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Mona von Bismarck

Mona von Bismarck, a woman whose name became a byword for international style, was born Mona Strader in 1897 in Louisville, Ky. Her first marriage, in 1917 to Henry Schlesinger, took her from Bluegrass Country to Milwaukee. Her second, three years later to James Irving Bush, a.k.a. "the handsomest man in America," ended in divorce in 1924 in Paris. Back in New York, she caught the eye of "the utilities king of America," Harrison Williams; twenty-four years her elder, he would become her third husband. At their Capri retreat, Il Fortino, she later entertained a who's-who list of guests, among them Count Edward von Bismarck, whom she married in 1953 after the death of Williams.

The countess' beauty was celebrated by Cecil Beaton and Salvador Dalí, satirized by Truman Capote in Answered Prayers, and memorialized in Cole Porter's Red, Hot and Blue! In 1933, she was voted "the best-dressed woman in the world" by Coco Chanel and other top designers, and 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. Now, Hubert de Givenchy has curated an exhibition in Paris featuring the pieces that Balenciaga (his mentor) created for von Bismarck, a woman an astute vendeuse once described as "the image of true elegance: 'the right wear at the right time.'"

—Laird Borrelli

Mona Bismarck, Cristóbal Balenciaga: Perfection Partagée, shows through May 20 at the Mona Bismarck Foundation, Paris, www.monabismarck.org.

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