News & Politics

Hillwood Launches a New Exhibition On How to Live the Good Life (Photos)

An elegant gala dinner set the tone for “Living Artfully.”

Some of the direct descendants of Marjorie Merriweather Post at the annual Hillwood Gala: Sam and George Iverson, Ellen Charles, Ellie Rose Iverson, Anna Rose and Andrew Iverson, and Nedenia C. and Stanley H. Rumbough. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

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

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.”