Dina Merrill, heiress and actress, dead at 93
New York — Dina Merrill, the rebellious heiress who defied her super-rich parents to become a movie star, often portraying stylish wives or “the other woman,” has died at age 93.
Merrill, raised in part on the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida now owned by President Donald Trump, died Monday, according to a family spokeswoman. The cause of death and other details were not immediately available Tuesday.
Starting in the 1950s, Merrill appeared in more than 100 films and television programs, her break coming after Katharine Hepburn recommended her for the 1957 Tracy-Hepburn comedy “The Desk Set.” Merrill, who had the poised, aristocratic beauty of fellow blonde Grace Kelly, co-starred with Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in “Operation Petticoat,” Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in “The Sundowners” and Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor in “Butterfield 8.” More recently, she was part of Robert Altman’s ensemble cast for the Hollywood satire “The Player” and in television programs such as “Murder, She Wrote” and “The Nanny.”
But becoming an actress was not considered proper for someone of Merrill’s privileged status. Her mother was Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the Post cereal fortune and one of the nation’s richest women. Her father was E.F. Hutton, founder of the stockbroker firm that bore his name. Heiress Barbara Hutton was a cousin.
“Mother was politically and diplomatically and every which way well connected,” Merrill remarked in 2000, “but she didn’t know anyone in show business. Of course my parents’ eyebrows shot up when I said I wanted to be an actress. And I guess they said, really between themselves, ‘Let the dear girl try and fall on her face.’”
Merrill left George Washington University after a year to enroll at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. During the summer she worked at a regional theater where she painted scenery, sewed costumes and played occasional small roles.
She made her Broadway debut in 1945 with “The Mermaids Singing” and followed with “George Washington Slept Here” and off-Broadway plays. She quit acting in 1946, partly because of her mother’s pressure.
“My mother brainwashed me,” she said. “I turned down my career to marry my Marine.”
He was Stanley Rumbough Jr., heir to a Colgate fortune who had been serving as a White House aide. After his Marine Corps’ service he became head of the Metal Containers Corp. and a company that made pari-mutuel betting machines. The couple had three children — Stanley, David and Nina. After the birth of her daughter, Merrill resumed her acting and modeling career and was invited to Hollywood by Dick Powell for appearances in his television series.
Merrill and Rumbough divorced in 1966, the same year she married actor Cliff Robertson. As a result, her name was dropped from the snobbish Social Register, which excluded actors.
“I was thrilled when they dropped me,” she said in 1983. “I was particularly thrilled because (Robertson) was furious. He wanted to be in the Social Register.”
Merrill and Robertson had a daughter, Heather, but divorced in 1989. In the same year she married Ted Hartley, a former pilot and actor turned investment banker.
With other investors, Hartley and Merrill in 1989 acquired RKO Pictures, the onetime major Hollywood studio that had been moribund for many years. The major asset was remake rights to RKO movies, and the revived company put together a 1998 version of the 1949 movie “Mighty Joe Young.”
She was born Nedenia Hutton in New York City, and was drawn to the acting life at age 8, when she played an Indian in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta at Greenvale School. She grew up in lavish surroundings, particularly Mar-a-Lago, her parents’ 118-room Mediterranean-Moorish estate in Palm Beach, Florida. The property was later purchased by Trump, who as president has made Mar-a-Lago an unofficial weekend White House.
When Hutton began her acting career, she chose to call herself Dina Merrill, a combination of her and a brother-in-law’s names.
“I didn’t want to trade on the Hutton name,” she explained. “I always wanted to make it on my own.”
In becoming a businesswoman, Merrill was emulating her mother, who in the 1920s had helped build her late father’s cereal business into the giant General Foods Corp. Her fortune was estimated at more than $250 million when she died in 1973 at age 86. Most of her estate went to Merrill and her two sisters.
Merrill was involved in numerous charitable and artistic causes. Her son David’s diabetes inspired her to establish the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. She chaired the New York City Mission Society, which supports young people living in poverty. She was a trustee of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and served on the board of trustees for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Merrill had few acting credits in recent years, but never regretted her career.
“I loved the make-believe,” she commented in 1993, “and I still do. I love the part about it where you can be somebody else, and not be you all the time. It’s interesting to lead other people lives.”