Book Review: The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post

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Book Review: The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

You already know her as the owner of General Foods, the original owner of Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, FL, and at one time, one of the wealthiest women in the world.  Marjorie Merriweather Post is also known for her extensive and breath-taking collection of Imperial-era Russian art, much of it on display at her Hillwood Museum and Estate in Washington, DC

About Marjorie Post

Her philanthropic efforts run the gamut from funding a U.S. Army Hospital in France during World War I to financing and supervising a Salvation Army feeding station in New York during the Depression to donating the cost of the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Washington, DC. She even gifted $100,000 to the National Cultural Center in Washington that today is known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Some of her jewelry is still on display at the Smithsonian, including a 275-carat diamond and turquoise necklace and tiara that Napoleon I gave to his second wife. Married four times and mother to three daughters, Post has been portrayed in four movies. 

But now, thanks to writer Allison Pataki whose passion is telling stories about leading ladies lost in history and best-selling author, as well as two children’s books, readers can crawl into the persona of Marjorie Post, this larger than life, jet-setting, society maven, money heiress, savvy entrepreneur and presidential hostess.  In a stroke of literary genius, Pataki allows us to be part of the luxurious lifestyle and mental acuity of Mrs. Post.

Image from Amazon

If any writer today can pull it off, it’s Allison Pataki whose novels have been translated into more than 20 languages, who graduated cum laude from Yale, who’s a member of the Historical Novel Society, and who’s written and produced for the New York Times, ABC News, USA Today and Fox News, who’s appeared on Today and Good Morning America, and whose father is former New York Governor George Pataki. Allison currently lives in New York with her husband and family, but with her lineage and accomplishments, she’s uniquely qualified to climb into the skin of Mrs. Post and give her a voice.  For example, the stage is set in Chapter One of the book during the winter of 1891 in Battle Creek, Michigan when Marjorie (really Pataki) writes in the first person: 

“I was raised in religion, but it was not God who loomed largest over my girlhood and its earliest memories.  That was Charles William Post, Charlie, or simply C.W., to those who knew him best.  To me, he was only ever Papa.” 

That first paragraph sets the stage for the most luxurious ride with one of America’s most amazing women who will become a new kind of heiress who will leave her personal legacy unparalleled in Washington and still admired throughout the nation.  She personifies the American Dream from growing up an only child in the Midwest farmlands where she glued cereal boxes in her father’s barn all the way to hosting Presidents and becoming a player on the world stage. 

According to author Pataki, it was all because Post was led by three simple personal rules: “always think for yourself, never take success for granted, and work hard,” even when covered in imperial diamonds.  She embodied the Puritan work ethic but knew the power of giving more than she got.  She crawled through musty warehouses in Moscow to rescue treasures from the Tsars, she left as the Nazis began bombing London, she served the homeless of the Great Depression, and she hobnobbed with Presidents, Hollywood celebrities and heads of state, and as Pataki claims, “She lived an epic life few could imagine.” 

When she took the C. W. Post Cereal Company and grew it into the General Foods Corporation, she changed American life.  A wife, mother, businesswoman, collector, philanthropist, world traveler and role model, she made history and became the wealthiest woman in the U.S., all before becoming 30 old. 

But she had the heartbreak and challenges many of the rest of us face as well.  Her love life was tumultuous from her party-boy husband #1, financier husband #2 who betrayed her, international diplomat #3 who had his own personal issues, and husband #4 who harbored secrets that shook her and others, so lasting, faithful, and loyal spousal love eluded her. 

Now, thanks to Pataki’s writing skill, readers can become Mrs. Post and travel through the Roaring 20s, enjoy her palatial homes in the Adirondacks, in Washington, and in Palm Beach, watch as one of her daughters became the glamorous actress Dina Merrill, climb aboard her yacht, the Hussar (now the Sea Cloud), the largest privately owned yacht in the world, fly in her personal aircraft, wear the best of fashion and jewelry of the time, amass art and porcelain collections that are still sought after by collectors, and still host square dancing soirees. 

Image from Wikipedia

After reading this book, you’ll never again see a jar of Postum, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, Maxwell House Coffee or a box of Jell-O, Baker’s Chocolate, or Birdseye Frozen Foods without thinking of Mrs. Post.  And I better add a disclaimer.  Back in 1962, as a summer student at George Washington University in Washington, DC, I was fortunate to shake Mrs. Post’s hand at her Hillwood Estate as my dorm mother arranged a field trip there for students like me to walk through her Japanese gardens and greenhouse filled with orchids that she raised. 

Mrs. Post took great joy in hosting ladies’ groups and young college women for teas and open houses. At the time, the impact of this larger-than-life powerhouse, passionate, adventuresome icon was lost to me as I only looked with awe upon the numbers of staff, groundskeepers, and kitchen help that it took to maintain the Faberge, Sevres, porcelain, French furniture, tapestries and paintings on display. Only later, when as a retired schoolteacher living part-time in Washington, do I have the time and luxury of fully appreciating Mrs. Post’s legacy in addition to sitting in her manicured gardens next to her stately graveside marker and contemplating all that this visionary American icon contributed to American history. 

But, best of all, thanks to the well-researched and detailed novel by Pataki, I can read and pretend for just a few hours that I am Marjorie Post, deserving to be remembered, basking in the opulence of unimaginable wealth, and wielding power as one of Washington’s and the world’s most formidable females. 

And thanks, too, to Hillwood’s Executive Director Kate Markert who sees to it that Post’s pristine estate and gardens are maintained and enhanced, my future visits will no doubt find me sitting in the orchid-filled greenhouse or in the dacha behind the mansion, or near Mrs. Post’s pet cemetery, or at her gravesite, only now, I’ll be carrying a copy of Pataki’s book along because I want my life as Mrs. Post to continue, and this place and book make that possible. 

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