Bismarck’s last grandson and the glamorous American beauty – a turbulent US-German romance
On May 2, 1945, leading units of the advancing 34th US infantry division “Red Bull” arrived at the Swiss border by Lake Como. Somewhere in amongst the long convoys – at times sitting atop a tank – was a beautiful American woman. She was part of the entourage accompanying the commander of the 5th US army group, Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers, on a quest to find her German boyfriend.
A short time later, Mona Strader was able to embrace him in the Swiss town of Lugano: Albrecht “Eddy” Graf von Bismarck, a German Armed Forces deserter and the last grandson of the Chancellor and founder of the empire of 1871. It meant one of the most romantic love stories ever to have linked America and Germany could continue. The pair had not seen each other for four years, not since 1941 on the island of Capri.
The relationship between Mona and Eddy began in the early 1930s, when Mona and her husband Harrison Williams became acquainted with Bismarck’s grandson in Venice during a tour of Europe. With an estimated fortune of US $600 million, Williams was the richest man in the US at the time. Bismarck, who was living in Rome in dire financial straits, was appointed Mona’s secretary and became her lover. Harrison, who was 24 years older than Mona, tolerated the love triangle and allowed the couple to travel without him for one to two months per year.
Margaret Edmona “Mona” Travis Strader was born in 1897 in Kentucky, the daughter of a horse breeder. She had a chaotic childhood, spending much of her time in and around stables. Her parents moved from place to place before eventually splitting up.
Mona was exceptionally beautiful and very ambitious. She met the millionaire Henry Schlesinger, who was 18 years her senior, and they married in the year 1917. The marriage produced a son. In 1920, she ascended the next rung of her career ladder, divorcing her husband and marrying James Irving Bush, who was 14 years her senior. This union lasted five years. Together with a friend, Mona opened a fashion boutique in New York and met the millionaire Harrison Williams, whom she married on July 2, 1926. She was now 29 years old, the widower Williams was 53. On a sailing yacht built by Krupp, the pair set off on a year-long journey around the world. Whenever the couple stayed in Manhattan, Mona was besieged by reporters and fashion photographers.
Harrison Williams lost vast amounts of his assets in the economic crisis of 1929. But he retained sufficient funds to be able to continue his lifestyle with Mona, shuttling between houses and apartments in New York City, Long Island, Palm Beach and Paris. Meanwhile, Mona’s popularity continued to grow. She became the cover girl for leading fashion magazines such as “Vogue”. She was photographed several times by famous photographer Cecil Beaton; her social circle included designers such as Delano and Syrie Maugham.
Mona’s boyfriend Albrecht von Bismarck, who was later to become her husband, had been living in Italy since the mid-1920s. He ran an antiques dealership in Rome with a prince from Hesse, until his business partner married one of the daughters of the dictator Mussolini. Thereafter, Bismarck’s grandson had to get by doing casual work as a self-taught designer and interior stylist. But his family name and popularity were an effective calling card, and he had numerous sponsors.
Harrison Williams and Mona, who was six years his senior, became especially important to him: In 1936, Mona acquired the villa “Il Fortino” on Capri, and Albrecht furbished the 19th century building in accordance with her visions. The view from the villa towards Vesuvius and Naples was breathtaking. A tunnel led from the house to the sea. “Il Fortino” quickly became a favored haunt of the rich and beautiful. Mona was always center of attention at all the parties – a rare blend of beauty, elegance, taste and almost limitless financial possibilities.
It all changed on the eve of World War Two. Again, Williams lost vast amounts of his remaining wealth. The yacht and the two properties in Long Island and Palm Beach were sold, and the eight cars put away in an underground parking lot in New York’s Fifth Avenue. The trips to Europe became less frequent.
When Hitler declared war on the US in December 1941, Mona and her husband had to leave Italy for good. Albrecht stayed behind as major domus and caretaker of the property. But his relatively easy life on Capri ended when he was called up to serve in the German army in 1943, aged just under 40. He was ordered to join an armored infantry division in Alsace, but with the grim prospect of being dispatched to the eastern front.
With the help of his two brothers however, Albrecht managed to secure a posting to occupied France working for a general in Grenoble. It was there that an SS officer warned him, in September 1944, that the Gestapo was after him. This was due to the fact that Albrecht’s brother Gottfried was facing the death penalty in a concentration camp for involvement in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. The last grandson of the Iron Chancellor did not hesitate – he deserted from the Wehrmacht and fled over the Alps to Switzerland.
It was there that he saw Mona again in May 1945. She managed to get him documents from the Vatican, which meant the pair could travel together again. Harrison Williams also returned to Europe, and the trio lived in Rome and Capri as before. Williams died in 1953, leaving his wife a fortune to the tune of US $90 million.
Mona and Albrecht Eddy were married in February 1956. Mona was now a Countess Von Bismarck. Back home in America, people nicknamed her the “Kentucky countess”. Eddy died in Geneva in 1970. Mona married a fifth time and lived in Paris until her death in 1983.
Eddy, her favorite husband, is buried alongside her in Glen Cove on Long Island. The magnificent house on Fifth Avenue where Mona had lived with Harrison Williams is now home to ‘The International Center of Photography’. “Il Fortino” on Capri was placed under the protection of the Italian state in 1985. In Paris, the “Mona Strader Foundation” upholds the memory of this extraordinary 20th century woman.
In Germany on the other hand, no one has ever heard of her husband Albrecht Eddy Graf von Bismarck. A book documenting the history of the family published in 2010 does not even mention him.