Tucked back on the second floor of the Frazier History Museum is the tale of a woman’s life. But different from a normal historical perspective of pictures and labels, this tale is told through her clothes, her jewelry, her shoes, publicity about her and her collection of personal correspondence. The Louisville-born woman featured in this special exhibition is international socialite and fashion maven, Mona Bismarck, aka “The Kentucky Countess.”
Who was this woman, whose full name is Mona Travis Strader Schlesinger Bush Williams Bismarck Martini? Here’s what we know from the historical perspective of the show:
- She was born in Louisville in 1897, but she was raised in Lexington on a horse farm, where her father was a horse trainer.
- She had five husbands, one of whom was one of the richest men in America in the 1930s.
- She was named “The Best Dressed Woman in the World” in 1933.
- She was in Vogue many times, both for her fashion and her homes.
- She had beautiful homes and gardens in addition to her beautiful clothes.
Besides the accolades and history of someone, what can you tell about a person by their clothes? A lot, actually. In this carefully compiled and masterfully executed exhibition, curator Scott Rogers has done a vast retrospective of Mona’s life as told by her clothes, jewelry and shoes. What we see is a woman dedicated to timeless fashion with an affinity for beautiful colors, textures and fabrics. We also see a woman who wore her clothes, but did not let them wear her. We see a woman who, in all pictures of her, curated her own look with her perfectly appropriate couture outfits and beguiling looks.
She was indeed a beautiful woman with much attention paid to her “aquamarine” eyes and her gray hair. She went gray naturally and at a young age, which made her a standout. You can see it in all public pictures of her — she is easy to pick out in a crowd. In her later years, she started coloring her hair a dark brown; perhaps her need to stand out when she was younger had morphed into a need to blend in.
Apparently, it was more than her looks that drew people of all types to her, as evidenced by her personal correspondence that is on display. Her letters were all donated to the Filson Historical Society and included in the exhibition. Letters from Aristotle Onassis, Joseph Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are all featured, all deeply personal and heartfelt, and all of them expressing gratitude for Mona’s gracious manner and friendship. If she brought anything from her upbringing to her famed international lifestyle, it was her Southern hospitality, which was a magnet in her social circles.
The exhibition is divided up into several parts, each showing different facets of Mona’s life and fashion. The first gallery is devoted to historical information about her with a timeline of her life and history, accompanied by pictures of her along the way. There is an entire wall of correspondence from important people of the day, and the museum has been gracious enough to transcribe those letters into large, legible font next to the actual handwriting. There is also a dinner party vignette in the center of the room, complete with couture-dressed mannequins and place cards indicating the guests’ notoriety (i.e. Wallis Simpson).
The second gallery is an homage to her Vogue covers and articles. Much time can be spent poring over not only the content of the articles, but also the beautiful graphic design and layout of these vintage publications.
Even more notorious than making the pages of Vogue was having a famous artist paint your semblance. Salvador Dalí painted Mona in the 1940s in his Portrait of Mrs. Harrison Williams, where he depicted her nude walking through ancient Roman ruins — a nod to her Capri home, which was an old Roman fort. She protested the nude painting, and he opted to paint her in rags, the antithesis of who she was. Despite being dressed in rags, she still looks incredibly fashionable and beautiful.
The third gallery is a stunning display of her evening gowns. The takeaway from this display is that all of these gowns are currently in fashion. Mona’s timeless fashion sense transcended the ages. There are also vignettes of her shoes and a large photo collage of her famous jewelry. Here are just a couple of the exquisite gowns and accessories from this gallery — one must see the exhibition in person to really experience the breadth and range of her singular style.
The final gallery is more personal with pictures of all of the things Mona loved: Her dogs, her garden and swimming. She seems at ease in all of these pictures, whether she is dressed in a full-length gown or in designer Bermuda shorts. Mona most loved gardening and made her garden and landscaping at her home, Il Fortino in Capri, into one of the most famous gardens in the Mediterranean. She had roses imported from Kentucky, keeping true to her roots, and fresh water brought in to sustain her plants.
Mona lived a long life, passing away in 1983 at the age of 86. She is buried in Long Island, NY … in a beautiful pink-and-black Givenchy gown.
This exhibition will be on display at the Frazier until July 29, 2018. This article is merely a peek at the grandeur of Mona’s life and personal effects — it is a must-see exhibit! The Frazier History Museum is located at 829 West Main St., Louisville, KY 40202. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For more information, call (502) 753-5663 or visit fraziermuseum.org. To purchase tickets, click here.
Also, we recommend perusing the website of the Mona Bismarck American Center, which is located in Paris and has many, many interesting facts about this very interesting woman.
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