January 11, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Fashionable Facts About Mona Von Bismarck, The “Kentucky Countess”


Mona von Bismarck was the 20th-century socialite that the fashion world dubbed “The Best Dressed Woman in the World”—but there was more than chiffon in the folds of her gowns.


1. She Was The “Kentucky Countess”

Mona von Bismarck, the “Kentucky Countess”, lived a lavish life full of haute couture gowns, imperial Roman villas and jewels as big as watermelons. It was also full of scandalous divorces, personal betrayals, inexplicable tragedies and secrets so dark that they followed her to the grave. Then she got a taste of her own medicine.

Mrs. Harrison Williams (Mona Bismarck) - 1940Bettmann, Getty Images

2. She Had Humble Roots

Mona Travis Strader was born in 1897 in Louisville, Kentucky, to Robert Sims Strader and his wife, Bird O'Shockeny. No matter how far she went in life, she never truly forgot her native Kentuckian roots. Her father was little more than a humble horse breeder and trainer at Churchill Downs. But it put her in the right circles.

Ben Ali Haggin, Mrs. Harrison Williams (social registerite) and Cecil Beaton (left to right), - 1933Bettmann, Getty Images

3. Her Grandparents Raised Her

No one knows much about Mona’s earlier years, before she started gracing the society pages in head-to-toe couture. We do know that her parents got divorced when she was just five years old and that her grandparents raised her in Lexington, Kentucky. She clearly wanted a far more glamorous life than what her grandparents could provide.A black and white photo of a little girl playing - 1944Library of Congress, Picryl

4. She Married Into Money

Mona knew one easy way to lift herself up out of poverty. In 1917, when she was just 20 years old, she married into money for the first—but not the last—time. She likely met her first husband, Henry J Schlesinger, through her father, who was working as a horse trainer at Fairland Farm—which Schlesinger owned. All Mona cared about was the money. Wedding ceremony - 1925Rijksmuseum, Picryl

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5. Her First Marriage Is A Mystery

Mona’s first marriage to the iron and coke (a coal-based fuel) businessman, Schlesinger, is shrouded in scandal and mystery. Much of their romance took place in the days before the tabloids became obsessed with the svelte socialite and her supreme sense of style. What little we do know, however, doesn’t paint Mona in the most flattering of lights.Depressed Woman - 2014pixabay , Wikimedia Commons

6. Her Son Was Not Her Favorite Fashion Accessory

At some point in her marriage to Schlesinger, Mona became pregnant with a baby boy. By all accounts, Robert Henry Schlesinger was born with all ten fingers and all ten toes. Given that he would go on to marry into the attractive Baker family, he probably even had Mona’s startling good looks, grace and chic sense of style.

But he wasn’t exactly the kind of fashion accessory that Mona cared for.

B&W photo of mother and her baby - 1934Internet Archive, Picryl

7. Her Divorce Caused A Scandal

By 1920, Mona’s marriage to Schlesinger was beginning to fall apart. Once again, the details of their marriage and ultimate divorce managed to escape the society pages. However, there was one curious detail that leaked out.

It was about the custody of their child, poor little Robert Henry Schlesinger. It didn’t seem like anyone wanted him.Sad kid standing outside - 1920Digital museum, Picryl

8. She “Sold” Her Son

One version of the divorce saga implies that, while Mona was happy to be rid of her husband, she was reluctant to give up her son. According to this interpretation of events, all Schlesinger had to do to break Mona’s maternal instincts was dangle a shopping-spree inducing $500,000 check in front of her face.

The other version of the story is even less flattering for the “Kentucky Countess”.

Baby holding a parents hand - 2016pixabay.com , Picryl

9. She Never Wanted To Have Another Child

Over the course of her life, Mona von Bismarck would have a total of five marriages—but just one son to show for it all. In light of that little fact, it’s entirely possible that Mona didn’t have a maternal bone in her body at all. In fact, it makes the other version of the story of her divorce from Schlesinger even more likely.

Father and his son outside - 1942U.S. Department of Agriculture. Picryl

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10. She Paid To Get Rid Of Her Son

While some high-society reports claimed that Mona dropped her son like a hot potato once Schlesinger waved a check in her face, other reports made an even more disturbing claim. Allegedly, Mona was so eager to end her marriage and get rid of her least favorite accessory (her son) that she was the one who paid Schlesinger $500,000 to take custody.Woman walking on the street - 1930New York Public Library ,Get Archive

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11. She Road The Alimony Pony

It’s unlikely that Mona was that eager to get rid of her only son. A newspaper report from the time confirmed that the court ordered Schlesinger to pay Mona $30,000 in alimony every year. From the sounds of it, she used that cold, hard cash to buy herself an upgraded husband. One with more money—and something money couldn’t buy.

Court Room In The Capitol - 1904Library of Congress, Picryl

12. She Moved On Quickly

Whether Mona was the one doing the paying or the one getting paid, one thing is clear. She moved on from Schlesinger and their little family almost as quickly as she could pull off an outfit change. Or spend a fortune in a boutique. And she had a plan.

She made sure that her next husband would be the ultimate fashion accessory to have on her arm.

A woman pulling a suitcase on the street - 1942Library of Congress ,Picryl

13. She Bought Something Money Couldn’t Buy

After finalizing her divorce from Schlesinger in 1920 at the still-tender age of 23, Mona found a new man. By 1921, she had married James Irving Bush, a former varsity football team captain and wealthy banker. It’s almost a certainty that Bush wasn't as wealthy as Schlesinger, but he had something that Mona valued even more than money.Couple dancing outside - 1692J. Willis Sayre, Picryl

14. She Married The “Handsomest Man” Around

Mona had married Schlesinger for his money—then walked off with a sizable chunk of it. With her own pockets lined with cash, she decided to buy herself a new kind of husband. This one was arm-candy.

According to the society pages of the best newspapers and magazines at the time, Mona’s new husband was “the handsomest man in America”.

Man reading newspaper - 1938Library of Congress, Picryl

15. She Rarely Went Out With Her Husband

With her new beau in-tow, Mona quickly became a high-society figure like none other. She settled in Paris, becoming a central figure in the fashion, arts and cultural circles. However, news reports indicate that she frequently adorned her arm with a Givenchy clutch instead of her husband. In fact, people rarely saw them together.Hubert De Givenchy In Beverly Hills, 1978Larry Bessel, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

16. She Filed For Divorce Number Two

By 1925, Mona began appearing at society events from New York to Paris without her second husband, Bush. Speculation began to swirl that the two were headed for splitsville but both Mona and Bush kept their lips shut tight about it. Nevertheless, it came as no surprise when they finalized their divorce later that year.

Celebrations at the Belle Vue Hotel, Brisbane - 1940State Library of Queensland, Picryl

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17. She Opened Up A Dress Shop

With two divorces before the age of 30, Mona turned her attention away from men and towards her real passion: fashion. Just one year after her divorce from Bush, Mona returned to New York and opened up a dress shop with her friend and fellow society figure, Laura Merriam Curtis. But just when Mona thought she had left men behind, one came calling.Portrait of Miss Laura Merriam - 1912Heritage Images, Getty Images

18. She Found An Older Man

In 1926, Mona stunned the world with an unexpected announcement. She was, yet again, engaged to be wed. This time, however, the “Kentucky Countess” had bagged herself a whale. Her new husband was Harrison Williams. He was a widower and, at 53, he was 24 years older than she was. However, his age was not the number she was focused on.Couple holding hands - 1906Library of Congress, Picryl

19. She Married The Richest Man In Town

Mona always had a way of marrying “up”—and it didn’t get much higher than Williams. According to contemporary estimates, Williams, who had made a fortune in utilities, was the wealthiest man in America. At the very least, he was among the first billionaires in the world. Exactly how Mona managed to bag the billionaire became a topic of some controversy. People leaving from church - 1961Nationaal Archief, Picryl

20. She Would Do Anything For Money

Throughout their marriage, both Mona and Williams shared little about the origins of their romance with anyone—and for good reason. Decades after their marriage ended, in 1984, The New York Times shared the true story of how Mona managed to beguile Williams. The story suggests that she would do anything for money. Even betray a friend. Man reading a newspaper  on the street  - 1943Library of Congress, Picryl

21. Her Friend Saw The Man First

According to The New York Times, at the time that Mona met Williams, he was engaged to another woman. But not just any woman. Allegedly, Williams had proposed to Mona’s business partner and dear friend, Laura Merriam Curtis. Unlike the couture gowns Mona loved to wear, her friendship with Curtis was clearly not priceless.These Family Secrets Changed Everythingcottonbro studio, Pexels

22. She Canceled The Biggest Wedding Of The Century

Curtis was in seventh heaven, planning her marriage to the reportedly wealthiest man in America. It was almost certainly going to be the biggest wedding of the century—unless Mona had something to say about it. Brimming with excitement, Curtis traveled to Paris to pick out the right dress for her big day. A day that would never come.

Wedding dress at storepixabay.com , Picryl

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23. She Betrayed Her Friend

While she traveled to Paris full of naïve excitement, Curtis asked Mona to look after her husband-to-be, Williams. And that’s when Mona, ever the surreptitious, social-climbing socialite, hatched her plan. Mona “did such a fine job of carrying out her assigned task” that Williams forgot all about Curtis before she had even picked out a wedding dress. People on the street - 1923Unknown Author, Picryl

24. She Sailed Away From Scandal

As usual, Mona moved quickly. Later that same year, in 1926, she turned Williams into husband number three. Perhaps in an effort to avoid Curtis and the certain scandal that would follow her backstabbing betrayal, Mona and Williams embarked on a year-long honeymoon. The honeymoon was, in and of itself, scandalous enough.

Couple hugging - 1910Wikimedia Commons, Picryl

25. She Had A Warrior

For a whole year, Mona and Williams embarked on a whirlwind, worldwide honeymoon. Sailing aboard Willams’ megayacht, Warrior, “the largest and most expensive pleasure boat in the world”, the two graced every port of interest from New York to Macau. By the time they were ready to settle down, they simply couldn’t decide on one place to call home.le Turama dans le Couchant - 1994twiga269, Flickr

26. She Bought History, Brick By Brick

For someone who lived as luxuriously as Mona, having one love nest simply wouldn’t do. After their eyebrow-raising, year-long honeymoon, Mona and Williams purchased several historic properties all over the world to call home. While some of the properties she purchased boasted architectural and artistic significance with each brick, others were more ignominious.People in front of their houseHolyoke Public Library, Picryl

27. She Owned Houses Everywhere

The first property that Mona purchased with Williams’ money was the historic neo-Georgian Willard D. Straight House in Manhattan. She also splurged on an estate in Long Island and bought “Blythedunes” in Palm Beach. It was the property she purchased overseas, however, that really had everyone shocked—even if a little jealous.

Willard D. Straight House - 2021ajay_suresh, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Lived Like A Roman Emperor

Of all her jewels, dresses and designer outfits, Mona’s prized possession was, in the end, a Roman villa on the island of Capri, Il Fortino. The villa had previously belonged to the Roman emperors Augustus and, controversially, Tiberius. And it had a dark history. 

Allegedly, Mona’s new home had been the site of Tiberius’ descent into madness and debauchery. She would spend a fortune erasing the horrible memories from that place.Marina Grande - Capri - 2012Elliott Brown, Flickr

29. She Indulged All Of Her Desires

Ever since her first marriage and divorce, Mona had always had money—but not Harrison Williams kind of money. With one of the largest fortunes in the world at her disposal, Mona indulged her already extravagant, albeit impeccable, tastes. She splurged on designers, decorators, jewelers and artists of all kinds. She basically became their muse.

Coco Chanel FactsCoco Before Chanel (2009), Warner Bros.

30. She Was An “Outstanding” Beauty

One of Mona’s many good friends was the famed photographer Cecil Beaton. With her sylphlike figure and elegant demeanor, Mona quickly became Beaton’s favorite subject to photograph. He went so far as to call her “one of the few outstanding beauties of the thirties” and said that she “represented the epitome of all that taste and luxury can bring to flower”.

Portrait of Cecil Beaton - 1920sLafayette Ltd, Wikimedia Commons

31. She Was The “Best Dressed Woman In The World”

Beaton was not alone in his breathless praise for the indubitably voguish Mona Schlesinger-Bush-Williams. In 1933, the “Kentucky Countess” became the first American to receive a particularly flattering honor. Coco Chanel, Edward Molyneux and more of the world’s top couturiers named Mona “The Best Dressed Woman in the World”.Coco Chanel FactsCoco Before Chanel (2009), Warner Bros.

32. She Made It To Broadway

As the years (and outfits) rolled by, Mona’s love for fashion and impeccable wardrobe became a cultural staple. Legendary Broadway composer and songwriter Cole Porter, even dedicated a line to Mona in 1936’s Ridin’ High: “What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?” Apparently, everyone cared.

Cole Porter (young composer c. 1930's)John Irving, Flickr

33. She Was Dalí’s Muse

In the early 1940s, Mona bravely commissioned the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí to paint her portrait. Even though Dalí was, at the time, the most famous and celebrated artist, Mona’s decision to have him paint her portrait was, perhaps, misguided. He had a knack for burying brutal truths in his surrealist paintings—and he wasn’t about to spare Mona.

Salvador Dali QuizReg Lancaster, Getty Images

34. Her Portrait Was An Insult

The portrait that Dalí produced for Mona was practically satirical and left her speechless and, uncharacteristically, miserly. Apparently, the surrealist artist had found it necessary to paint the famously “Best Dressed Woman in the World” entirely undressed. Instead of finding Dalí’s portrait funny or poignant, Mona found it insulting.

Salvador Dali QuizOlena Znak, Shutterstock

35. She Refused To Pay

While Mona had developed something of a reputation for her habit of marrying men with money, she was still a respectable society figure. When Dalí showed her the portrait that he had painted of her in her birthday suit, her reaction was brutal. 

She refused to pay him a single dime until he fixed it. Unfortunately, she did not tell him how to fix it.

Salvador Dali factsRon Gerelli , Getty Images

36. Her Portrait Hid A Secret

Instead of painting Mona in a resplendent gown like in one of her myriad photographs, Dalí fixed the portrait by painting “The Best Dressed Woman in the World” in rags. In the painting, the tattered clothes hang drearily around her (almost too slim) figure. In case that wasn’t insulting enough, Dalí left a reference to one of Mona’s biggest scandals and secrets in the painting.Salvador Dali factsKeystone, Getty Images

37. Her Past Came Back To Haunt Her

In Dalí’s portrait of Mona, her hands are curiously curled up around her chest as though she was carrying something. But her hands are empty. Art critics have since decoded the curious gesture. They believe that it’s a reference to the son that Mona “sold” in her first divorce in exchange for a hefty payday.

Of course, that wasn’t even close to the payday she was about to get.

Woman at the windowLibrary of Congress, Picryl

38. She Inherited A Bottomless Fortune

In 1953, Mona suffered what would have been a tragedy for most people. In her case, it was practically a cause for celebration. After nearly 30 years of marriage, Mona’s beloved husband, Williams, passed away. Of course, he left her the only thing she had ever really wanted anyway—a bottomless fortune to go on lavish shopping sprees.Woman with money (B&W)Library of Congress, Picryl

39. She Married Her Secretary

Mona spent two years doing something she hadn’t done in a long time: going solo. Then, in 1955, she found what might actually have been the first true love of her life—apart from couture gowns, of course. To everyone’s surprise, Mona married her secretary, Albrecht Edzard “Eddie” von Bismarck-Schönhausen.

What did he have to offer? Well, he had the one thing she did not.

Wedding at church - 1924Library of Congress ,Picryl

40. She Got The One Thing She Didn’t Have

Mona had married for money (twice), and for looks. But she had never married for title. Until von Bismarck, that is. As it turns out, her fourth husband was a lot more than just a secretary. “Eddie” von Bismarck was a bona fide German Count and the grandson of the former German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

She thought she had found her happily ever after.

Portrait of Otto von Bismarck - 1890Jacques Pilartz, Wikimedia Commons

41. She Lost Husband Number Four

Whether it was love or title that brought them together, fate tore Mona and Eddie apart in 1970. After another 15 years of wedded bliss, Eddie von Bismarck passed on. However, even at 73 years of age, Mona was still one of the most eligible and elegant bachelorettes on the market. Even if only for her fortune.

Grave With Funeral FlowersPercy Benzie Abery, Wikimedia Commons

42. She Was Not Heartless

It doesn’t seem that Mona ever really mourned the loss of her husbands or the dissolution of her marriages. But, to call her heartless would be wildly inaccurate. Mona had a big heart—for fashion designers, that is. So, when the world of fashion lost one of its biggest and most iconic names, Mona was simply inconsolable.

Coco Chanel FactsCoco Before Chanel (2009), Warner Bros.

43. She Mourned The Loss Of Her Favorite Atelier

According to the American fashion columnist, Diana Vreeland, Mona only ever really broke down when her favorite atelier shuttered its doors. When Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his shop in 1968, Mona’s reaction was devastating. 

She allegedly locked herself in her bedroom at her villa in Capri for three days. It would take yet another marriage to get her out of her funk.Diana Vreeland photographed in the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

44. She Bought Royal Titles

One year after losing Eddie, Mona claimed to have, at last, found her one true love. In 1971, she tied the knot with “Count” Umberto de Martini, her former fourth husband’s physician. He was, of course, not really a Count. Mona had purchased the title for him from Italy’s King Umberto II of Italy. He wasn’t at all what he seemed.

Umberto II, last King of Italy. - 1944Tanner (Capt), Wikimedia Commons

45. Her Fifth Husband Was Not What He Seemed

With her first three marriages, Mona had always been the one marrying much older men. However, as she was getting on in years herself, most of the eligible bachelors were younger than she was. Like Umberto de Martini. He was a staggering 14 years younger than the wealthy and weathered “Kentucky Countess”.

That wasn’t the only way in which the tables had turned.Passengers on the deck - 1930Australian National Maritime Museum, Picryl

46. Her Husband Had Been Keeping A Secret

Mona and de Martini’s marriage ended abruptly in 1979. While driving his sports car, de Martini crashed and perished. However, in the wreckage, it became apparent that de Martini had flipped the script on Mona. He had only married her for her money, just as she had married Schlesinger, Bush and Williams before. But there was more.

He had been keeping a dark secret from her the whole time.Kristianstad-Ferrari-750 crushed - 1957Wikimedia Commons ,Picryl

47. Her Husband Had Only Married Her For Money

Once she began sorting out de Martini’s affairs after his fatal car accident, Mona learned something shocking. Not only had de Martini been using her for her extensive fortune, but he was, in fact, already married. With kids, no less. He had been siphoning off her “hard-earned” cash to support his secret family. It was more than she could take.  Adult ,alone woman cryingPunsararavishan, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

48. She Retired From The Social Scene

After her experience with her fifth husband and conman, de Martini, Mona retired from the social scene and gave up on the idea of marriage. After all, she was filthy rich. She split her remaining years between her apartment in Paris and her villa on the island of Capri, Il Fortino. However, that doesn’t mean that she gave up on fashion and luxury.Sad woman seating on the bedcottonbro studio, Pexels

49. She Was An Avid Gardener

Mona became an avid gardener in her later years. She imported “magnolia trees and roses from Kentucky” which she tended to in “linen Balenciaga shorts”. She even had fresh water imported daily from the Italian mainland to sustain her growing gardens. But, no matter how wealthy, famous and sophisticated she became, she never lost touch with her roots.Woman touching magnolia flowerŞeyma Ferhan ,Pexels

50. She Never Forgot Kentucky

In her final years, Mona paid homage to her home state. She donated various letters, papers, photos, jewels, dresses and priceless works of art to various museums and galleries in Kentucky. More importantly than bringing the world to Kentucky, however, Mona brought Kentucky to the world. As one historian put it, “She always had that sense of hospitality. She carried a piece of Kentucky out into the world”.

Kentucky - Speed Art Museum - 2018Onasill - Bill Badzo ,Flickr

51. She Was Buried In Couture

Mona eventually passed away in 1983 at the age of 86—and she made sure her death was just as lavish as her life. With five husbands and a bevy of real estate, she could have laid down to rest anywhere. In the end, she chose to call Long Island her final resting place, where she is buried alongside her favorite husbands number three and four, Harrison Williams and Eddie von Bismarck.

Of course, she was buried in a couture Givenchy gown.

Mrs Harrison Williams Walking Outside - 1900Bettmann, Getty Images


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