Mona von Bismarck topped the List of World’s Best Dressed Women (part one)

7 Sep
ph. Cecil Beaton
Mona von Bismarck. Ph. Cecil Beaton. Vogue, October 1, 1936.

From her humble beginnings in Kentucky, a girl named Edmona Strader transformed herself into Mona Schlesinger Bush Williams Bismarck-Schönhausen de Martini, the queen of international society and fashion icon, who became the world’s most photographed non-professional mannequin. She possessed charm, liveliness and a sense of humor. Her ladder up the social ranks was a familiar one: She arose quickly by marrying a series of older, wealthier men.

Mona was one of the most remarkable American women of her century.


Short Biography

Mrs. Harrison Williams, later Mona, the Countess of Bismarck, in front of her portrait by Sorin. Photo by Cecil Beaton. Vogue, October 1, 1933.
 Mrs. Harrison Williams in front of her portrait by Sorin, ph. Cecil Beaton in Vogue, October, 1933

Margaret Edmona “Mona” Travis Strader was born in Louisville, 1897.  She was beautiful even as a child and developed into a stunning woman. At 20, she married Henry J. Schlesinger, who was 18 years older. Her wedding gift from the groom was “a magnificent rope of pearls.” Together they had a son, Robert H. Schlesinger, whom she left in the custody of his father in exchange for half a million dollars, when they divorced in 1920. One year later, Mona married banker and athlete James Irving Bush, fourteen years her senior and reputedly “the handsomest man in America.” This would be her second unhappy marriage and after four years, in 1925, they divorced.

Mona returned to New York, where in 1926, she opened a dress shop with a close friend, Laura Merriam Curtis. Laura was engaged to Harrison Williams, but three days after the announcement of the engagement, Laura abandoned Harrison and remarried her former husband, James Freeman Curtis. Mona, who first met Harrison at her second wedding, got reintroduced to the richest man in America with an estimated fortune of $680 million ($8,000 million in today dollars).

harrison williamsMr. Harrison Williams

On July 2, 1926, Mona married Harrison, who was a widower 24 years her senior. For their honeymoon they went on a cruise around the world on Harrisons  Warrior, a steam yacht with ten staterooms and a crew of 45, at the time, the largest, most expensive pleasure boat in the world. The couple stopped in Ceylon, India, Iraq, and China.

When they returned, Mona and her husband divided their time between residences in New York, Palm Beach, Paris and Capri.  Their social circle included statesmen and politicians such as American Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower; royalty – the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Princess Grace of Monaco; and an impressive number of writers and artists, including Greta Garbo, Cristòbal Balienciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Paul Newman and Enrich Maria Remarque.

Even after losing a lot of assets in the stock market crash of 1929, Harrisons wealth and position afforded Mona a lavish lifestyle, which included buying and wearing the most beautiful couture. Her favorite couturier was Cristóbal Balenciaga, with whom she developed a close friendship in the 30 years she was a client and patron. To complement her radiant complexion, Mona prefered to wear colors like beige, gray or smoked blue and for evening, pastels.

It was said that Givenchy dressed the rich; Balenciaga the very rich – and Mona was married to the richest man in the world.

Mona von Bismarck with her cigarette case that once belonged to Louis XIV. Photo by Cecil Beaton. Vogue, February 1, 1938.Mrs. Harrison Williams with her cigarette case that once belonged to Louis XIV. Dres by Vionnet, ph. Cecil Beaton. Vogue, February 1938  
mrs. Harrison Williams
Countess Mona von Bismarck with Cecil Beaton and Ben Ali Haggin at the Metropolian Opera Ball, April 28, 1933.Mona with Cecil Beaton and Ben Ali Haggin at the Metropolian Opera Ball, April 28, 1933

In time she became known as one of the most glamorous and beautiful women in New York. In 1933, Mona was the first American to be elected one of the ten best dressed women in the world by the Parisian couturiers, including Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong, and Lanvin.

The next year she again topped the list of world’s best dressed women. Newspapers estimated she did spend $50,000 a year on clothing, accessories, and furs. “Mrs. Harrison Williams was among the few exceptionally beautiful women who marked the 1930s,” friend Cecil Beaton wrote. He photographed and wrote about her for the February 1 issue of Vogue, 1939.

After a railroad accident destroyed many of her clothes, she ordered 150 dresses from Balenciaga in one sitting. In 1940, Mrs. Harrison Williams tops the new International Best Dressed List, now picked by American fashion designers. Three years later Salvador Dalí painted her portrait.

Mona’s first happy marriage that ended in 1953, when Harrison Williams died at the age of 80 at the couple’s Long Island estate.

Mrs Harrisson Williams 1939 Portrait Photo Cecil Beaton Jewels Art DecoMrs Harrisson Williams 1939 Portrait Photo Cecil Beaton .


 Pieces of Mona’s wardrobe

BalenciagaBalenciaga, 1955

BalenciagaBalenciaga, 1959

2Balenciaga, 1964 

Mona Williams von Bismark-Schonhausen de Martini, Balenciaga evening ensemble, 1968Balenciaga, 1968


balenc. 1Balenciaga






Charles JamesCharles James

Charles JamesChanel


Bright Is the MorningChanel

detail Chanel dress

detail Chanel dress


next week:  Mona von Bismarck cries three days when Balenciaga retired



info: Wikipedia, VoguePedia,, The Independent & the Mona von Bismarck foundation

3 Responses to “Mona von Bismarck topped the List of World’s Best Dressed Women (part one)”

  1. Scott Rogers 11 September 2016 at 20:31 #

    Hello. I am hoping you may be of assistance. I am curating a costume show of the style and grace of Countess Mona von Bismarck at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville Kentucky (Mona’s birthplace). You have many pieces of Mona’s couture on your site that I am not familiar with and/or don’t know what institution is so fortunate to have.
    Towards the bottom of your post:
    Vionnet, black (looks almost like a “horsehair” embroidered overskirt), two Charles James
    and two Chanel at the very end.
    ~Scott Rogers

    • A.G.Nauta couture 12 September 2016 at 10:16 #


      black Vionnet dress: Metropolitan Museum: Accession Number:C.I.46.4.4a–c
      pink Charles James: Metropolitan Museum : Accession Number:2009.300.3091a, b
      I made a mistake with the other Charles James, which is a Chanel: Met Museum: Accession Number:C.I.48.15.1a–c
      The Chanel dress at the very end, I cannot find at the moment.

      with regards,
      Netty Nauta

  2. Theresa smith 30 March 2018 at 17:50 #

    The fashions were outstanding back in the day and even today they would be in style. What a lucky Lady

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: