When E.F. Hutton talked, people listened. Everybody, that is, but his daughter, Nedenia. Edward F. Hutton was intent on bringing his only child into his world of big business and finance; she dreamed of being an actress. Now, 16 movies later, Dina Merrill (the stage surname comes from an ex-brother-in-law) has joined the board of directors of her late father’s Wall Street investment firm, the second largest in the nation. “When Dina Merrill talks,” the firm’s current president, George Ball, says, “E.F. Hutton will listen.”
Merrill, 53, does not yet know how or what she will contribute (“I’ll have a better idea after the first board meeting next week”), but she has never been a shrinking violet. In 1969 she created Amaranthe cosmetics at Coty and supervised the line until it folded in the mid-’70s. Shocked at what she saw as “corrupt practices” in the way department stores allotted floor space to cosmetics companies, she suggested that the manufacturers “gang up on the stores to stop it. Nobody listened,” she adds, “but they should have.”
Similarly, she backed her husband, actor Cliff Robertson, in his 1977 forged-check accusation that toppled then Columbia Pictures chief David Begelman, and in Robertson’s current crusade as a Screen Actors Guild board member to insure proper residual payments to actors when their films and TV programs are rerun. “Since Cliff started this a year ago,” Dina boasts, “residual payments have gone up eight times. The producers are getting scared.”
Strong convictions run in the family. For seven years in the 1920s Dina’s mother, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, urged Hutton, her second husband, to buy Clarence Birdseye’s company. Hutton kept insisting, “Frozen foods are a fad.” When the price crept up from $1.7 million to $22 million, E.F. belatedly saw the light and bought out Birdseye. “Mother,” Dina chuckles, “held that over his head forever.”
After that merger the Postum Co. became General Foods. When Hutton and Marjorie divorced in 1935, she won a seat on the board and custody of their 8-year-old daughter, Nedenia, who spent a month each year with her father. “He loved to ride,” Dina recalls. “I hated horses. He loved to hunt. I was gun-shy. He told me he’d do anything in the world for me if I’d just go to law school and then run for Congress. But I said, ‘Daddy, I want to be an actress.’ He said, ‘You’ll never see your family.’ I said, ‘You think as a congress-woman I’ll see my family?’ ”
Although E.F. “believed all actresses were fallen women,” Dina went ahead anyway after dropping out of George Washington University. Her father’s investments for her had reportedly earned more than $1 million before she was 17, but she supported herself on $10 an hour modeling fashions in-house at Vogue. While launching her acting career she married businessman Stanley Rumbough Jr., a Colgate heir, and had three children (her son David was killed in a 1973 boating accident the same week her mother died at age 86). Dina and Robertson met at Gary Cooper’s house in 1956 and married shortly after her divorce from Rumbough 10 years later.
With a combined inheritance from her parents estimated at well over $50 million, Dina has been in the best-dressed Hall of Fame for years. She also could easily afford an army of nannies for her and Cliff’s 11-year-old daughter, Heather Merriweather, but she won’t hire one. “I take care of Heather myself,” Merrill says. Mother and daughter like to rollerskate around the family’s cavernous eight-room coop in Manhattan. “It’s something we enjoy,” Dina says, “even if friends do look at me as if I’m a little weird.”