My Move to Mar-a-Lago, Part II

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Marjorie Post hosting the reception at Hillwood for the marriage of her daughter, Dina Merrill, to Cliff Robertson.

My second formal dinner transpired a month later. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were the evening’s notable guests. My former employer, the soon-to-be-widowed Suzy Gardner, their hostess at that time was there as well. Mrs. Young was not.

Mr. Livingston stationed me to the area that included the Duke of Windsor. I found it quite interesting that at Mar-a-Lago, unlike at Fairholme and I assume at Montsorrel as well, the Duke and Duchess were not treated as Royalty and seated at both heads of the table. They were seated diagonally opposite each other mid-table. Here, Mother sat at the head of the table. It was after all — her table.

The Duke had the habit of taking off his slippers when participating in a long, formal dinner party. But this time without realizing it, the woman seated next to him kicked one of them out of his reach accidentally.

Marjorie Merriweather Post at sea with the Duke and Duchess.

At dinner’s mid-point the Duke waved me over and whispered that his slipper had “somehow gotten away from him” and would I “be good enough to retrieve it?” I answered, “Of course, Sir” and I made a beeline directly to Mr. Livingston who was standing behind Mother supervising the entire event. As I walked quickly towards him, I noticed the Duchess staring at the Duke and then at me, a look of high anxiety on her face. I had heard she watched him like a hawk, especially at social functions.

Crisis averted!

Always in control, Mr. Livingston instructed me to “Place a spoon on a small tray then go to the Duke’s seat and accidentally drop the spoon on the floor next to him. When you bend down to retrieve it, locate the slipper and put it next to his foot and then touch his foot with it.” I did that — problem solved. I nodded to the Duchess, she smiled at me. Just another classic ‘Livingston!’

One day I was assigned a small luncheon in the Monkey Room. The attendees were Mother, her youngest daughter Dina Merrill, Cliff Robertson, Dina’s husband at the time and the severe and generally disliked Mrs. Voigt, Mother’s Social Secretary.

Nearing 80, Mother was plagued with a severe loss of hearing. For small, private affairs like this one a remarkable sound system was designed to permit her to hear and therefore engage in the conversation. Her guests spoke into a microphone, and an amplifier/speaker facing her on the table allowed her to hear them. She also had a pair of custom-designed hearing aids cleverly disguised as earrings.

Edward Chandor, Portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1952.

The three luncheon guests were seated and were waiting for Mother’s arrival. Mr. Livingston and I stood at the ready. She entered with her usual flourish and sat at the head of the table. Once seated, she realized something was amiss and frowned slightly. The always-observant Livingston was at her side in a flash.

She whispered something to him and a moment later he signaled me to his side. He told me that Mother had forgotten the earrings and her luncheon rings. He instructed me to make my way to her private quarters as quickly as possible and obtain the items from Eva, her personal maid. It was a first for me. You see, unless one had a specific task to perform in that part of the house, the private quarters at Mar-a-Lago were strictly off-limits to everyone.

Mr. Livingston phoned Eva and she met me at the door to Mother’s quarters and handed me the forgotten items. When I returned, Mr. Livingston handed me a small silver tray with a folded napkin on it. He told me to put the earrings and rings on the napkin and present them to Mother. The hearing-aid earrings were solid gold and the rings would have made Harry Winston blanch.

Mother planned to celebrate her 80th birthday on March 15th. Celebrations were being organized in Washington D.C. For the week of festivities. Mother planned to fly to Washington on her plane, the Merriweather, and take up residence at Hillwood, her home there.

Guests boarding the Merriweather.

With Mr. Livingston’s help, Mother selected nine members of the staff to accompany her on the Merriweather and at Hillwood. These included Mrs. Voigt and her assistant Laura, Mother’s personal maid Eva, Mr. and Mrs. Livingston and all four Under-Butlers including Gordon and me! We were all needed to supplement Hillwood’s skeletal Winter staff.

When the travel day arrived a veritable cortege of cars, two with Mother and her personal staff, others with the necessary staff uniforms and personal items and others carrying the trunks with Mother’s gowns and furs, stopped on the tarmac in front of the ramp to the Merriweather.

The Merriweather, designed to accommodate 44, had been transformed into a long living room, replete with tables, club chairs and a large sofa where Mother sat. There also was a full galley offering refreshments. When we landed at the Washington airport, we were met by an equally large number of vehicles which whisked to Hillwood us by way of Rock Creek Parkway.

A cozy nook inside the Merriweather.

My first glimpse of the stately Georgian-style mansion is forever imprinted on my memory. Surrounded by formal and informal gardens replete with fountains and statuary it was named for Mother’s mansion in Brookville, Long Island that she had shared with her second husband, E.F. Hutton. In 1951 the original Hillwood mansion was absorbed into Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus and was eventually torn down.

The staff quarters at Hillwood were in a separate building near the mansion. When I was finished unpacking Gordon came by and took me into the mansion. He introduced me to Gus Modig (known as Mr. Gus), the Head Butler. I later learned that he never traveled to Mother’s other homes, but always stayed at Hillwood.

“Mr. Gus,” the Butler at Hillwood.

Excluding me, all the staff had worked at Hillwood before and easily slipped back into their accustomed duties and routines. Gordon was the house valet, Arthur was in charge of the silver, which was kept in a large, walk-in combination safe off the Butler’s pantry and Alex took care of the dining room and entrance hall.

I was in charge of a slightly smaller Butler’s pantry. The adjoining linen room housed a vast hoard of lace tablecloths, napkins, etc. As at Mar-a-Lago each set was wrapped, tied with a red satin ribbon and indexed in a large scrapbook with photographs and typed descriptions of each. Mother’s organizational skills were once again quite evident.

With Mr. Gus’s permission Gordon took me on a tour of the mansion’s first floor. Mother intended Hillwood to be not only her Washington home but also a Museum that showcased her collections of eighteenth-century French art and the priceless art of Imperial Russia.

In the 1920s in order to broaden her knowledge of French decorative art, she had consulted Sir Joseph Duveen, an expert in European Old Master paintings and decorative arts and one of the world’s leading art dealers. (His best known patrons were J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Henry Clay Frick.)

Mrs. Post purchased Hillwood in 1955 shortly after her divorce from Ambassador Davies. She remodeled and enlarged the 36-room Georgian-style mansion to suit her needs. There was a grand entry hall, a French drawing room, a formal dining room, a breakfast room, two libraries and a pavilion.

Hillwood Museum and Gardens, Mrs. Post’s former Washington, D.C. residence.

In addition to these there was a hexagonal room with lit showcases exhibiting her collection of Russian porcelain. There was a separate room housing her Russian icons and eighty Fabergé pieces including two Imperial Easter Eggs. She bought the nucleus of her Russian collection in the late 1930s while living in the Soviet Union with her third husband Joseph E. Davies, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

She eventually willed Hillwood and all its contents to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Russian Porcelain Room.

The entry hall was splendid. Mrs. Post wanted the first room one entered to evoke her collecting passions — the arts of 18th century France and Imperial Russia. The hall had an imposing eighteenth-century style French wrought iron and gilt-bronze staircase. On its walls hung portraits of the Russian Czars. There were two commodes by one of France’s celebrated 18th-century cabinetmakers, Jean-Henri Riesener. Both were in the entry hall (including the one she had purchased from Duveen in 1931.)

New York’s French and Company furnished the majestic Louis XV rock crystal chandelier. When the massive fixture needed to be cleaned it was lowered to floor level. Mother’s insurance company was informed of the day and the premium was raised for that day alone.

Marjorie Post leading students through the entry hall, May 1963.

Gordon and I entered the 15-foot high dining room from the Butler’s pantry. It too was designed by French and Company and featured Louis XV-style carved and gilded oak paneling. The drawing room down the hall was even more extraordinary.

Above a white marble and gilt-bronze 18th-century French mantelpiece hung a 19th-century portrait of Eugénie, the last Empress of France by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

A suite of canapés and chairs created by Georges Jacob, one of the most prominent of Parisian 18th- and early 19th-century craftsmen filled the room. A second important seating group was purchased from French and Company in 1955. It had been commissioned in 1784 by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. It was upholstered with floral Goblins tapestries designed by Louis Tessier. 18th-century Beauvais tapestries designed by François Boucher and bought from Duveen in the 1920s adorned the walls.

The French Drawing Room as it looks today.

Between the south windows stood the famed Roentgen desk, often dubbed the ‘Marie Antoinette desk.’ Mother’s daughter, Dina Merrill, has told of her pleasure exploring the secret drawers of this masterpiece as a child. The chair next to it has a more decided pedigree since it is branded ‘Garde Meuble de la Reine’ indicating that it belonged to Marie Antoinette. Gordon said the French government wanted it back but Mother declined. In any case, she gifted France large amounts of money to for the restoration of the Versailles Palace.

I recall that on my first visit to Versailles in the 1970s there were several paintings with the notation that they had been generously ‘donated’ to the French government by Mrs. Post.

While Joseph Urban’s Mar-a-Lago was a theatrical tour-de-force bordering on the bizarre, Hillwood was the real thing. It was eclectic and obviously a reflection of Mrs. Post’s personal taste but for me it was a revelation. I wanted, rather I needed, to learn everything I could about those marvelous objects. It truly opened my eyes to a world I was only beginning to understand and appreciate.

The staff that week at Hillwood was charged with the daily needs of the extended Post household. Her daughters and their families were in residence for the celebrations which took place in venues other than Hillwood. They included a ‘private’ birthday party for three hundred at the Sulgrave Club and, on her actual birthday the following night, Leon Barzin, her daughter Eleanor’s husband, flew to Washington from Paris to conduct the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in her honor. Hundreds attended.

The Staff Dining Room at Hillwood.

As a result of that schedule there were no dinner services at Hillwood and the evenings were free so Gordon and I explored all the interesting dives in Washington.

When the festivities ended, the traveling process was reversed and I, along with the staff members who had made the trip north arrived back at Mar-a-Lago.

A day or so later Mr. Moffat, the Steward called me to his office. He looked up as I entered, smiled, motioned me to sit down and said, “Well Tom, it’s over three months since you came to Mar-a-Lago and I must tell you that we are all extremely pleased with your performance. Mr. Livingston said that you’re one of the most agreeable and capable young men he’s ever had the pleasure of working with. So, because of his very positive recommendation, I’m inviting you to join us at Hillwood for the Spring season and then on to Camp Topridge for the Summer season.”

I didn’t know what to say. I never considered ‘domestic’ work as a permanent profession. I accepted my first position with Mrs. Young because it seemed to be an intriguing summer job and quite frankly, a 19-year-old with an uncertain draft status and no degree couldn’t find anything better at the time.

When I went to work for the Gardners it was because those aforementioned disqualifications precluded me from finding a good job. My discontent at the Gardners led me to Mar-a-Lago. So I thanked Mr. Moffat for his offer and left his office. He was shocked at my hesitation and I had a difficult decision to make.

Despite the numerous challenges presented by Miss Coffin, my employment at Fairholme was an instructive and reasonably enjoyable experience because of all the amusing interactions I had with ‘Madam’ herself.

In contrast both Mrs. Gardner and Mrs. Post were inflexibly old school in their relationship with their staff — one dared not even attempt to have a straightforward conversation with either one of them. I sometimes felt like a piece of furniture or worse — invisible.

As the ‘professional lackey’ types retired or expired, there was no one of their mindset to replace them. No young man or woman with an education wanted a career without the possibility of upward mobility. So when a domestic worker arrived at the apogee of his or her ability — they stayed there — for the duration of their employment in that particular household. The only way to earn more money in a domestic situation was to quit and find another job in a higher position for a higher salary.

And benefits if any were provided at the discretion and/or generosity of the employer. It was unheard of to be offered medical insurance or a pension. And, to avoid the bother of withholding taxes, etc., salaries were often paid in cash in a little brown envelope.

The next day I informed both Mr. Moffat and Mr. Livingston that while I enjoyed the whole experience of the Post operation, I had reached the decision that I would be ‘giving notice’ at the end of the season. My reason was that I was now considering staying on in Florida and hoped to find a job in a gallery or a shop.

A postcard sent from Mar-a-lago to my parents’ Bayside, New York home.

I did however, request a written Reference. I had learned that one never knew when such a document might come in handy. Those days Palm Beach shut down when the social season ended. The private beach clubs closed, the Palm Beach Yacht Club at the foot of Worth Avenue held nothing but vacant slips.

The shops and restaurants on Worth Avenue had shuttered as did the Royal Poinciana Playhouse and its adjoining boutique complex. Not a soul walked the streets. The was no vehicular traffic, except an occasional, lonely Palm Beach Police patrol car. Nothing would reopen until October.

No one told me that. I should have asked!

My “glowing” reference from Mr. Moffat.

I liked Florida. The combination of good weather and the casual attitude toward everyday existence let me to believe that this would be an ideal location to explore my next adventure. It was this mindset that led me to decide to rent an affordable apartment in West Palm Beach and  then look for work.

I found a small, furnished bungalow and gave a month’s security with the first month’s rent. I stocked the larder and the bar feeling I had made the right choice. Wrong! To begin with I should have found a job first, then the apartment. And I was now faced with the realization that, while I had shelter, I had no income and my desire to find a normal nine-to-five job in West Palm Beach was severely hampered by my shaky draft status. And …

Click to order The Butler Wore Guccis by Thomas Gardner.

If I accepted a job in Florida I was required to change my draft board location to West Palm Beach. As it turned out South Florida and specifically Palm Beach County possessed the highest number of draftees sent to Vietnam.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, I was told that Last in — First out’ was the system these boards used to fill their quotas. Since I was still on my New York City draft board list, my task was to get back to the Big Apple as quickly as possible. But I had spent my little ‘nest-egg’ on the apartment and I couldn’t afford to fly back.

But since I finally had something valuable, I decided to use it. I found the only un-shuttered domestic agency in West Palm Beach and showed them my golden Reference from Mar-a-Lago. And before I knew it I was southbound for an interview with Mrs. J. Myer Schine in Boca Raton on what else? — another Greyhound bus.

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