Rediscovering the Fascinating Life and Legacy of Countess Mona von Bismarck

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Which, speaking of swans and swans in our midst, yesterday I came upon this Diary from a year ago about the one we could call the Swan of Swans, Mona, otherwise known first as Mrs. Harrison Williams and four husbands later as the Countess von Bismarck.

The countess was a Kentucky-born girl whose father was a horse trainer and through four husbands became a legend in her own life. At the end of her life she lived in Paris and on the isle of Capri where she was daily devoted to her enormous gardens needing so much water that she actually had a lot of it shipped in by boat.

I don’t know if Truman Capote ever met her, but if he did it’s not likely that he’d ever forget her. If you’ve already read it, or never heard of her, she remains a legend …

Wednesday, January 4, 2023. These are often the quietest days of the year in New York. Many are often on vacations traveling or visiting family or holding up in their favorite vacation resorts. The time — not ever leisure — gives us a chance in the NYSD to look at the world we’re in, the world around us and the world we all came from at one time or another.

Countess Mona von Bismarck on the entry wall to the Verdura salon.

I’m always fascinated by the world and its past and progress we call change. Our collections of photographs are inspiration and among them is that of a woman who was well before my time but who was a close friend of two people I knew, John Galliher here in New York, and Jean Howard in Beverly Hills.

This photograph (which is actually enlarged to cover the entry wall of the Verdura salon on Fifth Avenue) is Countess Mona von Bismarck, one of the most famous of the fashionable society women in the world in the first half of the 20th century.

Both John and Jean were frequent guests of the countess in Capri where she was devoted to her extensive gardens. John once told me that her villa gardens were so extensive requiring so much fresh water that she had it shipped in by boat.

A little girl from Louisville, Kentucky born in 1897, Mona was the daughter of a professional horse trainer. When she was 17 she married Henry Schlesinger, a wealthy businessman who was 18 years her senior, with whom she had a son, Robert Henry Schlesinger. When she divorced Schlesinger three years later, she paid Mr. Schlesinger a half million dollars to take over custody of their child and she married a banker, James Bush. Bush was 14 years her senior, and said to be ‘the handsomest man in America, whom she divorced five years later.

Mrs. Harrison Williams in front of her portrait by Sorin, photographed by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, October, 1933

By the time she was in her late 20s, she was on her third marriage in 1926 to one Harrison Williams who was 24 years her senior, a utilities tycoon and one of the richest men in America – and one of the first billionaires.

Their honeymoon was a round-the-world voyage on his yacht, Warrior, the largest private boat of its kind in the world. When they returned to New York, they bought the brick Georgian mansion designed by Delano and Aldrich on 94th Street and Fifth Avenue (still standing) for businessman Willard Straight and his wife, Whitney heiress, Dorothy.

The Willams’ residences included a huge estate in Bayville, Long Island, a mansion in Palm Beach, and a villa (Il Fortino) on the island of Capri which belonged first to Caesar Augustus and later to the Emperor Tiberius

Naturally she was considered by all the great French designers such as Chanel, Molyneux, Lanvin, Vionnet, Lelong — as the Best Dressed Woman in the world. Cole Porter even wrote a song for Ethel Merman for the Broadway musical Ridin’ High with the lyric: “What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?”

Mona von Bismarck wearing a black broadtail coat with two large hammered gold leaf pins by Belperron in 1936.

By then she was already famous in the world with the greatest collection jewels (including many pieces designed by Fulco Verdura, and an enormous art collection of the immortal artists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Like many of her contemporaries, she had her jewels redesigned to keep up with the fashion, so only a few of her Art Deco pieces survive in their original form.

When Williams died in 1955, he left her an enormous fortune. Two years later she married her “secretary,” and interior decorator, Count von Bismarck grandson of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and they settled down in Paris in an apartment in the Hotel Lambert as well as Villa in Capri. He died in 1970 and she married his doctor, an Italian nobleman who was 14 years her junior, Umberto de Martini. When he died nine years later in an auto accident (friends referred to the accident as “Martini on the rocks”), she learned that he had another wife and family and had been bilking her of her fortune for his children.

Mona at the Hotel Lambert in Paris. © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S

Cecil Beaton described her as “one of the few outstanding beauties of the thirties … who represented the epitome of all that taste and luxury can bring to flower.”

Her last years were spent quietly mainly in Capri and in Paris, where she died in 1983 at the age of 86. Her legacy continues in a foundation that bears her name, based in her home in Paris, which fosters Franco-American friendship through art and culture.

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