Lady of the arts

Marjorie Merriweather Post knew privilege from an early age. She was the only child of Charles William (C.W.) Post of breakfast food fame. During her life, she was surrounded by expensive art and jewelry, lavish estates and high society. However, Post made her mark not only by becoming one of the first businesswomen in the U.S. but also by giving back. The combination of her wealth, philanthropy, head for business and penchant for collecting art made her a woman that fascinated many.

The cereal heiress

Post was born March 15, 1887, in Springfield, Ill. Her father owned Postum Cereal Co., made famous with coffee substitute Postum and breakfast cereals such as Grape-Nuts. Growing up, Post's father taught her the business, training her in every aspect of the company, from overseeing factory production to attending board meetings. She also learned about art through trips abroad and her father's art collections.

Post graduated from Mount Vernon Seminary and College, Washington, D.C., and attended courses at a nearby private school, learning about art and architecture. She married Edward Bennett Close in 1905 and gave birth to Adelaide in 1908 and Eleanor in 1909.

Post's mother, Ella, died in 1912, and when C.W. Post died two years later, Post inherited the company—she was 27 years old. Post and her family moved to the five-story Beaux-Arts Burden Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Post furnished the home with the help of art dealer Sir Joseph Duveen, who encouraged Post's interest in art and architecture. With Duveen's guidance, Post attended courses at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and bought three of her first major pieces.

The collector

Post and Close divorced in 1919, and Post soon married financier Edward F. Hutton. In 1923, Hutton became chairman of the board for the Postum Cereal Co. He and Post expanded the company, and it became General Foods Corp. Meanwhile, Post and Hutton built properties in Palm Beach, Fla., Long Island (which later became C.W. Post College) and the Adirondacks, and Post gave birth to her third daughter, Nedenia (who became actress Dina Merrill).

The couple then built an apartment building on the former site of the Burden Mansion and lived in its 54-room penthouse, which was the largest apartment ever built at that time. Post continued to collect, snagging French decorative furniture and expensive art. She and Hutton built a 114-room mansion in Palm Beach called Mar-a-Lago and bought what was said to be the largest private sailing yacht in the world, named Sea Cloud.

Post and Hutton divorced in 1935. Post joined the board of directors for General Foods, becoming one of the first women to join a major U.S. corporation's board of directors. She later became one of the wealthiest women in the U.S. with a fortune of about $250 million. She married Washington, D.C., lawyer Joseph E. Davies, and in 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Davies ambassador to the Soviet Union, and the couple moved to Moscow.

In Moscow, Post developed a love for Russian art and added significantly to her art collection. In fact, when she and Davies moved back to Washington, D.C., in 1940, a "Treasury Room" in their new renovated mansion held display cabinets for her most precious Russian pieces. And when Post and Davies divorced in 1955, the Russian objects were divided between them. Post bought many of Davies' pieces following his death.

In 1955, Post bought Hillwood, an estate in Washington, D.C., deciding it would become a museum for her collection and would be open to the public. After expansion and interior design work, the home was transformed into a museum and Post moved into Hillwood in 1957. The museum became a venue for philanthropic and social events, and she was known to treat her guests well.

Post married Pittsburgh executive Howard May in 1958, but the couple divorced six years later. Post continued to maintain her properties and collection and hired a full-time curator for Hillwood. The curator, Marvin Chauncey Ross, developed a recording system, publishing program and conservation and acquisitions procedures.

Post left Hillwood to the Smithsonian with the stipulations that she maintain life tenancy and the collection "be recognized as significant cultural heritage." Post's daughter Adelaide and the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation of the District of Columbia resumed operation of Hillwood in 1977, after Post's death in 1973.

Post bequeathed Mar-a-Lago to the government for a winter White House; in 1980, it was returned to the Hillwood Foundation. Donald Trump bought it in 1985, converting it into a private club. She donated her Adirondacks property to New York state; it now is privately owned.

The philanthropist

Post supported many charities and contributed to her country during her lifetime. She received the Cross of Honor from the United States Flag Association, as well as a medal from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for heading a women's watchdog committee to uphold the ethics of judges, lawyers and public officials. She held an annual American Red Cross International Ball, set up New York soup kitchens during the Depression, and contributed to the National Symphony Orchestra's "Music for Young America" program. She also supported the Boy Scouts of America, buying the Jewett House for the organization during the 1970s; in 1971, she was given the organization's Silver Fawn Award.

Post also funded a field hospital in France during World War II and was awarded the Legion of Honor; donated the Sea Cloud to the U.S. Navy during World War II; entertained Vietnam veterans at Hillwood; and donated millions of dollars to charities, including the Kennedy Center, Mount Vernon Seminary and College, National Symphony Orchestra, C.W. Post College and American Red Cross.

The New York Times seemed to describe Post best: "While she always lived like a queen, she has always given like a philanthropist."

This Web exclusive information is a supplement to Restoring history.