SUCCESS WAS ENGRAINED into Marjorie Merriweather Post from her birth on March 15, 1887. As this only child of Charles William Post and Ella Letitia Merriweather grew up, her father taught her every aspect of his grain-foods business, from basic operations—as a child, she helped affix product labels—to keeping the books. Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, young Marjorie absorbed it all, along with her father’s attitude that wealth should be shared.
After C. W. Post’s suicide in 1914, the fully capable Marjorie inherited the Postum Cereal Company, although she would not immediately assume running it or even serve on its board, as societal norms of the time reserved such duties for men. At this time she was married to Edward Close, with whom she had two daughters, Adelaide and Eleanor. The family’s life was centered on Close’s origins in New York, and they divided time between a Fifth Avenue apartment and an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. But it was not a fitting life for the ambitious businesswoman, and the marriage did not last. Soon after the 1919 divorce, Marjorie married Wall Street’s E. F. Hutton, nephew of the famed broker, with whom she had her third daughter, Nedenia. Hutton was heavily involved in the growth of Postum Cereal Company, which after several significant acquisitions—Maxwell House Coffee and Birdseye Frozen Foods, to name a pair—became General Foods Corporation in 1929.
Social opportunities were abundant, and such time was spent with birds of a feather (e.g. the Astors and the Vanderbilts) in the expected places: New York and Newport in summer, and in winter Palm Beach, where Post kept a home called Hogarcito. The seaside estate was lovely, but as her three daughters grew and the family’s social needs increased, Marjorie realized that Hogarcito was no longer adequate in space or grandeur. She wanted to impress her Palm Beach friends and globetrotting guests with something truly unique. A sea view was imperative, but so was resistance to storms. The 17-acre site between the Atlantic and Lake Worth—hence Mar-a-Lago—had a coral foundation, permitting a dependably reinforced perch. For the design, she resisted the expected decision to hire Addison Mizner, then the premier architect in Palm Beach. Again, the cereal heiress had made her own mark.
Original architect Marion Wyeth didn’t show the chutzpah Marjorie sought, so she hired Austrian architect Joseph Urban. The men ended up in a lopsided collaboration, with Urban providing nearly all of the exterior design—a tastefully extravagant combination of the best elements of the Mediterranean—and the pragmatic Wyeth reining in the excess. Most notable are the countless (about 36,000) 15th-century tiles from Spain, roofing and floor tiles from Cuba, and the stone from Italy. When it came to the construction labor, Post maintained her father’s philosophy by deliberately over-hiring tradesmen to keep their paychecks coming.
Once Mar-a-Lago was complete, her peers were all pleased to gather there during the social season for fine parties or extended holidays away from icy winds. As refined and cultured as Marjorie was, her parties were whimsical affairs marked by square dancing and more soft drinks than hard. She held twice-weekly wintertime dances at Mar-a-Lago, complete with a live orchestra and ever-ready dance instructors for those who needed them.
Post clearly enjoyed philanthropy, and many of the events she put on in Palm Beach were fundraisers. For instance, over the winter of 1920–21, she and Hutton teamed with other Palm Beach couples to put on a benefit play for the establishment of a hospital in West Palm Beach. During the Great Depression, Post stepped up her philanthropic efforts, establishing soup kitchens in New York and giving to the American Red Cross, on whose behalf she held a fundraising ball at Mar-a-Lago each winter, and the Salvation Army. Later her charity efforts helped the World Wildlife Fund, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, and various international causes large and small.
Marjorie Post died in September of 1973, and Mar-a-Lago was bequeathed to the federal government with the intention that it become a haven for sitting presidents and visiting dignitaries. In 1964, Post had offered the property to the state of Florida, but the decision-makers shook their heads when they learned its maintenance costs. For this same reason it never became a presidential winter haven; more importantly to the Secret Service, ensuring security at the estate was impossible due to its proximity to Palm Beach International Airport. So Uncle Sam gave the gift back to the Marjorie Merriweather Post Foundation, whose best course was to list Mar-a-Lago in 1980, asking $20 million. The opulent property sat more or less mothballed for years without stirring much interest among the deep-pocketed.
While visiting Palm Beach in 1983, Donald Trump was instantly taken by the sight of Mar-a-Lago, to the point where he made an almost instant offer on the manse. The deal closed at the end of 1985, and Trump used this subtropical home base for about a decade before making it into the private club it remains today. Mar-a-Lago undoubtedly deserves the “Jewel of Palm Beach” moniker it has long held, and just as in its early days it continues to be a favorite venue during the Palm Beach social season.
The Sea Cloud was Marjorie Merriweather Post’s personal sailing vessel, which remains to this day a symbol of luxurious sailing. As part of their seasonal lecture series, The Historical Society of Palm Beach County will present a discussion of Sea Cloud on Monday, March 9, 2009 at 7:00 PM at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach. Leading the lecture will be Ellen MacNeille Charles, granddaughter of Mrs. Post, and Thomas Hook, who has sailed Sea Cloud for over 20 years.