And for the next six months Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens is inviting guests to relive those elegant affairs. The gowns she wore to each nuptial are joined with the wedding dresses of her mother and three daughters, providing a retrospective of elegant bridal fashion from the 1870s to the 1950s and a peek into the ebullient psyche of a woman who believed in the power of romance — and a fabulous party.
The effect is a stroll into extraordinary opulence and impeccable taste, drawing visitors to imagine the grounds of the Northwest Washington estate as it was 50 years ago, bustling with well-heeled dignitaries treated to Merriweather Post’s legendary hospitality.
Merriweather Post, the only child and heir to the Post cereal fortune, married for the first time at age 18 in 1905. Her elaborate white silk organza and lace gown seems like a feathery cloud compared with the two-piece gray taffeta ensemble her mother wore three decades earlier. A recorded audio tour tells of how Merriweather Post met Groom No. 1, investment banker Edward Close, at a dance one summer night two years before the wedding.
In 1920, after a 15-year marriage that produced two daughters, Adelaide and Eleanor, and ended in divorce, she married again wearing a far simpler short-sleeved, tea-length dress. By then she’d become owner of the food company, valued at $20 million, and her new husband, financier E.F. Hutton, quickly became its chairman. Together they had one more daughter, Nedenia Hutton — eventually known to most of the world by her stage name, Dina Merrill.
After another 15-year union, Merriweather Post divorced again, an option that would not have been available to a woman of lesser means and was well-recorded in the society pages of the day.
She chose a glamorous, fur-trimmed peach velvet gown for her next wedding, to Washington lawyer Joseph Davies, in 1935. Merriweather Post filled her New York City penthouse with 500 dyed chrysanthemums for the event and requested that the cake’s icing match the color of her gown. When Davies became ambassador to the Soviet Union, Merriweather Post took her good taste abroad, acquiring what would become the most comprehensive collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia.
When her eldest daughter, Adelaide Close, married Thomas Durant in 1927, a New York paper’s headline declared the wedding to be the “Most Lavish Nuptials City Ever Saw.” Close wore a dress that stopped just below her knee and had a train that trailed four feet behind her. To complete her daughter’s wedding outfit, Merriweather Post acquired an intricate lace veil that once belonged to a Belgian princess. (Some newspapers reported the piece to have cost more than $60,000; the princess was eager to sell it after her husband and a mistress were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide at a royal hunting lodge.)
The elegant gown from Merrill’s first wedding — there were three; each of Merriweather Post’s daughters carried on her tradition of multiple marriages — is displayed along with a Cartier purse given to her by her father with the inscription “For you darling, to carry on your way to happiness.” In the audio tour, Merrill, who is now 85 and lives in New York, exclaims of her mother’s planning prowess, “She organized the entire wedding. She was like a stage manager in a theater.”
Merriweather Post was 71 when she married for the fourth time (No. 3 lasted 20 years), hosting a Hillwood reception for 300 that included a performance by the Washington Ballet to mark the event. But after six years, that marriage, to Herbert May, also ended in divorce.
The exhibit gives no hint as to what caused the demise of each union. But a walk through the main house (the dresses are housed in an ancillary building) reveals a woman enchanted by the promise of a wedding. Her dressing room is filled with photos of her daughters as luminous brides.
And on the final pages of a scrapbook devoted to her third wedding, Merriweather Post etched her own parting sentiment on the affair: “And so they were married! High hopes — high hearts!”
Wedding Belles: Bridal Fashions from the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family, 1874 - 1958
Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. On display until Jan. 1. Suggested donation: $15 adults; $12 seniors; $10 college students; $5 children between 6 and 18. 202-686-5807.