- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

They didn't call the late Marjorie Merriweather Post an "American Empress" for nothing.

If anyone had any doubts, they certainly were dispelled at Wednesday's party celebrating the reopening of Hillwood Museum and Gardens, the Post cereal heiress's Linnean Avenue NW home, after a three-year, $9 million renovation.

"It's an example of a way of life that doesn't exist anymore," said Mrs. Post's daughter, actress Dina Merrill Hartley, merely voicing the obvious as she greeted guests amid a treasure trove that, as one guest remarked, "made Ali Baba's cave look like a pauper's hut."

There were music, champagne and a buffet supper in a great tent set up in the adjacent formal garden, though it wasn't surprising that many in the 500-plus crowd preferred to wander about the mansion, lingering over the immense collection of imperial Russian and 18th-century French objets d'art: Faberge eggs, royal jewels and portraits, precious icons and ecclesiastical vestments, solid-gold snuff boxes, old-masters paintings, Gobelins tapestries and Louis XVI furniture.

For the few who had known the chatelaine personally, the evening was an especially poignant time to reminisce.

Betty Beale, a frequent guest at Hillwood until Mrs. Post's death in 1973, fondly described the exquisite appointments of the larger dinners, at which every table boasted a different color motif.

"One would be set with ruby glass and red roses," the longtime society columnist said, "another had an amethyst-colored service with violets or orchids, a third had a topaz setting and yellow roses, and so on."

Mrs. Post, she said, was "a perfectionist in everything she did," so much so that friends often would try to tease her by saying they'd "just found a single weed in the garden."

Fritz Alan Korth, whose father, the late Fred Korth, was Mrs. Post's escort and companion in her later years, remembered not just her thoughtfulness, but her sense of humor as well, one that included "telling an off-color story or two … something that was very surprising for such a grande dame."

Esther Coopersmith, however, wasn't sure whether Mrs. Post was joking when Mrs. Coopersmith visited Hillwood in 1964 to ask her to host a National Symphony luncheon honoring Lady Bird Johnson as the new first lady.

"She looked at me and said, 'I am the first lady,' " Mrs. Coopersmith recalled with a laugh, adding that Mrs. Post eventually agreed to the request.

Hillwood board Chairwoman Ellen MacNeille Charles chuckled as well when she recounted tales of a grandmother who could be formidable as well as fun: "She loved to tango and waltz but disapproved of the twist. On one occasion, she made a woman in a minidress cover her legs with a scarf."

Others remembered the time a footman was asked to deliver a sharp note to a man who didn't "turn table" between courses at dinner: "Mrs. Post would appreciate your speaking to the woman on your left as well as your right."

Those who knew her, however, were made to feel entirely comfortable in her presence despite the palatial abode and fabulous jewels.

"It didn't bother her that she was grand, and she didn't let it bother you," said Nina Auchincloss Straight, who said she had a "tremendous time" at Hillwood dances during her debutante days.

More than 30 of Mrs. Post's descendants were on hand for the affair, including most of Mrs. Hartley's and Mrs. Charles' children and grandchildren, and other family members, including Melissa Cantacuzene and her husband, Rodion, from Middleburg, Va. Gala committee chairwomen Penne Percy Korth (accompanied by former Australian Ambassador Andrew Peacock) and Barbara Boggs helped round up "le tout Washington" political, media, diplomatic, social for the event, though there was nary a dot-com mogul in sight.

'Twas a pity, since they might have picked up a few pointers on how the fabulously rich once lived with grace and style.

"Nowadays people may have the money," as Mrs. Post's very grand friend, Gladys Bentetsen, put it, "but either they don't want to spend it or they just don't have the taste."

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