Marjorie Merriweather Post, once the richest woman in the U.S., inspected her tables twice before a dinner party: in the morning, to check on her Russian Imperial porcelain, and right before guests arrived. Footmen stood behind each chair throughout the meal.
“It takes effort to be luxurious,” said Estella Chung, curator of “Living Artfully,” an exhibition about Post’s lifestyle opening June 8 at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, her Washington home from the mid-1950s until her death in 1973.
Invitations, menus and linens are on view, as well as photographs showing picnics at Camp Topridge, Post’s home in the Adirondacks, and dancing at her parties, where she taught Rose Kennedy the two-step. The heiress to the Post Cereals fortune provided special stick-on heel protectors to avoid unsightly marks on her floors.
“My grandmother was her own event planner,” said Ellen MacNeille Charles, Post’s granddaughter and president of the Hillwood board. “She could have commanded the Normandy invasion.”
At a gala preview of the exhibition on Tuesday, Charles hosted her own event, attended by Muni Figueres, Costa Rica’s ambassador.
They had the chance to see two rooms open for the first time: Post’s fallout shelter built at the height of the Cold War, painted in her favorite “Mamie pink,” and her private salon, where she had her hair washed with rainwater.
In the Hillwood dining room, guests saw the table set just as it was at Mar-a-Lago, her Palm Beach estate. She flew in ambassadors of Italy, India and France on her private plane to Palm Beach to attend the International Red Cross Ball, the annual event she started in 1957.
“My grandmother wasn’t embarrassed about her wealth,” Charles said. “She wanted to share it.”
Chung said the exhibition shows a “Downton Abbey” life lived in the “Mad Men” era. Post had as many as 300 people working for her. An audio guide shares a story from a manicurist; Post let her try on her Russian Imperial crown.
The menu at the gala preview included some of Post’s favorite dishes: salmon and vegetables en papillote and Baked Alaska. Post sometimes served Jell-O, a staple of the family business. The tables were decorated with the elaborate floral arrangements she favored.
Charles recalled her grandmother letting her raid her jewelry safe for debutante parties. She settled on a simple pearl bracelet, which Post let her keep.
“She was very generous,” Charles said.
Through Jan. 12 at 4155 Linnean Ave., NW Washington. Information: +1-202-686-5807; www.hillwoodmuseum.org.
(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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