Three-peat guest Allison Pataki returns to talk about her latest historical novel, The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post. Allison and Zibby discuss the number of ways in which Marjorie was ahead of her time, such as how she ran her family’s food empire from behind the scenes, hired those in need of work during The Great Depression, opened hospitals and canteens when they were needed most, and even how she sold her yacht to the U.S. Navy to use during World War II. Allison also shares how the pandemic impacted the amount of time she spent immersed in Marjorie’s world and how she originally became involved in it.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Allison Pataki, again on my show. I’m so excited. I always love talking to you so much. Thanks for coming back.

Allison Pataki: Thank you for having me. I remember when we were with Elyssa in the fall, she was saying she’s the only three-peat. I think this now makes me a three-peat.

Zibby: I think you’re right. It’s a toss-up. It’s a head-to-head competition. Oh, my gosh, a three-peat. You guys just have to keep cranking out these books.

Allison: We’ll try.

Zibby: I don’t know how you did this so quickly. The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, this cover is — I want this dress so badly, by the way.

Allison: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, I know.

Zibby: You need the dress. You need to have it made or something.

Allison: I should wear it to my launch tonight on Zoom.

Zibby: Yes. Congratulations so much. I’m so excited about this book. I’m so excited that I actually saw this galley printed out. Now here’s the final. It’s so exciting.

Allison: Thank you. You were literally one of the first people I shared it with because it’s a story of a strong woman who accomplished more than anyone could ever fathom. I had to send it to another strong woman who accomplishes more than anybody could ever fathom. Six years. Would we call six years how I did it really quickly? I feel like it was my longest labor of love.

Zibby: It feels like it was fast because they just keep coming out.

Allison: Yes. I was living in Chicago. I had one little, tiny baby. I was in a completely different phase of life. Now the better part of half a decade later, I have three children. I’m in New York. It feels as though it’s a story that has been with me for many years. I also knew that it would be a really challenging story to tell just because of the scope of years and moments and characters. It was something that I felt like I had been working on with a lot of other things in the forefront. Now it’s finally here. I’m excited.

Zibby: When did you become fascinated with Marjorie Merriweather Post?

Allison: It was 2016. It was just a kismet moment where I met a family friend actually through my mother-in-law. This woman, Nancy, had been an oral historian at Hillwood, which was Marjorie Merriweather Post’s final home in Washington, DC. At that point, I’d published several historical fiction novels about these strong women from history. Nancy just gave me the first tip-off. She posed it as a question, saying, “What do you know about Marjorie Merriweather Post?” I will admit, and I’m embarrassed to say this now, I really did not know much about her other than the name Post sounded vaguely familiar. I didn’t know if maybe it had to do with the Emily Post manners book or maybe the newspaper. Then there’s Post Foods. That is Marjorie’s family. She just gave me a few morsels, like the four really juicy, salacious marriages. She told me about her time in Russia as the first ambassadress and the opportunity she had to become one of the world’s great collectors of Russian treasure. She told me a little bit about her time during the Roaring Twenties and the Gatsby era of her life.

It was just enough to get me totally hooked. Her tip was, “Go to Hillwood. Just go check out her home. It’s a museum now set up exactly how Marjorie would’ve wanted it. She could walk in and have a dinner party there today. You walk in, and you get the sense of her life.” I went to Hillwood. I was just obsessed. I was like, how does nobody not know about this woman? People know about her, but I don’t feel she’s as well-known as she should be. I was like, I need to write a book about her. Then I just became obsessed with her. I will say, I don’t know that I’ve ever written about a subject or a woman where I liked her and admired her as much as I did with Marjorie Merriweather Post. That was both a blessing and a challenge. There were a lot of things about this book that made it very challenging, but I’ll let you decide what you want to do with that.

Zibby: There were certainly a lot of chapters of her life. There are whole different places and frames of mind and men and all of these things, but that’s what made it so real. That is the way life kind of works. Not that you have to, necessarily, move around this much and in these magnificent places, some of them. The part that I did not know about her — I don’t know that much about her either; I had just kind of heard about her and Mar-a-Lago and blah, blah, blah, but I didn’t know many details either, so I found this absolutely fascinating — was all of the entrepreneurial and business decisions that she made and how instrumental she was to the growth of Post Foods, how it became a Post cereal company, how it became General Foods. Basically, Ned, who she was married to for a time, she propped up. He ran it, but she had all these ideas. She fought for the frozen foods revolution. That she was responsible for that, this blew my mind. People were like, you really think housewives are going to put refrigerators and freezers in? She was like, yeah, they are. They’re like, no way. Basically, how it all started, as you wrote about so beautifully, because she was determined to help other moms. It’s amazing.

Allison: That’s all true. That is all true. She was ahead of her time. She was a woman in a world where women were not allowed to be business leaders. I think had she lived today, she would’ve been president. At least, we would’ve all wanted to vote for her. In her time, she was the only child of C.W. Post, this founder of this food empire. He always knew she was worthy. He always knew that she had the brains. He raised her to think for herself, not thinking, this is just my daughter; this is a woman. He was sort of in the minority. It was the way that society was that she wasn’t able to run her company, at least from the front. She always had to find ways to influence things behind the scenes. That’s exactly right. One of the moments of sheer genius on her part was understanding the importance of convenience and healthy, quality food available to women. If you have drank orange juice or instant coffee or had cereal, Marjorie has directly impacted your life. She had to, as you said, go against the boys and go against the experts. What’s fun is that over the course of her almost century of life, you watch her role evolve. For instance, during the Franklin Roosevelt years, you watch her step into her power in a way that more women were doing with World War I and the Great Depression and World War II. Her life really was a changing arc. I like to say she’s sort of like the Forrest Gump of the twentieth century in that she had a hand in shaping all these moments you know about. She was there with them, but with way better clothes and way better homes. As you said, Mar-a-Lago was one of her homes, and Hillwood and Topridge. She shaped history. She was a boss.

Zibby: It’s amazing. When people think about effecting change in society, you don’t realize that sometimes it’s these little ideas that are — I would’ve taken it for granted that there was a better — I never would’ve thought it was her or one woman running this company or that would’ve had such life-changing ideas, basically. Anyway, you just don’t know. Basically, you don’t know. That was not a very good way to say that.

Allison: Exactly. She applied that sort of disruption and thinking outside the box not only to business, but across her life in building or in charitable giving. She yearned for the impossible and then somehow made it happen. She’s inspiring. I admired her a lot.

Zibby: Especially doing — they weren’t soup kitchens. There was another word. Canteen. The canteens that she started to help everybody else, that sounded amazing. It was World War I then, right?

Allison: World War I, she ran the largest Red Cross hospital in war-occupied France. Great Depression, she ran one of the largest food shelters, canteens. World War II, she donated her yacht that was better than the British royal family’s yacht to the US Navy for a dollar a year. She was really remarkable. You know a thing or two about women who just don’t take no for an answer and disrupt things.

Zibby: Oh, stop. Oh, please. Even the canteen, the fact that she decorated it, she made it look like — people were coming in with lit candles. I can’t remember exactly what the details were, but tablecloths so that people who had no money and were coming in jaunt with their kids who hadn’t eaten could have not just food, but a dining experience. That she could provide that, some of these things that she did, it’s just so amazing.

Allison: That’s true. The way she treated everybody regardless of their story, she treated people with dignity, I loved that. It was so true. She put on these beautiful, white linen tablecloths and roses. What she did was she hired men who were out of work to be her waiters. She made them dress nicely. She gave them a uniform because she thought that they would appreciate going to work. She made them shave. She was like, you’re going to come to work looking and feeling good. Then these people who were starving were waited on. That was so true. She was a hostess. She was a consummate hostess. She applied the same sort of attention to detail that she would’ve for a Palm Beach dinner party to her New York City Hell’s Kitchen canteen. She treated you with dignity regardless of who you were.

Zibby: I even love how when she was designing her houses, especially Mar-a-Lago, when she was just like, I have this idea in my head. I know that the most accomplished architects of the time are telling me this, that, or the other thing. She just wouldn’t let it go. She’s like, this is my vision. She made it happen. She took a risk on this other designer that was so much more expensive. Yet he still came in. It turned out exactly right to use the nature. All these things, she just listened to her instincts. I think that’s what’s really setting her apart from so many other people. She had this deep conviction. Then she acted on it.

Allison: She did. She was purposeful. She brought in the designer for the Ziegfeld Follies because she wanted it to be fantastical and whimsical. Everybody thought she was crazy, and she was a little bit. It was surprising and alarming. She had the money to be able to do these things. She realized that that was an incredible privilege. She also said, which was totally breaking with convention — everybody had these Mediterranean, Spanish-style villas. She was like, I’m going to take the concept of the Adirondack great camp and instead of cabins, I’m going to do that in Palm Beach. Everybody was like, what? She knew. She said, I want to be able to entertain in grand style and have hundreds of people, but then also retreat and have my own space and have it be intimate and have it be a family home. I put in the line there where she says, in the book, “Marjorie Merriweather Post doesn’t follow trends. She sets them.” That was how she lived her life across the board.

Zibby: Then you also have her intimate relationships, not just what she did on the outside, but her interior lives. She had so much loss in her life too. I guess I won’t — it’s hard to give things away when it’s about a historical figure.

Allison: Don’t go on the internet.

Zibby: I won’t give it away. Just so many things that she has to keep rebounding from, and even heartbreak at times. There was the one scene where she was on the boat waiting for her husband to come back and just being like, where is he? He hasn’t come back. You can feel her anger. I was getting angry reading. How could he just disappear? Where is he? Is he okay? Is he coming back? How do you handle it when you’re so mad at your spouse? What can she do? What should she do? It just made me feel. It just gets you to feel all the things she was going through.

Allison: Thank you. I’m sorry that you were so angry, but I’m also so happy that you were so angry because I’m happy you had that strong of an emotional response. Her story and, in particular, her many love stories — I would even include in that the very tragic love story she had with her father who was the first man she ever loved, a man who inspired her but also broke her heart. It just goes to show that love is a great equalizer. She says, I had many beautiful things in life. She had these experiences where she’s at the coronation of the King of England. She’s sailing the world in this yacht and drinking her tea off Catherine the Great’s tea service. Yet she had these heartbreaks just like anyone else. She was a human. I’ve never written about a character that had that many volatile emotional love stories. All of the other women I’ve written about lived and loved and married in an era where divorce was not an option. Regardless of what happened as they fell in and out of love, they always stayed married, whereas Marjorie was coming of age and her love stories were coming of age in an era where divorce was just beginning to be acceptable. Even in that, she was a little bit of a trailblazer in that she was brave enough to follow her heart. Again, like you said, I don’t want to give anything away, but she did have multiple great love stories, and so bringing the reader along to fall in love and then fall out of love and then fall in love again. Something I loved about Marjorie was her constant willingness to give love a try and to keep believing and to keep looking for love. I really loved that about her.

Zibby: Even when she wasn’t ready. When she first went out after a heartbreak, she was like, fine, I’ll just go to this one dinner. Then even though she didn’t want to be totally attracted to someone, you could feel — the way you wrote that sexual tension between them, I was like, ooh, what is going to happen here?

Allison: Oh, good. I think we’re talking about the same one. He was purported to be the great love of her life. They just had this chemistry. They were in love and this set of, not jetsetters because there weren’t really jets back then, but pacesetters. That was the jazz age and the Roaring Twenties. It was at that time that Marjorie and her husband were rumored to be the inspiration for The Great Gatsby just because of the life they lived and the glamor and the world. That was fun and wild. They had some wild years.

Zibby: I think I was talking about the later one who .

Allison: Oh, okay. I know which one. I know which one you’re talking about.

Zibby: I’m trying to be coy, but I do kind of know what I’m talking about. All to say, this story was so immersive. I see what you’re saying about Forrest Gump just because her footprint was all over the place. It’s amazing, people who lived from that century. I feel like now, somebody going a hundred years, it’s not the same. You don’t have the great wars and the Great Depression. What are we going to say? The iPhone came out? It’s not the same as a sweeping historical story. I am so glad you wrote about her. I am now obsessed. I want to go to Hillwood, by the way.

Allison: It’s so worth going. It’s amazing. Dina Merrill was her third daughter, the great movie star, Operation Petticoat. Dina Merrill said, “When you go into Hillwood, you feel as though Mother could come in and sit down to dinner.” If you’ve read the book and you know how much Marjorie cared about what it was like when she sat down to dinner, you see that that is high praise coming from Dina Merrill. They’ve so honored her spirit while also just being a great museum with other exhibitions. You walk in, and you see her closet. You see, oh, pink was her favorite color. Everything is pink. You see what mattered most to her based on what photos are closest to her bed or all of the signed letters and pictures that she received from the presidents and whatnot. You get a glimpse of her life. That’s something that’s very neat about how relatively recent her life was. There is still a lot of the historical record about her that’s so available. Her grandchildren are alive. I’ve spoken with members of her family. That was a first. I’ve never had an experience like that before. Yes, Hillwood is so worth seeing if you’re heading to DC.

Zibby: Did they all read the book?

Allison: They’re reading now.

Zibby: They’re reading now? Oh, my gosh. You didn’t need to get permission or anything?

Allison: Well, no, because it’s fiction. What I said to them — they’re so lovely. We had these wonderful conversations. I’m going to Hillwood. I’m giving a presentation in a few weeks. What we spoke about is that — it’s just so interesting because it is a book of fiction, but I wish to honor and do justice to Marjorie Merriweather Post’s story. Then obviously, it’s got to be strange if you were present for some of the moments that are being discussed in this book of fiction. I felt this really incredible sense of pressure and just this added pressure. Then also, with COVID being what it was, I didn’t even receive books until a couple weeks ago, so everything felt like it was really late. I got them out to them as soon as I could, but I just physically didn’t have books to share. As you know, the world we’re living in. It was wild.

Zibby: I know that you already have your children’s book series. Poppy Loves Paris is the most recent one. I felt like this should be a children’s — I would like my daughters — well, my sons too. This is a story of woman that — maybe there are. Maybe you’ve already researched this.

Allison: I haven’t. I haven’t even thought about that. I’d never seen it. I have those series of books for my young — I have three daughters. Big People, Little Dreams where they talk about Marie Curie and Rosa Parks and Emmeline Pankhurst, she could be one of those women. You’re right.

Zibby: I feel like there’s such a tie-in to breakfast and cereal because of where she came from. I don’t know. There could be something very cool.

Allison: I love that. I love that idea. Thank you for suggesting that.

Zibby: All right, you go do that next. I’m kidding. Speaking of people who do a million things in a lifetime, what are you doing next?

Allison: I have my next woman. I’m obsessed like I always am. I have to be if I’m going to give years of my life to researching and writing and talking about this story. It’s really a little seedling in my heart that I’m not quite ready to share, but I have her. I love her. It’s another one of those moments where I’m like, how do more people not talk about her all the time? I have a woman. I also really love the children’s books. I’m in that world very much just in my life because I have a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and an under-one-year-old. Children’s books are what I’m reading all day, every day. I would love to do more with the children’s books, so I have some of those in the works. Then I’m working on adapting some of my books for film. I’ve got a lot going on. It’s exciting. For now, I’m just happy to talk about Marjorie.

Zibby: It’s so great and so exciting. Thank you for introducing me to somebody who I really admire. Her willingness to listen to herself and not give up and to see what happens when she goes against popular wisdom and how it pays off in the end, I think that is such an important message. The lifestyle trappings, that’s all glamorous and fun. It’s interesting to read about. Really, it’s what’s underneath all of that that I found absolutely fascinating. You did a great job, per usual. I loved it. Congrats.

Allison: Thank you very much. She came from nothing too, which I loved. Her life really followed the rise of the food empire that her family started. She started with nothing in a barn and came to this wealth that put her at the same level as emperors and kings, but she always kept that salty, Midwestern, down-to-earth quality. I think if you had to sum it up in one anecdote, she ate Grape-Nuts off of her porcelain from emperors and kings. That was just the dichotomy of her life. I loved that about her. There was more to it than perhaps might initially meet the eye.

Zibby: Yes, a good reminder for people to make sweeping generalizations about what people might be like. Amazing. Thank you.

Allison: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Bye, Allison.

Allison: Bye.



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