Inside the food empire that built Mar-a-Lago

Photo via Getty Images/Wangkun Jia

Inside the food empire that built Mar-a-Lago

History + Culture

Inside the food empire that built Mar-a-Lago

Marjorie Merriweather Post was everything you’d expect a 27-year old multi-million dollar heiress to be: feisty, lavish and wild. She led a flamboyant life involving four marriages, playing host to America’s most envious dinner parties and building several extravagant mansions, including the 126-room Palm Beach estate known as Mar-a-Lago.

She was a legend whose rise to power came eight years before women were even allowed to vote. In 1914, Post inherited $250 million after her father, C.W. Post, passed away. Not only did she become the wealthiest woman in America overnight, she assumed control of a major food corporation, Postum Cereal Company, and forever changed the way Americans eat.

“I’m not the richest woman in the world,” Post famously said. “There are others better off than I am. The only difference is that I do more with mine. I put it to work.” Her words perfectly describe how she managed her wealth and her business. Though Post was young when she became the owner of Postum Cereal Company, she was the business savvy mind behind several mergers and acquisitions that grew the company immensely.

Under Post’s leadership and with the help of her second husband, Edward F. Hutton, a wealthy stockbroker and the company’s Chairman of the Board, The Postum Cereal Company acquired famous brands like Jell-O, Maxwell House Coffee, and Baker’s Chocolate. But none of Post’s acquisitions would be more important than her investment in a frozen-food company owned by Clarence Birdseye. Sure the investment in Birdseye was great for the company, but the idea of selling frozen foods revolutionized food distribution, allowing brands to provide consumers consistent food in large quantities on a national scale.

The inspiration to invest in Birdseye’s frozen food concept was a chance encounter. While sailing on her yacht, the Sea Cloud, Post and Hutton enjoyed an exquisite goose dinner. Post enjoyed the goose so much she asked who was responsible for the fantastic meal. That’s when she learned that the goose had been frozen, an ingenious preserving concept concocted by inventor Clarence Birdseye. She instantly knew frozen foods was the way of the future, but had trouble convincing her husband otherwise. But because Post owned more stock than anyone else in Postum Cereal Company, the board could not overturn her motion to acquire Birdseye.

It was three years and $20 million before the deal was done, and once the dust of negotiation settled, Postum Cereal Company changed its name to General foods and Post’s new food empire became a publicly traded stock.

 

But Post’s keen eye for acquiring innovative food brands wasn’t the only way she put her fortune to work. She believed in using her wealth to enrich the lives of everyone around her, and it didn’t stop at philanthropy. Post threw legendary dinner parties where she invited everyone from foreign ambassadors and diplomats to hairdressers and average working-class people.  It was also at these dinner parties where she unabashedly served General Foods products like Jell-O and Postum Cereal. To serve esteemed guests Jell-O might seem like a tacky move, but because she was such a cultural icon, Jell-O served at dinner parties instantly became a trend, helping to contribute to the popularity of Jell-O salads in Mid-Century American cuisine.

And what better venue to host elaborate dinner parties than at her stately homes, Hillwood near Washington D.C., Camp Topridge in the Adirondacks, and her most famous home, Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach Florida.

Mar-a-Lago is less of a mansion and more of a palace suitable for an “American Royal,” as the New York Times used to call Post. Construction began in 1924, and when it was finished in 1927, it was the epitome of style in the Roaring Twenties.

Mar-a-Lago sits on a 17-acre plot of land, and within its 62,500 square feet there are 58 bedrooms, 33 bathrooms, 12 fireplaces and 3 bomb shelters. To comfortably seat all of those dinner party guests, the dining room has a 29-foot-long table (to give you a visual, that’s one foot shy of a First Down in football).  It cost Post $9 million to build, which roughly equates to $90 million today.

We hear a lot about Mar-a-Lago in the news today as being the winter escape for our president, who acquired the property in 1985.  Donald Trump tried to purchase Mar-a-Lago from her family for $25 million, but they rejected his offer. In an attempt to ruin the property’s value, Trump threatened to block Mar-a-Lago’s beach view by building his own home. He purchased the $2 million dollar plot of land between Post’s estate and the beach from former KFC owner, Jack C. Massey. The plan worked, and the property value of Mar-a-Lago declined, allowing Trump to purchase the estate for only $7 million.

Regardless of who is playing host at Mar-a-Lago today, history will not soon forget Marjorie Merriwether Post – the socialite, the icon and the businesswoman ahead of her time whose influence still reverberates through American culture today.

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