This is the true story of a woman named Mona Bush.
Encompassing one hundred acres it used to be a private estate in Bayville, Long Island. The estate was called Oak Point. Now part of the former estate is a municipal park, another part makes up the Bayville Cemetery. In one section of the cemetery there are three graves, side by side as it were. Actually, in this case, it is three urns of ashes, side by side. Two husbands and one wife.
The estate belonged to Harrison Charles Williams, who went from street-car conductor to manager of a tricycle factory in Ohio. When he was thirty-three years old, he walked away from the tricycle factory and invested his money in electricity generating plants, creating American Gas and Electric Company. Later he created a holding company, Central States Electric Corporation. Not only did he have foresight, but he excelled in stock manipulations. So successful was he that the New York Times called him the “utilities king of America.”
Before the Great Depression he was worth $700 million dollars. After the depression, even more. He was the richest man in America at the time, and probably the world.
Mona Bush is the wife whose ashes sit in an urn, which sits next to another urn that contains the ashes of Harrison Williams. He married her in 1926, when he was fifty-three years old and Mona was twenty-nine.
The third urn holds the ashes of Count Edward von Bismarck-Schonhausen, whom Mona married shortly after Harrison Williams died. They were her third and fourth husbands, respectively.
It’s an interesting story and Mona was a fascinating woman. When she was five years old, Mona’s mother left. So Mona was raised by her father, who worked as a groom on a horse farm near Louisville, Kentucky. At the age of twenty, Mona escaped her dreary circumstances by marrying Harry Schlesinger, the thirty-seven year old proprietor of the horse farm where her father worked.
The newly weds moved to Milwaukee and Mona gave birth to a son. Schlesinger owned various successful businesses in the area. Mona didn’t love Schlesinger, but she liked his money, the freedom it gave her, and the status it provided her. Milwaukee proved to be almost hillbilly as far as Mona was concerned. And being a doting mother, she discovered, bored her. Unhappy, Mona opted out of the marriage, selling Schlesinger custody of their child, whom she valued at five hundred thousand dollars. In 1920 that would have been at least five million dollars in today’s dollars.
Mona took her money and moved to the center of high society and wealth, New York City. One year later she married James Bush, a rich banker. Although billed as “the handsomest man in American,” he was a mean alcoholic, whose idea of fun was attending hoity-toity parties and urinating in the host’s fireplace. Mona, it should be added, had had an affair with him while still married to Schlesinger.
After enduring three years of matrimonial hell, Mona bailed out, traveling to France where she initiated divorce proceedings. Returning to New York City one year later, Mona was on the hunt for her next husband.
Wealthy, beautiful and bored, Mona became partner with Laura Curtis, a friend. Together they opened an haute couture dress emporium, catering to the elite of society. The business was financially successful for both women – they made a ton of money.
Laura Curtis, at the time, was engaged to Harrison Charles Williams. Before leaving on a buying trip to Paris, Laura introduced her partner to Harrison Williams. Upon her return from Paris, Laura was dismayed to discover that her engagement, unbeknownst to her, had been canceled. Mona had usurped her place in the affections of Harrison Williams.
Invulnerable to casual deprecation, having discovered the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end, Mona never looked back. She quickly married Harrison Williams, the richest man in the United States. Their honeymoon was an around the world cruise on Williams’ yacht, the Warrior. The Warrior boasted ten luxurious state-rooms, a crew of forty-five, and was the largest and most expensive and most opulent yacht in the world.
When they returned from their cruise around the world, Harrison purchased a thirty room brick Georgian mansion in New York City. Designed by Delano and Aldrich, Mona brought in renowned decorator Syrie Maugham to garnish it. And did she ever: English furniture, original artwork by Reynolds, Boucher and Goya, and masses of white flowers from Mona’s new greenhouses.
It is interesting to note that Mona’s distinctive southern drawl was cast aside and swapped for an English accent. Mona desperately tried to forget her roots. She pretended to be what she wished she was, English nobility.
Mona and her husband wintered in Palm Beach, Florida.
Mona made her grand entrance into Palm Beach, Florida high society draped in a necklace and matching bracelet. The two pieces of jewelry composed 129 square-cut sapphires, 144 square-cut emeralds, 762 round diamonds, and 79 pearls. She glimmered. Everyone could see that Mona was someone, and Mona felt like it, too. Not only was she someone, she was the brightest star of the American class system, a system based on wealth. Mona excelled at self-marketing before it existed.
1933 was the year Mona received the holy grail of ratification. Moyneux, Lanvin, Vionnet, Lelong and Coco Chanel convened and pronounced Mona the first Best Dressed Woman in the World. She achieved this accolade by earnest and relentless application of vast sums of money, buying clothes by Charles James, Mainbocher and Balenciaga.
Too much was never enough for Mona. She engaged Syrie Maugham to design and furnish the first white drawing room in America. She purchased a Christmas tree made of nothing but ermine tails. Faberge flowers carved out of gems roosted in pots of jade and lapis lazuli. Cole Porter included her by name in one of his songs, Riding High. Her portrait was painted by Salvador Dali. And to demonstrate her patriotism during World War II, she had some of her gems mounted in the forms of American bombers.
With nothing more to buy or anything new to titillate her, Mona became bored. So she and Harrison moved to Europe, where Mona discovered the island of Capri. There, Harrison bought a property sitting on the topside of a cliff. Once the summer home of Caesar Augustus and the frazzled Emperor Tiberius, Mona supervised the resuscitation of Il Fortino.
Still beset by boredom that money couldn’t cure, both Harrison and Mona engaged in discreet sexual affairs with others of their class and wealth. Harrison took up with Coco Chanel, even asking her to “come with me.” The implication was that Harrison would leave Mona, take Chanel as his wife. Chanel, being prescient, politely refused the offer. Although some say she later regretted her decision.
Once while in Venice, Mona met Count Edward von Bismarck, grandson of the famous Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Nicknamed Eddie, he was homosexual; Eddie and Mona became the closest of friends. Mona hired Eddie as a consultant in the resuscitation of Il Fortino. Harrison knew Eddie provided no sexual or romantic threat, so he hired Eddie, too, as his private secretary.
Harrison Williams died in 1953. Mona married Eddie shortly after Harrison’s death. Intrigued by being a Countess, and gladdened by lack of messy sexual expectations, Mona attained a certain form of happiness for a while.
Eddie died in 1970, and Mona quickly married his physician, Umberto de Martino. Having become used to playing princess, and since Umberto was without title, Mona bought him one in Portugal. Overnight he became Count de Martino. Interestingly, the new Count de Martino was twenty years younger than his wife, the Countess Mona.
Thus for a time, Mona felt young again, full of lust and life. Ironically, in a fitting example of what goes around comes around, Umberto was a bigamist and, not content with two wives, Umberto was also sending Mona’s money to his mistress. All this took place while Mona was on drugs, uppers and downers he had prescribed for her.
Conveniently, Umberto had the good taste to die shortly after Mona found out about all his deceits. The vehicle of his death was a car accident.
Shocked and dismayed by Umberto’s deception, Mona isolated herself in Paris, living through, by, and for, her memories of her past celebrity. When she died in 1983, Mona’s estate was worth 22 million dollars. In her final will and testament, she directed the establishment of a foundation, named after her, of course. The foundation was to maintain Il Fortino as “a scholarly retreat, to be used in part as a museum” to Mona.
The droll contrivances of the Fates came into play. It was not to be. Robert Henry Schlesinger, her son, whom she sold to her first husband for half a million dollars, and whom she had never contacted or seen, popped up. Shimmering in agitation, he challenged his mother’s will. Winning, he walked away with the bulk of her money. Mona’s houses, including Il Fortino, were auctioned off, and her jewelry was sold.
Like Ozymandias, Mona’s glorious works sank into the sand.
Poor Mona. Although a most decorative bit of work in her youth, indeed she was breathtakingly gorgeous, as she grew older the ensuing connections of cause and effect leeched through to her face. By the time she was in her fifties, a certain gaunt-look shrouded her face. Cecil Beaton, the famous photographer, Mona’s photographer, described it as the look and exotic beauty of an Egyptian cat.
I disagree; rather, I say, her face became sharp and scrawny, like the visages of nursing home patients, just before they die, where they look like baby vultures: bony, starved, at the whim and mercy of some unacknowledged god.
Mona, starved for love, roamed from man to man, from relationship to relationship, seeking it. Not finding it, she settled for money, believing Mammon’s murmured lie, that money can purchase joy. Other than wealth, there is no mention of Mona having any religious beliefs, any spirituality, or of any philanthropic works. Barren materialism was the church in which she worshiped.
She found monetary satisfaction, but never even came close to love. Once she’d sold and abandoned her infant son, it’s as if she never looked back.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize and don the robes of the Judge. Most of us, if given the chance, would choose money over love, because with all that money someone’s bound to love us, or at least fake it. It’s the way we think, the way we operate.
Mona was like the sorceress in Rapunzel, with a gargantuan appetite for love. They both tried to make people love them. But a ‘made’ love is an artificial love, a copy of a copy of love. And in the end, just like the Sorceress, Mona resorted to isolation: she locked herself up with her love of self. Again, like the Sorceress, she wanted to love, but didn’t know how to give it or receive it. In fact, somewhere inside, both Mona and the Sorceress believed they were unlovable. So when Mona locked herself away with only herself and her memories of course it failed. How could she love herself if she believed she was unlovable to begin with?
Emotional impasse. There was no happy ever after – ever – for Mona Travis Strader Schlesinger Bush Williams von Bismarck-Schonhausen de Martini.
Randy Radic is a contributing editor to Grit Daily. He hangs out in NorCal, where he smokes cigars, keeps snakes as pets, and writes about true crime, music, pop culture, tech, and business.