It has become a much-quoted exchange - F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation that "The very rich are different from you and me," to which his friend Ernest Hemingway replied, "Yes, they have more money." Both men had a point, of course - Fitzgerald, ever the poor boy standing outside with nose pressed against the mansion's window, and the almost defiantly plebeian Hemingway. But while most of us might publicly agree with the latter that money is all that sets the rich apart, that even the wealthy can be dull, privately we would have to admit that we share the former's fascination with money and those who have it.
And few could be more fascinating than Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest, most different, least dull women of the century. When she died here in 1973 at the age of 86, the only child and heir of cereal tycoon C. W. Post had risen from humble beginnings in Battle Creek, Mich., to become a legend, a glittering grande dame living on a scale of lavishness quite literally fit for a queen.
But it was not just the vastness of the family fortune which she controlled from age 27 on, or the sheer grandeur of her lifestyle, that set Marjorie Post apart. What makes her different from many another multimillionaire is that she was determined to enjoy life and to make it enjoyable for those around her; she was successful at commanding her wealth rather than allowing it to command her.
Energetic, beautiful and smart, she had a genius for organization that carried over into every aspect of her life. With her second husband, E. F. Hutton, she was instrumental in the formation of General Foods, the vast conglomerate that dominates the industry, and in the development of frozen foods. After her marriage to her third husband, Joseph Davies, FDR's Ambassador to the USSR, she took on the substantial task of being the first woman to represent America to the Soviets. She ran several estates at the same time, including Hillwood in Washington, the extravagant Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach and a 70-room mansion in New York City, each with staffs of up to 60, amassed a huge collection of French and Russian antiques, maintained the largest private yacht in the world, was a coveted and regal Washington hostess, and gave generously to charity, including more than a million dollars to the National Symphony. Married four times, she rigorously pursued the fifth, asking her doctor to marry her when she was on her deathbed.
At the time of Marjorie Merriweather Post's divorce from Joseph Davies in January of 1955, Time magazine referred to the 68-year-old heiress as being "as well preserved as a frozen peach." Preserved or not, she was far from ready to settle down to quiet old-ladyhood. She immediately started ripping apart the new house she had bought and rebuilding it into the most elaborate showplace in Washington, a city of elaborate showplaces. She wanted a place to serve in the long run as a museum for her collections. Perhaps she wanted it, in the short run, to signal her triumph over the men who had tried exploiting her. She named the new place Hillwood.
Along with her new Washington home, she took an apartment in New York's Ambassador East and finally sold her gargantuan Fifth Avenue apartment, perhaps moved by a New York Times article that spoke of the city's largest apartment sitting unused for years. It was a period of setting things straight.
As work proceeded on Hillwood, Marjorie supervised every detail of the estate's design - both of the house and the elaborate gardens, which would include a formal rose garden in the French style, a Japanese garden tricked out with ponds, waterfalls, and foot-bridges, a dog cemetery, and exquisitely manicured woodland walks.
Marwee [Durant] points out a detail of her grandmother's remodeling that shows her foresight and practicality. "I was in her Hillwood bedroom hundreds of times, but I never knew about the small bathroom concealed right behind her bed. It had been part of the earlier house. Instead of having it taken out when she put in her new dressing room and bath, she said to the builder, 'Leave it there! Someday I may not be able to make it all the way to my regular bath. It will be useful to have that nearby.' Anybody else would have said, 'Rip it out!'"
An escort of Marjorie's in those days was Washingtonian John Logan, who did much hand-holding, as a friend and as a lawyer, during the ordeal of renovating Hillwood. "Marjorie was a very intimate person," Logan recalls. "She liked to have someone with her at all times, someone she could discuss the details of her life with. And she never wasted a minute. I remember she used to carry a swatch book around with her in her limousine. When she was being driven someplace, she could use the time selecting fabrics for the new house. She did most of her own decorating, and she always wanted someone at hand to give her a second opinion."
Logan tells of an incident in connection with the building of Hillwood that shows Marjorie's imperious, damn-the-cost side. For several days she handn't been to check on progress of the house; in her absence the roof had gone up. She stood looking at the new roof with the construction superintendent, then said, "It's three feet too low."
The builder sputtered, "But Mrs. Post, that is the height on the drawings."
"I didn't ask you what height was given on the drawings," she said icily. "I said it was three feet too low."
"Mrs. Post! It would cost $160,000 to change the height of that roof now."
"I didn't ask you how much it would cost to change it. I said it is three feet too low. " With that, she spun on her heel and walked away.y.
After two years, the house was finished, and Marjorie moved in. The year was 1957, and she was 70 years old. She would die in this house in 1973, but in those 16 years she would entertain constantly at Hillwood, Mar-A-Lago, and Topridge; she would buy the largest plane owned by a private individual; and she would consolidate her reputation as the most lavish hostess of her time. Her philanthropy would accelerate, and she would make complex plans for giving away her empire after her death.
She still had one marriage to go - and more scandal and unpleasantness than she had endured in her first 70 years.
Hillwood had been designed with the idea that it would one day be a museum for the Post collection of Russian and French art objects. A large drawing room, built at one end of the mansion, was proportioned to accommodate two priceless Beauvais tapestries woven to designs of Francois Boucher. The room provides the setting for two sofas and 12 chairs which had been made for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to give as a gift to Prince Henry of Prussia. Vitrines on either side of the fireplace contain sets of Sevres china - pink on one side, turquoise on the other.
Over the mantle is an exceptionally fine portrait of the Empress Eugenie by Winterhalter. The painting troubles purists, however, it is of a different period than the room's 18th century theme. If the picture gives connoisseurs trouble, a Wurlizter grand piano at the room's far end, in faked-up 18th-century French style, gives them stomach cramps. Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsam, an authority on the room's dominant period, asked Richard Howland, the Smithsonian Institution's overseer of the Hillwood project, if he couldn't "get her to get rid of that monstrosity." He couldn't.
Hillwood has many ingenious solutions to the problem posed by a house that is to be a museum without appearing to be a museum. The most interesting objects - jeweled bibelots of the czars, imperial procelains, tooled silver and gold chalices - are displayed in illuminated showcases in foyers that connect the main rooms. To get from the entrance hall to the drawing room, for instance, you must pass through one of these display rooms. This makes a perusal of the collection inevitable as you move around the house.
The most artful devices are small shelflike panels that slide out from the display cases about waist high. Under glass on these panels, printed legends describe the objects in the case above. Visitors can read about what they are seeing, slide the panel back into its slot, and the museum feeling vanishes.
The house contains much of historic interest. Among the highlights are a large collection of imperial Russian portraits; large quantities of Russian porcelains, icons and chalices; small jeweled objects, many of them by Faberge, that had belonged to Catherine II and various Romanovs; and a fine collection of 18th-century French furniture.
Despite the effort at authenticity in the settings and the furnishings, Hillwood has an aura of stage set. Heightening this feeling are the abrupt transitions between new and old. A door concealed in oak paneling from an English manor leads into a small service room where little red indicator lights twinkle on a lighting control panel. To step from the library of an English manor house into a technological control center is like wandering through the sound stage of a sumptuous and costly costume film.
Nowhere is the space-age technology more apparent than in Hillwood's vast shiny kitchens. Hotel lengths of stainless steel, complicated intercom and servant-signaling devices give these service rooms the look of needing, not butlers and cooks, but scientists, technicians and stage managers.
The pantry has a fine sample of Marjorie's genius for organization. Small glass doors reveal one plate and one cup and saucer from a dinner service. This is not where the china is actually stored, but serves rather as a filing system to remind majordomos what is available; the complete service is stored elsewhere.
While the staff might have needed this aide-memoire, Marjorie did not. People who worked for her for years were constantly dazzled by her computerlike knowledge of the location of every last tea cup - not only in which residence, but in which basement, and in which cabinet. She was not only an acquirer, but a custodian as well, and a fiercely zealous one.
After one large Hillwood dinner, a guest who did not know his hostess very well thanked her for a memorable evening as he was leaving and apologized for having broken a coffee cup.
"Good God!" she said, completely losing her hostess aplomb, "you didn't break one of Franz Joseph's demitasses, did you?"
Hillwood has an impressive view over Rock Creek Park to the Washington Monument, which it faces in a carefully balanced plan - as does the White House. Terraces on the meticulously manicured park side of the main house have tables with brightly colored umbrellas, another touch that places the establishment closer to Beverly Hills than to the English countryside.
Scattered about the grounds on the side away from the park are a number of outbuildings: caretakers' cottages, garages, servants' quarters, bomb shelters (Marjorie also had shelters built under Mar-A-Lago at this time), and a Russian dacha, which was intended as a party room and a place to house more Russian art.
The servants' quarters are like dormitories in a well-endowed college: bright common rooms and individual bedrooms. Two maids were employed only to make the servants' beds and keep their rooms clean. It was characteristic of Marjorie to pamper her staff. If guest bedrooms needed air conditioning, then servants' rooms got it too; if paint in the servants' quarters grew dingy, it would be painted just as quickly as dingy paint anywhere else. At Mar-A-Lago Marjorie allocated a portion of her incredibly expensive beachfront for a servants' beach, thus giving the Mar-A-Lago staff an advantage over many Palm Beach millionaires.
Frank Moffat, for years the majordomo at Topridge and Mar-A-Lago, says Marjoire was quite different from her fellow plutocrats in this regard. "Most of them give their servants any sort of hole for a room, then never want to see them again, never want to know anything about them. Mrs. Post was constantly looking out for the well-being of her staff. And if any of us had a specific problem, she wanted to know about it and she'd do something about it."
In the basement of the servants' quarters at Hillwood, offices were set up to care for Marjorie's collections. She hired art historian Marvin Ross as curator, plus a staff to help him compile the beautiful color books of her Russian collections. An art library was part of these offices.
The Hillwood staff was broken down into three categories. There was the executive staff, which included people like Marvin Ross, Margaret Voigt, her secretary, and James Mann, her general manager. The second group was the financial staff - four people in a downtown Washington office who handled payroll, bill-paying, etc. The third category was domestic staff, including indoor servants, gardeners, chauffeurs, and security men.
Key staff people had an overall organizational chart showing the chain of command for the entire Post operation. At the top was Marjorie Merriweather Post. From her, lines of power flowed to Margaret Voigt, Meyer Handleman in New York, her lawyers, and her general manager. The next echelon was the top man at each of her three estates and the captain of her airplane. Lines trailed down from them through household staffs, to maintenance men, to security staffs, to special positions like the boatmen at Topridge. Complex as the chart is, it by no means covers everyone who worked for her.
In her incredible fastidiousness about details, Marjorie was unlike other proprietors of vast property. In wealthy intown neighborhoods - Washington's Georgetown, for instance - it is not unusual to see affluent people living in relatively small houses that are polished and scrubbed down to the last door hinge by two or three domestic servants. People with large establishments, however, generally develop a more casual attitude toward meticulous maintenance. The English country houses with their falling plaster and cracked windowpanes would be the ne plus ultra of this school.
But Marjorie brought a ship captain's fanaticism to her huge houses and rolling acreages. For example, the great lengths of intricately wrought iron grillwork at Mar-A-Lago, even though painted, were coated with a mixture of oil and wax as protection against ocean air. After a time the coating loses its effectiveness, but before a new protective coat can be applied, the old must be removed with a solvent. It is an incredibly tedious and painstaking process, and Marjorie had several men working full time doing nothing else.
The large patio encircled by Mar-A-Lago's cloister is made of rounded stones found on a Long Island beach. Ocean-smoothed rocks would not seem to require much maintenance. Nonetheless, each winter before opening Mar-A-Lago, Marjorie had the stones scrubbed down with lye, and after they were lightened in this way, a coat of varnish was applied to restore their shine.
Wherever she was, Marjorie would stroll around the property once a day. Jim Griffin, Mar-A-Lago's superintendent, said these walks were usually followed by a phone call to him, or perhaps a memo. Mrs. Post had noticed a dead twig on one of the lime trees; there was a brown spot on the lawn near the fourth tree; a few gardenia plants needed water. Some employees would find such scrutiny unbearable. Griffin is the sort who relished it.
"She really cared about her properties," he said. "She noticed everything, and if something needed to be done, she would say to go ahead and do it and not to worry about the cost. Some of these people down here at Palm Beach - they have plenty of money - but they let these beautiful houses fall to ruin. That wasn't Mrs. Post."
With Hillwood open and ready for dinners for 50 and Mar-A-Lago and Topridge in peak operating order, the gay divorcee of 70 got down to the two-fisted entertaining for which she would be remembered. She became Washington's top hostess and, in the process, the most renowned hostess of her time. But for all that, she was never fully accepted by "old" Washington society.
This seeming paradox throws light on both Marjorie and on American concepts of society. Her preeminence was unarguable in terms of frequency and lavishness of entertaining; she became the best-known Capital hostess to the American public. Adding to her social clout was a growing reputation as a philanthropist and patron of the arts.
But for old society, she had several disadvantages. She was not a native Washingtonian - an accident of birth that homegrown bluebloods, who like to think of themselves as sophisticated, find hard to forgive. Marjorie was also rich beyond the bounds of good taste - that is to say, she was richer than most old Washingtonians. She did not excel in areas they deemed important: political acumen, intellectual conversation, or VIP head-hunting. And, finally, old society was dubious because of her ostentatious lifestyle. Her houses were too big, her servants too numerous, her parties too lavish, and her art collection meretricious in that it was longer on impressive lineage than it was on esthetics.
Perhaps another subtle obstacle to her full-fledged top-society status was her speaking voice. Marjorie had lived in the East since she was 15, but despite several tries with voice coaches, she had never lost her nasal mid-western drawl. Whereas accent has never been the implacable class designator in the United States that it is in England, it might be more of an influence than generally believed.
The coolness of top Washington society toward Marjorie should not be overstated. She was in the best clubs, she could get whomever she wanted to attend her parties, and she was invited to most important functions. But there was a small but doughty inner corps who accepted her invitations, yet refused to think of her as one of their own. Their attitude was manifest in small but highly symbolic ways - most notably in their refusal to admit Marjorie to a subscription-party series called the Dancing Class. Some members of the group were so incensed at her exclusion, they broke away and formed another series around her. Although considerable pressure had been applied by Marjorie's friends, the good ladies of the Dancing Class were adamant.
"It wasn't an issue," one of the ladies said after many years. "She didn't apply . . . one didn't do that. She wasn't put forward by anyone. That wasn't done, either. She just moved in different circles. We didn't know her."
The lady finally broke down and outlined the ineffable machinations that transformed Marjorie Post from the world's oldest and richest outsider to an insider in good standing.
"One night at one of the parties, her daughter Dina [actress Dina Merrill] came up to me - Dina was married to Stanley Rumbough then and was a member. She told me how she'd enjoyed the dance, then said, 'These dances are such fun. I know my mother would enjoy them so . . . '
"I told Dina I'd see what I could do.
"About that time I happened to have been invited to a dinner party by a young bachelor. It couldn't have been simpler . . . two card tables of dinner guests. The other woman at my table was Marjorie Post. I liked her enormously, she was so down to earth, such fun, no silly airs. We took her in, and I became good friends, with her."
The lady was not going to let the story end on a note of full equality. "But one thing about Marjorie, she just didn't know the difference between people. She would invite my husband and me to Topridge along with the most dreadful group. She simply didn't know the difference."
A woman who had known Marjorie slightly for many years said, "Marjorie was never smart about her social climbing. With her fortune, it would have been easy to reach the top. She only had to set her sights on the right organizations, the right charities, the right dinner guests. But she lacked the finesse."
The woman, like many people, missed the point, and her criticism is an inadvertent compliment. Marjorie would have liked to join the Dancing Class - if only because so many of her friends were members and it was an embarrassment not to be included. But achieving top social status, in the haut bourgeois sense of the expression, was never her goal.
Rich parvenus could always reach the heights. In the '20s and '30s when Marjorie was first trying her wings, Elsa Maxwell and others were making careers of instructing freshly minted millionaires how it was done and with whom it was done. But this would have involved relinquishing more of her sovereignty than Marjorie was prepared to relinquish. She would play the game as long as she could remain in charge. She knew what she liked to do, and she knew whom she liked at her parties. If this earned her social position, fine. If it didn't, the hell with it.
Few Americans have ever had her set-up for large-scale entertaining. At times she would use it to pursue various enthusiasms - titles during the '20s, diplomats and statesmemn during the Davies years - but basically she entertained whomever she liked. (She didn't care if they were rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, American or foreign, Jewish or gentile, Protestant or Catholic.)
She prided herself on liking natural, unaffected people, and she felt she could recognize such people on sight. As long as acquaintances fit her definition of "nice," they were the people she wanted to entertain - as they'd never been entertained before.
Those watching her massive party-giving from the sidelines would note among her guests ambassadors and other prominent people and assume she was doggedly building a social power base; they overlooked the armies of invitees who could not advance her social position one millimeter. For Marjorie the fariy-godmother role was enough. She was not seeking to alter or enhance herself by means of dazzling guest lists; she was quite content with herself.
The same attitude prevailed in her collecting. When Marjorie first came into her fortune, she could easily have thrown herself into the hands of experts, and up to a point she did. But she wasn't tyrannized by them. Those who snorted that Marjorie had no taste were the purists who were shocked by her deviations from accepted practice: the grand piano in the 18th-century drawing room, for instance, or the architectural mishmash of Mar-A-Lago. They could console themselves that, while she had more money than they did, they knew better, by God.
Marjorie adhered to rules just so long as they pleased her. When they did not, she did what she wanted. This was true of her taste in art, house building, her decorating, her entertaining, her friendships. It is an attitude that dismays members of the upper-middle class whose meager store of status has been amassed by an assiduous memorizing of the do's and don'ts.
Marjorie's indifference to such do's and don'ts might have disqualified her from the top society of Washington, a city that didn't exist 200 years earlier. It put her, however, squarely in the ranks of Catherine the Great of Russia, the French Louis's XIV through XVI, Ludwig II of Bavaria, and a handful of other monarchs who knew who they were.