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June 18, 2013

Marjorie Merriweather Post

Roy Meachum

For my knowledge of the ballet, people can blame Marjorie Merriweather Post. Her Washington Hillwood Estate is celebrating “Living Artfully” until past New Year: January 12, 2014.


Hillwood didn’t exist when Mrs. Post invited me to lunch in the Shoreham Hotel; she was between marriages, as they say. The then-last husband was Joseph E. Davies, a 1930s’ ambassador to Russia. With the Bolshevik attitude toward fine arts – paintings, sculptures and things, including Faberge eggs created for tsars – she was able to bring literally ships-full, when they returned to the states. They are mostly displayed in the castle set on the edge of Rock Creek Park.


The Washington Post heiress was supporting the National Symphony Orchestra at the time. There was a not-always-good rivalry with Catherine Filene Shouse, who gave the performing arts Wolf Trap Park. They had their separate partisans, who were not good chums. I was then the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) public relations/promotion director under the erratic brilliance of manager Ralph Black, who went with me to lunch. He was constantly seeking funding projects. In those days, symphonic musicians worked as house painters, taxicab drivers and cut grass for some 14 or 15 weeks, anything to survive and take care of their families.


Music for Young Americans was the name for a concert series meant to attract the thousands of students who poured into Washington on “seniors’ trips.” It provided 10 weeks of employment for the National Symphony. It was fabulously successful. When I returned to The Washington Post, I was offered money to stay by Mrs. Post’s emissaries. Off I went.


Former NSO president Carson Gray Frailey stayed in my life; I stayed with his family, both in Emmitsburg and their summer home in Blue Ridge Summit, across the state line, in Pennsylvania. His family was from northern Frederick County; one uncle battled for the Union and his brother wore Confederate gray. Altogether a fascinating gentleman. My preferred profession, journalism, didn’t work out, largely because of money: Hearst TV and radio promotion manager morphed into Sponsor Magazine’s Midwest sales.


A New York year positioned me close to Washington, and my four children. My wife and I reconciled primarily on Mrs. Post’s generous support; Carson was instrumental. While out of town, the General Food heiress remarried; Herbert A. May was his name. Since all other cultural honchos’ offices were taken by better qualified people, she decided to take on ballet to fund. With the Emmitsburg man’s intersession, I became the administrator of the Washington National Ballet Foundation. Mr. May was president.


Wisconsin Avenue’s The Washington School of the Ballet was donated by Mary Day. The plan was to replicate an imperial institution with academics and dance included. We started off very successfully. I was invited to Hillwood several times. The high point was moving American Ballet Theater from New York to Washington. I negotiated, but Marjorie Merriweather Post did it. We presented a season on the only theatre stage that could hold full productions, Loew’s Capital.


Shortly after the last performance, things got seriously sour. I left shortly for The Washington Post’s radio and television stations, but I remained friendly with Carson. Through various sources, I heard Mr. May was caught romping around his wife’s Russell Sheraton suite, hot in pursuit of a male dancer. I was told Mrs. Post was reluctant to divorce the man deep in the throes of cancer. Eventually, her lawyers pushed it through.


When you visit Hillwood to celebrate “Living Artfully,” Pittsburgh’s Herbert A. May’s portrait will not adorn the main fireplace. It’s not clear how his “hunting pinks” were cleared out from the mansion near Rock Creek Park.


Before finishing the column I sought Internet help to know when Herb May died. There’s nothing anywhere.


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