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Hostess, philanthropist, collector

The fabulous life of Marjorie Merriweather Post

Created date

November 5th, 2018
a portrait of American Heiress and art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post

a portrait of American Heiress and art collector Marjorie Merriweather Post

The next time you pour yourself a bowl of Grape-Nuts, consider that in 1914 those crunchy bits of grain made 27-year-old Marjorie Merriweather Post the richest woman in the world. 

As the only child of breakfast food tycoon C.W. Post, Marjorie became the sole owner of the Postum cereal company when her father committed suicide. At the time of his death, the company, which went on to become General Foods, was worth $20 million.

Times were different, and Post’s gender made her unsuitable for the role of chairman of the board, so that title went to her husband at the time, financier E.F. Hutton.

While Post kept her hand in the family business, her attention was directed toward being a good mother, an impeccable hostess, a generous philanthropist, and a consummate collector.

The collector

As a young woman with a significant fortune, Post sought out the finer things in life. Objects that had belonged to aristocrats, and especially royals, fascinated her.

“She started collecting French decorative arts in the early 1900s,” says Lynn Rossotti, communications director of Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens. “It was very much en vogue to decorate in that style, and if you were of a certain class, that’s what you would do. Marjorie really educated herself on what was the best of French decorative arts. She hired a curator, and she developed both a passion and a critical eye.”

Post distributed her collections among her well-appointed residences, including her 54-room Manhattan apartment; Mar-a-Lago, her estate in Palm Beach, Fla.; Camp Topridge, her “rustic retreat” in the Adirondacks; and her yacht, Sea Cloud, which was the largest privately owned seagoing yacht in the world at that time.

With the guidance of noted art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, Post amassed a world-class collection of fine Sèvres porcelain, French furniture, and an exquisite collection of gold boxes and jeweled objects from Cartier and Fabergé.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Post’s third husband, Joseph E. Davies, to be the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the lessons Post learned from Duveen served her well.

Post and Davies arrived in St. Petersburg in the midst of a huge Soviet yard sale as the government sought to raise money to finance Stalin’s military and industrial goals. Items seized from the church, the imperial family, and the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution were available for bargain prices.

Like the proverbial kid in a candy store, Post turned her critical eye toward gathering the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia, including a diamond crown worn by Empress Alexandria when she married Nicholas II.

The philanthropist

Great wealth allowed Post to lead a lavish Gatsby-esque lifestyle. Invitations to her brilliant parties were highly coveted by high society’s movers and shakers.

She was just as zealous about putting her money to good use for worthy causes—especially those supporting soldiers and veterans.

When America entered World War I, Post financed an entire field hospital in France. Everything needed to build the hospital was packed onto a ship in New York City. Shortly after it set sail, it was rammed by another vessel causing the ship to sink. The crew was rescued but $75,000 worth of supplies was lost.

Not deterred, Post duplicated her order and another ship set sail for France the following week.

She was also a generous supporter of the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, and the Kennedy Center.

Hillwood

In the 1950s, Post focused her attention on Hillwood, a Georgian-style mansion in Washington, D.C. It would become the bedrock of her legacy.   

“She spent two years renovating the home knowing she would leave it as a museum to the public but also very much wanting to live with the art and share it with people while she lived here,” says Rossotti. “She wanted it to remain exactly as it was when she lived with it.”

When asked why she wanted Hillwood to be a museum after her death, Post said, “I want young Americans to see how someone lived in the twentieth century and how this person could collect works of art the way I have. I want to share this with the rest of the world.”

When she died at Hillwood in 1973, she left behind a fortune that would be worth $5.7 billion in today’s dollars.

“It’s always a surprise to people who haven’t visited Hillwood before what an oasis it is,” says Rossotti. It’s right in the city. It even has a spectacular view of the Washington Monument from the rear of the house, and it’s so unexpected to have these beautiful gardens and property in the middle of the city.”

Visitors can amble through 13 acres of gardens, including a Japanese garden, a rose garden, a French parterre, and, to honor her time in Russia, a dacha.

Hillwood also has exhibition space. The current exhibition, “Fabergé Rediscovered” will be on display through January 13.

In February “Perfume & Seduction” opens. It will include many of Post’s fine perfume bottles along with a collection on loan from France never before seen in the U.S.

Hillwood is open Tuesday - Sunday. For more information, visit hillwoodmuseum.org or call 202-686-5807.

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