4. During its construction over 600 workers contributed to the estate
Construction on Mar-a-Lago took nearly four years, with more than 600 workers toiling at the estate. As they worked, the laborers grew more and more awestruck by the extent of the project. The house contained 58 bedrooms, supported by 33 full bathrooms. All of the bathroom fixtures, the taps, control knobs, and towel racks, were plated with gold. Marjorie explained the extensive use of gold to be for the benefit of the servants since gold was easier to clean. The living room covered 1,800 square feet, and its ceilings towered 42 feet above the floor. It opened in 1927 after the couple had spent the equivalent of approximately $100 million to build their winter home.
In March 1927, Post and Hutton hosted a costumed dinner at their new residence, as a preliminary to that year’s Everglades Costume Ball. The latter, an annual event of the day, crowned Marjorie herself as to its Queen in 1929. She was dressed as Juliet. For 1927 though, Hutton and Post dressed as members of the Court at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI. The events of the Palm Beach social season were covered in local newspapers of course, but they also appeared in the papers of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and the other summer residences of the rich and famous. Descriptions of Mar a Lago compared it to the “cottages” erected in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills during an earlier era. Post and Hutton did not remain in residence long each winter, only a few weeks, but a staff of servants maintained the property all the months of the year.
5. Construction of Mar a Lago strained the Hutton’s marriage
During each of her marriages, Marjorie took her husband’s last name as her own, reverting to her maiden name after her divorces. Thus the Palm Beach newspapers and society discussed and dissected the new estate under construction by the “Hutton’s”. Marjorie and her husband discussed it too, often with exasperation expressed by the latter. E. F. Hutton told a friend visiting the house, “You know, Marjorie said she was going to build a little cottage by the sea. Look what we got”. Marjorie seldom discussed money in public, considering the subject vulgar. But in a letter to a cousin, Marjorie hinted at the tension in their marriage as a result of the cost overruns she encountered during construction.
“Apparently, building estimates are not worth the paper they are written on and, as a result, they have sunk our finances beyond anything we had imagined, so I have been having trouble with Ned about it…”, she wrote. She also said in the same letter, “… it means we have got to sell some of our Postum stock…”. Included in the construction costs were the prices of a collection of rare, first edition books purchased to stock the huge library. According to a former butler at the estate, the lush, oak-paneled library contained hundreds of such books, “…that no one in the family ever read”. Hutton’s exasperation at his wife’s spending extended to the exterior design as well, which he considered overly extravagant. According to some estimates, the final costs of construction and furnishing Mar a Lago exceeded the original commission more than eight times.
6. The house did not receive critical acclaim from residents of Palm Beach, nor many guests who visited.
One of the more salacious scandals of the gilded era was the threesome concerning Harry Thaw, his wife, the actress/model/chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, and her lover, Stanford White. Thaw shot and killed White, an internationally famous architect, in front of hundreds of witnesses in a theater during the performance of a new play in New York. Following two trials, acquittal based on the insanity defense, a stint in an asylum from which he escaped, and eventual court-ordered freedom, Thaw was a celebrity. Well-monied himself, as the heir to a Pittsburgh coal fortune, he epitomized the idle rich. When Thaw first visited Mar a Lago he gasped, “My God, I shot the wrong architect”.
His reaction pithily summarized the opinions of many over the appearance of the estate when first built. The words “garish”, “extravagant”, and “cavernous”, all were used to express the opinions of architectural critics, though there was little commentary on the cost. Marion Syms Wyeth, the primary architect for the building, later seldom referred to his involvement with the project, allowing Joseph Urban to take “credit”, for the work. Favorable comments for its location and the remarkable views afforded by its 75-foot tower were common though. Of note was that each of the guest suites within the estate were in a different style and decorative motif, with no two appearing alike. They were accompanied by a butler uniformed appropriately to the décor.
7. Enter Sea Cloud, the world’s largest private sailing yacht
In 1930, Marjorie decided to build the fifth of the series of yachts named Hussar, this one to be Hussar V. She designed the interior fittings and several of its features herself, having models of her designs constructed in a warehouse space in New York. The plans she created were of a vessel 316 feet in length, with a beam of 49 feet. Rigged as a four-masted bark, with diesel-electric engines to supplement its sails, it displaced over 3,000 tons. In comparison, a contemporaneous US Navy destroyer displaced less than 2,500 tons, fully laden. Krupp Germaniawerft built the vessel in Kiel, Germany and delivered it to Bermuda, where Post and Hutton accepted it on November 30, 1931. The United States was then in the deepest throes of the Great Depression.
Hutton and Post traveled extensively in Hussar V, accompanied by their daughter together, Nedenia Hutton, who later gained fame as the actress Dina Merrill. Their yacht, the largest seagoing privately owned such vessel of its day (It dwarfed that of King George), created an impression wherever it appeared. Hutton’s time with the vessel was short. In the early 1930s, Marjorie began to hear rumors of his several extramarital affairs, both in New York and in others of the locations they frequented during the year. According to a September 7, 1935 article in The New York Times, Marjorie received a divorce, with the proceeds of the hearings sealed, in Patchogue, Long Island. She did not receive alimony, nor a financial settlement. She did retain Mar a Lago, Hussar V (which she renamed Sea Cloud) and custody of their daughter.
8. Marjorie’s third husband became Ambassador to the Soviet Union
Marjorie married her third husband, Joseph E. Davies, in 1935. Davies practiced labor law and as an aspiring politician ran for the Senate, though he failed to win the seat. By 1935, he was an established antitrust lawyer in Washington. A noted art collector (like Marjorie), Davies went to the Soviet Union as Ambassador in 1936. Davies already had established business connections in the Soviet Union. Stalin had directed the sale of artifacts from the days of the Romanov dynasty in order to raise hard money to support his various programs. Among them were works by Faberge, paintings and tapestries from France and Austria, and antique porcelain and other objects d’arte.
Davies and Marjorie purchased many of the items, which were then displayed at Mar a Lago and her other residences. President Roosevelt recalled Davies in 1938, in part because of his perceived Communist sympathies. He later returned on a second mission to Moscow, as a personal representative of the President, who wanted a face-to-face meeting with Stalin regarding the conduct of the war against Germany. Marjorie and Davies were highly criticized for their acquisition of Soviet art, with many believing some of it was confiscated from Soviet citizens during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. Most of the items remain in the United States, displayed at Hillwood, Post’s estate outside of Washington DC. The estate operates as a museum today.
9. Entertaining at Mar a Lago proved lavish and expensive
When Marjorie commissioned Joseph Urban to do design work for the Florida estate, one project assigned to him was the completion of a unique dining room table, with a top of interlocking polished stones. The mosaic top, manufactured in Florence, Italy, by hand, included polished alabaster, red jasper, and many other stones. It was pieced together as if it were a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. It took a full year for the craftsmen to complete the top, including six separate leaves which could be added to increase its length by another twelve feet. The entire top weighed two tons. At Mar a Lago it saw use for only about six weeks of the year, when Marjorie stayed at the property from early January to mid-February. Used for formal dining, the table was relocated to Hillwood, outside of Washington, following Marjorie’s death.
Besides the costume balls, dinner parties, sporting events, and other entertainments, Marjorie spent lavishly to become the Queen of Palm Beach Society during the winter months. Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus wintered in Florida, and Marjorie hired them to set up their tents and perform their full show for guests at her estate. She hired the casts of Broadway shows to perform their plays, symphony orchestras and jazz orchestras, and conducted both formal dances in evening dress, and square dances on the lawns. While she was in residence, 75 servants maintained the grounds and attended to the live-in guests. During periods of the house being closed, a staff of 32 worked there daily. The expense of operating Mar a Lago rose annually, but Marjorie refused to consider selling the estate. She continued to add to its decor with new artwork and updated fabrics, indifferent to the expense.
10. Marjorie built an Adirondack camp for summer use
The wealthy often escaped the dog days of summer and its oppressive humidity in pre-air conditioning days by resorting to “rustic camps” in the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Berkshires, and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Marjorie Post bought her rustic camp in 1920, spent three years expanding and renovating the site, and first used it during the summer of 1923. The camp comprised 68 buildings and over 200 acres, at first only accessible by water. Her yachts delivered guests to the camp, and in later years she flew her guests to the site, in her own private plane. Each residential cabin came equipped with its own butler for the convenience of her guests. She called the facility Camp Topridge.
A Russian-style residence known as a dacha was built at the camp for the use of Joseph Davies, who had enjoyed staying in such buildings during his stays in the Soviet Union. In many ways, Camp Topridge served as the summer equivalent to Mar a Lago, though the entertainments were less spectacular, and the guest lists shorter each season. One perk Marjorie offered, currently running full-length feature films available at the camp, sometimes featured one of the guests. Cary Grant visited the camp during his marriage to Barbara Hutton, Marjorie’s niece. Some of the films featured appearances by her daughter, Dina Merrill. Marjorie left the camp to the State of New York in her will. It has subsequently changed hands several times, and is once again privately owned.
11. Marjorie Merriweather Post was a philanthropist of longstanding renown
Although Marjorie Merriweather Post obviously spent millions in pursuit of her own pleasure and luxury, she also gave millions away. During the First World War, she donated the money for a field hospital in France. The grateful French awarded her the rank of Commander of the Legion of Honor, a rare award for a woman at the time. She financed and personally supervised a soup kitchen and shelter in New York during the Depression, operated by the Salvation Army. She gave money and land to the Boy Scouts of America, Long Island University, and the National Cultural Center in Washington DC. It later became the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In 1944, she offered Mar a Lago to the military for use as a facility for injured veterans requiring therapeutic care and occupational therapy. Buildings on the estate were equipped as workshops, repair shops, and studios. Veterans received training in printing, carpentry, concrete work, gardening, mechanical repairs, heating systems, and other skills allowing them to transition to civilian life. The estate’s rooms housed treatment facilities for those suffering from post-traumatic shock disorder, though it was not yet known by that name. Others learned how to manipulate artificial limbs. Following the war, Post began to spend less time at Mar a Lago, as societal changes made the annual winter pilgrimages and extravaganzas less common among the wealthy.
Marjorie Post and Joseph Davies divorced in 1955, after 20 years of marriage which produced no children. The extensive collection of art and other valuables they had purchased from the Soviets were equitably divided between them. Later, after Davies died, she purchased back many of the items from his estate. Rather than display them at Palm Beach, she kept more and more of her possessions, and spent more of her time, at her new estate at Washington, called Hillwood. That name derived from a previous home on Long Island of the same name, which later became Long Island University Post. The home she shared with Davies in Washington, named Tregaron, remained in his hands following their divorce. She purchased Hillwood as her new Washington home.
Hillwood, which was known as Arbramont when she acquired the property, was the largest privately held estate in Washington, bordering Rock Creek Park. World War II had shifted the center of society in America. Rather than the movers and shakers residing in the private enclaves of the rich, attention shifted to the war-expanded government in Washington and need for influence there. Marjorie concentrated her efforts on expanding, decorating, and landscaping Hillwood following her divorce from Davies. At the same time, many of the Palm Beach socialites whom she led found the mansions and estates in the community too expensive to maintain for use just in the winter. By 1955, Palm Beach’s first heyday was at an end.
Following her divorce from Davies, Marjorie remained single for a short time, though her position as a leading socialite in Washington and Palm Beach continued. In 1958, she married Herbert Arthur May, a railroad executive and wealthy in his own right. The period of time between her divorce from Davies and her marriage to May was the longest in which she remained unmarried since her first divorce. The couple continued to use the estate in Washington called Hillwood, Mar a Lago, and her Adirondack camp as residences and for entertainment. May was 67 years of age on the day of their marriage, four years younger than Marjorie. He was also, known to virtually everyone (but evidently not her), gay, or at least bisexual.
Until her marriage to May, Marjorie harbored a fear of flying, preferring to travel by train or on her fabulous yachts. May arranged for her to fly to Pittsburgh on a company plane, which she enjoyed so much that she decided to buy one of her own. When informed of the cost of maintaining and hangaring an airplane, as well as paying mechanics, pilots, and onboard crew, she supposedly replied, “I didn’t ask how much it costs. I want one”. Soon Marjorie flew across her country to her estates and other destinations in a Vickers Viscount turbo-jet she named the Merriweather. She often sent her airplane to ferry invited guests to her estates for planned events.
14. Her marriage to May led to changes at Mar a Lago and her other estates
Throughout most of her life, Marjorie expressed little tolerance for alcohol, in the sense, she disapproved of its consumption. All of her estates were liberally stocked with alcoholic beverages for her guests, though she limited the times in which they were served, as well as the amount of wine available at meals. For decades, the cocktail hour preceding dinners at Mar a Lago was brief, only about fifteen minutes. Herbert May enjoyed alcohol, drinking liberally, and under pressure from her husband, Marjorie extended the cocktail hour at Mar a Lago. She also allowed the guest suites to be stocked with liquor. Old friends were shocked at the change, since Marjorie was a Christian Scientist throughout her life. Her own habits regarding the use of alcohol did not change.
Sometime before 1964, Mar a Lago served as the scene for a drunken romp in the swimming pool featuring a naked Herb, and several other naked males, including some teenage boys. Who took the photographs and how they made their way to Marjorie’s desk is disputed, though blackmail has been suggested by some biographers. Some were graphic. Marjorie responded by initiating a divorce from May, finalized in 1964. Though Marjorie expressed shock at learning her husband was gay, she had been warned in advance of the marriage, including by her daughter, actress Dina Merrill. When Herbert suffered a stroke a few years later, Marjorie paid for his medical expenses. She also remained close with Herbert’s children from his previous marriage for the rest of her life.
When Marjorie began renovating Hillwood she found the social scene in Washington lacking. To her, it did not reflect what should be present in the nation’s capital, especially as regards music, theater, and ballet. She manicured the lawns and gardens of Hillwood to host teas and outdoor concerts. Invitations to those events, as well as her formal dinners and receptions, were coveted among the Washington elite. She deliberately designed the interior of the home to be her private residence as well as a showcase for her collections of art, tapestries, curios, and the fabulous Faberge eggs. She displayed Sevres porcelains, extensive collections of statuary, and finely bound classic books.
Hillwood was not only a destination for the elite attending Marjorie’s parties and dinners. In the 1960s, America’s presence in Vietnam steadily expanded, and many of the wounded recovered at Washington area hospitals. As she had at Mar a Lago during World War II, Marjorie opened Hillwood to veterans. She hosted teas for their benefit, as well as for their attendance. At the same time, she raised money for organizations supporting veterans, as well as donating liberally from her own pockets. She hosted benefit performances of the arts for veterans, including at Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Naval Medical Center, again absorbing the cost. For decades the social events of the nation’s capital centered on the White House. During Marjorie’s residency in Washington, they centered upon her.
16. Mar a Lago became a white elephant in the early 1960s
By the beginning of the 1960s, many of the grand and lavish estates of Palm Beach had fallen on hard times. Two notable exceptions were the Kennedy compound and Mar a Lago. The Kennedys used their Palm Beach estate mainly as a family compound, rather than for extensive socializing. Mar a Lago remained mainly a winter residence and destination for high society guests. But others of the grand estates, none of which rivaled Mar a Lago in sheer size, were gradually closed down by their owners, no longer capable of maintaining and operating them. Some eventually became museums, others were torn down to make way for new communities. Others simply fell into disrepair, their grounds have grown over by weeds.
Marjorie began exploring the ways and means of divesting herself of the estate she had built with E. F. Hutton in the 1920s. By then Hutton was dead. Sea Cloud (which had served in the US Coast Guard and Navy during World War II before being returned to Marjorie) had been given to Ramon Trujillo. In exchange for the yacht, Trujillo gave Marjorie the Vickers Viscount airplane she named Merriweather. Trujillo used Sea Cloud as the Presidential yacht for the Dominican Republic. Mar a Lago remained, though more of a drag on her finances than a place for entertainment, especially following the divorce from Herbert May, her last husband. Marjorie began exploring other uses for her property in the mid-sixties, though she did not consider selling it outright.
17. Marjorie learned it was nearly impossible to give Mar a Lago away
In the early 1960s, Marjorie prepared her first plan for the disposition of her Palm Beach estate. She hit upon the idea to give the property to the state of Florida, for development as an institute for scholars of the arts. Detailed plans were developed, bound in red leather, a copy of which exists in her personal papers, lodged at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Florida officials studied the proposal, as well as the estate, and declined the offer. The high maintenance costs for the property, then nearly forty years old, prevented them from accepting the offer. While other Palm Beach estates continued to vanish, Marjorie refused to accept such a fate for Mar a Lago. She began to consider alternatives.
A similar plan was developed for the disposal of Camp Topridge, in the Adirondack Mountains. The camp offered a considerable collection of native American artifacts, a lodge, and over sixty individual cabins and buildings. Though it presented potential as a state park, New York found its maintenance costs prohibitive when Post bequeathed the facility to the state in her will. A small portion of the camp’s grounds were transferred to the Adirondack Park Preserve, and the rest was offered for sale to a private owner. It has passed through several owners since, and remains in private hands, though listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since the mid-1980s.
18. Marjorie tried to donate Mar a Lago to the United States Government
Following the rejection by Florida of the proposal to convert Mar a Lago into an educational facility, Marjorie turned to the United States government. As President, Harry Truman enjoyed spending time during the winter months at Key West, using the Naval Base Commandant’s Quarters as what he called the Winter White House. Kennedy too spent some winter week’s in the Kennedy Compound in Florida. Johnson preferred his ranch in Texas, and Nixon had his own winter retreat in Key Biscayne. Marjorie hit upon the idea of donating Mar a Lago to the government for use as an official Winter White House. The property would be operated by the US Navy, which also operated Camp David, the Presidential yachts, and the White House Mess.
After Marjorie died her trust, the Post Foundation continued to lobby the federal government to accept the estate, as well as an annual endowment to help defray costs. Marjorie died in 1973, 86 years of age. Her will gave Mar a Lago to the government, citing it as a Winter White House. President Ford preferred to take his winter vacations skiing in Vail, and other resorts. One of President Carter’s early actions in office decommissioned the Presidential Yachts. His successor, Ronald Reagan, preferred his California ranch. In 1981 the US government returned the Palm Beach estate to the Post Foundation, citing the excessive costs of accepting it for other use. Another problem was the potential costs of providing sufficient security, given its location in the flight path for Palm Beach’s airport.
19. Marjorie gave Hillwood Estate to the Smithsonian Institution
In her will, Marjorie Merriweather Post specified numerous artifacts and works of art at Mar a Lago and Camp Topridge transferred to Hillwood Estate. Among them was the 79-foot, two-ton dining room table at Mar a Lago, where a facsimile table replaced it. The entire Hillwood Estate, with its extensive collections of priceless art, manicured gardens and grounds, and all of its buildings bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institution, for use as a museum. With the estate came an annual endowment to help pay operating expenses and maintenance costs. As with her other donations, a clause specified if the property was not used in accordance with her wishes, its title would revert to the Post Foundation.
Hillwood already included extensive display galleries, including those containing the Faberge Eggs and rooms dedicated to specific periods and types of art. However, at the time of her death it also served as Marjorie’s primary residence. Experts from the Smithsonian determined the modifications necessary to convert the estate to an operating museum were extensive, and an endowment for maintenance and operation ($10 million) insufficient for the needs. By 1975, two years following Marjorie’s death, the endowment produced $450,000 annually. The Smithsonian returned Hillwood Estate to the Post Foundation, which has operated the estate as a museum of the arts, and of Marjorie’s life and achievements ever since. The grounds continue to be used for special events and entertainment.
20. Mar a Lago has had only two private owners in its over nine decades of existence
Marjorie Merriweather Post and Edward F. Hutton were the first owners of Mar a Lago, and Marjorie retained ownership of the property following their divorce. She held it through her subsequent marriages, and to all accounts never considered selling the property to another private owner. She envisioned all of her properties as valuable in support of education and government service. Unable to give them away in life, she established her foundation to do so after her death. Their opulence and extent prevented them from being maintained with the funds available, and her dreams for her properties, especially Mar a Lago, went unrealized. When the federal government returned Mar a Lago to the Post Foundation in 1981 the latter faced the obvious. It simply could not afford to maintain both the Palm Beach estate and Hillwood Estate.
Mar a Lago entered the real estate market, offered for sale to a private owner. The Post Foundation removed many collectibles and art, sending them to Hillwood Estate or to institutions, museums, and libraries across America. Much of furniture remained in place, and the Foundation spent millions of dollars to maintain the property pending a sale. At least ten potential buyers examined the property by mid-summer, 1981, though all balked at the asking price, which reached as high as $20 million that year. In 1985 the property sold for much less, to its current, infamous owner, who has kept it ever since.
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