Wednesday, March 15, 2017

March 15


Men in shorts:

The Ides of March

Pour yourself a cup of coffee and settle in for a glimpse of the lives of the rich and famous.

Pssst... husband number 4 is gay.

Warning: this is a long post, so if you're here just for the tan line pictures, I'd run along if I were you.

Today is the birthday of Marjorie Merriweather Post (March 15, 1887) born on the Ides of March 130 years ago. Her Palm Beach FL winter home, Mar-a-Lago, is mentioned almost daily by various media outlets. You likely know it as Donald Trump’s “Weekend White House”, costing American tax payers $3.5 million per weekend visit, but Mar-a-Lago had a rich history of hosting international celebrities and politicians long before anyone had heard of Donald Trump. Built in the mid-1920s by fabulously wealthy American socialite, philanthropist and businesswoman Marjorie Merriweather Post when she was married to E. F. Hutton, the compound began as 17 acres of the choicest Palm Beach real estate, a property stretching all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Lake Worth lagoon. She thus chose the name Mar-a-Lago, Spanish for “sea to lake”. Marjorie was already a vital part of Palm Beach society, but the Huttons felt they could use an upgrade. Palm Beach, Florida, was the destination of choice for old money families who flocked to this sliver of a barrier island to enjoy a winter social season from New Years through February. Without snow.

But before we get to the issue of the gay fourth husband and his downfall (connected to Mar-a-Lago), we need to gain some perspective. 

The house the Huttons built was a fantasy structure both inside and out, with a 75-foot-tall tower standing guard over a house of 126 rooms – 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms and 12 fireplaces – spread out over 110,000 square feet. Dining and living rooms below:

Extreme opulence. Even so, this was not her principal residence, which was a 54-room triplex on upper Fifth Ave. in NYC, rented for $75,000 a year at the time. When she subsequently moved to Washington DC, the triplex penthouse sat empty for over a decade, because nobody could afford it. The triplex, with its 44-foot square entry hall, was consequently subdivided into six apartments.

During Mrs. Posts’s lifetime, most great fortunes had been built on automobile manufacture, railroads, oil or the like, but her family made its money on food products. Marjorie was the only child of a Springfield, Illinois, middle class family. Her father had digestive problems that he believed were linked to caffeine. His hands-on efforts to concoct a coffee substitute resulted in Postum*, a hot beverage made from roasted grains and molasses. As an adolescent, Marjorie was pasting labels on packages and trolling door-to-door selling her father’s cereal products, including Grape-Nuts, to retailers. 

By the time Marjorie was a teenager, her father, C. W. Post, had become a self-made multimillionaire, and he sent his daughter to finishing school in Washington DC to help realize his social ambitions for her. During this time she met Edward Close, a lawyer from an old money Connecticut family, who became her first husband. When they were married in 1905 (Marjorie was eighteen) she became a member of high society, fulfilling her father’s dream. However, upon the death of her father by suicide nine years later, Close used his skills as a lawyer to overturn her father’s will, cutting out her step mother*, thus making her one of the richest women in the world, with a fortune valued at $250 million.

* Postum can still be bought from its web site:
**Marjorie detested this woman, who was her father’s former secretary.

In fact, throughout her four marriages and divorces, she remained far richer than each of her husbands – barrister / stockbroker Edward Close (boring), financier E. F. Hutton (a hopeless philanderer, but the love of her life), lawyer/diplomat Joseph Davies (jealous, insecure and controlling) and Herbert A. May, a Westinghouse executive and avid fox hunter from Pittsburgh whose favorite past time was cavorting with young gay men. It seems that Mr. May made the serious error of alienating Marjorie’s personal secretary. Shortly thereafter photos turned up, displaying May in all his glory acting particularly chummy with naked lads around the pool at Mar-a-Lago. When Marjorie found out, he was out on his ass. Both former and present owners of Mar-a-Lago share this one trait – they cannot tolerate being embarrassed. But I’m not going to dive into the gory details until the end of this post.

With each husband, Marjorie lived large. For instance, the Huttons commissioned the world’s largest private yacht, a 322-foot-long sailing ship that could travel 20,000 nautical miles without refueling (the mighty yacht stills sails today as part of the exclusive Sea Cloud cruise fleet). Marjorie was a shrewd and attentive businesswoman, and she became one of the first women ever to sit on the board of a major American corporation, in this instance General Foods. While E. F. Hutton was chairman of the board of General Foods, he commissioned the design of Mar-a-Lago, a fabulous home that would be worthy of the grandeur and scale of his wife’s increasing social standing in the Palm Beach community. His wife’s fortune supplied the funds to construct and furnish a home that would cost in excess of $150 million today. Unfurnished.

Marjorie employed 600 construction workers and artisans to labor over the ornamental designs by Joseph Urban, an Austrian born architect and theatrical set designer for the Ziegfeld Follies. Hired to design the interiors, Urban brought over his fellow Viennese craftsman Franz Barwig and son Walter, who worked for three years carving the fanciful parrots, monkeys, vines, fruit, ram’s heads, eagles and griffins that adorn the walls. 

Forgot to mention that Urban had 36,000 antique Moorish tiles shipped from Europe to further embellish Mrs. Posts’s architectural expression. Marion Simms Wyeth was the chief architect of the sprawling Hispano-Moorish styled complex, which boasted a 34-foot-tall living room with gilded ceiling, a dining room with a 29-foot-long intricately inlaid marble table, a 9-hole golf course, acres of manicured lawns, tennis courts, an underground tunnel that led to a private beach with an ocean-front swimming pool, greenhouses and citrus groves. The property required a staff of more than seventy (32 in the off season) to maintain the complex to Post’s exacting standards. Even her servants had their own cook. But it is curious that the entirety of her staff at every one of her homes consisted of only Caucasians, many of them European. Post was famously kind to her servants, never berating them in front of others. They were thus loyal to a fault.

Party time: Marjorie dressed as Marie Antoinette for the Beaux Arts Ball, New York City, 1927, the year Mar-a-Lago opened in Palm Beach. Photograph (above)  by Gabor Eder. Mrs. Post owned jewelry and furniture that had belonged to the real Marie Antoinette.

You’d never guess it, but Mrs. Post was a life-long square dancing enthusiast, and she was successful in getting neighbor Rose Kennedy to square dance for the first time ever at Mar-a-Lago. Marjorie'd get ‘em lined up and let ‘er rip, to the morbid fascination of most of her guests.  Every. Thursday. Night.

Mrs. Post’s third daughter, Nedenia Marjorie Hutton, became an actress who chose Dina Merrill* as a stage name. She spent her winters at Mar-a-Lago from the age of four. Her bedroom suite's fireplace was a fanciful design representing a beehive, with three-dimensional flowering branches emanating across the adjacent walls. Trump's daughter Ivanka also used this bedroom in the 1980s (photo below).

*b.1923, Merrill has an estimated worth of $5 billion. With a “b”.

It’s all still intact, but now owned by President Donald Trump, who practically stole it from the Post heirs for $8 million. Far too expensive for any family member to maintain after the death of Mrs. Post in 1973, the heirs put the home on the market for $20 million in 1981. Mr. Trump offered $15 million, but was refused. As the estate languished on the market, Trump made subsequent offers, each lower than the last. Characteristically, he threatened the owners with the false claim that he had purchased land across the highway on which he would build a structure that would block the ocean views from the main house. The Post Family Trust fell for his “alternative” facts, capitulated and sold to Trump for $8 million, furnishings included. By an amazing coincidence, that is the exact amount it cost to build and furnish Mar-a-Lago back when it opened in 1927. Other Palm Beach properties of far less value, size and prestige were selling in the $12-15 million range at the time. The problem with Mar-a-Lago was the quantity of cash required to maintain so vast a home and grounds. Even Mr. Trump was not rich enough to sustain the estate as a private residence, especially with his money problems during the 1980s. It was his Florida lawyer who suggested turning it into a membership club, whose initiation fees and dues could more than cover costs. Mar-a-Lago now enriches Trump by tens of millions annually. Problem solved.

Mar-a-Lago club members have access to this opulent card room. It was added by Mrs. Post in 1961 as a place to hold square dances and screen films. Most of the mansion's interiors resemble a European palace, fully incongruous with the style of the Hispano-Moorish exterior.

Notice how the ornamental gilding shines brightly. There are seemingly miles of gilding inside Mar-a-Lago, but Trump thought it had dulled to a faded patina. One of the first things he did after purchasing the house was to have all the gilding redone. Now it really shines, just like new money.

After Trump used Mar-a-Lago as a private residence for ten years, the private club conversion brought in much-needed cash from steep initiation fees ($100,000) and annual dues ($14,000), although membership is capped at 500. To accommodate expanding club rental functions, he added a 20,000 sq.-ft. ballroom. Since Trump was elected president, the initiation fee has doubled to $200,000. Unlike other private clubs in Palm Beach, the Mar-a-Lago club accepts Jewish and black members. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a senior advisor to President Trump, is an Orthodox Jew.

Trump has been a troublesome neighbor to the old guard, low key traditional Palm Beach set, with his brash, loud and often garish tastes and interests. It seems he has sued and been sued by nearly everybody. Beauty contest participants lounge around the public spaces, and the membership roster is made up of people who “try to call attention to themselves” (i.e. like Trump himself), according to one critic. His rock star concerts at Mar-a-Lago have violated local noise restriction laws, and he installed an 85-foot-tall flag pole that exceeded height limitations. The flag pole height has since been reduced. His trademark hyperbole often went off the charts. Trump claimed that Princess Diana and her estranged husband Prince Charles had joined the Mar-a-Lago Club. Turned out to be completely fake news. Then there's the hypocrisy. Though he himself had been cited for exceeding noise ordinances, he tried to have flight patterns changed so that private and commercial jets could not fly over Mar-a-Lago, because he claimed the jets disturbed the peace of his family and club members. Go figure.

Now that Trump has become president, he has finally gotten his way. On weekends when he is in residence (that’s most every weekend) air space is restricted for a 30-nautical-mile radius. Coast Guard and Secret Service staff must secure both waterways (my friends often spot armed Coast Guard boats trolling the shores of Lake Worth), and highways approaching the club are cordoned off during his stay, a major inconvenience for locals, since the main entry gate opens directly onto the ocean-front highway A1A. However, on a weekday drive by six weeks ago, I saw no evidence of anything out of the ordinary. The whole reason I was in Palm Beach was that on that trip I saw a maroon colored Packard automobile that had belonged to Mrs. Post at the Packard Museum in Ft. Lauderdale. Naturally, I was reminded of her Mar-a-Lago estate and its use as the weekend White House, so I turned the rental northward to check it out.

Entry gate on the west side of highway AIA:

There is no sign to attract attention, and most passers-by were just gawking at the somewhat strange looking tower that is the signature of the property. Trump, by the way, resides in sectioned off quarters of the grand home with a separate, private entrance. Nevertheless, he often dines among club members in the main restaurant.

Curiously, Mar-a-Lago now functions as Mrs. Post intended. She willed the estate to the U.S. government for use as a retreat for the president and visiting international dignitaries. However, after eight years of paying $2 million in annual taxes on top of million dollar maintenance costs, in 1981 the government returned the estate to the Post Foundation, which sold it to Trump four years later. His $8 million purchase is now valued somewhere between $200 and $300 million. The man has truly mastered the art of the deal.

Go ahead, have a gawk. You know you want to.

Now back to Herbert A. May (rhymes with “gay”). 

With husband #4 in 1958 (right)

Marjorie, who married him when she was a youthful 71 and Herb 67, told her friends that she had first met him thirty years earlier. By 1958 her about-to-be fourth husband was still handsome, but silver haired. It seems he was soft-spoken, diplomatic, charming, well-liked and kind.  He loved parties and loved to dance, and he had mastered the art of blowing through money. Herb had told his children not to expect any inheritance. After his former wife had died of pneumonia twenty years earlier, he did not remarry. But somehow none of this sent up red flags.

Mr. May was the poorest of Marjorie’s four husbands, so she set up a trust fund for him. She was attracted to his intelligence, patronage of the arts (he was head of the Pittsburgh Civic Opera), success in business, etc., but she was won over by his warmth, enjoyment of people and his obvious pleasure in her company. They were both tall, thin, elegant and handsome people who looked for all the world like a king and queen. 
Marjorie could not say that she had not been warned. Before the wedding her daughter had been told that Herb was homosexual*, and some of Marjorie’s friends repeated tales about Herb’s attachment to a dancer from the Washington National Ballet and a handsome male secretary (Herb later brought him along on their honeymoon), but Marjorie brushed it all off as gossip. After all, she knew he had been married to a woman with whom he fathered three children. But those compromising photographs of a naked Herb and decades-younger nude men cavorting around the ocean-side pool at Mar-a-Lago could not be dismissed. Marjorie was also contacted by a blackmailer who threatened to publish the photographs unless he was paid off. Marjorie saw no option but divorce. By 1964 it was a done deal.  

*Apparently the term "bisexual" was not in vogue.

Later, when Herb suffered a stroke, Marjorie paid the medical bills and provided an apartment in Ft. Lauderdale where Herb lived until his death in 1968. And she continued to be in contact with Herb’s children, particularly Peggy, who had formed an especially close relationship with Marjorie during the marriage. Her loyalty to Herb’s children was mutual, and they knew they were fortunate to maintain a relationship with a great lady.

After Herb, Marjorie began a relationship with former Secretary of the Navy Fred Korth, a man twenty years her junior. Though they talked about it frequently, a marriage did not materialize, though they enjoyed a loving relationship until the end of Marjorie’s life in 1973 at age eighty six.

Among her last causes was providing financial and moral support for our country’s Vietnam War veterans. She realized that these men had participated in a grossly unpopular war and were in an untenable situation upon returning home. She invited veterans from Walter Reed Army Hospital and Bethesda Naval Hospital to Hillwood (above), her home in Washington, for garden receptions. When one of the soldiers later encountered Marjorie's grandson-in-law in Naples, the veteran insisted on buying him a drink. “You have no idea what it was like to be recovering from an injury in a war where nobody cared about you and then be taken to Hillwood.” While the young men were amazed by the grounds, the food, the music and the mansion, they were most of all greatly moved by the genuine care and hospitality of this grand woman. 

American Empress -- Nancy Rubin!

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