Book Review: The Houses and Collections of Marjorie Merriweather Post

Book Review: The Houses and Collections of Marjorie Merriweather Post

Thumbnail image by lil_foot_ from Pixabay

By Kathy A. Megyeri 

“When I began collecting, I did it for the joy of it, and it was only as the collection grew and such great interest was evidenced by others that I came to the realization that the collection should belong to the country.” 

Marjorie Merriweather Post 

In 1962, I was a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC and my Crawford Hall dorm mother (yes, in those days, we had them) invited us co-eds to a reception at nearby Hillwood Estate and Gardens, the residence of the richest woman in America, Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973). Dressed in my fashionable white gloves and pillbox hat, I had no idea of what to expect but was overwhelmed at the opulence of the mansion, was enthralled with the greenhouse of orchids and the Japanese Gardens and was pleasantly surprised to see a tranquil pet cemetery off to the side. 

Image from Hillwood Museum

And even though a well-groomed matron graciously greeted us at the entrance and invited us in to admire her many art works, artifacts, and Imperial-era Russian art, especially the Faberge Easter eggs on display, I was also fascinated by the supporting cast of staff members that it took to manage the site and care for it all: groundskeepers, maids, kitchen help, chef, gardeners, on-site caretakers, valets and chauffeurs. 

I had never before been exposed to such opulence and wealth under the directorship of such an unassuming, welcoming, middle-aged lady who smiled and was genuinely glad to show us around and observe our reactions to it all.  She led us through priceless heirlooms, artwork, and artifacts like 300 rare Russian books devoted to art history, gilded furniture, art in tableaus, portraiture, Sevres porcelain, Gobelins tapestries, Aubusson carpets, 90 pieces of Faberge, a gold chalice commissioned by Catherine the Great and the greatest collection of Russian Imperial art outside of Russia. 

Image from The French Jewelry Post

Of course, tea and small cookies were offered, but who wanted to spend our short time munching on delicacies when there was 18th and 19th century French art to see, a portrait of Catherine the Great in her Russian finery, the famous Boyar Wedding Feast painting by Konstantin Makovsky (1883), more tapestries, table service sets collected by Catherine the Great, Russian Orthodox church objects such as icons and liturgical vessels, rare lace tablecloths, Wedgewood ceramics, and jewelry by Harry Winston and Cartier.

There was Marjorie’s Icon room displaying small objects, the Pavilion room, the Russian porcelain room, the French porcelain room and the drawing room, and yet most of the rooms inside brought in the outside beauty of the gardens situated on the 25-acre estate filled with roses, azaleas, dogwood, camellias, English ivy and boxwoods.

Footpaths led to a pool lined with Italian glass tile, a terra-cotta sculpture of Diana that overlooked the garden, marble sphinxes, a cherub riding sea animals in the pool, and outdoor furniture where one could relax and view the Washington Monument 3.6 miles away. There was a groomed putting green and a crescent shaped Lunar Lawn which served as a space, we were told, for special events like garden teas, receptions, and formal dinners that hosted the Boy Scouts of America, Veterans’ groups and the National Symphony Orchestra. 

About the Marjorie Merriweather Post book

But our time was short, our tour only cursory, and our send-off hurried because no one really wanted to leave this “fairyland,” a tour I would remember and treasure for the rest of my life.  But thanks to this stunning new coffee table book compiled by the Hillwood Estate staff, Mrs. Marjorie Post’s collection is now available to all. It celebrates her passion for her elegant residences and personal collections, reflecting centuries of some of the finest treasures in the world, and the astounding beauty of some of her 20,000 objects.

On 288 pages, breathtaking photos by Erik Kvalsvik and John Dean, with text by the Hillwood curatorial staff, the book depicts the evolution of her collecting, includes stories of her interactions with dealers, artists, interior designers and architects, provides insights into the objects themselves, and examines the lasting cultural legacy left to us all. 

Image from Amazon

Even the stunning book cover is of Mrs. Marjorie Post’s breakfast room which was always set for four and features a Russian gilt bronze and green glass chandelier from the late 1700’s which came from one of the Imperial estates outside St. Petersburg.  It is a room filled with such gorgeous floral displays in the window that it makes it hard to tell where the outside garden ends and the room itself begins, so it’s obvious from the cover that Mrs. Post designed the original home and grounds so that anytime of year, one could look out any window and see lush vegetation and flowers in bloom. 

Megan J. Martinelli, Associate Curator of Textiles, Apparel, Jewelry and Accessories at Hillwood, claims, “This book illuminates the entirety of Hillwood’s collection and archives for the first time in one complete publication.  Twenty-first century readers well acquainted with Mrs. Post and her newer admirers both will delight in her legacy, contextualized with a bounty of new information and discoveries.” 

Executive Director of Hillwood Estates, Kate Markert, explains, “Mrs. Post collected for the joy of it and was directly involved in designing each of her homes.  She opened them to share her interest in and enthusiasm for other cultures and eras. She once said, ‘I want young Americans to see how someone lived in the 20th century and how this person could collect works of art the way I have.  I want to share this with the rest of the world.’  Mrs. Post was endlessly curious about the great stories told by these works of art and sought to inspire and educate others.  She loved sharing her great collections, especially with young people and students.” 

Mrs. Post’s bust on author Kathy Megyeri’s porch

I was proof positive as she even shared it with me.  In gratitude, I display a bust of Mrs. Post on my own little porch at home, my way of saying “thank you” to a renowned philanthropist, business executive, collector, and one who shared her home, collections and life with even me, then a 19-year-old college student, and now a frequent visitor, admirer, and reader of this treasured coffee table book.