Marilynn RiviereBy Mary Jane Howell
Although she died in the fall of 1998 at her home in Aiken, "Marilynn stories" abound to this day. Whether it is a tale of her pet emu getting loose and scaring the young Thoroughbreds on the Aiken Training Track, or a recollection of her kindness to the Australian Three-Day Event team when they were in Aiken before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, anyone who crossed paths with her has at least one great story to tell.
It would have been easy for Marilynn to live the life expected of a politician's daughter – marry well, have children, toe the line. The fact that she bucked tradition but still remained the darling of Washington society speaks volumes about her warmth, integrity and sense of fun.
Marilynn's grandfather on her mother's side was Charles Adelbert Canfield, a miner and an oil man who made a fortune in Los Angeles and Mexico during the latter part of the 19th century. Charles and his wife lived in LA and had seven children, including Daisy Canfield Moreno, who married the screen star Antonio Moreno. Another daughter, Eilleen, became the wife of Joseph Himes, an Ohio Congressman who was a man of considerable import in Washington.
Eilleen and Joseph had three children. Canfield was the oldest; Katrina the youngest. The middle child, Marilynn, was born in 1921. She grew up in Frederick, Maryland in her family's mansion, which was called Prospect Hall. Built around 1787, Prospect Hall was a three-story Greek revival with its own zoo. (There is even a picture of Marilynn and her two siblings, each playing with a baby tiger cub out on the lawn.) Over the centuries, the house had played host to visitors from George Washington to Harry Truman and was one of the most important historical homes in the state. Congressman Himes also maintained a residence in Washington on New Hampshire Avenue, a home that was the center of many of the city's prominent social functions.
Horses were an integral part of Marilynn's life from a very early age. Family scrapbooks contain newspaper clippings of her at age 4 getting ready to show at the Washington Riding and Hunt Club. The society pages of the Washington papers were filled with horse show results, and there was an amazing amount of coverage of Marilynn's rides. Her favorite pony was named Peggy and got equal billing.
Marilynn lived a luxurious life. The children were often shown off at balls held at Prospect Hall. They were also given a certain amount of freedom to develop their individuality. From a young age, Marilynn felt the need to make her own decisions, usually involving animals. For example, the Himes girls were sent to camp in Norfolk, Connecticut each summer. The letters from Joseph Himes to Marilynn still exist. Here is an excerpt from one, dated August 17, 1932:
When Marilynn was 18 she had her coming out, and her debutante balls and teas were covered by every paper in the Washington area. A columnist for the Washington Star wrote a brief account of Marilynn, leading up to the debutante season, nailing a personality that was exactly the same decades later:
"A love of bantering makes her an entertaining companion. Of a sociable nature, she likes people who are spontaneous and democratic. She has a way of getting into difficulties and of laughingly working her way out…. She finds time for riding, swimming and Princeton weekends. She is fond of sailboats, speed boats, slacks, avocados, graham crackers and those members of the opposite sex who do not refer to her diminutive size."
She stood 4' 11".
When her debutante days were over and she had finished school (Holton Arms in Washington), Marilynn turned her attention to flying. The nation was in the middle of World War II and she wanted to do her part. She received her private, commercial and her instructor's licenses by 1944. In the spring of that year, her father accompanied her to St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she was an instructor at the Van Air Service, a U.S. Army training school. Even when she was a half-country away, the Washington papers followed her career. The headline from a column in the Washington Times-Herald was: "Post-Deb in War: Petite Marilynn Himes Teaches Men to Fly."
When the war was over, Marilynn returned to Washington, bought her own plane (named My Sin) and along with her miniature French poodle Sinner, would take to the skies at a moment's notice. She would often fly to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, for a picnic and a swim, and be back in Washington in time for dinner. Rehoboth Beach would play an important part in her life a few years down the road – it was there in 1948 that a helicopter pilot asked if she would like to fly along with him. She did, fell in love with the helicopter and promptly sold her plane. She became one of only nine female helicopter pilots in the country, and the only one with an instructor's rating.
Marilynn found a job transporting planes from military bases across the country to Washington for civilian purchases. On the ground, she became very involved with the Washington Animal Rescue League, serving on its board and oftentimes becoming the public face of the organization. She was also in the Tail-Waggers Club, an organization begun in Washington in 1937. Marilynn became president of the club in the late 1940s and found her niche when she helped develop a 15-minute television show on WMAL that aired once a week. The program offered information for pet owners, and there were always guest appearances by a wide-variety of animals, from injured owls to chimpanzees to bears. Marilynn co-hosted the show with Bryson Rash, ABC's White House correspondent.
The show was filmed in the Commonwealth Building, located on K Street in downtown Washington. Marilynn was responsible for getting all the animals to the studio, which often led the elevator operator to question his choice of jobs. On several occasions Marilynn shared the elevator with a tall, good-looking man named Joseph Riviere, who worked for an investment firm several floors above the television studio. Then one day, Bryson Rash was held up at the White House and Marilynn needed a second pair of hands on the show. She recalled the tall man on the elevator, and had one of the cameramen fetch him. Luckily for her, he came, was a good sport about the menagerie, and they instantly hit it off.
Marilynn and Joseph (Paul) Riviere were married in 1951 in Sea Island, Georgia. The official wedding photographs show that Marilynn's poodle stood by her side throughout the ceremony. The couple made their residence in Washington, although it wasn't long after they were married that Paul served as a captain in the US Air Force, commanding a squadron in the Korean War.
The couple had two sons, Scott and Rhett (known in Aiken as Tiger), and it was because of the boys that Marilynn discovered Aiken.
"My uncle Canfield had a winter home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and one year my mother attended one of his huge parties," explains Scott. "For some reason the topic of conversation turned to Aiken and the prep school that was located in the town. We were dividing our time between Washington and Florida and mom thought it was time to find a proper boarding school that would take both me and my pony."
Scott attended Aiken Prep first, starting in 1963, bringing his pony and cockatoo along. Tiger followed suit a few years later. During her visits to Aiken, Marilynn fell in love with the Pink House on Easy Street, which, unfortunately for her, was not for sale. There was a lot going on in Marilynn's life in the 1960s and early 70s. In no particular order some of the things she was involved with included flying helicopters (she was a charter member of the Whirly Girls – a club founded in 1955 for female helicopter pilots); her home on Key Biscayne became the go-to place for members of President Nixon's Secret Service, Cabinet, and visiting press while they were in town; she restored an antique fire engine (a 1917 American LaFrance) which she then parked in one of the three houses that made up her compound on Key Biscayne; and she was a mascot of sorts for the Washington Mounted Police, who would visit her in Florida and later come to Aiken to perform during the Spring Steeplechase.
She adored Aiken's Horse Show in the Woods, and one of the favorite memories of both Scott and Tiger is when they competed together in the family class – all mounted on chestnuts.
When the Pink House came up for sale in 1970, Marilyn finally made her move to Aiken. She filled the house with a variety of birds, seven dogs and a large six-legged Burmese tortoise named Legs. Sometimes there might even be a visiting mule. Dinner guests never knew what to expect, and that was the way Marilynn liked it.
"My mother just didn't live somewhere – she enveloped the place," says Tiger. "Times were always fun, she wanted people to laugh and enjoy themselves."
Marilynn was involved with the Aiken SPCA, the Hitchcock Woods, the Aiken Driving Club, and the development of The Alley in downtown Aiken, to name but a few of her favorite projects.
Peter Gray, a former Chairman of the Board for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, has a delectable memory of Marilynn. Marilynn was a trustee of the foundation, and she was very much involved with the Ax Club, which was a group of volunteers who went out into the woods to clear and maintain trails and jumps.
"The Ax Club was very active in those days," says Peter. "I went to help one day and we went into the Woods on foot. Marilynn prepared a picnic lunch for the workers. She drove into the Woods in a Rolls Royce and her butler set out a picnic table complete with table cloth and fine china."
Even while she lived at the Pink House, Marilynn yearned for a farm. Dissuaded by friends from buying land out of town, she eventually purchased part of the old Pinkerton estate, Tip Top Two, which was off Grace Avenue. Her horses were moved into the stable, and in the little cottage on the grounds she housed everything from roosters to exotic birds to an emu. Marilynn renamed the property Hidden Stables.
"That was her place to play – a secret hideaway of sorts," says Scott.
Marilynn had a few Thoroughbreds, which she kept at her farm. One day, a gate was left open, and her pet emu innocently followed the young horses across Two Notch Road and onto the Training Track. It is easy to imagine the chaos an emu caused during morning training. John Gaver, who trained for Greentree Stables, nearly had a heart attack when he saw his beautifully bred youngsters galloping riderless around the track.
"There is no doubt that Marilynn was one-of-a-kind," says her longtime friend Sam Erb, the proprietor of the Westside Bowery, "In 1979 she bought the building that houses our bar, then leased it back to us. She had a vision for The Alley and wasn't shy about getting people interested in properties."
Marilynn was behind getting the win photos and stable silks hung on the walls, giving the Bowery its unique equestrian ambiance. Sam recalls that Marilynn and Joan Tower (one of the founders and the first director of the Aiken Thoroughbred Hall of Fame) both liked the same table for lunch, and it was always a race to see who would arrive first. For lunch, Marilynn had a white omelet, and a martini in the afternoon – she never wavered from her favorites! She also would often bring in one of her pet parrots, who would sit on her knee throughout lunch and say "hello" to each new customer.
Jeannie Groat, who lives in Aiken, recalls that Marilynn (along with several others) played a joke on Joan Tower that is still remembered today:
"The movie 101 Dalmatians had come out and perhaps some of us thought that Joan was a bit like Cruella de Ville. So while she was having lunch one day at the Bowery we painted black spots on her white car," says Jeannie. "When she came out it took her a while to recognize her car, and we all held our breath – but she had a good laugh about it!"
The mere mention of Marilynn's name around town brings stories of parties, examples of her many kindnesses to people, her behind-the-scenes activities, and always a regretful shake of the head from people who miss her spirit of adventure and her sense of fun. Marilynn Riviere was nothing if not a true original, a person who helped make Aiken an exciting and unforgettable place.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.