Arts & Culture

The South’s Most Glamorous Socialite

A new exhibition documents the life of Mona von Bismarck, a Kentucky-born international style icon whose greatest love—after fashion—was her garden

Photo: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys

Before she was named the World’s Best Dressed Woman, before Salvador Dalí painted a portrait of her, and before she transformed a landscape on an Italian island, Mona von Bismarck was a Kentucky girl who grew up in horse country.

The daughter of a trainer and breeder at Churchill Downs, Mona Travis Strader was born in Louisville in 1897, and went on to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous style icons. Truman Capote used her as his model for the dazzling character Kate McCloud in Answered Prayers. “Her extraordinary catlike eyes and blue-grey hair are New York phenomena,” reported Vogue in 1936, adding, “Her dressing is high art.” Now, for the first time in her home state, Bismarck’s style and couture clothing are the focus of a new exhibition at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville (Magnificent Mona Bismarck: Kentucky Style Icon, March 15 – July 29).

Photo: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys

Bismarck wearing Belperron jewelry in 1936.

“Even though Mona moved away and became a member of international café society, she clearly kept that grace and authenticity that Kentuckians and Southerners are known for,” says Penny Peavler, president and CEO of the museum.

Fifty outfits that span five decades of Bismarck’s wardrobe are on display, giving a sense of the panache that landed her the title of “Best Dressed Woman in the World”—bestowed by a panel of top designers throughout the 1930s—and earned her a spot on the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1958. Exhibits include three dozen of her Balenciaga and Givenchy garments and hats, twenty-four pairs of Roger Vivier pumps, a Verdura brooch, and a diamond cuff by Belperron, representing one of the era’s finest collections of clothing and jewelry.

Photo: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys

Bismarck wearing Balenciaga, one of her favorite couture designers.

“She was so careful with her choices,” Peavler says. “She lived this very curated life.” Her tastes launched several trends such as double-strand pearls, asymmetrical dresses, halter-cut tops, and nude nail polish. Photographs of Bismarck and her homes, plus a reproduction of an oil painting entitled “The Kentucky Countess” by Salvador Dalí round out the display, which is organized by decade, from the 1930s to the 1970s. The final gallery, entitled “Greatest Love,” focuses on Bismarck’s longstanding passion for gardening.

Photo: P. Horst

A selection from the exhibit devoted to Bismarck’s gardening, including a photo of Mona in her Capri rose garden in 1967.

Of the five men Bismarck married, her third husband, Harrison Williams, was reportedly the richest man in America when they wed in 1926. (Years later, in 1984, the New York Times noted a bit of gossip about their romance—Williams was first engaged to Mona’s friend Laura Curtis. When Curtis went to Paris to buy her wedding attire, she asked Mona to look after her fiancé. Mona “did such a fine job of carrying out her assigned task that in 1926 she, rather than Miss Curtis, wound up marrying Mr. Williams, who was 24 years older than she,” reported the Times.)

Their nuptials catapulted Bismarck into the global gaze, and the couple split time among properties in New York, Palm Beach, and on the Italian island of Capri, where they maintained an estate on land that Roman emperors Caesar Augustus and Tiberius had each owned centuries before.

Photo: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sothebys

Mona in Capri in the 1960s.

The cliffside villa became her primary residence for the second half of her life. After Williams’ death, she married the grandson of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. She was known to walk about her land on Capri, dogs trotting alongside, while she tended flowers in linen Balenciaga shorts.

“In that garden, she imported magnolia trees and roses from Kentucky,” Peavler says. “And then she had fresh water ferried in from mainland Italy to take care of them.” Bismarck hosted such guests there as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who wrote after the visit of her gratitude “to step into the world of serenity and beauty you have made—and now it has all gone like mist—but it affected us all so deeply.”

After Bismarck died in 1983, she was buried in a black and pink Givenchy gown. Known more internationally than in her own home state, Bismarck’s story and style will now be shared where her roots remain. “She always had that sense of hospitality,” Peavler says. “She carried a piece of Kentucky out into the world.”

Photo: Frazier History Museum

Portraits of Mona framed at the exhibition Magnificent Mona Bismarck: Kentucky Style Icon.

Photo: Frazier History Museum

The exhibition includes twenty-four pairs of pumps by Roger Vivier.

Photo: Frazier History Museum

Mona von Bismarck’s couture collection included these Balenciaga dresses including a hostess gown of shell pink silk crêpe with net coat applied with iridescent horsehair as lace.