The house Post Toasties built
Washington — Queen Maude of Norway once said to her, "Madame, you live like a queen," as she looked around her hostess's 350-foot sailing yacht, the Sea Cloud. She was the Queen of Post Toasties, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the elegant heiress with the mind and millions of a captain of industry. When she decided at 70 to launch her last mansion, Hillwood, in Washington, she was a grandmother with three ex-husbands and on her way to the fourth. Although Mrs. Post is gone now, Hillwood looms on above the treetops of Rock Creek Park, a stately red brick Georgian monument to one of the great collectors of the 20th century. Those who take the guided tour at Hillwood hear the Queen Maude story.
When Mrs. Post bought Hillwood, the fourth estate she was to own, in the 1950 s, she was already planning to turn it into a museum for her collections of art. But it was still a family home, to which she added a new wing and third floor. Hillwodd glitters with her treasures, a queen's ransom of 18th- and 19th-century russian and French decorative art. The Russian collection is considered the most representative outside of the USSR. She acquired much of it when her third husband, Joseph Davies, was United States ambassador to Russia in the late 1930 s. It was a time when the Stalin government had opened "commission shops," warehouses to sell of czarist treasures to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
The Davies yacht, Sea Cloud, had sailed into Russia with a hold full of capitalist groceries when Davies became ambassador: 2,000 pints of cream and two tons of frozen food. (Mrs. Post, the Postum and cereal heiress, had established General Foods and the frozen food industry.) when the Sea Cloud left Russia a year later, its hold was full of priceless objects d'art ranging from Faberge eggs to gold-drenched icons, which the Davieses had bought for a song in the Russian warehouses.
One of Marjorie Merriweather Post's most priceless possessions hovers overhead as you step into the entrance hall at Hillwood. It is a massive rock crystal chandelier from the palace of Paul I at Gatchina near St. Petersburg. The globes of rock crystal hang like huge, smooth, cloudy diamonds in the afternoon light.
"Mother was a born collector," her daughter Nedinia Hutton Rumbough Robertson (actress Dina Merrill) says in a brief film shown before the standard tour of Hillwood. Mrs. Post had the true collector's taste for pursuit: "When I first saw this chandelier many years ago in France," she writes in a little brochure, "Notes on Hillwood," "it was one of a group of three," which she describes. And she didn't rest until she'd acquired it. Of the great clock on the red-velvet railed stairway nearby she notes that it was from a collection of Prince Paar of Austria. And "I was very excited when I found it, in of all places, New York City! -- as I had been searching for such a clock for 30 years."
William Wright in his lively biography "Heiress" mentions that she received a pink Faberge clock in March 1938 for her birthday and was unable to think of anything but that exquisite clock that night although she spent the evening at the Bolshoi Ballet. She searched two years for a rare white marble mantel from the Louis XVI period because turquin (blue-gray marble) was most prevalent in that period. When she finally found it in Paris, she pounced and brought it home to install later at Hillwood in the French drawing room.
The drawing room, in Louis XVI style, is a very long, gilt- edged remembrance of things past. It is sumptuous in the extreme. At one end is the most important painting at Hillwood, Winterhalter's portrait of Empress Eugenie of France. She wears yards of white silk ruffles, blue ribbons, and a small maternal smile; the portrait was done just after the birth of her child, the prince imperial.
At the other end of the vast room is a Roentgenok rolltop desk of marquetry and mother-of-pearl, made for Marie Antoinette. Dina Merrill mentons in the film that she used to love playing with it as a child, exploring all its secret drawers Christian treasures to other people as the most precious gift I can give. By the same token, I should not be closed when a Buddhist or Hindu tries to give me his most precious treasures."
He opens the tall glass doors that look out from the living room across the golf course, and leads the way along his bricked back porch under the tall white columns that form a colonnade around the entire perimeter of the house.
When planning the house in the early '70s, the Templetons decided that light was so important that they would install glass doors on all four sides. No front or back to this house. When they give a party and the wind is blowing too hard from one direction, they simply move the festivities to another side of the house and open the doors there.
As we drift under the columns, the Templetons' huge white German shepherd, Mosey, jumps up on the brick and demands attention. Mr. Templeton explains his stunning variety of tropical plants and trees that surround the house, many of which bloom year-round in dazzling combinations of pink, scarlet, tangerine, and blue. There are geraniums, 41 varieties of hibiscus, 8 varieties of bougainvillea vines with their bright purple flowers overhanging tree branches, wide-bottomed palms with unripened green coconuts and branches swaying in the hot summer wind, orchids, fig trees just beginning to fruit, and a variety of orange and lemon trees extending off to the side of the house.
This botanical diversity fits Templeton perfectly. Diversity, he argues, is a creative factor to be encouraged at all points -- including investments. And so he is not concerned about the foreign competition that so petrifies American companies. Laissez faire, for Templeton, means no -- but nom -- strings attached.
"I believe that if you gave freedom for each person and corporation to do whatever they did best -- barring, of course, doing injury -- and they could do it in any nation, then everybody would benefit. You'd get things done at lower cost and higher quality than if you restrict them."
But what about wealthy multinationals operating from abroad which buy up US firms? Is there a danger that US companies and property will end up owned and run from abroad?
"For one thing, I think it's sort of poetic justice. Back in the 1920s the rest of the world was worried that the newly rich Americans were going to buy up everything. We didm buy a lot, particularly in England, but also in France and other places. And they thought that the great danger to these nations were the wealthy Americans."
The entrance of diversity onto the American scene isn't to be feared in the long run, he says.
"I think things will turn out about the same as it did for those other countries. Wealthy foreigners will buy up some things. It will have a stirring effect on industry. But the USA will go on and we'll hardly notice it. And US investors own five times as much in other nations as the foreigners own in the US. We built that up mainly back in the 1920s and '30s when we were the wealthy nation. So it's sort of odd that the US should now fear small beginnings of what they themselves were the leader in 30 or 40 years ago."
As diversity stimulates creative change in the Western economic arena, Templeton thinks his prize will also stimulate positive change in totalitarian states that disdain or outlaw religious worship.
"It concerns us that the political rulers of an increasingly large number of nations are trying earnestly to prevent their people from studying religion," he said in the inaugural address for the prize.
"If the program of prizes can call attention to an impressive variety of beneficial religious projects and sound spiritual research, then possibly some political leaders may come to think that they should not exclude their people from spiritual study. . . . Hundreds of millions of people may enjoy some indirect benefit."
Meanwhile, Templeton goes on with his endless hobby: dreaming up new futures.
"God has placed us here at a time when the rate of discovery is increasing constantly and more and more rapidly," he says with an enthusiasm that heats up his otherwise low- key style.
A similar tone rings through his book "The Humble Approach":
"Who can imagine what will be discovered if this acceleration continues? The more we learn about the universe the more humble we should be, realizing how ignorant we have been in the past and how much more there is still to discover."
Always the wise counselor, he cautions against claiming too much for the specific outcomes of future discoveries. But if his not- so-wild-eyed, trend-seasoned expectations are correct, the coming decade looks decidedly fantastic.
American corporations will at least double their sales, profits, and share prices over the next 8 years (share prices may even triple).And the US stock market could witness its first bull market in 12 years, with the Dow Jones industrial average jumping from its current level at near 1,000 to 3,000 by 1988 .
The need will become clear for new investment in theological research to keep pace with the rapid development in other fields.
Why, he asks, should people not invest literally as much money in theological research as they invest in traditional economic and scientific fields?
The emergence of challenging fields like genetic engineering will require new theological views to cope with both the new dangers and new possibilities. doors and hiding places. But you won't get within shouting distance of the mystery desk because the area is cordoned off. You stand on plastic runners over the expensive savonnerie rug done in muted gold and beige tones. On the walls hang murky, 18th-century Beauvais tapestries. Gobelin tapestry covers a suite of two sofas and 12 chairs commissioned by Louis XVI as a gift to Prince Henry of Prussia. Like all the other furniture in this immense, ornate room, the sofas and chairs are never sat on.
In an odd way, to visit Hillwood is to be reminded of the film "Laura." In that movie, the presence of the heroine is palpably felt by a detective investigating her death who stares at her portrait, sifts through her belongings , and eventually falls in love with her.
Mrs. Post's presence is strongly evoked at Hillwood, both in the consistency of her collecting taste and in the various oil portraits of her, which hang everywhere in most major rooms. We see Mrs. Post in various stages of her life, always stunning: Mrs. Post in gray satin to match her eyes; Mrs. Post in white silk with Cabochon emeralds; Mrs. Post in black velvet, pearls, white ruffles, and a white maribou stole; even Mrs. Post sculptured in white marble by Jo Davidson. You can almost see her in the 40-foot dining room at Hillwood, with its French Regency oak paneling, as she measures the 30 place settings of royal blue Sevres porcelain to make sure they're exactly 18 inches apart on the Medici mosaic dining table.
Upstairs, there's no doubt about which is Mrs. Post's own bedroom: done in regal Louis XVI style in tones of pink and gold, from the pink silk canopy over her ornate bed to the 18th-century roll-top desk in mahogany and bronze. To the right of her imperial bed is a table containing a collection of dark green bloodstones, her birthstone. Fresh pink and white roses perfume the room.
The extraordinary organization and orderliness which characterized this determined collector are evident even in her dressing room and room-size closets. One glass-front closet is lined from top to bottom with rows of the custom- made satin dancing shoes from Bob of New York, which she wore at her favorite square dances, among other events. Some of the square dances were held in the large two-story mauve room called the Pavillion, which was the Post version of a family room. It also stood in as a screening room for family movies. It contains a grand piano, topped with signed photographs of Nicholas II and his doomed family, lavender and white velvet love seats, lots of purple velvet swags and silver latticework edging the upper walls, a balcony where "the help" could watch screenings, and a variety of Russian treasures including an enormous 19th-century oil painting, the "Boyar Wedding," by Konstantin Makovski.
Mrs. Post's collection of Russian decorative art is grouped primarily in two special rooms, the Russian porcelain room and the icon room. You can see the caviar of porcelain in the first room, a display of Catherine the Great's dinner service for the knights of the Imperial Order of St. Alexander Nevski. The knights dined once a year on the dinnerware, decorated with the red moire ribbon and badge of their order, at the Winter Palace.
The major portion of the Russian collection gleams in the icon room, where a sensor beam similar to those found in museum jewel collections acts as a security device. Museum staff and security guards keep discreet tabs on the small guided tours which are open to the public, by appointment only. Among the priceless items on display in this gold- brocade room are three 17th- and 18 th-century chalices which Mrs. Post discovered in one of those Russian warehouses, two in silver so tarnished it looked like pewter, one in gold with diamonds and rubies. The walls are covered with poignant, vividly colored religious icons from the imperial period.
One of the most memorable pieces in this room is the small, translucently rosy egg, a Russian imperial Easter egg by Faberge, presented by Czar Nicholas II to his mother in 1914. Our tour guide, Janet Saville, steeped in art history says that the legend is that this beautiful rose enamel and gold egg contained a necklace of matching rose pearls when the Czar presented it to his mother. A kingdom's worth of diamonds flashes from the nearby Russian imperial nuptial crown (1840), worn by the last three czarinas at their marriages.
Even over morning bacon and eggs, Mrs. Post was surrounded by imperial beauty: a Russian glass and ormolu chandelier from a St. Petersburg palace hangs overhead in her former breakfast room. It is intimate and cheerful, perhaps the most livable room in this 44-room mansion. A bay window filled with geraniums faces out on the 25 acres of rolling landscaped grounds which include a Japanese garden, A Russian dacha like a grownup's brightly colored doll house), a French parterre or sculptured garden, a rose garden, friendship walk, and a dog cemetery with statues of the poodles she loved. In one of Hillwood's two libraries (the one paneled in Norwegian pine) sits a pink satin canopied dog beg made for the royal dogs of Charles X, King of France, and later acquired by Mrs Post for her favorite poodle.
One of the most interesting indexes of Mrs. Post's passion for collecting can be found in that most inelegant of rooms, her kitchen. Or kitchens, to be more accurate -- long cream and pale green rooms that look capable of turning out a smorgasbord aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2. Rows of glass- windowed shelves contain samples of one cup and saucer for each of the dozens of dinner services she owned, with notes on where the rest were stored, so she could tell at a glance what she had to choose from for a particular meal.
Although Mrs. Post entertained lavishly, she had known soup kitchens, too. During the depression of 1929-1935 she set up and maintained, through the Salvation Army, a food station in New York's Hell's Kitchen; in World War I she equipped an entire 2,000-bed hospital in Savenay, France. She was a benefactress on a lavish scale in other areas -- she founded C. W. Post College, aided the Boy Scouts and the National Symphony, gave the concert hall at Kennedy Center, befriended the Animal Rescue League and the American Field Service, on and on, including individual assistance funds and educational funds.
Mrs. Post, who was worth $250 million, was as generous as she was acquisitive.