Mona von Bismarck


Mona von Bismarck
"The Kentucky Countess", painting from 1943 by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). Courtesy of the Mona Bismarck Foundation, Paris

Mona Travis Strader (February 5, 1897 – July 10, 1983), known as Mona Bismarck, was an American socialite and fashion icon. She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.[1]

Contents

Early life

She was born Mona Travis Strader in Louisville, Kentucky in 1897 to Robert Sims Strader and his wife, Bird O'Shockeny. Her parents divorced in 1902, and Mona and her brother were raised in Lexington, Kentucky, by their paternal grandmother.[2]

Marriages

In 1917, she married Henry J. Schlesinger, a man 18 years her senior who owned Fairland Farm in Lexington where her father was a professional trainer, and moved to Milwaukee where he had an iron and coke business. During the marriage, Mona bore a son, Robert Henry, whom she left in the custody of Schlesinger in exchange for half a million dollars when they divorced in 1920. (Her son would marry Frederica Barker, elder sister of actor Lex Barker.) She next married the banker James Irving Bush, 14 years her senior, said to be the "handsomest man in America" in 1921.[3] They divorced in Paris in 1925.

In 1926, Mona opened a New York dress shop with her friend Laura Merriam Curtis, the daughter of William Rush "Spooky" Merriam, a former Governor of Minnesota. At the time, Laura was previously engaged to Harrison Williams, said to be the richest man in America with an estimated fortune of $600 million ($7,400,000,000 in today dollars), made in financing public utilities. Mona married Williams, a widower 24 years her senior on July 2, 1926.[4] For their honeymoon they went on a cruise around the world on Williams' Warrior, the largest, most expensive pleasure boat in the world at the time. When they returned from their honeymoon, Williams bought the Georgian mansion at the corner of 94th Street & Fifth Avenue designed by Delano & Aldrich in 1915 for Willard Straight. Mona had it decorated by Syrie Maugham. They also kept an estate named Oak Point on Bayville Avenue, Bayville, Long Island, for which Delano and Aldrich also did alterations. They kept a home on North Ocean Avenue in Palm Beach, and the villa Il Fortino overlooking Capri's Marina Grande, on land which belonged first to Caesar Augustus, and later to the Emperor Tiberius.

In 1933, Mona was named "The Best Dressed Woman in the World" by Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong, and Lanvin, becoming the first American to be so honored. The Duchess of Windsor (1934) and Elsie de Wolfe (1935) would also earn that title.

In "Ridin' High", (1936) Cole Porter had Ethel Merman sing: "What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?" In 1943, Mona's portrait was painted by Salvador Dalí.

Williams died in 1953, and Mona married her "secretary" Count Albrecht Edzard (Eddy) Heinrich Karl, Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1903-1970), an "interior decorator" of an aristocratic sort, and the son of Herbert von Bismarck and grandson of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in November 1954 in New Jersey. They lived mostly in Paris at an apartment in the famed Hôtel Lambert and later at Mona's townhouse at 34 avenue de New York, and at Capri.

Mona was widowed in 1970 and in 1971 married Bismarck's physician, "Count" Umberto de Martini, a nobleman (after Mona acquired a title for him from king Umberto II of Italy) who was 14 years younger than she. It was only after his death in a sports car accident in 1979 that Mona realized that de Martini, like Bismarck, had married her for her money (exactly the same way she had, with Schlesinger, Bush and Williams, so many years before), only de Martini turned out to be already married and had been secretly bilking Mona of funds for his children.

Bismarck Sapphire Necklace, National Museum of Natural History

When Cristobal Balenciaga closed his atelier in 1968, Diana Vreeland quipped that Mona did not leave her bedroom in the villa at Capri for three days. Mona donated her papers and photos to the Filson Historical Society in 1976, and several items of unique jewelry to the Smithsonian Institution, including the Bismarck Sapphire Necklace.

In Truman Capote's Answered Prayers (1987), she was the model for the character Kate McCloud.

Mona died in 1983, her will having established the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris. She is buried at Bayville, on Long Island.

References

  1. ^ VF Staff (1958). "World's Best Dressed Women". The International Hall of Fame: Women. Vanity Fair. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/bestdressed/bestdressed_women?currentPage=1. Retrieved May 16, 2011. 
  2. ^ Birchfield, James D (1997). Kentucky Countess: Mona Bismarck in Art & Fashion (first ed.). University of Kentucky Art Museum. ISBN 978-1882007141. 
  3. ^ "JAMES I. BUSH WEDS MRS MONA T. STRADER;". New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F50D1FFE3B5A1B7A93C5AB178BD95F458285F9. Retrieved May 16, 2011. 
  4. ^ "HARRISON WILLIAMS MARRIES MRS. BUSH". New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/search/restricted/article?res=F40915FD3D5F0C738EDDAC0894DC484D81. Retrieved May 16, 2011. 

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