Valentine’s Day, intrigue, and rare treasures combined to create a romantic evening
at Hillwood Museum, inspired by both James Bond and
czars. Apart from the new exhibition in the dacha and the jewels on the display in
the mansion, guests had three ways to get in the mood, and two involved vodka. At
the Visitors Center, while on a screen in the background Sean Connery as Bond outsmarted
many opponents in
From Russia With Love, guests made their way to three bars. One served Russian wine. The other two offered
vodka, either the James Bond way—a martini straight up, shaken, not stirred—or a choice
of Russian standard vodkas served neat and chilled after traveling through an elaborate
ice sculpture. The most popular was the premium Imperia.
All three bars had steady visits from the 300 guests who attended the party, which launched the exhibition “Pageant of the Tsars: The Romanov Coronation Albums.” It runs through June 8. There were also buffets of canapes and desserts, a silent auction, including a Bond book signed by former Bond Roger Moore, a chance to shop for a Valentine’s Day gift in the museum shop, and guided tours with curators in the mansion and the greenhouse. At the door each couple was presented with a rose nosegay. Because the night was not too cold and the sky was brilliantly clear, it was possible to stand on the large lawn and stare up at a field of stars (thankfully free of zooming asteroids).
Couples strolled hand in hand, many of them dressed in suits and cocktail dresses. Two men wore red rose boutonnières to mark Valentine’s. All in all, at $75 per person, it was a Valentine’s date that offered something different, especially for the eyes and mind—a more intellectual alternative than the conventional dinner for two at a restaurant.
The guides on hand recommended we start our tour at the mansion to view some of the diamond jewelry from the collection of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who owned Hillwood. The so-called “portrait diamonds” are presented in homage to the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. The pieces are tiny, delicate, and feminine. Matching that elegance is an exquisite silk, lace, and tulle ball gown on display in a nearby room. It is from 1894-96, made by the House of Redfern, and is described as “typical of those worn to the coronation of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.” The dress is on loan from the collection of Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, Pravda reporter, BBC producer, novelist, and London-based espionage historian. His personal story could be a Russian novel.
The dacha is the heart of the visit, though, because that is where Hillwood has brought out Post’s extensive collection of coronation books and other items on loan from the Library of Congress and the Foundation of Russian History. In a time before live broadcast cable TV, the books were how the public was able to experience a major historical event of this nature. Pages and pages of images, in large scale, gorgeous with color and detail, record the coronations of czars who fulfilled the Romanov dynasty. These were treasured by those who attended and those from afar.
There’s a menu from a dinner that celebrated the coronation of Nicholas II, where the 700 guests represented the diplomatic corps and the imperial Russian and foreign courts. The foods—turtle soup, creamed cucumbers, truffled chicken, cold foie gras soufflé, and pheasant—are relatively exotic to 21st-century palates. The exhibition also includes exquisite coronation brooches that range in size, but each is beautiful, sparkling with gems and history.
“Pageant of the Tsars” opens Saturday at Hillwood. The suggested admission fee is $15, $12 for seniors, $10 for college students, $5 for children, and free for Hillwood members. Hillwood is open all day on Tuesday through Saturday and in the afternoons on select Sundays. It will be open this Sunday, February 17.