Once upon a time—in the 1950s and ’60s, for example—Americans were made to believe that if they had a bomb shelter they could survive … the bomb. We now know that was foolish, but that didn’t stop a lot of well-meaning folks from digging a hole in the ground, building a concrete room, and filling it with survival gear and creature comforts. The super-rich were no different. Well, maybe a little different, at least in the instance of DC resident and heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. She built a bomb shelter at her Hillwood Estate and painted it pink.
The relatively luxurious pink bomb shelter (small, but with enough room for her and others) is an example of the way she lived, the basis for a new exhibition called “Living Artfully,” which opened Tuesday night with a delicious and artful gala dinner on Hillwood’s lawn. Many of the spaces that are part of the exhibition are open to the public for the first time.
Before the Susan Gage-prepared meal of gazpacho and salmon en papillote (a Marjorie Post favorite), guests got to tour the bomb shelter, where they were served flutes of rosé Champagne. Why not? The bomb’s coming—bottoms up! There were also canapés: thin slices of rare roast beef on toast, foie gras, cold shrimp, pimiento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and smoked salmon on cucumber rounds.
The evening of the gala turned out to be one of the most beautiful of the spring, making cocktails on the circular front drive a real pleasure. Between drinks and nibbles, the 400 guests took turns touring the mansion, where curators pointed out other examples of the ways Marjorie Post managed her privileged life. Everything revolved around her calendar. Hillwood was the base for spring and fall, but summer was spent on her yacht, the Sea Cloud, or at her Adirondacks estate, Camp Topridge, and she got herself and her extensive staff from place to place aboard her large private plane, the Merriweather, that was reconfigured to seat 17 comfortably. Winter was spent at Mar-a-Lago, her estate in Palm Beach that is now owned by Donald Trump.
Interestingly, when the curators were setting up the new exhibition, particularly laying out the appropriate table settings on her grand dining table, they came up short on some crystal. They knew more of the collection was still housed at Mar-a-Lago and asked Trump if they could borrow a few pieces. He refused, according to one of those involved in the project. Perhaps that’s why the table is only set on one side.
A donation to the exhibition that is special to Washington is a blue evening dress Post wore to a Palm Beach gala. While her turquoise and diamond jewels are from Harry Winston, David Webb, and Cartier in New York, the dress is from Rizik’s, a women’s clothing store still in business on Connecticut Avenue. The dress and jewels are on display in the room where Post sometimes had breakfast, with a view out to the lawn and gardens; in the kitchen, visitors can check out the breakfast tray that would be sent up via dumbwaiter and brought to her by a butler or another member of the staff.
Because artful living for Marjorie Post required a lot of help, off the kitchen is a diagram that gives the hierarchy of the household staff from top to bottom. It looks like a family tree. There are also photos, including one of the butler, in tails, taking a phone call. Not to be missed are the greenhouses, another fine example of the good life. They are dense with greenery and blossoms, as they were in Post’s day. The greenhouses and gardens provided the flowers for the beautiful flower arrangements adorning each of the colorful tables at the tented gala dinner.
“It’s a very special night,” said Ellen MacNeille Charles, Post’s granddaughter and the president of Hillwood’s board. “My grandmother would be so pleased. She was an amazing woman, a very forward-thinking, progressive woman for her time, but a woman who was blessed with the ability to live an amazing life with great luxury. What was really amazing about her is that she was not embarrassed about her wealth. She loved to share it with people, whether they were friends or people she felt needed an uplift in their lives. She was one of the most generous women I’ve ever known.” When Charles stepped up to the podium, everyone rose to sing her a surprise rendition of “Happy Birthday” and present her with flowers and a cake. She joked that the reason for the party was “to celebrate my birthday, and I thank you all for coming.”
“Living Artfully” runs into January 2014. While guests at the dinner were given special access to the new exhibition, public tours are available Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM and on select Sundays at 1:30. Other special events planned are listed on the Hillwood website.
The Hillwood Visitor Center, where the tours start, features a display on the wall that includes a telling quote from Marjorie Merriweather Post, given when she was 77 years old. A reporter had asked her to comment on the grandiosity of her life, asking whether the houses, the jet, the yachts, and the large staff were more trouble than they were worth. “It’s no trouble to me,” Post replied. “You see, I have done this kind of thing since I was 18, and it rolls right off my back.”