The news was surprising, but at a formal dinner at Hillwood Museum the other night the guests were told it was the first such event there since Marjorie Merriweather Post died in 1973 and bequeathed the estate to the public as a museum. That’s the reason the organizers of the dinner, her grand-daughter, Ellen MacNeille Charles, and John Peters Irelan, designed it to be as much as possible like a dinner Mrs. Post might well have hosted. It also unveiled a new exhibition of Sevres porcelain.
I wonder whether all of us would have made the cut on Mrs. Post’s guest list? It doesn’t matter. On this cold and rainy night she was our gracious hostess in absentia, with one important caveat: we dined in a tent among the mums in the driveway out front because her will stipulates no entertainments like dinners may be held inside the mansion.
The home and 25 acres of gardens are preserved as they were when she lived there, and the interior furnishings are arranged to show off her collection of art, Russian icons, Faberge, tapestries, French furniture, Sevres and other porcelain, and silver, as well as some of her elaborate evening gowns. She was a life-long collector, and in a way that only great wealth could allow, and great wealth was hers as the only child of Postum Cereal Company (the late Post Toasties) founder Charles William (C.W.) Post. He died in 1914 and left her one of the greatest fortunes of the last century. Fortunately for 27-year-old Marjorie, her father raised her as both an heiress and a businesswoman.
She married four times. Her first husband was investment banker Edward Bennett Close. Her second marriage was to E. F. Hutton, with whom she formed the General Foods Corporation. Her third husband was Joseph E. Davies, who was ambassador to the Soviet Union under Stalin. This was where and when she developed her fondness for the Russian decorative arts (a collection tinged with the controversy of expropriation). Her fourth husband was Herbert May, who had Pittsburgh money and was an avid foxhunter. When she died she was not married and had resorted to her maiden name.
Because of so many marriages, and the many marriages of her descendants, Marjorie Merriweather Post left a very big family. Ellen Charles is the daughter of her first born, Adelaide Close, who herself married three times. Ellen’s father is Adelaide’s second husband, Merrall McNeille. It’s tough to keep track, but this much I know: Ellen’s aunt is Dina Merrill, who she calls “Aunt Deeni,” and her cousin is Glenn Close, who she calls “Glennie.” Ellen and her sister grew up on a large estate, Happy Retreat, in Howard County, Md., but the family was always caught up in the whirl of “grandmother,” with visits to Hillwood and Mar a Lago in Palm Beach, among other points on the globe.
Ellen is a good and dear friend. We live not even a block apart. She’s traveled with my son and me, we’ve spent seasonal holidays together, hung out with her children, we walk our dogs together, and I show up on her doorstep with any and all emotional crises. She’s that kind of friend.
Ellen moved from Chevy Chase to Georgetown about a decade ago after the death of her second husband, Kevin Charles. She arrived ready, willing and able to become an active member of a tight knit community, throwing open the doors of her handsome home for any number of charitable events as well as joining, and for a while running, the board of Tudor Place Mansion. Before her death Adelaide handed the presidency of Hillwood’s board over to Ellen.
Like her mother, Ellen is a fiend for horseflesh. She has a stable and kept her mother’s racing colors, brown and white. When she’s not at the track – watching her horses generally win – she’s at dog shows, where she competes at the highest levels with Standard Poodles, Bearded Collies and Weirmaraners. She’s also an AKC judge. Beyond that its traveling with girlfriends from Foxcroft, traveling with the family, hiding out at her lovely red-roofed home on the Chesapeake Bay and, whenever possible leading a posse of friends on voyages aboard her grandmother’s yacht, The Sea Cloud, which is no longer owned by the family but is an active charter yacht outside the U.S.
No moss grows on Ellen Charles.
For the dinner at her grandmother’s home, she deferred most of the stylistic decisions to the co-chairs, Irelan and Barbara Boggs, and the caterers, Design Cuisine. She greeted the guests, encouraged them to tour the mansion, answered the usual questions about family history, and aimed her charms at the other seasoned charmer in the room, the special guest, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont. In brief remarks during dinner, Vimont said, “There’s something very poetic about Sevres, the light you find in those pieces.” He said Sevres is “not only about the 18th Century. It bridges the gap to the 20th and 21st centuries. I think there can be no better place to have the exhibition than in this museum.”
The guests did make a special effort to pull away from the bars and canapés to tour the exhibition of Sevres. They did make time to wander through the rooms of Hillwood. Midway through my walkabout I was asked to take no more pictures, therefore what I have here is only a partial tour, which is reason enough to come back and see Hillwood on your own. The Sevres exhibition runs through May.
Guests at the Hillwood dinner included Joseph Dunn, Alison Martin, Eric Weinmann, Togo and Gail West, Ruth Buchanan, Frederick Fisher, Michelle Taylor, Richard Mercado, Rebecca Fisher, Thomas Hills Cook, Enid Hyde, Sally Chapoton, Liana Paredes, D. Bruce Wilson, Michele Beiny Harkins, Richard Molinaroli, Jody Wilkie, Sam Carabetta, Jocelyn Linke, Sheila Tabakoff, Ignacio Alcover, John Pflieger, Joan Wetmore, Richard Pearson, Elizabeth Lowe, Dan Ezrow, Charlotte Greenwalt, Dave Friedberg, Sarah Howard, Philip McClain, Christina Felpe, Reid Dunavant, Nickolai Talanin, Anne Morgan, Carol Owens Roberts, Michael Grady, Roger Carlile, J.D. Murphy, Phillip Schmitt, Genevieve Murphy, Rod and Marilyn Uveges.
And more: Michael Cantacuzene, Andrulla Cohen, Richard Baron Cohen, Leslie Whipkey, Jerald Clark, Alice Clark, Joan Bennett Clancy, Kent Killelea, Michelle Imoff, James Abbott, Samira Farmer, Angela Dodson, Matt Burgey, Diane Jackson, Ivan Day, Allan Woods, Cheryl Owen, Gill Whitehead, Tony Commarota, Catherine Chura-Wolff, Frederick Wolff, Marilyn Swezey, Howard Stahl, John Coulter, Charles Leggett, Linda Quiqq, Kate Buchanan, Natasha Jadan, Bruce and Pamela Perkins, John “Buck” Chapoton, Biddy Husted, Nancy Young Duncan, Ernest May, Jr. Mary Janney, Sally Burns, William Dakin, Mark McInturff, Mimi conger, Lianna King, Eric and Joy Vige, Amede Prouvost, Roxanne Roberts and Kevin Chaffee, Hugh Jacobsen, Malcolm and Celia Lovell, Jr., Aubrey Sarvis, Elizabeth Powell, Kevin Bradley, George and Frederica Valanos and Christopher Brown.
MARCHING AND DANCING AT THE WARDMAN
The annual gala dinner of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce began with a high school marching band leading guests from the Wardman Park hotel’s cocktail lounge to the ballroom. The drumming, horn playing and high-stepping of the Ballou High School “Majestic Marching Knight’s” was irresistible Not to forget the pull of the tuba. It wouldn’t be a high school marching band without the tuba.
The evening ended with a performance by the “Temptations Revue,” which is an older and grayer version of the iconic 70s and 80s group, but their sound is strong and the songs are sweetly sentimental. Within a few bars of the first number, hundreds of people were up and dancing.
In between the musical bookends, the dinner honored a number of city leaders, including 85-year-old sports mogul Abe Pollin and 97-year-old Dr. Dorothy Height, a protégé of Mary McLeod Bethune, a Congressional Gold Medal winner, who for 30 years, starting in 1957, ran the National Council of Negro Women.
As a girl she won a scholarship to Barnard College, but was denied admission on racial grounds. Instead, she went to New York University, where she earned a Master’s Degree in psychology. (Years later, Barnard gave her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.)
The Chamber of Commerce dinner is not a swarm of with socialites or members of Congress, but it does gather another kind of power. If you wanted to comment about phone service, parking tickets, Amtrak, the water or electric bill, cable TV or taxes, the bosses of those entities are there, as well as most of the city’s local business leaders, many of them at the helm of big names like FedEx, PNC Bank, Sirius XM Satellite Radio.
It’s what we here call “the folks.” They are the people who run this town, despite not being a state and having no meaningful representation in Congress. Oddly, Mayor Adrian Fenty was a no show, but I’m sure he had his reasons.
Photographs by Carol Joynt & Kyle Samperton. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: caroljoynt.com.