Marjorie Merriweather Post was a famous American woman when I was growing up mid-20th century. Her fame for us masses came because of the cereal Post Toasties. She was always referred to in the press as the cereal heiress. It amazed that a cereal could make you rich. But this was America: anything was possible. Or so we thought.
Mrs. Post was also famous for her marriages, and her enormous sailing yacht, and her mansion in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago. The house was famous to the public because it was more like a palace — which is what it was — occupied by the queen.
Today and tomorrow we’re running a chapter from The Butler Wore Guccis, the memoir of Tom Gardner. When first presented to me, I couldn’t imagine getting a book out of that title. But I read on and was riveted. Mrs. Post’s winter palace, which as everyone now knows, is the property of Donald Trump who bought it for a song years ago after the US Government didn’t want it; and neither did anybody else. It’s an enormous undertaking even on a daily basis, and always was.
Mr. Gardner demonstrates the reality of his occupation. All life is in the detail. It turns out his employer, whom we’ve been hearing about all our lives, was a brilliant executive by nature. She probably inherited it from her father who created the Post Toasties, but he committed suicide when Mrs. Post was in her twenties and married to her first husband. She inherited her father’s business, and under her watch it grew into General Foods.
Reading Mr. Gardner’s story, I was fascinated to learn about the greatness of this particular heiress. Being an employee of “Mother,” which was how she was referred to by the entire (huge) staff, (although she was addressed as Mrs. Post) was a kind of gift, in many ways, about a better side of life. It turns out she was also a naturally great leader (and philanthropist). And a real American too, even from the Midwest by birth and upbringing. Mr. Gardner shows you around and explains things. It all makes sense, like Mother; seriously. — DPC
My move to Mar-a-Lago was easily accomplished since I never fully unpacked my two suitcases. So with the help of Gordon and his Mustang — I said good riddance to the boarding house on Royal Palm Way and was off to Mar-a-Lago.
In 1924 Marjorie Merriweather Post and her second husband Edward Francis (E.F.) Hutton discovered the ideal site for their second Palm Beach mansion — a 17-acre tract of vacant land stretching from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to Lake Worth on the west.
The estate would be called Mar-a-Lago (Sea-to-Lake) for the obvious reason. They hired Marion Sims Wyeth, one of Palm Beach’s foremost architects, to design the main house. Wyeth, a graduate of Princeton and the École des Beaux Arts had designed ‘Hogarcito,’ the Huttons first Palm Beach house.
Working together, Wyeth and Mrs. Hutton determined the size, location and floor plan of the new mansion. But Mrs. Hutton was not taken with the typical Beaux Arts structure Wyeth had in mind nor did she want a Mediterranean-style villa in the manner of Addison Mizner — variations of which were cropping up all over Palm Beach at that time.
The problem was solved when Florenz Ziegfeld and his wife Billie Burke, close friends of the Huttons, introduced them to the extravagant ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ set designer and architect, Joseph Urban.
Urban’s impressive portfolio included projects for Austria’s Emperor, Franz Josef and Egypt’s last Ottoman viceroy, Khedive Abbas Hilmi II. In New York he designed astonishing sets for the Metropolitan Opera and of course, for Ziegfeld’s famed ‘Follies.’
Urban designed a crescent-shaped, 115-room structure fronting Lake Worth having a 75-foot tower in a hybrid Hispano-Moresque/Austrian Secession style. The gardens would be lushly planted and a nine-hole golf course was included. Mrs. Hutton was delighted with Urban’s over-the-top design and construction soon began. Money was no object.
36,000 antique Spanish tiles, some dating to the 15th century were used as wall decoration. Antique terra-cotta roof tiles were purchased in Cuba. Rare marbles came from Italy.
Gifted designer though he was, Urban was not really an architect so Mrs. Hutton asked Wyeth to come back and design the more mundane aspects such as plumbing, electricity and other necessities.
On arrival my I was assigned a room in Men’s Hall. It was spotlessly clean and, unlike my room at Mrs. Young’s or at the Gardner’s where all the staff rooms were furnished with a hodge-podge of second-hand furniture, it had a matching suite of good quality furniture and a medicine cabinet and a sink. The communal showers and toilet facilities were modern and impeccable with the atmosphere of a country club.
Gordon told me not to concern myself with cleaning my room. He explained that Mrs. Post felt it was most practical to have a dedicated team of two maids and one houseman attend to the staff bedrooms daily.
This remarkable concept of staff for the staff is rooted in an English system used in formal houses where a pecking order of upper and lower staff and their respective duties existed.
Mar-a-Lago mandated a large live-in staff. All the single men lived in Men’s Hall except for the three chauffeurs who lived above the garage. The unmarried female staff (who out-numbered their male counterparts) lived in Woman’s Hall. Married couples had slightly larger quarters.
Mr. Moffat, the Steward and his wife, Mr. Livingston, the Head Butler and his wife (the Head Cook) had suites on the Lake Worth side of the property. My new friend Gordon, the First Under-Butler, had a comfortable suite on the upper floor of the so-called ‘Guest Cottage.’
When I arrived Mar-a-Lago had 45 live-in staff — two cooks, eight kitchen aids, three chauffeurs, four footmen and numerous parlor-maids and upstairs and downstairs maids.
Everyone worked seven mornings a week. But it was not as awful as it sounds since every other day after lunch, half of the in-house staff took the afternoon off. However, on Thursdays when Mrs. Post staged her weekly ‘Square and Round’ dinner-dance, the entire household staff worked the whole day. True to her Midwestern roots, the worldly Mrs. Post enjoyed the simple, down-to-earth pleasure of American square dancing.
At both Mar-a-Lago and Hillwood, her home in Washington, the staff had a chauffeured station-wagon at their disposal on their half-day off. After staff lunch, our Australian chauffeur Alfred, drove us across the bridge to West Palm Beach to shop or go to the movies and return to bring us back in the early evening. No taxis needed.
Since the mostly female older staff preferred to remain at home, the staff station-wagon was rarely crowded. In addition, Mrs. Post reserved a part of her private, ocean-front beach specifically for the staff. So when I had no reason to go to town, I perfected my suntan. Gordon was right, working for Mrs. Post was absolutely amazing.
Privately, the entire staff referred to Mrs. Post as ‘Mother.’ It was a richly-deserved term of affection because of the outstanding working conditions she provided.
Mr. Livingston supervised all four Under-Butlers and three housemen. The Under-Butlers were responsible for serving the breakfasts, lunches and dinners. When, for a large dinner party, additional staff was required, Alfred, the chauffeur functioned as a fifth Under-Butler.
The four Under-Butlers had other duties as well —Gordon was the valet and cared for the male Guests’ clothing. Arthur (a most gentle soul who loved the comic strip ‘Peanuts’) passed his days polishing a most impressive selection of sterling and vermeil flatware and hollowware.
A good deal of it had been taken from Mrs. Post’s ocean-going yacht, the ‘Sea Cloud’ before she sold it to the dictator-president of The Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. Alex maintained the dining room and the entrance hall.
My job as fourth Under-Butler was to keep the Butlers’ pantry organized and well-stocked. The Guest’s preferences with regard to the time and content of their breakfast had been written and delivered to the Butler’s pantry the evening before and Mrs. Livingston’s kitchen complied with all their preferences. This one wanted his eggs scrambled — that one hard-boiled — another one requested extra crisp bacon — another wanted whole wheat toast — and so on — ad infinitum.
Since the breakfast trays were assembled in the Butler’s pantry before being taken up to the guest rooms a high degree of coordination between the kitchen and pantry was required. It often drove me nuts!
Mrs. Post’s Social Secretary was Mrs. Margaret Voigt who, like Miss Coffin at Fairholme, was very impressed with her position. She supplied the staff with a daily memorandum noting Mother’s routine for the day. Everyone, including Mother’s family members, disliked her and avoided her whenever possible.
The Post fortune had remarkable origins. In 1891 Marjorie’s father Charles William (C.W.) Post checked into the Western Health Reform Institute (later the Battle Creek Sanitarium) in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was a hyperactive 37-year-old native of Springfield, Illinois and was suffering from a breakdown brought about by his unsuccessful struggles as a traveling salesman, inventor and entrepreneur.
Escorted by his wife, Ella Merriweather Post and their four-year-old daughter Marjorie, C.W. entered Dr. John Harvey Kellogg‘s Institute — the best-known health establishment in the country. The Institute provided dietary therapy — sugar, meat and caffeine were banned — whole grain concoctions were the medicine. C.W.’s financial situation however, obliged the family to move into an inexpensive boarding house nearby.
Nine months of dietary therapy did not cure C.W.’s ills. However, he met Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, in Battle Creek. She preached that healing comes from neither medicine nor diet — but from the mind of God. Under her influence, his symptoms miraculously eased.
With the small amount of money Ella inherited, C.W. decided to open his own sanatorium called ‘La Vita Inn’ in Battle Creek. There, therapy was based on a mixture of diet, Christian-Science principles and hypnotism. It was moderately successful.
In 1895 C.W. created ‘Postum,’ a caffeine-free coffee substitute made of pulverized roasted grains and molasses. He advertised it prodigiously and stressed the health benefits of his Postum over the toxicity of coffee. The product soon caught the public’s fancy and orders poured in. By 1902, the year C.W. and Ella separated, C.W. had become a multi-millionaire.
In 1905 18-year-old Marjorie married the scion of one of Greenwich, Connecticut’s founding families, Edward Bennett Close. He was a Columbia Law School graduate, a lawyer and a stockbroker. C.W. had by this time constructed a home for Marjorie and her future family in Greenwich, Connecticut named ‘The Boulders.’
The newlyweds moved in and eventually Adelaide and Eleanor, Mrs. Post’s daughters with Close, were born there. C.W.’s health continued to deteriorate and he committed suicide in his California home in May 1914. After months of legal bickering with Leila, C.W.’s second wife, the document leaving the entire Postum Cereal Company to 27-year-old Marjorie was located. Although it was exceptional for the period, C.W. had educated his daughter in the company’s management.
Marjorie was bored with her role as a Greenwich homemaker (albeit with a large staff) and decided to commute from Greenwich to New York City where she took over the management of the Postum Cereal Company.
Commuting was burdensome and so the Closes rented I. Townsend Burden‘s impressive, five-story Beaux Arts mansion on Fifth Avenue and East 92nd Street for a year. They bought it in 1916. During the First World War Marjorie began furnishing the house with fine antiques while Edward was in the Army in Europe.
She befriended art dealers and experts in New York and grew increasingly knowledgeable. In 1919 the Closes divorced and a year later Marjorie married Edward Francis (E.F.) Hutton, a Wall Street broker and financier. Another daughter, Nedinia (Dina) Marjorie Hutton was born in 1923.
That year E.F. Hutton was named chairman of the board of the Postum Cereal Company and in 1925 the company headquarters moved from Battle Creek to New York City. The company began to diversify into other food products and changed its name to The Postum Company in 1927.
The name was changed once again with the purchase of Clarence Birdseye‘s frozen food company to The General Foods Corporation. General Foods became one of the world’s larger and most important food conglomerates. Mr. Hutton served as chairman of the board of General Foods until 1935 when he and Marjorie were divorced. in 1936 Marjorie became one of the first women to sit on the board of a major American corporation.
Mother employed hundreds of people. In addition to the 45 who traveled with her to and from her three residences, there were year-round maintenance men, gardeners and an army of security guards for all three properties. She also retained a crew of four for the Merriweather, her Vickers Viscount turbo-jet. Before selling her huge, four-mast, ocean-going yacht, the Sea Cloud, she maintained a crew of 73 men.
No one except Mr. Moffat, the Livingstons and Mrs. Voigt were permitted to initiate a conversation with Mother. If she asked a question of any of the other staff member it was to be answered — “Yes, Mrs. Post” or “No, Mrs. Post.” She was never to be addressed as ‘Madam.’
Mother married four times. Ergo, she had four different surnames. If one chose to recite them all together they would read: Mrs. Marjorie Close Hutton Davies May.
After divorcing her fourth husband Herbert May (CEO of General Motors), she decided to reclaim her maiden name — Post. But since ‘Miss Post’ was not appropriate for a woman of her age and position, she chose to be addressed as ‘Mrs. Post.’
My first Thursday arrived. The weekly Square and Round dinner-dance for approximately 150 guests was scheduled for that evening. Preparations for the elaborate, well orchestrated ritual monopolized the staff for the entire day. My work day began at six forty-five.
By seven-fifteen I was bathed, groomed, dressed and having my breakfast in the most impressive Butler’s pantry in all Palm Beach.
The resident guests’ breakfast trays had been prepared the night before and were sent up to the rooms of the single women and married couples by nine-thirty.
Married male guests could breakfast in their rooms with their wives or in the Monkey Room. Many chose the Monkey Room. It was a delightful place to start the day and get to know to other male guests since single male guests were obliged to breakfast there. The Monkey room held up to eight people and was also used for private family luncheons.
The Monkey Room derived its name from the numerous carvings of monkeys that swarmed over its walls. The carvings, made of Oölite (a local coral stone) were designed and executed by the Viennese sculptor Franz Barwig and his son Franz the Younger, who worked on site at Mar-a-Lago for almost three years sculpting parrots, monkeys and other subjects. Guest breakfast over, the full-throttle, 15-hour weekly Square and Round dinner-dance-day, began. And what a day it was!
The Steward, Mr. Moffat, the Butler, Mr. Livingston, the four Under-Butlers, two chauffeurs, three housemen, sweet little Alma (who was in charge of the table linens) and a multitude of the upstairs, downstairs and parlor-maids joined in the chore of setting the Square and Round circus in motion.
The kitchen staff consisted of Mrs. Livingston, the Head-Cook, her under-cook and all eight kitchen aids. The entire staff knew their duties regarding this weekly event that took place in all Mother’s homes since the 1950s.
After staff lunch ended, the task force consisting of Mr. and Mrs. Livingston and Mr. Moffat entered high gear. But it was only with the arrival of the supplemental serving staff that I realized the astonishing amount of labor this weekly undertaking mandated.
From 100 to one 150 guests were expected and so ten additional waiters would be required plus more personnel for the Butler’s pantry and kitchen. Many of the day-help who worked outside in the gardens assisted in setting-up a multitude of tables and chairs in both the dining room and outside on the crescent-shaped covered loggia. At the same time, the china, silver, stemware and linens needed were expeditiously assembled and then, placed.
The skill and ease with which this event was assembled would be the envy of any five-star hotel, not to mention the other private homes in Palm Beach. To see a house, albeit a grand one, being quickly and completely transformed for just one evening’s event astounded me.
In the dining room, eight round tables, four on each side, flanked the world-famous, fully-extended, four-thousand-pound, inlaid marble “Medici’ extension table. Mrs. Post ordered the custom-built table for Mar-a-Lago in 1927 from the Medici Marble Works of Florence, Italy.
It has a pietra-dura top of eleven different varieties of marble (some in the shape of fruit spilling from shell-like cornucopia on its borders,) and six removable leaves’ which, when in place, extended the table to a length of 29 feet. (It is now at Hillwood in Washington.)
An additional eight tables were placed outside on the covered loggia. Mother and her Guest of Honor were joined by one fortunate couple and seated at a table at the southernmost end of the living room opposite the Venetian fireplace.
Dinner was served buffet style. Mrs. Livingston and her team of kitchen aids had toiled for several days preparing the splendid feast. Gracing the entire length of the table, the display of the food was right out of a Versailles feast with massive floral arrangements and candelabra. Fifty years later I still recall the astounding effect that experience had on me.
Whether it was a ‘small’ dinner party for 18 or a large event such as the Square and Round, all the Post residences had a strict, never-to-be-broken rule, they all ended promptly at eleven when Mother retired to her quarters.
Guests were instructed to arrive between seven and seven-twenty. Many had their private chauffeurs but for those who didn’t, carhops parked their vehicles in the lower parking area by Lake Worth.
Mother made her grand entrance at exactly seven-thirty, greeted her guests and the party began with a cocktail hour in the grand living room.
Those that couldn’t fit into the huge room made their way to the outside loggia and the gardens. Since Mother disapproved of drunkenness, alcohol consumption was monitored. It was expected that guests would limit themselves to two cocktails before dinner. However, aware that hard liquor would not be flowing freely at the Square and Round, several guests imbibed before the party started — or secretly brought their own flasks.
Occasionally, there was shortage of either men or women dance partners. To solve this problem Mrs. Voigt was responsible for hiring the necessary number of accomplished extra dancers to attend. Seriously vetted by the Palm Beach agency, they were required to arrive at seven and stay until eleven when the Square and Round ended with Mother’s departure. They were obliged to participate in the cocktail hour, the dinner and of course — the dancing.
The extra men were often over-40, retired actors who used this as their Winter season ‘vocation.’ The women, usually younger, were on the hunt for wealthy widowers. Needless to say they all coveted this desirable, paid stint where good food and opportunity abounded.
By and large they all behaved well since — had anyone, a hired dancer (or even a male or female guest) crossed Mother’s propriety line they would be permanently banned from future Mar-a-Lago events. I remember at one Square and Round Mr. Livingston asked me to politely direct a male guest (who had obviously had one too many) to quiet down and remember where he was. He obeyed, but was probably never invited back to Mar-a-Lago.
The entire staff knew that this bunch could always spot a tray of caviar as soon as it left the pantry. Therefore, all the caviar servers were specifically instructed by Mr. Livingston to avoid them whenever possible.
One Thursday evening I was partnered with Alex, the third Under-Butler. Alex was Danish and somewhere in his late thirties. He would occasionally have a nip or two before an evening’s work to ‘relax’ him. When the cocktail part of the dinner-dance was well underway, Alex and I were walking back to the pantry to replenish our trays (mine was a caviar tray). It was then that Alex requested that we switch trays. You see, passing the caviar always made one the center of attention, which Alex obviously enjoyed. It was okay with me. However, my new ‘mixed’ tray took a few moments longer to arrange. That being the case, Alex was several feet ahead of me on his way out through the pantry’s doors (one OUT — one IN) that led to the formal dining room.
As Alex exited the pantry with his caviar tray his judgment was slightly off. I can’t count how many times he had gone through those doors — weighed down by the heavy sterling silver, food-laden platters which Mother had retrieved from the Sea Cloud before she sold it to Raphael Trujillo. Alex attempted to leave through IN door and so when his tray struck the immobile door it became instantly airborne. He somehow managed to catch it in midair but unfortunately all the caviar hit the floor. What a mess! Lucky for Alex, Mr. Livingston neither saw nor learned of the event.
Mother and her dinner guests were first on line at the buffet. When dinner had ended, everyone walked to the Dance Pavilion. Mother hired musicians and local square dance callers. Ramrod straight and elegant in a pleasant blouse and a long, flowing skirt Mother danced almost every dance. Everyone was expected to join her in both square and ballroom (round) dances.
At ten-thirty, the foundation of the Post fortune “Postum,’ C.W. Post’s caffeine-free coffee substitute was served in the Dance Pavilion. Tea was available for those who wished to avoid the salubrious, but evil-tasting, brew.
The beverages were accompanied by vast quantities of finger sandwiches. Earlier in the day Mr. Livingston and two footmen (I was usually one of them) had prepared these tiny, yet elegant sandwiches with assembly-line precision in the Butler’s pantry. We made dozens and dozens of them, never really believing that they would all be eaten — and they weren’t.
By half past eleven, the tables had been put away, all the dishes and glasses washed and stowed and the pantry set-up for the next day’s breakfast service. The extra staff had been paid and departed. All that was left was the clearing of any leftover food from the Dance Pavilion. I always volunteered to help.
My interest for taking part in that final task was the chance to get hold of the uneaten finger sandwiches. I had Mr. Livingston’s permission to rescue the little delicacies as they would soon be tossed in the trash. Such a pity! So I carefully wrapped each few in a foil packet, dashed back to my room, jumped into my ever-so-snug jeans, my penny-loafers (no socks) and my slightly-worn Izod shirt, and made my way to a waiting taxi that whisked me to my adoring fans at ‘The Turf,’ a popular watering hole in West Palm Beach.
‘The Turf’ was an oasis where the counterculture of the 1960s was alive and flourishing and the changing social mores of the time were evident. I met and socialized not only with the young staff members of the grand estates but also with the scions of Palm Beach Society themselves. A noteworthy aspect of those chance mectings was that they were often with the same people had served just a few hours earlier.
So, my Thursday evening arrival with the finger sandwiches was a well-known and eagerly anticipated happening. I became “the Guest of Honor’ and my drinks were all comped.
In addition to twelve Square and Round events that winter, Mother hosted three Saturday-evening, formal dinner parties for the crème de la crème of Palm Beach society and their notable houseguests. Those dinners were the highlights of the 1967 Winter season and were held in Mar-a-Lago’s formal dining room which was inspired by a room in the Chigi palace in Rome.
Everything about these formal dinners attested to Mother’s high standard of excellence. The marble dining table was extended to its maximum length to accommodate 28 people. It was embellished with one of her numerous services of Sèvres porcelain, her ‘Queen Margherita’ Venetian stemware that consisted of four distinct goblet sizes for each setting, her vermeil place plates, flatware and two massive six-branch candelabra. A magnificent floral arrangement graced its center. A calligraphed menu and place card in vermeil holders provided the finishing touch.
Yardsticks were used to ensure that everything on the table was equidistant from the center and that each place setting was precisely 16 inches from its neighbor. Mr. Livingston, the four Under-Butlers and Alfred (the staff chauffeur who doubled as a fifth Under-Butler when necessary) manned all three dinner parties.
Mr. Livingston who valued my appearance and bearing frequently assigned high-profile guests to me at these dinners. Two stand out.
At the first, after the alcohol-deprived cocktail hour ended and the guests were seated at their designated places, Mr. Livingston assigned me to cover the most important guest of that evening — Mrs. Rose Kennedy.
That night Mrs. Kennedy was wearing, in the fashion of the day, a gown with an elaborately beaded bodice. She had been seated between two male dinner partners, one of whom was known to gesticulate wildly with his arms when making a point.
The first course was the usual cold consommé. As I approached Mrs. Kennedy I stood back to allow her neighbor’s overly demonstrative movements to cease. When they did I snatched the opportunity to place the consommé on Mrs. Kennedy’s place plate. To my horror he gesticulated wildly once again and hit my arm. There was nothing I could do to prevent what was to come.
Holding onto the bowl’s under-plate with one hand, I attempted to capture the liquid that had leapt out of it with my other hand. Nonetheless, the consommé splashed into the air and then into Mrs. Kennedy’s beaded bodice.
At first, she seemed surprised and then, as if this happened on a regular basis, she began to dab her chest with a napkin. In a semi panic I set the half-empty soup bowl in front of her and ran immediately to Mr. Livingston.
I explained my horrendous situation to him. He immediately took charge and did what I eventually began to think of as a ‘Livingston.’ He reached for a fresh napkin, placed it on a small tray, and instructed me to go back to Mrs. Kennedy, offer her the fresh napkin, and say nothing.
I of course, followed his instructions. After accepting the fresh napkin Mrs. Kennedy smiled up at me and then continued to dab herself with it and — lo and behold it was all over. What had seemed to me an unbelievable disaster turned out to be another moment to be cherished.
Part II, tomorrow