The other weekend, I was cranky and knew I needed a temporary getaway from my family. So I got in the car on a hot July morning and drove south to DC, savoring Saturday’s lack of traffic.
Ever since I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic, I’ve longed to tour Hillwood, the 1920s Georgian mansion of Marjorie Merriweather Post, an heiress and businesswoman who parlayed her father’s Postum Cereal Company into the prepared food empire known today as General Mills. Right now, there’s a special exhibition at Hillwood called “Living Artfully: At Home with Marjorie Merriiweather Post,” and what caught my interest is that
this four-times divorced grande dame decided to fix up a mansion when she was 68.
This is where I feel a kinship, having bought an 1897 Victorian summer cottage in my late 40s, with my two children likely leaving the nest within a few years. Sometimes, the decision to invest in this 5000-square foot house with four porches battling carpenter bees does not seem practical. Mrs. Post’s decision wasn’t either–after all, she already owned a massive Park Avenue apartment, Mar-A-Lago in Florida and a luxurious camp in the Adirondacks. As I pulled in through the handsome gates, I imagined the pull of 25 acres of land, which, with the steamy DC/Baltimore climate, could support a lot of lovely flowers, trees and shrubs. I have a bit less than 1 acre–and the condition is currently very rough. However, I’m thrilled to have a struggling patch you could call cutting garden with some of the same plants (coneflowers, roses, rudbeckia) that are in the Hillwood cutting garden. Mrs. Post also stocked greenhouses with orchids and all manner of exotics so she would always be able to show off lovely arrangements at her glittering dinner parties.
Dinner is another enthusiasm that we share. Mrs. Post entertained regularly, and just last night I had a neighborhood gathering of around 40–a supposed “happy hour” that lasted until almost ten p.m.–and tonight Tony and I are cooking dinner for the family of one of our children’s friends, lively people we’ve been wanting to know better.
It sometimes seems impossible to get a chance to eat and drink with all the interesting people in this city, and our DC and suburban Maryland and Virginia friends, too. But there are ways to organize, Merriweather Post Style. Mrs. Post kept a book filled with names and contact information for hundreds of prominent people of her era, including designated bachelors (for me, it’s “all the single ladies”). For her, diversity of guests might mean that in addition to DC political and embassy friends, she might invite an Abell millionaire to drive in from Baltimore! At our house, we also seek a wide range of people, not just from the same neighborhood, and with many ages and cultural backgrounds. And I don’t keep a lovely book of typed names to hunt for guests, either. I click into my email and see who comes up.
Mrs. Post loved decorating and collecting, and her house is filled with Louis XVI furniture, Russian Faberge porcelain, and gorgeous parquet floors.
For this reason, her butlers enforced a rule for any guests with high heels to wear plastic heel caps. Here I am in utter sympathy, having had to refinish our soft pine floors TWICE since moving in. I say, Leave Your Muddy Sneakers and Dusty Sports Cleats at the Door.
When it came to food, Hillwood’s talented cooks worked for days in a gigantic kitchen making elegant meals, but its owner made sure to always include some General Foods favorites, like Jell-O. Not even the kids will eat Jell-O at my house, but I am loyal to Bird’s Custard Powder, which is a component of whatever fruit trifle I’m making (my go-to dessert). I fear the biggest difference between our entertaining styles is most apparent after dinner. Mrs. Post’s staff (she was too polite to say ‘servants’) cleaned up. I believe the docent said more than 100 people worked at Hillwood. If I’m lucky, my clean-up crew will include a kid, a husband, and a very kind guest or two.
I drove home from Hillwood, my appetite for antiques, gardens and dreaming sated. I opened the ragged screened door leading to our half-renovated estate. My husband was slicing up my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, and shaping hamburgers for our son.
Our house will never be a Hillwood, but I am crazy about the weekend chef.