Monday, June 20, 2011

Washington Social Diary

Dina Merrill in her wedding to Stan Rumbough in 1946.
by Carol Joynt

As museum houses go, it’s easy to find a reason to visit Hillwood, the former home of one of the richest women in America, Marjorie Merriweather Post. It is Washington’s version of a gilded-age Newport mansion in that it offers visitors a chance to examine the lush life of the haves of another era. It is a compelling feature of Washington because it is so in tune with the city, meaning the extravagance is restrained. Well, at least until you get inside the mansion. Then it’s an eye-popping extravaganza of rare Russian and French decorative arts.

But even a compelling museum can have a tough time drawing visitors in a “great recession,” especially if the museum and its resplendent gardens are off the beaten tourist path. Rather than accept the downturn passively Hillwood’s board decided to step up its game and hired a new executive director with some marketing savvy.

The Wedding Belles exhibition will run till after Christmas.
Kate Markert, Hillwood’s first new director in 20 years, arrived last year from The Walter’s Art Museum in Baltimore. This past weekend she opened her first big production: “Wedding Belles, Bridal Fashions From the Marjorie Merriweather Post Family 1874-1958.” It’s timely (think Kate Middleton), it’s historical (especially for students of fashion), and it’s fun (meaning, worth the 15 minute drive from downtown Washington).

Markert explained her strategy: “When I first came to Hillwood last August I quickly came to understand how very seasonal our attendance pattern is. We have a great spike in the spring when the gardens are in full bloom, and again in September with the fall color. Knowing that the board wanted to increase the attendance, and coming from the art museum world, the obvious solution was to create a beautiful exhibition from our collections that would attract people after the spring.”

Given that Post and her three daughters were very much the marrying kind, this adds up to a lot of extravagant and pretty dresses that have the virtue of sentiment for an older generation and inspiration for a younger generation walking down the aisle today. The Washington Post called it “an affair, or four, to remember.” Organized by curator Howard Kurtz, the display includes dresses from Post’s four weddings and the combined dozen weddings of her daughters, Eleanor, Adelaide and Nedenia (known to most as actress Dina Merrill).
Ellen Charles welcomes the guests. Ellen is wearing a pin that was a wedding present from her grandmother, Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Party guests listen to Ellen Charles.
Merrill was the honorary chair for the exhibition’s lovely opening lawn party but she was unable to attend. Post’s granddaughter and Hillwood president, Ellen M. Charles, explained, “Since she was in several of the weddings, either as flower girl, bridesmaid or bride, I am truly sorry that my aunt, Dina Merrill, couldn’t be here this evening.”

Merrill donated a wedding gown, albums and other mementoes and her presence is felt in other ways, too. The mansion’s dining room is set up as it was for the wedding luncheon when she married Cliff Robertson in 1966.
After speeches, there was jazz.
Francisco of Susan Gage Caterers is a veteran at cutting wedding cakes.
Susan Gage Caterers served a buffet dinner worthy of a wedding reception, complete with a tiered wedding cake. As the more than 200 guests sipped drinks, nibbled on tuna and tenderloin and otherwise filled the lawn, Charles took to the podium to tell some family stories. “While most of the weddings mentioned in the exhibition took place before I was born, I do have a few memories as well,” she said. “I attended Aunt Deenie’s wedding to Stan Rumbough in 1946. I remember it seemed that the whole world was there, from hundreds of guests to dozens of reporters and photographers, all reveling in the joy of the moment.”

For what seem to be obvious reasons, Post became expert at planning and staging a wedding. And, according to her granddaughter, enjoyed the ordeal. Charles said, “after grandmother’s wedding to Herb May she sent me a telegram that said she was ‘on pink puffy clouds.’” Pink and puffy aptly describes some of the dresses, which look to be made out of cloud-like material.
The Hillwood dining table set as it was for the December 1966 wedding luncheon for Dina Merrill and Cliff Robertson.
Dress worn by Marjorie Merriweather Post when she married Joseph E. Davies in December 1935. Mother of the bride on the left, bride on the right.
Young Dina Merrill wearing the Flower girl dress to one of her mother's weddings.
The Parisian designed Paquin wedding dress worn by Emlen Knight Davies in 1939. Like a puffy pink cloud, a bridesmaid's dress worn in the Emlen Knight Davies wedding.
Markert lauded the exhibition because it “allows us to get to know Marjorie Merriweather Post in a wonderfully human way. You see her first as a dainty Edwardian girl of 18 in 1905, and across the room, you see her thirty years later as a sophisticated, streamlined modern woman. To me that encapsulates an age of incredible change in American society.”

Not only does “Wedding Belles” fill the void after the spring spike in visitors, the opening party raised $53,525 for the museum. The show will run through the fall and into January. Hillwood plans all kinds of related events to keep the spirit going and the tourists coming.
The full bar.
The buffet of light salads also included grilled tuna and sliced beef tenderloin.
Some of the desserts from caterer Susan Gage. Desserts included a proper wedding cake.
Hillwood was an imposing backdrop for the lawn party, which felt like a wedding reception.
Looking down the hill toward Marjorie Merriweather Post's Japanese garden.
Maisie Maillard, Ellen Charles, Alicia Floyd, George Floyd, David Iverson, and Tara Iverson.
Nancy Duncan and Andrew Iverson. Amy Bondurant.
Ellen Charles with two of her sons, David and George Iverson.
Exhibiton curator Howard Kurtz with Hillwood's executive director, Kate Markert.
A close-up of Howard Kurtz's lapel pin.
George Floyd, Katie Iverson, and Alicia Floyd.
Nancy and John Palmer.
This table was reserved as the "Rehoboth" table. The dinner tables were decorated with laminated newspaper reports of Post-family weddings, this one from Jan 1927 about daughter Adelaide's to Thomas Durant.
Amy and George Iverson and their daughter Katie, on the right. All ensuing photographs by
Tony Powell.
On the right, Susan Gage. Elizabeth De Kergolay and Tom Richardson.
Barbara Comstock, Sally Burns, and Mary Draper Janney.
Charlene Drew Jarvis and Fred Fisher, the former executive director of Hillwood.
Sally Chapoton and Nancy Appleby. Nina Rumbough, the daughter of Dina Merrill.
Ellen Charles, Howard Kurtz, and Kate Markert.
John Irelan, Bitsy Folger, and Sidney Werkman.
Kyra Cheremeteff and Jacqueline Perrins.
A twilight view into the breakfast room.
Hillwood at twilight. Just as at a wedding party, the guests lingered.
Carol Joynt's new memoir, Innocent Spouse, can be ordered from Amazon, HERE.