Friday, July 8, 2016

A Red-White-and-Blue Salute to Marjorie Merriweather Post

As we see July 4, 2016 in our rearview mirrors, I’m reminded of a woman whose life seems to me pure Americana. It was on my last trip to Washington DC that I discovered Marjorie Merriweather Post, by way of a visit to her exquisite DC estate, Hillwood. Marjorie was the daughter (and only child) of C.W. Post, a midwesterner who started out inventing and selling farm equipment. After a series of physical and mental breakdowns, he ended up in a sanitarium in  Battle Creek, Michigan, where John Henry Kellogg held sway. Kellogg was of course that Kellogg, and his emphasis on healthy dietary regimes encouraged C.W. Post to launch his own health food company. His first break-through product was a coffee substitute he called Postum. Next came Grape-Nuts cereal and then Post Toasties.

Though Post became rich and famous, his life wasn’t one of ease. Ongoing physical complaints led him to take his own life in 1914, at the age of 59. But his company went to 27-year-old Marjorie, who’d been carefully taught by her father how to run a business. The Postum Company evolved under her leadership into General Foods, via the acquisition of such popular All-American products as Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee, Log Cabin syrup, and later the Birdseye brand of frozen foods.

Marjorie had exquisitely patrician taste. Married four times, she accompanied third husband Joseph E. Davies to Moscow, where he was the second U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1937-1938). While there she began collecting religious icons and Tsarist treasures that were available for a song to someone with American dollars in hand. Hillwood now houses her magnificent array of Russian artifacts, including dazzling Fabergé Easter Eggs once owned by the Imperial family, as well a charming dacha (summer cottage) nestled in her lush garden. She was also partial to 18th century French porcelain and other objets d’art, but these co-exist with homey family photos in a house that truly reflects its owner’s personality. (She was known to serve Grape-Nuts for breakfast, and offered Jello-O as a dessert at her youngest daughter’s celebrity wedding. Clearly, she was hardly a food snob.) 

It’s very American to go from rags to riches. And also, when you’ve made your mark, to go Hollywood. Post had three daughters, none of whom seemed better at marriage than she herself was. Second daughter Eleanor’s first of six husbands (1930-1932) was Hollywood film director Preston Sturges. And Marjorie’s third daughter, the only one born from her 1920-1935 marriage to stockbroker E.F. Hutton, herself became minor Hollywood royalty. This was Nedenia Marjorie Hutton, better known Dina Merrill. Beautiful, blonde, and aristocratic, Merrill was once considered America’s next Grace Kelly. (I remember her especially from a trifle called The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in which she plays the socialite who gets rejected by young Eddie—played by little Ronny Howard— as a mate for his widower-dad in favor of the more down-to-earth Shirley Jones.) Merrill, also an active philanthropist, is still alive but suffers from ill health at age 92.

Marjorie Merriweather Post may have been rich, but she never forgot to be generous--nor patriotic. In later years, she regularly gave lawn parties for wounded military veterans. And during World War II she sold her luxury yacht to the U.S. government as a troop ship for the massive price of $1. Though Hillwood was given to the American nation, Marjorie’s Palm Beach, Florida estate has had a different future. She envisioned Mar-a-lago as a retreat for future U.S. presidents. It was bought by Donald Trump in 1985 . . . so anything’s possible.

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