Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Sumptuous Sense

We have, for various reasons, been enduring enjoying a raft of visiting family over the past several days, culminating this afternoon in one of those occasional kinship rituals that will bring together friends and relatives from multiple sides of the clan.  Pray for me.

In the lead up to the solemnities (a christening, if you must know), however, I've been genuinely enjoying the company of my cousin, The Architect, a gentleman of leisure of almost exactly my age, the lucky stiff.  Yesterday, we had a most diverting expedition to a place I'm now ashamed I didn't get to years ago:  Hillwood, the palatial home of Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post.

The snap above is from the dining room, where this genial lady (note the eyes: also a clock) presides at one end of a room dominated by a vast table covered in a mosaic of fine and semi-precious stones created for Mrs. Post by designer Joseph Urban.  At the moment, the room is displayed as if set for luncheon, using one of the lady's many sets of extraordinary Russian imperial china, much of it dating from the reign of Catherine the Great.

Visiting Hillwood can be a bit dizzying; at one moment you're standing stunned in front of cabinets and étagères filled with bits and bobs like the marriage crown of the Empress Alexandra or some of Mr. Fabergé's amusing little eggs; the next you're marveling at a sleek Moderne butler's pantry approximately the size of a six-car garage.  The gardens are equally diverting, ranging from a rigorously formal parterre to a totally high-kitsch '50s-Japonaise snuggery to a deeply, deeply enviable cutting garden that still supplies the house with appropriately lavish arrangements.

Right now there's even a choice small exhibition of Mr. Post's best Cartier pieces, augmented by a series of portraits (of which she had a nearly endless supply) and the dresses in which she was painted wearing the jewels.  My favorite moment was the solemn text informing us that a particularly splendid sapphire necklace displayed nearby (and featuring a central stone approximately the size of a generous hard candy), was created with the intent of being appropriately restrained, as Mrs. Post was at the time (the mid-'30s) heading to Moscow with her husband of the moment, the new American ambassador.  As she habitually paired her sapphires with a black velvet bias-cut gown by Orry-Kelly (also on show), I have a feeling that she nonetheless stood out at even the grandest Soviet wing-ding.

The whole place is one of the best organized such attractions I have ever visited; the house feels as if the mistress has just stepped out, and the feeling is that one is as much a guest as an intruding visitor.  The visit starts with a short, well-done film that talks about why Mrs. Post felt so strongly about both creating a place like Hillwood, the repository of her lifetime of collecting French and Russian decorative arts, and why it should be made open to the public on her death.  It describes the lady as succinctly and elegantly as I can imagine, saying she was someone with no affinity at all for any kind of minimalism, but rather as having "a sumptuous sense of herself."  I think that's something we should all strive for, don't you?

If nothing else, seeing the mountains of things Mrs. Post amassed in this, just one of her half-a-dozen or so residences (not to mention the private turbo-prop and, of course, her spectacular yacht the Sea Cloud), one feels just that little bit less of a packrat.  Faced, though, as we are with the prospect of packing it all up again, I do envy the lady (full name: Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May - she did get around a tad) the legions of staff that kept (and still keep) the place so pristine.  If only one could borrow a footman or two to deal with all the packing and unpacking...


  1. Oh my goodness! Hillwood!
    I'm so jealous! It sounds fabulous.
    All I can do is read the Marjorie M Post how-to books.

    1. Jason, have you ever read Heiress, the rich life of Majorie Merriweather Post?

  2. I, too, enjoyed a visit to Hillwood and enjoyed my visit. I was more jealous of the two, count them, two Diebold vaults; one to store the ladies jewels, and another just for the silver. I was actually surprised at how this home didn't appear to palacial (such as the Biltmore home or the Frick) but more livable.

  3. You're quite right - for a place as stuffed full of treasures as it is, as a house it's quite a manageable size. Of course, the staff of, seasonally, anything from 75 to 150 helped a lot, I'm sure...