As New York's Fashion Week draws to a close, The Filson pays homage to style icon Countess Mona Bismarck. Mona Bismarck, née Strader, was born in Louisville in 1897 and raised in Lexington. She married five times but it was her third marriage to multi-millionaire utilities executive Harrison Williams in 1926 that propelled Mona to the highest social circles, and made her one of the leading lights of international café society. The couple owned two homes in New York and one in Palm Beach, a succession of apartments in Paris, and Il Fortino, Mona’s beloved villa on Capri.
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. 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, and writers. Her homes, clothes and lifestyle were regularly chronicled in newspapers and magazines, especially Vogue, and Mona was photographed by famous photographers of the day including Steichen, Horst and her close friend, Cecil Beaton. Ever the muse, Salvador Dali painted her portrait, Cole Porter included her name in song lyrics, and she was mentioned in movies and alluded to in books.
Harrison Williams died in 1953, and in 1955 Mona married her longtime friend, Count Edward von Bismarck, the grandson of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. She 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 work of the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris.
It was Mona’s interest in her native Kentucky that led her to donate some of her papers and photographs to The Filson Historical Society. The bulk of her papers, spanning 1916-1994, is comprised of personal correspondence. The Mona Bismarck photograph collection spans from the 1860s to 1979. The most beautiful images in the collection are Cecil Beaton’s portrait photographs of Mona. The collection 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.