By Stephanie Green | June 23, 2014 | Style & Beauty
Be dazzled this summer with Marjorie Merriweather Post's glittering collection of gems from the famed French jeweler Cartier at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens.
A portrait by painter Giulio de Blaas of Post with her daughter, Dina, in which the heiress is wearing her Indian emerald brooch.
Elizabeth Taylor was fond of saying, “Big girls need big diamonds.” The late Marjorie Merriweather Post, the mistress of Northwest’s Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, followed the same philosophy. Her granddaughter, Ellen Charles, who lives in Georgetown, recalls as a young girl taking her first trip to Europe with Post. Where did they stop for souvenirs? Hermès, of course. Not for postcards, but jewels. Charles picked out a single feather pin, but, she says, “Grandmother thought I needed two. She never liked small jewelry.”
The Post cereal heiress’s baubles and objets d’art solidified her reputation as the grandest of all grandes dames. And starting this summer, much of her collection will be on display as Hillwood—nestled in the wooded quietude of Rock Creek Park—celebrates her love of bling with “Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Dazzling Gems."
“She was passionate about jewelry,” says the show’s curator, Liana Paredes. “It is very clear from the records that Cartier was the firm she frequented the most.” Paredes and her team culled more than 60 pieces from Hillwood’s collection, the Smithsonian, and from Cartier’s archives. The assortment will be on display through December.
Recently at the Grand Palais in Paris, the show “Cartier: Style and History”—in which several of Hillwood’s pieces were presented along with Cartier favorites from the collections of Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor, and Princess Grace of Monaco—dazzled the City of Light, but Hillwood offers an American twist. “There have been plenty of Cartier retrospectives, and I could not compete with Cartier. I wanted a theme that would be Marjorie’s own,” Paredes says. “Post was the most important American Cartier patron. It’s fascinating to focus on her evolution, the change of times, her role as a woman and a hostess in society, and how she adapted.”
Post was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1887, the only child of C.W. Post and Ella Merriweather Post. When her father died, in 1914, she took over his business, the predecessor to General Foods, and in her mid-20s became one of the wealthiest women in the world, radiating a sort of Oprah-like generosity and grandeur.
In 1917 she settled in New York with her first husband, Edward Bennett Close, and wanted to carve out a place for herself on the New York social scene. She needed to dress to impress. How? “Cartier was the logical choice,” says Paredes.
Objects like this vintage tobacco jar from Cartier are on view at this summer’s exhibition.
By the time Pierre Cartier had opened his New York shop in 1909, his family name was already synonymous with luxury and style, thanks to his success on the rue de la Paix. “By 1910,” Paredes says, “Cartier had become the go-to place for important Americans. They had contemporary designs. It was different and alluring.”
Post’s budding interest in Cartier was also fueled by her ardent Francophilia. She was especially taken with Marie Antoinette, the legendary spoiled wife of Louis XVI. Indeed, she had a thing for most royal divas: a larger-than-life portrait of Catherine the Great greets guests on the main floor of Hillwood. Post bought a chandelier from a palace of Catherine the Great’s, which now hangs in the Hillwood Breakfast Room, as well as earrings set with diamonds believed to have once belonged to Antoinette, which are in the Smithsonian. Her bedroom, dripping with pink neoclassical French style and a canopied bed, looks just like something from the set of Sofia Coppola’s film about the ill-fated queen. Post channeled Marie Antoinette’s imperiously glamorous style, as seen in a photo in the exhibition showing Post wearing a Cartier pearl and diamond bodice ornament for a Palm Beach gala.
Cecil Beaton told Vanity Fair in 1919 that her likeness to Marie Antoinette was “unsurpassable.” It wasn’t uncommon for high society doyennes, including Post contemporary Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge, to be infatuated with the French queen, even dressing up like her.
“[Antoinette] had many attractions as a woman, style setter, and patron of the arts,” says Paredes. “She represented big balls, big expenditures before the French Revolution.” By contrast, Post was attuned to the zeitgeist during the Great Depression, distancing herself from the flamboyance of the flapper era with quieter Cartier jewels, especially when she accompanied her third husband, Washington lawyer Joseph Davies, to the Soviet Union, where he served as ambassador.
“She knew she couldn’t offend the Soviets,” Paredes says of Post. “Her jewelry was noticeable but not flamboyant, it had a certain restraint, and it was very practical—things that could serve her in a myriad of situations.”
Post’s time with Davies in Russia stirred her affinity for Russian imperial art, and she became a keen collector of Russian treasures.
By 1955, when Post and Davies divorced and she bought and moved to Hillwood, she was well on her way to amassing the largest collection of Russian imperial art, including a dazzling assortment of Fabergé items, outside of Russia.
She maintained three homes: Hillwood; her winter house in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which is now owned by Donald Trump; and her summer camp retreat in the Adirondacks. She shuttled among the three, allowing ambassadors, politicians, and fellow jet-setters to tag along in the air or by sea on her yacht, Sea Cloud.
Naturally, curiosity grew around her presence, and invitations to her Cartier-and Fabergécrammed residences were highly coveted. She used her homes and fortune to fund great charities, including starting the annual Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach. The French government awarded her the Legion of Honour for her funding of a World War I hospital in France, but she was equally proud of her Silver Fawn Award from the Boy Scouts of America.
Post was also an avid collector of Russian imperial items, including this enameled Fabergé music box with gold, diamonds, and rubies.
Rose Kennedy and every first lady from Mamie Eisenhower to Pat Nixon maintained cordial relationships with Post. They looked to Post as the final arbiter on matters of entertaining and style, if not as a woman ahead of her time—she was a corporate leader before women had the right to vote, divorced four husbands, and took back her family name after splitting with her last.
Post donated some of her most prized possessions to the Smithsonian in 1964, several years before her death in 1973. Among them is the companion emerald necklace to one of Cartier’s most impressive gems: a brooch made from seven carved Indian emeralds that Post wore to her 1929 presentation to the Court of St. James’s. The Indian emeralds are from the 17th century and weigh around 250 carats, while the necklace boasts 24 baroque-cut emerald drops. It returns to Hillwood for the show along with the famous Maximillian emerald ring.
Post was a believer in jewelry being adaptable. She asked Cartier to fuse two diamond and sapphire bracelets to create a necklace. The anchor of the piece is an imposing sapphire surrounded by diamonds, which could also be worn as a brooch. An arrow-shaped brooch was used as a clasp for her endless strands of pearls, and her necklaces and earrings were made of amethysts, turquoises, diamonds, and platinum.
Post didn’t stop at jewelry. Picture frames, tobacco jars, and even a dressing table set with her personal monogram were also delivered by Cartier. As a Christian Scientist, she drank sparingly and never smoked, but she wanted her guests, especially her male ones, to do so in style. The exhibition features a section dedicated to Post’s tobacco accoutrements.
Today, Post’s affinity for arts and entertaining lives on. In 2010, her daughter, actress Dina Merrill Hartley of Butterfield 8, The Love Boat, and more than a hundred other movies and television shows, continued her mother’s philanthropic legacy by donating a gift to fund all film programs at Hillwood, including Divas Outdoors, where, since 2007, Washington families and children have enjoyed the cinema, a favorite Post family pastime. Each June, Hillwood, inspired by its founder, hosts hundreds of patrons and special guests at its annual gala, held in a tent on Post’s Lunar Lawn, one of her favorite places to host or entertain her friends. The Merriweather Post Pavilion greets thousands of music lovers a month in Columbia, Maryland, just 25 miles from downtown Washington.
In contrast with today’s celebutantes flashing gaudy iPhone cases and bejeweled sunglasses, Paredes hopes the exhibition will demonstrate that jewelry is “more than ornamentation; it’s about beautiful design. Most people disperse their collections to family members, but Marjorie bequeathed her jewelry for the public to enjoy.”
While preparing for the exhibition, Paredes said she indulged in a little dress-up, trying on Post’s Cartier bracelets. “They’re so malleable,” she says. “Even wearing gloves, I could sense what the feeling on your skin [must be like]. It’s delicious.” “Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Dazzling Gems” is on display June 7 to December 31, Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW, 202-686-5807