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Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck

There are women who marry well. And then there are women who make it an art. Mona von Bismarck was the latter. Married five times (FIVE TIMES), she had quite the life story (and the jewelry to go with it). Read about her in today's episode of #GreatJewelryCollectors on our blog: https://www.katiecallahanandco.com/?p=6593
Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck

There are women who marry well. And then there are women who make it an art. Countess Mona von Bismarck (also known at Mona Bismarck) Was the latter.

Born Edmona Margaret Travis Strader on February 5, 1897 in Louisville, Kentucky, the “Kentucky Countess”, as she was later known, was raised by her paternal grandmother after her parents split when she was five. Perhaps looking for love she never felt she received or possibly just wanting out of Kentucky, she married Henry J. Schlesinger, a man 18 years her senior (let that sink in a minute – the year she was born, he was the age she was when he married her) in 1917. Henry owned a farm in Kentucky where Mona’s father was a trainer but he also owned an iron and coke business in Milwaukee and that is where they established their residence. During the marriage, Mona bore a son, which she left in the custody of his father upon their divorce in 1920, after receiving half a million dollars to do so.

Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck
Countess Mona Bismarck owned this antique enamel, pearl, and diamond serpent necklace. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s

Moving on to husband number two, Mona married James Irving Bush, 14 years her senior and said to be the “handsomest man in America” in 1921 but they later divorced in 1925 in Paris.

Mona lived the single life for a while and decided to open a dress shop in 1926 in New York with her friend Laura Merriam Curtis. In a fun twist, Laura had been previously engaged to Harrison Williams, who was reportedly the richest man in America at the time (worth about $600 million then, which would be about $8.5 billion in today’s dollars). We’re not sure whether Laura and Harrison had called it quits first or whether Mona swept in and claimed him as husband number three right out from under her friend, but Mona and Harrison, a widower 24 yeas older than she was, married on July 2, 1926. After a honeymoon cruise on his yacht (the largest and most expensive pleasure boat at the time), they settled in at a mansion at 94th and 5th in New York, but also had homes on Long Island and in Palm Beach and a villa overlooking Capri’s Marina Grande, on land that once belonged to Caesar Augustus.

Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck
Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck at her home in Paris.

It was during her marriage to Harrison, which lasted for 27 years, that Mona was named “The Best Dressed Woman In The World” by a panel of designers including Coco Channel and Jeanne Lanvin, joining friends the Duchess of Windsor and Elsie de Wolfe, who had also received the honor.

Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck
Mona von Bismarck as painted by Salvador Dali in 1943.

Poor Harrison passed away in 1953 and Mona, not one to stay single for long, married her “secretary” Albrecht Edzard Heinrich Karl, Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen. Albrecht was an interior decorator and the grandson of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1955. Widowed yet again in 1970, Mona married von Bismarck’s physician in 1971, Umberto de Martini (this time 14 years her junior). She was a Countess (Albrecht had been a Count) but her new husband had no title, so Mona petitioned King Umberto II of Italy to grant her new husband the title of “Count”. But even a title can’t save you from the cold hard truth and after Umberto crashed his sports car in 1979 (the accident was later referred to by other socialites as “Martini on the Rocks”) and died, Mona realized that Martini, like von Bismarck, had married her for her money. Turns out ol’ Martini already had a wife <gasp> and had been bilking Mona for funds to support his children.

Great Jewelry Collectors: Mona von Bismarck
The Bismarck Sapphire Necklace, designed by Cartier in 1935 and now housed in the Smithsonian.

Mona lived the last four years of her life as a single, widowed woman, living mostly at her home in Paris and putting her affairs in order. Her days were spent organizing and gifting her letters, paintings, jewelry and other precious items to various museums and cultural societies, including the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture, which is still housed in her former townhouse in Paris and operating on funds raised from the sale of her estates and her remaining fortune. She was buried in a Givenchy gown and rests with her third and fourth husbands, Harrison Williams and Eddie Von Bismarck, in Locust Valley Cemetery, on Long Island.


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