September 25, 1891 – Herbert A. May
Herbert May was a vice president at Westinghouse, a socialite and avid fox hunter who liked to entertain at Rosewall, his 28-room mansion in Pittsburgh. When his wife died of pneumonia in 1937, he was left to raise three young sons and an adopted daughter. He had quite a successful career in railroads and banking and he became a patron of the arts, especially the Pittsburgh Civic Opera, and he enthusiastically pursued his interest in ballet.
After 20 years, he married for a second time, and he became famous with this upgrade to social first-class. He married Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the richest women in the world. She was the daughter of “C. W.” Post (1854 – 1914), the eccentric inventor, breakfast cereal and foods manufacturer and a pioneer in the prepared-food industry. They married in 1958 at her daughter’s estate in Maryland. When asked about her well-being in a congratulatory telegram from her granddaughter, Post replied: ”Walking on fluffy pink clouds”.
May was Post’s husband number four, and her last. At 67 years old on his wedding day, May was four years younger than Post, who was vibrant, energetic, young looking and the queen of Washington DC society. Her philanthropy kept the capital city alive. But May kept a big secret from his wife. He was into other men.
Post had been warned, yet she brushed it off as mere gossip. May had been married and fathered three sons, after all. She had met him socially three decades earlier, and she was happy to be reacquainted in 1957, two years after an acrimonious divorce from husband number three, diplomat Joseph Davies. There was a lot of chatter about May: he was a handsome, trim, silver haired fox. He was also soft-spoken, sharp, charming, popular and kind. He loved to party and dance, and he was especially gifted at spending lots of money. May had announced to his children not to expect any inheritance.
Before their wedding, Post’s friends repeated tales about his appreciation of a certain male dancer from the Washington National Ballet and his handsome male personal secretary. Incredibly, May brought the secretary along on their honeymoon.
None of this deterred Post. She was at the zenith of her power, and May shared so many of her interests, plus providing a partner for entertaining and carrying out her various acts of charity.
May was the poorest of Post’s four husbands (number two was E. F. Hutton), so she sweetly set up a trust fund for him. She had been attracted to his smarts and his love of the arts, 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. They looked like American royalty.
May did not want to give up his home and family in Pittsburgh, and Post did not want to leave Washington. They compromised by agreeing to commute between the two cities, and Post retired from the board of General Foods, the source of her considerable fortune. This freed her up to give proper attention to the cultural scene in DC, which she found woefully inadequate for a capital city. She installed her husband as chairman of the board of the National Ballet, and May soon selected individual male dancers for his special attention.
May helped Post overcome her fear of flying. She had intended to commute to Pittsburgh by train, but for one trip he arranged for a company plane, a Lockheed Lodestar, to bring Post to Pittsburgh. A half hour into the trip she told her husband that she was enjoying the flight, then a few minutes later said to him: ”Herb, I want one”. May explained that a plane like that cost several million dollars, not counting a crew and maintenance. She replied: ”I didn’t ask how much it costs. I want one”. So, she purchased a Vickers Viscount jet made in Britain. It was powered by four Rolls-Royce engines, and sat 44 passengers. May suggested the name “Merriweather”, his wife’s middle name. She was pleased.
She took out all those seats and furnished the interior as a living room with sofas, chairs and tables. This became her favorite mode of transportation. She began using ”Merriweather” to take all her friends to and from her various estates.
May started to resent Post’s restrictions on his alcohol intake, while at the same time, to the amazement of her circle, she extended the cocktail hour to a full hour and began stocking guest rooms at her vacation places in Florida and New York with liquor. A lifelong Christian Scientist, her personal limitation of alcohol consumption remained a steadfast practice, but she had been eager to please May. Post also included his four children in their stays at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and Top Ridge in the Adirondacks. Mar-a-Lago was her spectacular winter social spot, and it had been shuttered since Post’s divorce from Davies in 1955. May talked her into reopening it in 1961. Post was thrilled to once more be at the top of Palm Beach society. However, it was there at Mar-a-Lago that May was to meet his downfall.
May understood that by being married to Marjorie, he had become one of the most powerful men in our nation’s capital. Despite her age, Post had a voracious sexual appetite. May complained to his friends that he was astonished that a woman in her 70s required daily sex. Also, by the 1960s Margaret Voigt, Post’s social secretary had become her most powerful staff member. Voigt became a little too influential as the social director with unlimited access to the Post. She even ate at Post’s table, and she was the help! May made the mistake of criticizing Voigt, and a resentful standoff ensued. Then, mysteriously, a set of photographs arrived on Post’s desk. They showed graphic and irrefutable evidence that May was a big ol’ queer.
The pictures showed him naked and cavorting with younger men around the pool at Mar-a-Lago. A blackmail attempt was made, with threats to publish the incriminating photographs, meaning hush money was to be paid. Post was especially astonished that her daughter, elegant actor Dina Merrill, knew about her stepfather’s proclivities before the marriage had taken place. Still, all that friends and family knew until that moment was that May and Post had enjoyed a warm, romantic relationship.
Poor Post decided that divorce was the only option. Their marriage had lasted only six years, and Post was pleased to just have the embarrassment behind her.
She was not vengeful. When May suffered a stroke after the divorce, Post paid his medical bills and provided an apartment in Fort Lauderdale where he lived until his death in 1968. And, she continued to be in contact with his children. Post’s loyalty to May’s progeny was mutual, and they knew they were fortunate to be allowed to maintain a warm friendly relationship with Post, until she died in 1973, at 86 years old.
When May and Post stayed at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach must have been having déjà vu, and not only because President-elect John F. Kennedy wrote his inaugural address at his family’s estate there. The woman who built Mar-a-Lago in the 1920s and presided over it for almost half a century, had gone to great lengths to turn the mansion into an official wintertime presidential retreat. Post had said she wanted ”a little cottage by the sea”.
In the 1920s, when Palm Beach’s wealthy visitors were forsaking the luxury hotels for their own digs. Post chose the site on 17 acres of scrub between Lake Worth and the Atlantic. Mar-a-Lago means ”Sea to Lake” in Spanish. Construction began in 1923 and it kept 600 workers busy for two years.
Even by Palm Beach rich people standards, Mar-a-Lago was grandiose: 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms with gold-plated fixtures, easier to clean according to Post. There is a 1,800-square-foot living room with 42-foot ceilings. Its 110,000 square feet are filled with gold leaf, Spanish tiles, Italian marble and Venetian silks. Post spent $7 million building it ($100 million in today’s dollar).
When it was finished, Post and her second husband, had guests over for dinner before the annual Everglades Costume Ball. The hosts wore costumes evoking the era of Louis XVI.
In 1929, when she hired the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to perform for a charity fund-raiser there, she invited underprivileged children to attend. In 1944, she offered the grounds to World War II veterans who needed occupational therapy. In 1957, she used Mar-a-Lago for the International Red Cross Ball, and the gala event has been held there many times since, but not anymore. It is one of the many charity events that were relocated from Mar-a-Lago or canceled after a certain tiny-handed orange-colored hairball said some dreadful things about those good guys who just happen to be white nationalists.
Post had planned to donate Mar-a-Lago as winter White House, property of the United States. After she died, in 1973, the Post Foundation pursued the idea. But in 1981, the federal government declined. Mar-a-Lago went on the market. Three potential sales collapsed before a fetid tangerine-hued gangster from Queens bought it in 1985, paying eight million for it furnished, a fraction of the original cost, no matter how it is calculated. And after three decades and an illegitimate presidential election, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s wish for Mar-a-Lago came true.
Living Artfully: At Home With Marjorie Merriweather Post (2013) is a beautifully illustrated account of her three main homes.