Mona Strader Bismarck Collection
By Rebecca S. Rice
Countess Mona Bismarck, one of the leading lights of international cafe society, was born in Louisville in 1897 and raised in Lexington. Eventually marrying five times, Mona’s marriages propelled her upwards in society and she reached its pinnacle with her third marriage to Harrison Williams, who was known as the richest man in America.
Famous for her beauty, particularly her trademark silver hair and aquamarine eyes, as well as her fashion sense, Mona was the first American to be declared the Best-Dressed Woman in the World in 1933, a distinction bestowed upon her by Paris designers Chanel, Mainbocher, Lanvin, Vionnet, Molyneaux, Lelong and Mona’s personal favorite, Balenciaga. Upon the closing of Balenciaga’s fashion house in 1968, it was said that Mona took to her bed for three days in despair. She regularly appeared on best-dressed lists on both sides of the Atlantic. Her circle of famous and influential friends included European nobility, politicians, artists, designers, actors, writers and more. Her homes, clothes and lifestyle were regularly chronicled in newspapers and magazines, especially Vogue. Salvador Dali painted her portrait. Cole Porter included her name in song lyrics. She was mentioned in movies and alluded to in books. She was photographed by famous photographers of the day, including Steichen, Horst and her close friend, Cecil Beaton, who was devoted to Mona.
As sparkling as her life became, Mona Bismarck’s childhood was marked by the divorce of her parents in 1902. Mona and her brother, Robert, eventually lived with their paternal grandmother while their father, Robert Sims Strader, established himself in the horse industry. He eventually purchased Forkland Farm near Lexington. Her first husband, Harry Schlesinger, was 18 years older than Mona when they married in 1917. Schlesinger owned Fairland Farm in Lexington and was the son of a wealthy Wisconsin businessman. The couple divided their time between Milwaukee, Wis., and Fairland before divorcing in 1920. Mona eventually moved to New York and remarried in 1921. She had met her second husband, James Irving Bush, a banker who was also from Wisconsin, while married to Harry Schlesinger. Bush was 14 years older than Mona and was reputed to be one of the handsomest men in the country. However, their marriage quickly foundered, and Mona obtained a divorce in Paris in 1924.
In 1926 Mona married multi-millionaire utilities executive Harrison Williams, who was 24 years her senior. At the time of their marriage Williams was regarded as the richest man in America with a fortune estimated at $680 million. Even after losing the vast majority of his assets in the stock market crash of 1929, Williams’s wealth and position afforded Mona a lavish lifestyle. The couple owned two homes in New York, one in Palm Beach, a succession of apartments in Paris, and Il Fortino, Mona’s beloved villa on the Italian island of Capri where she indulged in her love of gardening. In order to overcome the dry climate of Capri, water from the mainland was delivered each day by boat.
Williams died in 1953, and in 1955 Mona married her longtime friend, Count Edward von Bismarck, the grandson of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Mona was widowed in 1970 and in 1971 married Bismarck’s physician, Umberto de Martini, who was 14 years younger than she. It was only after his death in a car accident in 1979 that Mona realized that de Martini married her for her money and position.
Countess Mona Bismarck died in Paris in 1983 and is buried on Long Island with Harrison Williams and Edward von Bismarck. Her legacy is evident in the cultural and artistic programs and exhibits sponsored by the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris. The Foundation, established by her estate, promotes Franco-American cooperation through the arts.
It was Mona’s interest in her native Kentucky that led her to donate her papers and photographs to The Filson Historical Society in 1976. The Mona Strader Bismarck Papers span 1916-1994 and are primarily made up of personal correspondence. Most of the letters were written by members of the social world in which Mona lived. They include her close friends the Duchess of Windsor; Diana Vreeland; Gore Vidal; Randolph Churchill; Constantin Alajalov, the cover illustrator for The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post; jewelry designer, Jean Schlumberger; Hubert de Givenchy; and Cecil Beaton, among many others. Alajalov’s correspondence is of particular interest because of the original artwork he includes with it. He even penned and illustrated a letter to one of Mona’s favorite pet dogs, Micky. One of Mona’s biggest passions was her love of small dogs, and she owned a succession of them throughout her life. It is interesting to note that upon the death of Micky, she received almost as many sympathy notes as she did after the death of her third husband, Harrison Williams.
The letters provide an intimate look at international society and fashion, but they are also a valuable source for descriptions of English and European attitudes and experiences pertaining to World War II and include observations about life in France under the Vichy government, the French Army and conscientious objectors in England. Later correspondence discusses anti-Gaullist politics in France. One of the more prolific writers in the collection is Bettina Bergery, famous in her own right as Givenchy’s favorite “mannequin,” and wife of Gaston Bergery, who served as the Vichy government’s ambassador to the U.S.S.R. and Turkey. Bettina’s letters highlight life in Paris after World War II. The collection also contains books about Cecil Beaton and Cristobal Balenciaga as well as a biography about Mona herself, published by her foundation.
The Mona Strader Bismarck Photograph Collection spans the years of 1860 to 1979. The most beautiful images in the collection are Cecil Beaton’s portrait photographs of Mona. It also includes photographs of family, her husbands, and friends from her years in international society as well as snapshots of her garden on Capri and her apartment in the Hotel Lambert in Paris.
Mona Bismarck was a beautiful and elegant woman known for her impeccable sense of style. She lived a rarified existence of wealth and privilege, and through her papers and photograph collection we are allowed a glimpse into what that life was like.
Information about Mona Bismarck’s life was taken from the Mona Bismarck Collections at The Filson Historical Society as well as James D. Birchfield’s Kentucky Countess: Mona Bismarck in Art and Fashion.
The Filson Historical Society