Joseph P. Kennedy called it “Hindenburg’s Palace,” due to its enormity and “fantastic notions of construction.” Harry S. Truman said it was “a grand big house with a Brussels carpet lawn.” H. Grady Gore remarked that it was “just a nice, comfortable home with a lot of ground around it.” They were talking about Marwood, the historic Potomac estate with a commanding river view that was the capacious setting for both the sordid and the celebrated, a palatial suburban playhouse for the privileged and political among Washington’s elite.
Samuel Klump Martin III was just a boy in 1910, when he inherited $7 million from his grandfather, Otto Young, a phenomenally wealthy Chicago merchant, real estate tycoon and financier. By his 20th birthday, Samuel had begun to run through his inheritance with abandon, living the high society life in the Roaring ’20s of New York City. Out on the town in 1928, he met an ingénue with a featured role in Flo Ziegfeld’s Broadway musical spectacular Whoopee!, “one of the solid hits of the season,” The New York Times declared. Her stage name was “Mary Jane,” her given name was Jane Catherine Young, and in July of 1929 the two wed; she was 19, he was 21. For their honeymoon, the couple sailed to France, where, portentously, Samuel started a brawl in a fashionable Parisian bar, assaulting several bartenders and gendarmes in a fracas that landed him in jail.
The newlyweds returned to the United States in time for Black Tuesday in October of 1929, the start of the Great Depression. Despite the swirling economic turmoil, Samuel was financially secure, garnering more than $125,000 a year from his trust fund alone. He spent his money lavishly on a New York City town house and journeys through Europe. To be truly fashionable, however, the couple needed a country estate, and their search for a suitable property brought them—and their baby, Samuel IV—to the nation’s capital in 1930. That autumn, they found the perfect tract of land in Montgomery County, a 200-acre plot that featured a stunning view of the Potomac River.
Now that they had the property, the Martins needed a house. They commissioned Washington, D.C., architect to the upper class John J. Whalen, whose work included some of the city’s most stylish beaux-arts buildings (including the mansion on 34th Street NW that serves today as the Royal Norwegian Embassy). The Martins, however, had a particular dwelling in mind, one they had encountered on a tour of France. It was Malmaison, the sprawling chateau of Josephine and Napoleon Bonaparte located outside of Paris. So Whalen created a faithful, full-size reproduction of the mansion’s main block: long, rectangular and three stories high with stuccoed walls. Wrought-iron grills, like faux balconies, extended from nine windows across the façade, the lintels festooned with Dionysian heads sprouting grapes instead of hair—another harbinger. A low-pitched, red terra-cotta roof topped the building.
Inside, there were more than 33 rooms and 20,000 square feet of living space. Completed by the end of 1931, the Martins named the estate “Marwood,” Old English for “a forest by water.” For the reception hall, Whalen designed a huge elliptical space with marble floors, painted paneling and a broad cornice with an acanthus leaf motif. On either side of the oval were large openings to hallways running the length of the mansion; to the right rose a curved and imposing stairway with marble steps and an elaborately scrolled wrought-iron balustrade.
The east hall ended in a rustic, rough stuccoed living room, its exposed beams spanning the depth of the house, 13 feet high and more than 40 feet long. Floor-to-ceiling French doors opened onto a river-facing terrace running the length of the house. The west hall led to the formal dining room, cavernous and paneled and said to have been patterned after the dining hall of King James I of England at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. The room was dominated by an Italian mantelpiece, seven feet high and featuring a fantasy of scrolls, female heads, sphinxes, lion paws and garlands of fruit. A pantry and serving kitchen were off to the side. The main kitchen occupied the basement floor below, along with the mansion’s playrooms, which featured space for several billiard tables and an impressive movie theater complete with a sloped floor and seats for more than 100.
There were 14 bedrooms, four with their own sitting rooms and all with a bathroom, on the upper floors. The pièce de résistance, however, was the bathroom for the 21-year-old mistress of the house, with its mirrored walls and sunken bathtub, which was filled by water that flowed through the beak of a silver swan. Adjacent to the bath was an octagonal dressing room, its walls lined with pleated, pale blue satin, with doors opening into eight closets.
A sunken garden, a swimming pool and five acres of manicured lawn spread out behind the house, offering a spectacular view of the river. “One of the show spots of the suburban area,” The Washington Post gushed.
The couple moved into the house by January of 1932, after having spent nearly $700,000 on its construction at the height of the Depression—the equivalent of $9.3 million in today’s dollars. Spring and summer were filled with lavish entertaining, the guests treated to sumptuous meals and Prohibition-era liquor amid a phalanx of servants. It wasn’t long, however, before the couple’s storybook world began to unravel.
The 24-year-old Samuel lived an unabashedly hedonistic life, and his moments of pleasure began to descend into darker territory as he fell into habitual drunkenness. He became a serial adulterer, ringing up telephone bills to his mistresses running several hundred dollars a month, boldly bringing women out to Marwood, only to have them summarily ejected by the butler. He once spent his entire quarterly income—more than $30,000—on what was described as “an airplane orgy with a woman.”
Money for Jane and the upkeep of Marwood was not forthcoming. A year after the family moved into the mansion, Samuel’s continual refusal to provide for his wife and house led to threats from the utility company to shut off the power and an embarrassing refusal of credit from the local grocery. Exasperated, Jane had lawyers draw up a contract by which she would remain married to Samuel but receive 40 percent of the $125,000 yearly income from the estate, with her portion going to pay household expenses and to support the couple’s now 3-year-old child.
In January of 1934, Samuel and Jane shut down the mansion and wintered in a rented house in Miami Beach, where his behavior continued to deteriorate. A male nurse was hired to stay with him day and night, and Samuel responded by chasing the nurse with a knife. His behavior toward Jane grew violent as well, and he even threatened to shoot her. Samuel soon deserted his wife, and a fearful Jane took their child and left the country, traveling to Biarritz on the coast of France.
In March 1934, Jane petitioned the court and was granted a temporary injunction that stopped the bank from paying her husband $10,000 due him from his trust fund. She charged Samuel with “drunkenness, violence and intimacy with other women” and asked for the appointment of a receiver to handle her husband’s funds. She did not seek a divorce. He was 26 and fabulously wealthy, but out of control. She was nearing 24 and the strain of her crumbling marriage had begun to show. Her weight before heading to Miami Beach for the winter was 101 pounds; within four months, she was down to 87, “due to broken health,” she asserted.
Jane remained away from the estate, renting it in 1934 to Joseph P. Kennedy, who had arrived in Washington as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appointee to head the newly formed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Kennedy took up residence at Marwood with the intention of eventually moving his entire family to the Potomac estate. But his wife, Rose, was hesitant to uproot her nine children, including John F., Bobby and Ted, from their Massachusetts home, so Kennedy lived a bachelor’s life at the sprawling estate, accompanied by his longtime confidante, Eddie Moore. The two caroused with royal abandon, the wealthy Kennedy playing host to a never-ending parade of Washington politicos and potentates. Among the frequent visitors was FDR. It proved the perfect place for the president to escape the oppressive Washington heat, to relax, sip mint juleps on the terrace and watch motion pictures from a projector set up on the lawn in the cool night air. Kennedy even had an elevator installed in the house for the wheelchair-bound president.
Samuel Martin, meanwhile, resurfaced down South, taking a trip “for his health,” he said. In March 1935, he was found dead in his room at the Hotel DeSoto in Savannah, Ga., apparently having suffered a heart attack. His attorney said the 26-year-old “died brokenhearted,” and that “his separation from his wife was one of the contributory causes of his death.” Under Maryland law, Jane received the Marwood estate.
A year after Samuel’s death, in October of 1936, New York society was abuzz with rumors of the hush-hush wedding of a certain “Miss Martin” to young Seward Webb Pulitzer, the 25-year-old grandson of the late Joseph Pulitzer, who had been the influential publisher of the New York World, a newspaper in New York City. Just two months earlier, Seward Webb Pulitzer’s wife had divorced him on grounds of cruelty. “No one appears willing to affirm, or deny, the report,” wrote the society columnist for The New York Times. “And when you mention the reported secret marriage in the presence of the Pulitzer family, a Sphinx-like silence envelops that clan.” The scandal ended in March 1937, when Jane and Seward were wed in a courthouse ceremony in West Palm Beach, Fla.
Kennedy, who resigned as chairman of the SEC in 1935 and departed the estate, would rent Marwood in 1937, after his appointment by FDR as the first chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, a post he held until being named ambassador to Great Britain in 1938. Thereafter, the Pulitzers would occupy the estate intermittently, dividing time with their home in the tony Long Island community of Old Westbury. By 1939, Jane had tired of Marwood and put it on the market, eventually selling the house and acreage to wealthy Washington businessman H. Grady Gore.
Gore hailed from a politically prominent Tennessee family—he grew up with his cousin, Sen. Al Gore Sr., in the quaintly named Possum Hollow—and had made his wealth in Washington real estate, owning, among other choice properties, the Fairfax Hotel, today’s Fairfax at Embassy Row. Gore acquired Marwood in 1943, and the property again became a political gathering spot, although this time with a decidedly Republican bent. Over the years, Gore hosted scores of glittering soirees, including parties for presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon. Gore’s daughter Louise, who lived at the estate, served in the Maryland House of Delegates and the state senate in the 1960s and made two unsuccessful runs for governor. Her niece, Deborah Gore Dean, had a brief political career. She served as executive assistant to Housing Secretary Samuel Pierce in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the administration of President Reagan, but left after being denied appointment as assistant secretary in 1987 and was eventually convicted of funneling federal funds to Republican insiders.
H. Grady Gore died in 1980 and left a 25 percent interest in Marwood to each of his children, who eventually subdivided the land, retaining 13 acres surrounding the mansion, but selling the rest to developers who created the upscale community that now bears the estate’s name.
Today, the historic mansion belongs to Chris Rogers, one of the founders of the telecommunications company that became Nextel. He has undertaken a complete restoration of the house and grounds, returning Marwood to its former glory and enabling it to reclaim its position as one of the area’s most remarkable estates.
Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now residing in Olney.