Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Consolations of Everything

In 1905 in Kansas there lived a retired man. He had been a farmer, a teacher, a Civil War nurse, and at the age of 64 it occured to him to be a legend. He began to build massive sculptures out of concrete and steel, turning his yard into a larger-than-life hallucinatory vision of his Populist interpretation of the creation story. He built himself a log cabin out of limestone. He built himself a mausoleum, and ordered his heirs to charge tourists a buck to see his corpse lying in the Garden of Eden that he had constructed around himself.

This is not a story about him. This is a story about the richest woman in America, Marjorie Merriweather Post Close Hutton Davies May, who, for obvious reasons, is now generally referred to only by her first three names. Heiress to a fortune built on coffee substitutes and breakfast cereal, she became a collector of important husbands and Imperial art. She had a movie made about her and a daughter who became a movie star* (these did not, however, overlap). She also had a mansion tucked into the side of Rock Creek Park, and it was this mansion that I came to visit.

Our group was led through by a guide of knowledge and discretion whose stately, ladylike demeanor may have been inborn, or may have been accented by the surroundings. After a short, moderately reverential film on the life of the foundress, (why not watch for yourself?) we proceeded into the house itself. The initial impression was one of a splendid clamour** - walls with more imperial Russian portraits than CNN has commentating heads, a chandelier on a velvet rope, a pair of absurdly ornate chairs that reminded me that confusion about whether you are to admire or sit on a piece of art did not begin in the modern era.  (Apologies for lack of images - Hillwood is in process of digitizing its collection. )

From the Front Hall into the French Drawing Room. You know how certain cultures and/or historical periods will capture the individual's imagination? It's an experience that, among my acquaintances, seems more common than the alternative. Something about another place and another time makes them medievalists, Japanophiles, Civil War buffs. The place-and-times that seemed to capture the heart of our absent hostess were the 18th century in France and Imperial Russia. France is a freebie - who doesn't love Louis XVI and his embroidered chairs? but Russia seemed a bit more personal.

The film included reminiscences of her as a young ambassadors wife in 1930s Russia, scrambling up shelves in dark shops, collecting relics of the Imperial age on their way to the smelters or the scrap heap. She acquired what seems to be every possible china service (each order of nobility had one), as well as some paintings. Portraits of Russian royalty line the entrance hall. In the Icon Room, shockingly green malachite tables display icons, whose raw surfaces contrast starkly with their gilded covers. And in the only room in the house that looks like a museum (glass cases, gray walls, track lighting) Russian ecclesiastical treasures take on a strange second life.

Post didn't just live in her own personal museum - she took the duties of a hostess quite seriously. An extraordinary ballroom (she enjoyed square dances and first-run movies) features a kind of metal grillwork around the ceiling. The attack-of-the-fifties kitchen was really a charming contrast to the rest of the house (relentlessly practical with just a few china sets making an appearance) and the upstairs rooms were surprisingly personal.

I didn't explore the grounds in detail - it was on the very edge of spring, and most things weren't blooming. The greenhouse, though, was filled with exotic flowers. "Of COURSE orchids," I mumbled to myself, surveying the rows upon rows of the convoluted plants that to me resemble alien creatures.

Marjorie Merriweather Post was one of those rare individuals to whom money is no object, and she went about snapping up priceless items for her private possession with an instinct somewhere between a trained curator and a magpie. So why did I find her so sympathetic? Wasn't this ostentation that should repel?

The museum bills itself as "Where Fabulous Lives" - a carefully chosen tagline. There's something in her defiant grandiosity that seems cut from the same cloth as those divas who have attained the status of gay icons. This museum is confident enough in its own identity not to have to worry about justifying its decisions or those of its foundress. I think I like Marjorie Meriwether Post for the same reason I like Samuel P. Dinsmoor. Sometimes, you've just gotta do what you gotta do, whether that means building a cabin out of limestone lincoln logs, or collecting the china of every Russian imperial order. Charming or profiting from society may have some part in it, to be sure. In the end, not only do these people follow their hearts, but in leaving such extravagant legacies, make it possible for us to follow their hearts as well - no matter into what strange places they take us.

*And a member of the board of Lehman Brothers. Wikipedia, some days I love you best.

**I nearly said "a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" - and thought I thought of it. Dammit.

***Apologies for the inordinate delay in posting this - every time I had free time to write, it occurred to me that I actually had to be doing my taxes. Taxes are my second least favorite thing in the world, so I didn't actually do those taxes. But I didn't do useful things either. Like this post.

1 comment:

  1. Ok. So that was worth the wait. This is worthy of a Pulitzer. You have my permission to take another ten weeks until the next post.