To be Marjorie Merriweather Post was to be the best and to do the best for others, but that conviction was never spoken aloud. Instead it was expressed through the philanthropist’s perfectionist’s zeal, her persistent efforts to create a flawless and flower-filled world where all the ills of humanity – want, evil, sickness, and death – could be at least temporarily forgotten. With that sense of personal mission, Marjorie played fairy godmother, queen, and empress to the world. - “American Empress, The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post,” by Nancy Rubin
If you google, “decorative arts museum,” places like Paris, New York, London and Buenos Aires are suggested. DC doesn’t appear, but Washingtonians should not worry about the slight. I’m not sure where it would rank among those places, but Hillwood, the estate, museum, gardens and former residence of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973) is a tour de force in its own right.
And that’s because Post put all her knowledge and passion to make it that way. She wasn’t too good with wedding vows (four husbands), but Post had an extraordinary career as a businesswoman, diplomat, philanthropist and collector (pretty good square dancer too).
Hillwood and its 25 wooded acres, nestled in between Rock Creek Park and the eastern side of Cleveland Park, was her final residence. She transformed the 36-room, Georgian style house into a palace of arts, gardens, and regal beauty. The collection includes House of Romanov pieces, Faberge eggs, 18th and 19th century French art and an exquisite selection of orchids. The grounds feature a circular rose garden; a French parterre, a crescent-shaped lawn; a Japanese-style garden, and a greenhouse for the orchids.
Currently on special exhibit is, “The Style That Ruled The Empires: Russia, Napoleon and 1812” (through June 2). The exhibit commemorates the bicentennial of “The Patriotic War of 1812.” The collection is the largest of Russian imperial art outside Russia.
In addition to the exhibit, lectures and film will be shown in March and April. Dominic Lieven will discuss his book, “Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace.”
Before we visited, I wanted to get a feel for Post’s life. Nancy Rubin’s “American Empress” provided the ticket, as well as Kenneth Lisenbee’s bio. I also watched her A&E biography and used information from the Hillwood website. Additionally, I took a tour of the mansion and gardens.
William Wright also wrote a biography of Post in the 70’s, "Heiress: The Rich Life of Marjorie Merriweather Post." Someone told me it’s more critical than Rubin's.
Overcoming bad health, C. W. Post, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s father, invented “Postum,” a roasted grain beverage his company successfully marketed as a healthy alternative to coffee. Postum Cereal Company was the forerunner to General Foods.
Life threw a tough test for Post when she was a young adult. Her mother passed away in 1912, followed two years later by her father, who took his own life. Marjorie, 27 and their only child, inherited the company. Initially, the rules of engagement did not allow her to sit at the executive tables. Nevertheless, Post gradually asserted herself into the man’s world of leadership.
Six years later, she married E.F. Hutton. Smart, wealthy and attractive described both of them.
Post was no fluffy figurehead. She foresaw the growth of frozen foods and revamped upper management, a move that increased sales and grew the company. A series of acquisitions later, and the General Foods Company was born. Lisenbee’s biography describes Post as a “shrewd businesswoman,” who became one of the first women to sit on the board on a major corporation. All the while, she honed her artistic tastes and hosting skills.
In 1935, Post married Joseph E. Davies, a Washington lawyer and her third husband (Hutton had been unfaithful). A year later, FDR tabbed Davies as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The diplomatic couple spent two years in Moscow and another in Brussels. In both places she developed a greater appreciation for decorative arts and hosted high-ranking diplomats and state officials.
After returning to Washington in 1939, Davies and Post moved into the Parmelee Estate in NW Washington (originally known as “The Causeway.”) Their move marked a return of sorts for Post. When she was 14, and the family lived in Texas, her father sent her to Mount Vernon Seminary, a young ladies school then located at 11th and M NW. In her later years, she donated a new building for the campus that had moved to Foxhall Road in Georgetown.
The couple renovated and renamed the mansion “Tregaron.” It was there reporters on the social beat began to see what wealth and elegance could bring to the stuffy city. They praised her “legendary garden parties,” where she entertained the upper crest of Washington’s social and political elites.
As a grand hostess, she had made a name for herself in Palm Beach, New York and Moscow, but Washington found her reaching new heights. Rubin notes she improved the cultural life in the capital city and delved into philanthropic projects such as assisting the National Symphony Orchestra and creating “Music for Young Americans.” She supported many causes in Washington, including funding for the Washington National Ballet Foundation.
After her divorce from Davies in the 50s, Post moved into a Georgian mansion, about a mile north and east of Tregaron. The estate, nestled in between Rock Creek Park and Linnean Avenue, was known as “Arbremont.” She renamed it “Hillwood,” after her Long Island estate. The improvements and additions took two years to complete. Post spared no details, and even had doors moved to allow for a view of the Washington Monument. Rubin notes Post’s friends quipped she had the monument moved instead.
Post put all her worldly knowledge to work and transformed the mansion into a palace. The press fell in love again, and published headlines such as “Marjorie the Magnificent.” They called her the most fabulous hostess in America, and Hillwood was considered one of Washington’s most magnificent estates. Post even arranged for a ballet to be performed in the back yard.
There’s no doubt Post lived in the lap of luxury, rich beyond compare, but she cared about others. As Rubin notes, “Foremost in her mind was the thought that the estate would be not only a home but a museum in which her art collection could be enjoyed by the public after her death.”
To that end, Post considered the Smithsonian to be the proper caretakers of Hillwood. But during negotiations, their leadership gave her pause. They wanted to be able to entertain VIPs in her kitchen. Determined to keep the home from any such use, Post arranged a back up plan. Should her desires by compromised, the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation would retain control. And that is exactly what happened after the Smithsonian balked.
Post passed away at Hillwood on September 12, 1973. A year later, her ashes were placed in a urn and ceremoniously layed on a pedestal in the rose garden. Three years later, the Smithsonian returned the estate to the Foundation. In 1977, Hillwood opened to the public.
We sometimes take the wealthy for granted, believing they should be generous with their donations and financial assistance. I’m no expert on who among the rich give the most, but surely, the living descendents of Marjorie Merriweather Post are proud of her philanthropy. As the Hillwood website notes:
Marjorie twice funded a field hospital in France during World War I and was awarded the French government's highest civilian award, the Cross of a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, on behalf of her "long demonstrated friendship towards France." She donated her yacht, the Sea Cloud, to the U.S. Navy in World War II, and she entertained Vietnam veterans at her Hillwood estate in Washington in the 1960s. Over the years, she donated millions of dollars to charities. She quietly gave $100,000 to build the Kennedy Center and bequeathed endowments of $100,000 each to her alma mater Mount Vernon College, the National Symphony Orchestra, C.W. Post College and the American Red Cross.
On my tour of Hillwood, I felt the kindness, caring and generosity that marked Post’s life. Washington, the United States and the world were lucky to have known her.