Countess Mona Bismarck: The Best Dressed Woman in the World

Mona in Capri, 1960s ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s.

By Holly Gregor

Photos courtesy of the Frazier History Museum

What is in the water in Kentucky? We are known for breeding fast horses and distilling distinguished bourbons, but we’re also known as the home of several smart, ambitious and beautiful women. Jennifer Lawrence and Diane Sawyer may come to mind of late, but out of the history books is one particularly remarkable woman: Mona Bismarck. She was the first American to be named Best Dressed Woman in the World in 1933 by a panel of elite designers including Coco Chanel. She remained on best-dressed lists for the next 30 years.

On exhibit now at the Frazier History Museum is “Magnificent Mona Bismarck: Kentucky Style Icon” running through the end of July. The show covers the couture clothes she wore from 1930-1970 by her favorite designers and close friends, Cristobal Balenciaga and Hubert de Givenchy. Other designers in the show include Madeleine Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, Roger Vivier and Emilio Pucci. In addition is her jewelry by Belperron and Verdura and photos by legendary photographer and her close friend, Cecil Beaton. Photos by Edward Steichen and Horst P. Horst are also included.

Schiaparelli, c 1938_©Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota.

Scott Rogers, the curator of the exhibit, says, “This show is about Mona’s grace.” Rogers admittedly is not a historian but a curator of costumes and textiles. He studied at the Pratt Institute and then worked in public relations at Prada and for the well known interior designer Peter Marino on the flagship stores for Dior, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. For this exhibit, he focused on conveying a broad image of Mona Bismarck. He didn’t want the show to be just about the fashion. “She was not (just) one thing,“ says Rogers. Penny Peavler, director of the Frazier History Museum, concurs. “People love learning about Mona,” she says. “They love the fashions. They comment that any of the items could be worn today and be just as fashionable. But more than anything, people are very interested in who Mona Bismarck was as a person.”

So, how does a woman born in Louisville and raised on a horse farm in Lexington become an international socialite and fashion icon for 30 years? On the surface, one could say she married well; maybe not all five times, but three out of the five men were wealthy. Her third husband, Harrison Williams, was at one point said to be the wealthiest man in the world at a worth of $168 million. But it was her fourth husband, Count Albrecht Edzard von Bismarck-Schönhausen, who gave her the title “Countess.”

Taking a closer look, the author of “Kentucky Countess: Mona Bismarck in Art & Fashion,” James D. Birchfield, wrote of her difficult childhood that reads like a soap opera or a pilot for a reality show today. Mona’s parents divorced when she was five, whereby she went to live with her paternal grandmother. Her grandmother was excommunicated from her church for liquor trafficking and later lived in an asylum. One of her uncles also lived in an asylum while another was killed in a hunting accident. An aunt died along with her child during childbirth and, a divorced uncle shot a young woman he was obsessed with and then shot himself.

When Mona was 15, she went to live with her father after her grandmother – someone she saw as a mother – died. By that time, Mona’s father had remarried “well” as they say. Purchasing a horse farm positioned him as trainer and breeder to the country’s elite turfmen. Birchfield says, “Mona learned firsthand the advantages of marrying upwards financially and socially.” Interesting to note, Mona had a son with her first husband, but he gained custody of him after their divorce.

While one’s challenges don’t completely define one’s self, other experiences added to her charm and sophistication, like growing up in the South. Lexington’s social expectations focused on a number of facets: manners and politeness, elegant Southern entertaining, who your friends were and a gentleness not found in other parts of the country. All of these factors further shaped Mona the woman as she came of age.

Mona was also a very striking figure who commanded a room. Having turned gray in her 30s, her stylish silver hair along with her light blue eyes made for a beautiful combination. However, beauty is not only skin deep. Woo Speed – fashion stylist, a sponsor of the exhibit and a Louisville fashion icon herself (albeit a quieter one – one without a publicist), says, “Of course, we don’t know how she brought people to her in a jet setter kind of way: parties, events, fundraisers, huge gala events. People wanted to be around her. People wanted to know the qualities she had, so you had to get to know her. To get to know her was to be closer to her and understand her and what her interests were and how she went about her everyday life. That’s the mystery of someone like that to us: we can learn and read about her, but we don’t really know why she was so fascinating close up.”

Philadelphia Museum of Art Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, 1978

Speed imagines what is must have been like for Mona in her day with, “the making of the clothes and buying 30-40 pieces [a season, requiring four to five fittings] from one designer and doing the social activities of that era, which were daily or every evening. (She was) traveling to all parts of the world and having specific jewelry to match an outfit that a designer had taken three months of his heart and soul to make. We just don’t live in an era of that grandness anymore.”

If all of that sounds like a lot of work, it was, and it doesn’t even include the task of being photographed for Vogue magazine more than 60 times. In order to manage her public persona, Mona had a publicist, according to Birchfield. Also described in Birchfield’s book is the beat of the day; high society was the aspiration of many and Mona had all the right ingredients. The stars may have been aligned, but Mona was committed and she innately knew how to rise to the top.

Also worth noting is Mona’s attention to detail as seen not only in her clothes but her homes as well. She owned mansions in New York, Long Island, Palm Beach, Paris and Capri. As Rodgers observes, “Things were not frivolous. She was most definitely a perfectionist.” That trait alone makes her stand out. Add in her exposure to the best of fashion, jewelry, houses and interior design and you have a style icon in the making.

As an interior designer of Louisville’s most beautiful homes for more than 30 years, Rick Jenkins says, “Her exposure was amazing. Exposure is everything. Had Mona not had access to the best designers and the richest people in the world, she would not have been able to accomplish what she did. She set a standard of fashion and style to be emulated by those around her and the people who read about her in the paper and magazines, documenting her life and all that it entailed. People aspired to be her.”

Mrs. Harrison Williams, 1935_©The Cecil Beaton Archive at Sotheby’s

My favorite part of the exhibit is the handwritten letters from her wildly influential friends: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jackie Onassis, photographer Cecil Beaton and editor-in-chief of Vogue, Diana Vreeland, to name a few. Not on exhibit, but told to me by Rogers, are letters left to the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, where strangers wrote to her asking for her help. Included are follow up letters thanking her for her generosity, a common theme in many of the letters from friends and strangers alike.

Another example Rogers uses to describe Mona’s kind, true nature, is, “She is photographed with scrappy little dogs she scooped up out of the gutter. She didn’t have a pedigreed dog.”

Surprisingly, Mona did not talk about her clothes, according to Rogers, and would probably prefer to be known as a gardener. On exhibit are photographs of her stylishly dressed in her gardening shorts by Balenciaga in her garden at Villa “Il Fortino” on the island of Capri. This is where she spent her later years before she died in Paris in 1983.

Upon her death, Mona left the majority of her estate to establish the Mona Bismarck American Center for Arts and Culture in her Paris townhouse. Director of the center Bianca Roberts explains Mona’s intentions: “We are not a museum or a shrine to Mona Bismarck. The purpose is to strengthen and deepen the friendship between the French and Americans through art and culture.” The range of events includes art exhibits and concerts as well as dance, fashion and cinema events. Roberts explained to me that 1968 was a very important year in France, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the pivotal time.

“1968 was the year Paris was engulfed in riots, the government was almost toppled and it was the arrival of the youth movement and youth power in France,” she says. “It changed French society to the core.” At the same time in the United States, Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. At the Democratic National convention, thousands of Vietnam War protesters were met with police brutality. At the Mexico City Olympics, three winning athletes – two of which were American – stood on the podium with clenched fists to advocate for black power. The Kent State massacre occurred where four students were killed protesting the war.

Balenciaga, c. 1953_©Goldstein Museum of Design, Minnesota University

Roberts goes on to say, “So I got two really interesting people – one is Greil Marcus, America’s critic for Rolling Stone magazine and great social critic, and (the other is) French filmmaker Olivier Assayas – to come to the American center and talk about the legacy of 1968 and how it resonates today, particularly through arts and culture and music and film. It was just a fascinating discussion with an overflow crowd attending. This is typical of how I feel we can continue the dialogue, to share experience, to share insights about mutual challenges through literature, film and music and how we have all been affected by those things.”

Roberts adds that the French are looking at what people are doing in the United States. Hopefully, we are looking at them as well. And for this exchange, we may have Mona to thank. VT

Magnificent Mona Bismarck

Now through July 29

Frazier History Museum