Over a year ago, I wrote about one of the most important art collectors of the past two centuries, Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner . More recently I talked about the National Museum of Women Artists in Washington; and the collecting savvy of its founder, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay. Hard as it might be to believe, these two women were not unique. Living in the same city as Mrs. Holladay, and no doubt a good friend of hers, was another extremely wealthy heiress about her age with a sublime taste in collecting great art. And like Wilhelmina Holladay and Isabella Gardner she left to the nation the sizeable artistic endowment of her collective spirit. Her name was Marjorie Merriweather Post. And just as Isabella Gardner had her Fenway Court, Marjorie left us Hillwood.
Marjorie Merriweather Post did not come by her money the old-fashioned way--she inherited it. Her father was Charles William Post, the inventor of the coffee substitute, Postum, the venerable Post Toasties, Grape-Nuts, and the Postum Cereal Company. Marjorie was born in 1887. Fortunately, given her expensive tastes in art, she was an only child. Because of this, she was brought up in the business, taught by her father everything from factory production to high finance. She was twenty-seven when he died in 1914, leaving her not just a very wealthy young socialite, but fully in charge of the business as well. At a time when women were seldom more than secretaries in the business world, she became President of the company. In 1920 she married E. F. Hutton, the famous Wall Street broker and financier. Together they moulded Post Cereals into what is now the General Foods Corporation. Their social life brought her into contact with the likes of the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys, and the Fricks. The Hutton extravagant lifestyle is legendary. Besides a Grand New York penthouse apartment, there was an estate on Long Island, Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, a woodland lodge in the Adirondacks, and a yacht in Newport, the Sea Cloud. Marjorie was to get her first taste of art collecting in furnishing and decorating these expensive digs.
During the 1930s, Marjorie sharpened her insights into art with classes at the Metropolitan Museum in New York while at the same time throwing herself into the philanthropic work of several charities she helped fund including the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Later, she became an ardent supporter of the National Symphony Orchestra. During this time also, she divorced Hutton and married Joseph E. Davies, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union. It was while in Russia that she saw the worst the Soviet Union had to offer under Stalin's Reign of Terror while at the same time, buying the best they had to offer in art--hundreds of paintings, tapestries, Faberge' eggs, religious icons, and brightly coloured enamelled boxes. It was the cream of the Russian Imperial art collection sold off at a time when the Soviet government desperately needed the hard cash. As a result, in carting it all home just before the war, the Post collection became the biggest cache of Russian art outside the Soviet Union.
Hillwood began in 1955 when Mrs. Post purchased the old Erwin estate called Arbramont overlooking Washington's Rock Creek Park; a beautiful twenty-five landscaped acres complete with a Georgian style mansion built in 1926 by the architect, John Delbert. She renamed her new home after her former Long Island estate. For the next three years Mrs. Post undertook an expansion, remodelling, and redecorating project designed not just to create a spacious and elegant new home but also a museum, eventually to become the showcase for her impressive art collection. During the next eighteen years, until her death in 1973, Mrs. Post continued adding to her collection important European pieces even as she held forth in her role as one of the most important social and behind-the-scenes political powers in the nation's capital. Today, Hillwood has just undergone a major restoration project, the first in over forty years, bringing the estate back up to the high standards of excellence Mrs. Post established when she first created her museum home. Isabella Stewart Gardner would be proud...maybe even a little jealous