands of her father.

According to legal documents, Ms. Scott endured Jacob Lehrman's rage in the form of physical and sexual abuse. It wasn't until Ms. Scott was in her late teens that the abuse came to an end.

Returning home from a date after midnight, she was met by her angry father, who stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 280 pounds. The next day, when Ms. Scott's boyfriend, Barry Rosenberg, stopped by to see her, a maid said she could not come out. Rosenberg managed to glimpse Ms. Scott through a door and saw that her face was swollen and bruised.

A burly active-duty soldier and former football player at the University of Georgia, Rosenberg forced his way into the house and confronted Jacob Lehrman, warning the grocery magnate never to lay a hand on his daughter again. Ms. Scott dropped out of Vassar to marry Rosenberg in 1959, one month before her 19th birthday.

They had a son, Scott, in 1963, and Ms. Scott - then Mrs. Rosenberg - continued her education. She graduated from American University in 1962 and received master's degrees in medieval history and English literature from the University of Maryland in the mid-1960s. She then moved to Charlottesville with her family and received a PhD in English from the University of Virginia in 1969, writing her dissertation on John Milton's depiction of Satan in "Paradise Lost." It was called "A Study in Tyranny."

Landmark divorce case

In the 1970s, Ms. Scott taught English at George Washington and Howard universities and divorced her first husband. She married Richard Saunders, a French professor at Howard, and briefly contemplated attending medical school.

In 1982, she began to see a psychotherapist in Washington named Douglass Carmichael, whose clientele included the city's social and political elite. Carmichael and Ms. Scott soon began an affair, and in short order she divorced her second husband. She and Carmichael were married in January 1983. She paid for the wedding.

Ms. Scott had always been unostentatious with her wealth, but with Carmichael, she suddenly became extravagant. They bought jewels and fur coats, expensive cars, a $2.7 million house on Martha's Vineyard and another house in Maine. They bought a $515,000 house in the District, then sank $2.5 million into renovations.

Under Carmichael's influence, Ms. Scott's personality seemed to change. Her son discovered diaries in which she wrote that all she wanted from her husband was a single rose. Instead, in a bizarre twist, she ended up sending him a large bouquet every week.

Once, when she reached for her car registration after being stopped for speeding, she saw that the car was registered in Carmichael's name, even though she had paid for it. He was having an affair with another woman.

Finally, in 1988, Ms. Scott reached her limit. She rewrote her will, froze her bank accounts and changed the locks on her house. The 1989 divorce trial, as retold in a 1991 article in Regardie's magazine, was a courtroom spectacle. In a novel move, Ms. Scott's lawyer, Elizabeth Guhring, charged Carmichael with malpractice for sleeping with Ms. Scott while she was his patient. She evoked the 1944 film "Gaslight," in which a man tries to drive his wife insane to inherit her fortune.

About the kindest things that witnesses could say of Carmichael were that he was a pretentious, scheming, self-infatuated, manipulative dilettante. In his final ruling, Judge Curtis E. von Kann called him "a fortune hunter" who "tells knowing falsehoods."

In granting the divorce, the judge fined Carmichael $1 million - later overturned on appeal - and ruled that Carmichael had committed malpractice.

Ms. Scott went from the courtroom to law school, graduating from Catholic University in 1992. Reverting to her maiden name, she worked pro bono on domestic violence cases, directed a domestic violence project for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, lectured and appeared on national panels.

In April, Ms. Scott revealed to friends that her long-dormant leukemia had flared up and she had weeks to live. Her son, Scott Rosenberg, came to Washington from New York to care for her. Other survivors include two grandchildren.

As the weeks stretched into months, Ms. Scott made her final bequests. Her son estimates that she gave away at least $25 million of her fortune, all in anonymous donations.

On her 70th birthday in October, friends sent Ms. Scott a gift she had always hoped for: She was showered with rose petals.

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