The Life and Times of Marjorie Merriweather Post
I do not believe that there is anything as inspiring as a figure from history who lived their life with grace, elegance, and poise. Marjorie Merriweather Post is a supreme example of this iconic sentiment. Born in 1887, in Springfield Illinois, by the time that she was 30 she had inherited the vast fortune from her father’s company; Postum Cereal, which afforded her a life such as such. During her time, she built one of the most important collections of early 20th, object de virtu, exotic plants, costumes, and jewelry in the Americas. She left a legacy of the Hillwood Museum in Washington DC, which you can visit today to get a more thorough look her life and legacy, and I would highly suggest looking through their website to get a feel for the pieces that they display on rotation. (www.hillwoodmuseum.org)
She was married before she became the heiress that we think of, and at the young age of 18, to her first husband, Edward Bennet Close. It was during that time that they had 2 daughters (Adelaide and Eleanor,) and her father passed away, making her the wealthiest women in America in 1914, at which point her and her family moved to New York City, setting up residence on 5th Ave in the Burden Mansion.
It was upon moving into this vast residence, inspired by the French, Galeries des Glaces of Versailles, that Marjorie first developed her voice as a collector. Working with the infamous art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, the art collector for Kings, Queens and the Stars alike, they decorated the house, and under his tutelage she collected antique French furniture for entertaining and business networking. She focused on working the society circuits of her new city, so much so, that in 1919 she divorced her first husband and married financier Edward Francis Hutton, who soon became the chairman of the board at her company Postum Cereal, later developing and expanding it by buying smaller companies of the same ilk and merging them into General Cereal by 1929. So grateful and smitten was Hutton that he gifted to Marjorie some of the most important Art Deco fine jewelry works by Cartier that have ever been made. It was with this merger of taste and desire that her real collection of amazing jewelry began.
The 1920’s dropped-waist dresses and elongated silhouettes were one of Marjorie’s signature looks. She commissioned incredible ensembles for every occasion, keeping with the times, as her iconic gray-streak accentuated the stylish finger wave she wore, such as in nearly all of her portraits by one of her favorite painters, Frank O. Salisbury. The roaring 1920's were hers, and all of New York society revolved around her home, from fine dinner parties, musicals and costuming balls. She hosted annual retreats to Florida's Palm Beach, where she built, the now well-known resort that she called Mar-A-Lago, completed in 1927. (It was Marjorie who actually deemed the 3-acre property the "Winter Whitehouse" in the 1930-40s, where her diplomat husband hosted politicians and heads of state.)
By the end of 1929, however, the social scene in New York had changed dramatically, and with the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the great depression, Marjorie stopped her spending, locking up her valuables in a bank vault and cancelled the insurance. Due to the fact that everyone still needed to eat, and her company was General Foods, she lost little business, instead she put her efforts into charitable work, such as the first “meals on wheels” for the elderly in New York, and food banks in both her and her husband’s names. Her niece, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, did not slow her spending at this time, and it was public knowledge that Marjorie was deeply troubled and embarrassed by this fact.
The gossip columnists wrote about Marjorie a lot at this time too, not only because of her disgust for her niece’s overly-indulgent lifestyle, (Barbara Hutton famously burned through her vast family fortune of $600 million along with her 7 husbands, by the 1970’s,) but also for Marjorie’s second divorce! Ed Hutton was a known philanderer, and it is believed that Marjorie also spent her fair share of time flirting with the likes of young men, no doubt enchanted by the wealthiest woman in the world. In 1935 she divorced Hutton and soon was on to the next love of her life, a married man named Joseph E. Davies, the attorney and soon-to-be American Ambassador to the Soviet Union. They had met at the same Palm Beach ball years before, and had secretly fallen for one another. They both waited for their divorces to get together though and finally were able to marry one another in December of 1935, retiring to her yacht the Sea Cloud. It seems ironic that Marjorie had issues with Barbara Hutton’s spending when her Yacht alone was listed as the world’s most expensive and lavish privately-owned sea vessel, complete with a staff of over 70 seamen, butlers, footmen, lady's maids, cooks and even a surgeon for the on-board operating theatre!
Although at this time Marjorie had stopped spending large amounts money on new works of jewelry, she did commission Cartier with the task of redesigning pieces that she had already had made. Her most famed emerald sautoir was always too long for her liking, and with the new styles of the 30’s, more constrained looks were in vogue, so she had the pendant taken off permanently and converted to a brooch and had the sautoir shortened into a clavicle-length necklace. It was originally made in the late 20's by Cartier, London out of gold and platinum, with an array of pavé-set diamond beads, a cascade of 24 tumbled emeralds, with 24 smaller tumbled emeralds reflecting from the interior of the necklace. The pendant was set with a door-knocker shaped bail-drop pendant, encrusted with pavé-set diamonds and emeralds with carved emeralds dripping in a symmetrical design. The main carved emerald on the pendant has a floral motif and a Persian engraving that translates to The Servants of Shah Abbas. In my opinion, this is one of the most important Art Deco pieces that Cartier has ever made because it exemplifies the era and the influence that design from the mid to far-east had on designers in Europe and America.
Franklin D, Roosevelt appointed Davies to Ambassador to the Soviet Union in April of 1936 and by the end of January 1937 Marjorie and her new husband were sent to Moscow on government business, with Davies being charged to soften tensions between the two country amid the growing concern over Nazi Germany's occupation of the Rhineland earlier that year. Marjorie, as a diplomat's wife, and collector of object d'art found herself in a fortuitous situation; since the execution of the last Romanovs in 1918, many items from their imperial estate had been auctioned off by the Russian government, and 2 of the pieces had ended up in Marjorie's collection prior to even visiting Russia. They were both by Fabergé; a guilloché box and the Catherine the Great Easter Egg. Since then, she had developed a passion for the Romanov's porcelains, and jewels. So, along with the Russian's distaste for the history of those objects, and the suppression that the Romanov's represented, many objects were sold for very little in order to fund the Soviet defenses. Marjorie and Davies stayed in Moscow for 18 months, spending a small chunk of her fortune collecting and exporting those pieces back to her home in New York, and therefore preserving one of the largest collections from the Imperial Russian family in existence to this day, which she added to throughout the rest of her life.
Upon finishing Davies' assignment in Russia, the couple was sent to Belgium, also on diplomatic service. Marjorie set up home in the Palais du Marquis d'Assche in Brussels. This was once the home of the Royal family and Marjorie reveled in the majesty of the space, decorating with her collection of French furniture, sent from New York and her newly acquired Russia art. She spent her time between the New York and Belgium, entertaining royalty, diplomats and socialites alike, but during a visit to New York, in September of 1939, England and France declared war on Germany, and the Davies were forbidden to return to Brussels for fear that they would be captured en route or if the city became occupied by the Germans. Luckily, Marjorie sent assistants and friends to collect her belongings and have them returned to her in the United States before the war reached Brussels.
Upon their return from Europe, Marjorie and Davies received a lot of flack for their sympathetic point of view Russia and Stalin, which haunted them during the McCarthy era. Although these sentiments were somewhat frowned upon, Marjorie never let it get into her craw and her patriotism shined through. After the Bombing of Pearl Harbor and for the remainder of WWII, she emptied out and rented the Sea Cloud to the U.S. Navy for survey of the North Pacific for the price of $1 a year.
In 1946 she found herself in a scandal that challenged the snobbery of Long Island's upper class, when she tried to sell her 122 acre estate of Hillwood to the Long Island University for a sporting and administrative facility. The local, wealthy and all white residents showed up in protest for fear that their neighborhoods would be over-run with riff raff of minorities and middle-class students. She spent 4 years in court before the sale would be finalized and the school would take over the property for a sum of $200,000. Although she was a glamorous and aristocratic person, her town-to-earth demeanor and previous charitable endeavors lead her to give, give, give with the intention of education at the forefront, not only for whites, but for anyone who wanted to learn.
In the 1950's her collecting of object really stemmed from her love of jewelry. She had pieces made by the houses of Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels as well as Harry Winston. With Harry Winston she focused on commissioning jewelry that referred to historical objects. In the 1950's there was a trend to take apart and sell individual stones from a piece, as is the case with the diadem by Etienne Nitot et Fils. This diadem was commissioned by Napoleon in 1810 for his bride, Marie-Louise. It was a part of a set that included a necklace, earrings, and comb which were studded with a multitude of diamonds focued around many deep, rare emeralds. Upon her death in 1847, she left the set to her Aunt, the Archduchess Elise, whose family kept the set until 1953, when it was sold to Van Cleef & Arpels. VCA removed the emeralds as a sales tactic, setting the stones in contemporary pieces with the catch phrase "An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic Tiara." The diadem was then set with Persian turquoise in place of the emeralds and sold to Marjorie, who then commissioned Harry Winston to make a matching necklace, earrings, ring and bracelets of diamond and Perisan turquoise. She wore the set with a matching dress, seemingly inspired by Marie-Louise herself, from this 1810 portrait.
Davies and Marjorie's marriage was in shambles by the mid 50's, and she lost the home that she had bought for him upon their return to the states. They parted ways on bad terms and half of her collection of Russian art went to him, which she quickly purchased from his estate upon his death. She did marry one more time in 1958 and divorced after a short 5 years to Herbert May. The remainder of her life was spent running social fund raisers, specifically for the National Symphony Orchestra and the Red Cross. With friends like Ladybird Johnson and the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, the attendance and laughs filled Mar-A-Lago and her estate of Hillwood in DC, (purchased with she was married to Davies to entertain government officials while he was assistant Attorney General, named after previous estate on Long Island,) where she spent her final years refining her collections, hosting square dance-themed fund raisers and other philanthropic work and enjoying her world-class gardens.
Marjorie Merriweather Post died on September 12th, 1973 from heart failure at Hillwood. Her legacy and incredible life story embodies the spirit of the 20th century woman. Through her style, love of the arts and history, as well as her incredible wealth, her soul will live on through Hillwood and her incredible financial contributions and cultural generosity to American institutions such as the Smithsonian and American Symphony Orchestra. She really is the first lady of the American modern age, which is a title that can never be bought.