The life of heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post was governed by seasons. The only child of Post Cereal founder C.W. Post, and a director of what came to be the General Foods empire, moved among three homes from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. She hosted formal dinners, garden parties, weekend retreats. She oversaw charity events and showcased an impressive 18th-century French decorative arts collection, and the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside Russia.
And she managed it all artfully.
The new exhibit “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriweather Post” allows visitors to her Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens to immerse themselves in the intricacies of purposeful luxurious living, the way Post herself did. It is a world of footmen and groundskeepers, of personal chefs and women who would unpack and iron a guest’s clothing, just one detail an invitation from Post entailed. Post spent the winter social season at her Mar-A-Largo estate in Palm Beach, Fla.; summers at Camp Topridge in New York’s Adirondacks; and spring and fall at the neo-Georgian Hillwood mansion, dearest to her heart. It was this 25-acre estate on the edge of Rock Creek Park that she chose to showcase “the best way of life that is fast disappearing,” curator Estella Chung quotes Post as saying.
The Hillwood exhibit is meant to unfold much as a party would. Stepping through the mansion, Post’s guests could check themselves in the powder room before moving to the French Drawing Room. The way is populated by a Russian porcelain display, part of a lifetime love of Russian art that began when the four-times-wed Post was married to third husband Joseph E. Davies, a 1930s ambassador to Russia. The drawing room features a majority of the French decorative arts pieces that compose a third of the Hillwood collection. There are cases of jeweled candy and snuffboxes. The Louis XVI neoclassical room has large hanging tapestries and items of furniture of royal provenance, including a Marie Antoinette dressing table chair. It offers layers of cultivated sophistication, unbroken by white space or inattention.
Post had an enormous capacity and talent for translating her tastes and preferences into fully realized spaces, Chung says. “She could visualize a whole property in one go,” and not depart from that vision.
The dining room table, which Post instructed to be brought from Mar-A-
Lago to Hillwood in her will, is the centerpiece of the exhibition. Crafted in Florence, the yellow marble and stone mosaic sections weigh 350 to 400 pounds apiece. And if during a meal guests became intimidated or confused and reached for the wrong utensil, a footman’s “white glove would magically appear and direct you to the right one,” according to one visitor account.
Just off the dining room, the kitchen’s stainless-steel utility, with its up-to-the-minute appliances and mid-century-modern greens and yellows, provides a stark contrast — a considered efficiency to make the Old World opulence doable.
Family and VIP photos, visitor and staff accounts, guest books, journals for table linens, newspaper and magazine references, and a flowchart of who reported to whom from what properties give context and a contemporaneous sense of how the moving parts worked.
The first-floor library features a detailed model of the yacht “Sea Cloud,” on loan from her youngest daughter, actress Dina Merrill. Photos of Merrill — Post’s daughter from her second marriage, to financier E.F. Hutton — as well as those of her two daughters from her first marriage are prominently and intimately displayed.
Visitors are allowed into the projection room above the Pavilion where Post presented first-run movies to her guests. They can walk through the blast doors of a fallout shelter, one of four on the property, equipped with a Coast Guardfirst-aid kit, board games, and canned goods from General Foods. It is a reminder of how those who were able used wealth as a hedge against their Cold War anxieties. Other areas include the massage and hairdressing room complete with Post’s permanent-wave machine.
An Adirondack-style building acts as a gallery of Post’s Camp Topridge estate in Upstate New York. It features American Indian artifacts, square-dancing outfits with petticoats, and a finely crafted guide boat used for day-long portages.
The impression — vast wealth to support Post’s vision of gracious, enormously skillful entertaining — is much like a time capsule, of a Gilded Age aesthetic that, as Post predicted, has in many ways disappeared. Today women with such enormous organizational capacity and talent have myriad other career options for their gifts.
Post would invite sorority girls from New York’s C.W. Post College, named for her father, to Hillwood, but only those with the highest grades, and “no dues unpaid.” And only the president of the sorority was allowed to tour Post’s private bedroom. “It really points to how her mind worked,” says Chung. “You had to be smart, and also be able to manage your finances.” Post didn’t leave detailed journals and personal correspondence for future generations to gauge what she was thinking, Chung says. Only the schedules, seating charts and linen diaries recording the smallest details of “Living Artfully.”
Through Jan. 12. Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW.