'American Empress' Marjorie Merriweather Post — Mogul Behind Mar-a-Lago and More — Takes the Spotlight

Author Allison Pataki, the daughter of former New York Gov. George Pataki, tells PEOPLE about her sixth novel centered around the life of the late heiress and businesswoman

Allison Pataki, Marjorie Merriweather Post
From left: Allison Pataki and Marjorie Merriweather Post. Photo: Rob Kim/Getty; George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty

Flipping back through old photos of Marjorie Merriweather Post, author Allison Pataki admits she gets a little emotional when she catches the eye of the late socialite staring back into the camera.

"I just have this ping in my heart," Pataki, 37, tells PEOPLE. "I wish I could've known her, because she's just the most incredible woman."

Pataki, the daughter of former New York Gov. George Pataki, spent the last six years trying to know Post the best anyone in this day and age could, traveling to the places she lived, studying her letters and personal journals and interviewing grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

All that work was a true "labor of love," says Pataki, whose sixth book, The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, was published this month and traces the famed businesswoman's life through the lens of historical fiction while drawing on Pataki's research.

Post, who died in 1973 at the age of 86, became one of the wealthiest women of the 20th century after inheriting her father's Postum Cereal Company (which under Post's stewardship was later renamed General Foods) and exponentially growing the business through ideas that were revolutionary at the time, including the boom of frozen and ready-made foods.

She later financed the construction of several notable properties around the country, including the Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, which she hoped the federal government would one day use as a "Winter White House," Pataki says — although that plan twisted and turned through the years.

The property was first bequeathed to the National Parks Service after Post's death, but it was too costly to maintain and was sold back into private ownership, which is how future President Donald Trump obtained it for about $10 million in 1985. Trump indeed — and controversially — declared Mar-a-Lago his Winter White House while in office, hosting meetings and foreign dignitaries, and continues to live there for much of the year.

Marjorie Merriweather Post
Marjorie Merriweather Post. Hank Walker/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

In her own lifetime, Post hosted presidents, celebrities and other global socialites at the resort and her other residences, including Hillwood in Washington, D.C., Camp Topridge in upstate New York, and what author Pataki calls "the world's most fabulous yacht," named the Sea Cloud.

Pataki points out the yacht qualified for a Guinness World Record at the time and was bigger than boats owned by the likes of J.P. Morgan, the Vanderbilts and even the British royals.

"Speaking of the royal family," says Pataki, "Marjorie would have all sorts of fancy guests on the yacht as she sailed the world, including King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson."

Pataki — who knew "very little" about Post prior to a family friend pulling her aside at a party and encouraging her to learn more about the socialite and businesswoman's life — says she was surprised to learn the vastness of the Soviet art collection Post gathered from her time living in the Soviet Union.

Post had lived in the country with her third husband, Joseph Davies, in the years leading up to World War II, when Davies was a U.S. ambassador.

The author says researching this portion of Post's life became a "great character study," while the heiress "takes us on a tour of some of the great moments of history in the 20th century."

Allison Pataki
Allison Pataki. Mark Sagliocco/Getty

Post's dramatic love life, including her four marriages, also became a central focus of Pataki's new book and is a "juicy" story line she believes readers will find plenty of interest in. Post had three children, including actress Dina Merrill. Her first husband, Ed Close, later remarried and is the father of Glenn Close.

"So there's two iconic Hollywood actresses who are related by blood and by marriage to Marjorie," Pataki says.

But for all the pomp and celebrity that flowed in and around Post's life, Pataki found comfort and an unexpected kinship in her six-year writing and research, discovering numerous examples in letters and stories from family members that "humanized" the late heiress.

"This was one of the wealthiest women in the world, who mingled with presidents and celebrities, and yet she had grape nuts every morning for breakfast," Pataki says. "There was this incredible dichotomy of this self-made woman, this salty, down-to-earth Midwesterner for her whole life who also lived like an American empress."

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