Marjorie Merriweather Post: The Life Of The Wealthiest Woman In America And Original Owner Of Mar-a-Lago

If America ever had an empress, it would be Marjorie Merriweather Post. Heiress to the Post cereal fortune and four-times divorced, Marjorie was a socialite whose wealth was extraordinary. It enabled her to build estates like Mar-A-Lago, the fate of which would land in the hands of a modern-day president. But for how deep her pockets were, she knew that wealth meant nothing if it wasn’t in the service of others. It was her father who gave those wise words and whose tragic suicide would inevitably make her the wealthiest woman in America.

Her Father Humbly Invented Postum Cereal

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Photo: Wikipedia

Marjorie Merriweather Post was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1887. She was the only child of C.W. Post and Ella Merriweather, both from middle-class backgrounds. In 1894, C.W. Post developed Postum, a coffee alternative drink made of wheatberries, bran, and molasses.

As a child, Post would help her father sell Postum to stores with no success. C.W. Post then developed a major advertising campaign to generate a demand for his product. The ads helped boost sales of Postum and by the time Marjorie was a teenager, her family had become multi-millionaires.

She Learned The Company At A Young Age

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Despite her family’s newfound wealth, Post maintained humble beginnings and her father instilled valuable lessons. Wanting to keep the business in the family, Marjorie’s father taught his only child the different aspects of the company. He had her put labels on products, sit in on company meetings, and visit factories to study how their products were manufactured.

Post was then sent to finishing school at Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, D.C. because her father wanted her to have a place in society. At 16, she met Edward Bennet Close, a young lawyer from Connecticut, who proposed marriage a mere four days. Her father insisted she wait two years to marry Close, and she obeyed.

Post Rose In Society As She Inherited Millions

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After waiting two years, Post married Close in 1905, marking her official entrance into high society. However, some believed she still didn’t come from the right family despite already being well known. The year before, C.W. Post left Marjorie’s mother to marry his young secretary, Leilah Young, to whom he’d leave half of his stock.

Then suddenly in 1914, C.W. Post took his own life. Marjorie Post put her grief aside, however, and acquired the family business and fortune. With the help of her lawyer husband, Post found proof that her father promised all his stock to her, buying out Young for $6 million, which is worth $147 million today, with inflation. Soon, she would acquire many properties and develop exquisite taste.

She Used Her New Wealth To Support The War

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Photo: Jay Paull/Getty Images

At 27-years-old, Marjorie Merriweather Post became the owner of Postum Cereal Company, which quickly became worth hundreds of millions of dollars. By then, she remembered that her father taught her that wealth should be in the service of others, which she made her life’s mission.

When the U.S. joined WWI, Marjorie took her mission to heart. Not only did she send her husband off to war, but she also donated money to the largest U.S. field hospital in France. She sent $75,000 worth of supplies to Europe and when the ship carrying those supplies went under she did it all over again, sparing no cost.

With Her Husband Away, She Became Her Own Woman

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Her husband away at war, Marjorie Merriweather Post spent those years becoming an independent, cultured woman. She engrossed herself in the New York art scene and decorative arts by taking art history classes and visiting museums.

At this time, she also experienced more freedom and maintained a strong presence in New York social circles. By the time Close came back from the war, it was clear that the couple had grown apart. In 1919, Post filed for divorce after 14 years of marriage and two daughters. The following year, she married self-made millionaire E.F. Hutton, who’d built his own stockbroking company.

Post And Her Second Husband Owned Many Lavish Properties

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Post and E.F. Hutton lived a life of luxury straight out of the Roaring ’20s. During this time, they owned numerous properties, including a 54-room apartment in New York City, the Hillwood estate on Long Island, and the Topridge camp in upstate New York.

Each property was a prime example of Post’s distinct, opulent taste and served as testaments to just how rich she really was. The New York apartment, for example, was completely furnished with 18th-century French antiques, including a desk that belonged to Marie Antoinette. But none of those properties would top the seaside retreat she built in Palm Beach, Florida.

Soon, Post’s company would become even bigger with the help of Hutton.

Post Begins Plans To Erect Mar-A-Lago

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Palm Beach was the ultimate stomping grounds for the rich and famous at the time. Post loved it so much, she searched high and low for the perfect spot to build their own home there, which would become known as Mar-a-Lago.

She found a patch of quiet land between Lake Worth and the Atlantic Ocean (Mar-a-Lago means “ocean to lake”.) Hutton gave Post a generous $1 million budget to build a home. To design the home, she enlisted architect Joseph Urban, who was known for creating theatre and opera sets. Building Mar-A-Lago took two years and the labor of 600 workmen.

Not Your Average “Little Cottage By The Sea”

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Photo: Florida Memory/Wikipedia

In January 1927, Mar-A-Lago was completed. The sprawling estate exceeded its original budget and ended up costing $2.5 million. Hutton was known to say, “My wife and I were going to build a little cottage by the sea; look what I got!”

What he got was a lot. 115 rooms were built into Mar-A-Lago, each opulently decorated in Post’s distinct taste. The dramatic home was the perfect setting for one of Post’s other strong suits: entertaining. In later years, Post would host international dignitaries such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and even weddings for her staff’s children.

Postum Cereal Company Evolves, But Post’s Relationship Begins to Crumble

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Meanwhile, business was booming. In 1923, Hutton became Chairman of the Board at Postum Cereal Company. With the help of Post behind the scenes, since it was taboo for women to be on the board of anything, she and Hutton put Postum Cereals through a period of rapid expansion.

Hutton began acquiring popular American food companies such as Hellman’s Mayonaise, Jell-O, Baker’s Chocolate, and more. By 1926, Postum Cereal Company was renamed General Foods. The acquisitions helped profits soar to more than $19 million a year, tripling the company’s value. But as General Foods continued to grow, Post and Hutton began butting heads.

A Frozen Goose Got In Between Them

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One day, after the family enjoyed goose on their yacht, Post asked the chef where it had come from as they were in the middle of the ocean. She discovered that the goose had been frozen and bought from Clarence Birdseye, who’d developed a new way to preserve food by freezing it.

Amazed at the idea, Post convinced Hutton to buy Birdseye’s company. Though he was not on board, he begrudgingly gave in. After all, Post owned a majority of the company. It took a few years to take off, but Post was right about the frozen food revolution. However, the argument over this acquisition proved to be the beginning of the end for her second marriage.

She Shared Her Wealth During The Great Depression

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When the Great Depression hit, the Post fortune was only slightly affected. Even then, General Foods continued to profit at over $19 million. Post would often vacation with her daughters on the family yacht, but that isn’t to say she made the plight of Americans the least of her concerns.

She opened a soup kitchen in New York City for women and children, as most soup kitchens at the time were outdoors and frequented by men. Marjorie’s was in an upstairs dining room, with tablecloths and a wait staff. Throughout the worst part of the Depression, her canteen served hundreds of thousands of people.

Post Finds A New Passion In Politics

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America’s nationwide poverty at the time sparked Post’s interest in politics. She attended her first Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1932 and became a supporter of President Roosevelt’s campaign.

This didn’t sit well with conservative Hutton, who made striking comments against Roosevelt’s policies. Post was embarrassed, especially since he represented General Foods, which was her company. After she discovered his infidelities, she filed for divorce. She and Hutton were married 15 years and had one daughter (who became actress Dina Merrill.) It seemed Post was unlucky in love, but it wouldn’t be long before her next suitor came along.

Post Took Control Of Her Life

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Marjorie walked away from her second divorce as the wealthiest woman in America. She took sole ownership of properties acquired or built with Hutton. She also took her rightful place on the board of directors at General Foods.

Up until this point her say in anything was funneled through her husbands who represented her on the board. But now, she had direct control over her company, continuing to watch it grow as she acquired more brands and expanded internationally. Soon, that was complemented by Joseph E. Davies, a lawyer from Washington, D.C. who became her third husband.

Post Sets Sail For Life In Soviet Russia

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Photo: U.S. Coast Guard/Wikipedia

With her position at the top of General Foods and her marriage to an established D.C. lawyer, Post began using her hosting skills to establish herself in Washington society. Not only did she throw legendary parties, she became a huge benefactor to President Roosevelt’s reelection campaign.

When President Roosevelt was reelected in 1936, he appointed Davies as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. They promptly took off for St. Petersburg in Post’s yacht. This must have been quite a sight for Russian citizens, who were enveloped in communism by then. Despite her enormous wealth, the Russians took to Post quite well.

She Acquired Valuable Russian Art For Cheap

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In Russia, Post’s affinity for art was reignited. Hard pressed for money, Joseph Stalin opened up the storehouses where he kept valuable items taken from the Romanovs and other Russian aristocrats. At this point, people didn’t collect Russsian art — not even the Russians — but Post knew she was looking at a gold mine.

When WWII was on the rise, Post and Davies packed up their treasures and headed back to the States. Her souvenirs are the largest collection of Russian art outside of Russian. It includes artworks, Faberge pieces, and even porcelain dining ware that belonged to Empress Catherine the Great.

Post Was At The Height Of Society, But Her Marriage Failed Again

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When they returned to Washington, D.C., Post returned to wining and dining with the Capitol’s finest. Her spring garden parties were one of the hottest events of the year and she quickly found herself at the height of Washington society.

But of course, it wasn’t perfect. Soon, her marriage started to deteriorate as Davies’ leftist sympathies and crabby demeanor made them realize they had little in common. She quietly sought a divorce out of state and was a divorcée yet again. In those days, a third divorce equaled social suicide, but an exception was made in Post’s case. It wasn’t long before she found herself in the arms of a new man.

She Divorced Her Last Husband After Finding Out He Was Gay

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In 1958, Post walked down the aisle for a fourth and final time. She married Herbert A. May, a Pittsburgh businessman with whom Post had a lot in common. He was a tall, silver fox that was still pretty fit for his age and he loved entertaining just as much as she did.

But like all her marriages, this too, wouldn’t last. After five years, someone outed May as a homosexual to Post. Apparently, everyone besides Post knew about this, which only added to her embarrassment. Post ended up getting her final divorce, but at least she still had love and respect for May.

There Were Rules To Follow At A Post Function

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As you know by now, Marjorie Merriweather Post was quite the entertainer. Though she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on her extravagant parties, she still maintained an air of humbleness.

She wasn’t too ashamed to serve her guests Jell-O or even Postum Coffee alongside caviar and cocktails. But for how generous Post was, there were certain rules she expected guests to follow. Dinner was always served on time, even if an important guest was late. She also offered high-heeled guests pads to put on the bottoms of their shoes to avoid scuffing up her floors.

Post Opened Mar-A-Lago To Entertain The Less Fortunate

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Mar-a-Lago may have been used as her residence at one point, but Post didn’t enjoy the vast expanse of her estate all to herself. She often opened up her home to many charitable causes and people from all ranks of life.

In 1944, Post opened it up to WWII veterans who needed occupational therapy. In 1929, she hosted a charity fundraiser and even managed to get the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to perform. Not only did the proceeds benefit charity that day, but she also invited underprivileged children to Mar-a-Lago to see the circus.

Mar-a-Lago’s Destiny Was Fulfilled

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Photo: @realDonaldTrump/Twitter

In her final years, Post had great ambitions for Mar-a-Lago, offering it to the U.S. government to be used as a “Winter White House.” They ultimately declined due to the million-dollar costs of maintenance and it seemed that Post’s intentions would never be fulfilled.

Mar-a-Lago was eventually sold at bottom-of-the-barrel prices, which is how Donald Trump purchased the estate in 1985 for $8 million. Even he acknowledged that 115 rooms were too many for one family, so he turned a portion of the estate into an exclusive golf club. Since he became president in 2016, however, it seemed that Post’s dream was fulfilled.