Extraordinarily beautiful and well dressed, Mona Bismarck was famous
for her pearls and for her love of them. Diana Vreeland wrote, “By day, I
never saw her without her enormous pearls gleaming on her immaculate
Born in Kentucky, Mona Bismarck was one of the most influential tastemakers of all time. She was
famous equally for her beauty and fashion sense, particularly her trademark silver hair and pearls. 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, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong, and Lanvin.
Mona Bismarck. Photo by Cecil Beaton. Vogue, July 1, 1939
She married five times and ”she always married better and better,” says James Birchfield, author of the
biography Kentucky Countess. Mona’s marriages propelled her upwards in society. As Vogue
described, she ascended quickly by marrying a series of older, wealthier men. She acquired the aristocratic
title of countess by marrying Eddie Bismarck, a grandson of the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in
1955 and she reached its pinnacle with her third marriage to Harrison Williams, who was known as the
richest man in America, if not the world.
Cole Porter immortalized her in his song “Ridin’ High” and wrote the line, delivered by Ethel Merman:
“What do I care if Mrs Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?” in the 1936 Broadway
musical Red, Hot and Blue. While Truman Capote satirized her in Answered Prayers.
Mona at her box in the Metropolitan Opera.
Surrealist Salvador Dali painted her portrait. With his legendary perversity, he painted Mona, one of the
wealthiest and most fashionable members of early-mid 19th century high society, in tattered black rags–but
still with her pearls on.
Salvador Dalí’s “The Portrait of Mrs. Harrison Williams (1943), depicts the famous countess. Sotheby’s
London auctioned off this superb portrait for £ 2.5 million early February 2013.
She developed a close friendship with Cristóbal Balenciaga in her 30 years as a client and patron. After a
railroad accident destroyed many of her clothes, she ordered 150 dresses from the couturier in one sitting.
Upon the closing of Balenciaga’s fashion house in 1968, it was said that Mona took to her bed for three
days in despair. That’s how she took fashion–very intensely.
Dressed to the nines, Bismarck was regularly photographed by Steichen, Horst and her close friend, Cecil
Beaton, who was devoted to Mona.
Mona Bismarck in pearls and Balenciaga at her home, Hotel Lambert. Photographed by Cecil Beaton,
Hubert de Givenchy said, ”Mona would make sure that
the pearls didn’t touch her dress when she sat down. It
was important the jewels could move. “
Mona, wearing her trademark pearls
There were several pearl jewels in her collection, the most magnificent of which was a double-strand
natural pearl necklace. For natural pearls their size, their luster and colour were superb. They are matched
with pearl and diamond earrings by Petochi.
The two-strand pearl necklace is strung with 37 and 33 pearls . The pearls vary in size from pproximately
7.7 mm to 15 mm. They are matched with a pair of 17.25mm pearl and diamond earclips by Petochi.
The double strand pearl necklace is joined together by a diamond clasp surrounded by a single layer of 28
In May 1986, this necklace sold for $410,000 surpassing the pre-sale estimate of $139,000-195,0000 at
Sotheby’s in Geneva. The enhanced price realized for the Mona Bismarck two-strand pearl necklace in
May 1986, represented the beginning of a trend towards the end of the 20th-century, during which a strong
auction market for natural pearls was registered, where the final prices realized far exceeded the pre-sale
In her later years, she divided her time between her townhouse in Paris and her villa in Capri. She died in
1983, but her legacy lives on through the Mona Bismarck Foundation in Paris, which promotes Franco-
American cooperation through the arts.
All throughout her life, she wore pearls. And when she did, it was always, as Cecil Beaton once described,
“little short of a tour de force”.
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