by B. Ellen von Oostenburg, photo courtesy of the Filson Historical Society
She was the beautiful daughter of a Kentucky horse breeder. Mona Travis Strader would go on to marry five times, becoming internationally known as a style-setter and countess, her beauty captured by painter Salvador Dali, satirized by writer Truman Capote and set to lyrics by Broadway composer Cole Porter. But it was her first marriage, to Milwaukeean Henry J. Schlesinger in 1917, that made Mona’s fortune and launched her into fashionable society.
Henry was the son of Ferdinand Schlesinger, considered the richest man in Milwaukee, if not in all of Wisconsin. Schlesinger had raised three children in an opulent mansion that personified high style. But he was Old World German, an immigrant to America, a wickedly smart operator who was very different from the charming Southern belle who married his son. Yet both Mona and Ferdinand had an ability to manipulate people to get what they wanted.
Ferdinand Schlesinger lost and amassed fortunes more than once, and maneuvered to become the “iron mining king of America.” Schlesinger devised an outrageous scheme to raise money for his ventures from overzealous lenders, bringing ruin to many, including some of Milwaukee’s strongest banks.
The relationship between Mona and the Schlesingers is one of the richest chapters of Milwaukee history, and yet the story has largely been forgotten, while Mona herself has been endlessly celebrated. The tale begins with a young immigrant’s arrival in rural Wisconsin.
Ferdinand Schlesinger was just 18 when he came to Wisconsin in 1868. He found a job in Kilbourn City, known today as Wisconsin Dells. Educated in Prussia, Schlesinger’s first job was teaching a shopkeeper’s three children German, French and Latin. He could read and write English, and learned to speak it before heading for Milwaukee.
He was met with a distinctive-looking city marked by the preponderance of Cream City brick buildings. “It gives the streets a peculiarly light and cheerful aspect. The whole architectural appearance of the city is primness rather than grandeur,” wrote Willard Glazier, a travel writer of the day.
Schlesinger was fired from his first job at Linfield’s, a dry goods store. Next, he borrowed $1,600 to buy part interest in a hardware store that failed. Unaffected by such adversity, he forged on.
Schlesinger was asked by a Milwaukee businessman to manage his grain-cleaning machine factory. The young man sized up the situation and asked that more money be invested into the enterprise. The owner refused, but struck a deal that appealed to the resourceful Schlesinger. He’d be paid a yearly salary, and once a $25,000 profit was made and paid to his employer, Schlesinger would become the factory’s sole owner. It took a year and a half to make the factory his own.
In 1879, when a local miller couldn’t pay what he owed Schlesinger’s company, Schlesinger took over the man’s business in lieu of payment. Soon Schlesinger was buying and selling grain futures on the Milwaukee Board of Trade. He had a big win, reinvested the money, and lost even bigger. To satisfy the debt, he lost the milling company, but continued to run the grain machine factory until 1887.
That company apparently went so bad that by 1889, Schlesinger was flat broke. But he soon turned to a new industry. He would later become legendary for his powers of persuasion, and his entry into iron mining exemplifies that talent.
In 1889, without a dollar of his own, he managed to purchase the Chapin Mine in Iron Mountain, Mich., for $2 million. He raised $1.5 million by going to iron ore brokers, who put up the money in return for guaranteed iron ore contracts with Schlesinger. For the remaining $500,000 he floated a note. It was a remarkable coup.
Schlesinger made sound improvements to the Chapin Mine. Before long the mine was netting $500,000 a year. Not bad for a 38-year-old man. Brimming with success, Schlesinger began acquiring leases to more mines, plus furnaces and foundries. In 1893, it was estimated that Schlesinger’s mines were producing one-quarter of all the iron ore in the Lake Superior region.
To reduce the costs of shipping iron ore and increase his profits, Schlesinger determined to build his own railway line from the Chapin Mine to Escanaba, Mich., 90 miles away. There, he planned to build docks and acquire a fleet of steamers to ship his iron ore across the Great Lakes to Cleveland.
After 57 miles of track was laid at a cost of $1.5 million, Schlesinger ran out of money. Estimating he needed another $1 million to finish the line, he boldly approached the wealthy Vanderbilt family for financing. They checked him out before putting up $650,000. For collateral, they demanded a controlling interest in the Chapin Mine and an option on the railway line.
But even with this money, Schlesinger’s plans failed. By 1891, he had lost control of the mine to the Vanderbilts, and they had acquired the railway line at the option price. A year later, they offered to sell their controlling interest in the mine back to Schlesinger.
Schlesinger went to the Mitchell Bank in South Milwaukee and borrowed close to $600,000. For collateral, he put up a majority portion of the mine’s capital stock. He got another loan from iron ore brokers Corrigan, Ives & Co., and with the combined monies, he bought back the Chapin Mine. Soon, under Schlesinger’s leadership, the mine was profitable again. He was riding high.
In 1892, advertising itself at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the Milwaukee Board of Realtors issued a souvenir illustrated book lauding the glories of Milwaukee’s prestigious residents and homes, including Schlesinger’s mansion, which he had built on Prospect Avenue. “The industrial growth … has been brought about by the wisdom of Milwaukeeans who have reinvested their money in the city of Milwaukee,” the book proclaimed.
Milwaukee was prospering, and the banks had a glut of dollars they were eager to loan out. Schlesinger had a grand scheme to borrow millions to enhance his control of the market in iron ore. For collateral, he used signed vouchers acquired from his iron ore brokers for ore he had shipped them. These vouchers, however, had no exact value, as they would not be paid in full for another four to seven months – at a price yet to be determined by the market.
If a banker balked at accepting the vouchers as collateral, Schlesinger would take the vouchers to a new bank, deposit them as though they were real money and ask for a certificate of deposit in return. The certificate of deposit would then be taken to another bank and Schlesinger would borrow cash against it. He also borrowed money against the storehouse of ore at his mine.
In 1892, Schlesinger was floating many vouchers issued by Corrigan, Ives & Co. When he approached the National Exchange Bank for a loan, the bank dispatched a representative to Cleveland to check out Corrigan, Ives & Co. The company was deemed solvent with an estimated value of $6 million. Word of this circulated through Milwaukee’s banking community, and more of its money flowed into Schlesinger’s hands.
“But his glib tongue and persuasive manner had as much to do with his success in securing the necessary capital as anything else,” noted The New York Times in 1893. “Every man in Milwaukee had fallen under his spell and looked up to him as one who had accomplished much more than the average man is capable of.”
In less than a year, Schlesinger succeeded in putting an immense amount of paper on the market, thereby borrowing some $3.5 million, with the greatest amount coming
from the Mitchell Bank. Then disaster struck. On July 7, 1893, iron ore suddenly plummeted from $5.25 per ton to $3.50. Corrigan, Ives & Co. went belly-up. Instantly, all of Schlesinger’s paper collateral was worthless.
Next came a run on the banks that had invested in the scheme. Other companies dealing in money and securities, which knew how much paper Schlesinger had been floating, began withdrawing deposits from these banks. The panic spread to the man on the street, triggering the bank run. The Mitchell Bank, Schlesinger’s biggest lender, collapsed, as did three others that had made big loans to him. Schlesinger stopped paying his creditors and soon lost the Chapin Mine.
All of this took place amid the national Panic of 1893, adding more woes to a city where businesses were closing, thousands were thrown out of work, and the traffic on some streetcar lines fell off by 50 percent.
Schlesinger, however, insisted he did nothing wrong. No legal charges were ever brought against him. Perhaps because of a lack of evidence. Or maybe the authorities didn’t relish a banking scandal reaching into the highest levels of Milwaukee society.
Ironically, as was later revealed, it was Schlesinger himself who helped deflate the price of iron. To move his ore more quickly (and help earn more paper vouchers), he discounted the rates he charged, glutting the market with discounted product and driving down the price of iron ore, until calamity came.
“No other man ever controlled so large an iron ore output as Schlesinger. … And no other iron ore operator ever succeeded in accumulating as heavy a load of debt on as slender assets,” the Times story concluded.
But the undaunted Schlesinger soon rebounded from this disaster. Either through sheer persuasion or because his own finances hadn’t been ruined by the panic he caused, Schlesinger was able to invest in other companies. In 1904, he founded Milwaukee Coke & Gas Co., which delivered gas to homes and businesses throughout the city. By then, he was considered a pillar of Milwaukee society.
His family lived in high style. At age 26, Schlesinger had married Mathilda Stern, a native of Milwaukee, in 1876. They would have two sons, Henry and Armin, and a daughter, Gertrude. As Schlesinger’s wealth increased, he built a home in 1890 at 1444 N. Prospect Ave. that was described in the Times: “This palace cost him $150,000. It was lavishly and beautifully furnished. Many servants and fine horses made life pleasant for the Iron Napoleon.”
The home was on “the eyebrows of the bluff” overlooking Lake Michigan, says Milwaukee architectural historian H. Russell Zimmermann. “The house was French Second Empire. I think it was a finer piece of architecture with a better lake view than their later house built on Lafayette Place.”
Schlesinger was forced to sell the home on Prospect after he went broke in the 1890s, but as he rebounded back into the upper class, he built the home on Lafayette Place.
The Iron Napoleon’s high style is suggested by this story: “On one trip to Paris, Schlesinger purchased a fine crystal chandelier and brought it back to Milwaukee in his suitcase! He had good taste. The French chandeliers are so much grander than the heavy German ones,” Zimmermann recounts.
Although perhaps intended for the Lafayette house, it was ultimately installed in his daughter Gertrude’s home at 3230 E. Kenwood Blvd. Gertrude had married Myron T. MacLaren, a vice president of a brokerage company, and the MacLarens had built a grand English Tudor mansion, completed in 1923, probably partly financed by the Schlesinger fortune.
Schlesinger also lived in fine style when he was away at the Chapin Mine in Iron Mountain. He stayed at times in a grand home that is now a private club, The Chippewa Club. “I think the family might’ve spent summers up there,” says Wally Kuehn, a Milwaukeean and great-grandson of Schlesinger.
Schlesinger’s sons graduated from Harvard and returned to Milwaukee to work with their father. Both served as vice presidents at Milwaukee Coke & Gas. Armin built a mansion at 3270 N. Marietta Ave.
Henry became an avid horseman, keeping horses at the family’s Harvest Farm, located near today’s State Fair Park. He also owned a horse farm, named Fairland Farm, in Lexington, Ky.
That’s where he met Mona Travis Strader, whose father trained and bred horses. Henry was 38 and Mona was just 20 when they married in 1917. Ferdinand was by then 66 and may have been eager for his oldest son to have an heir. And Mona was fetchingly beautiful and had a way of attracting men.
The heir came, a son named Robert Henry, but the marriage of Henry and Mona lasted only three years. Mona divorced Henry, citing mental cruelty. One account of the proceeding, in the book Kentucky Countess, notes that Mona assailed Henry as he sat in the courtroom and said nothing to defend himself. In a deal probably brokered with Ferdinand, Mona agreed to abandon her son forever – in return for a payment of $500,000.
Mona would use that money to launch herself into high society. One year after divorcing Henry Schlesinger, Mona married wealthy banker James Irving Bush, once known as “the handsomest man in America.” She divorced him in 1925.
One year later, Mona married her third husband. She hit the jackpot with Harrison Williams, 24 years her senior. At the time, he was worth $600 million and known as “the utilities king of America.” The marriage would last 27 years. He lavished Mona with everything her heart desired until his death in 1953.
They had luxurious homes in Paris, Palm Beach, Capri, Long Island and Manhattan. Mona became known for her fabulous jewels and clothes. After a railroad accident destroyed many of her clothes, she ordered 150 dresses from a couturier in one sitting. In 1933, she was named the best-dressed woman in the world by Coco Chanel and other top designers, becoming the first American to win this honor. She was also saluted as “the best-dressed woman in town” in the Cole Porter song, “Ridin’ High.”
“Oh, she was just a beautiful vision!” recalls Milwaukee resident Gary Talg, a close friend of Schlesinger’s granddaughter Peggy MacLaren-Kuehn. “I remember catching a glimpse of Mona at the Chicago train station, decked out in sparkling jewels and furs. I’ll never forget how gorgeous she was.”
One otherwise admiring friend is said to have called Mona “so beautiful, so stupid.” But she was fascinating to Dali, who painted her, to Milwaukee-raised artist Edward Steichen, who photographed her, and to writer Truman Capote, whose character of Kate McCloud in the novel Answered Prayers was based on Mona.
In 1954, one year after her third husband’s death, Mona married her openly gay secretary and interior decorator Count Albrecht von Bismarck, grandson of the famed German chancellor, thus making her Countess Mona von Bismarck. He died in 1970.
One year later, in 1971 she married Count Umberto de Martini – 14 years her junior. Her wealth now enabled her to reverse things and marry a younger man. Mona even purchased his title for him.
On Jan. 4, 1921, a year after his half-million-dollar settlement to Mona Schlesinger, Ferdinand Schlesinger died while en route to California by train, leaving an estate with an estimated value of $30 million. But perhaps it was worth far more.
Talg recalls hearing his friend MacLaren-Kuehn saying this: “Mother [Gertrude Schlesinger-MacLaren] said all the upper crust of Milwaukee was constantly trying to find out how much money my grandfather really had. She said he hid it all over the place. Mother alone inherited $80 million.”
Peggy was a casualty of the Schlesinger dynasty. She was adopted by her parents from an orphanage in New York City. Raised in a world of wealth, she became estranged from the family after her only marriage ended in divorce. With a young son to support, she got a job at Gimbels. “She told me when she asked her mother for money to purchase dresses to go to work in, she wouldn’t give Peggy any,” recalls Talg. “Instead, her mother sent Peggy two Dior evening dresses!”
When her mother died, Peggy inherited nothing. She lived a life struggling to support herself and her son by selling fine china at Gimbels.
Henry and Mona’s son, Robert Henry, the son she’d left behind, grew up to be a bit of a playboy. While involved with Tyrone Power’s estranged wife, former actress Linda Christian, Robert wanted to buy her jewels worth $132,000 from Manhattan’s Van Cleef & Arpels. He hatched a plan to sell bogus shares in a Louisiana oilfield and used his mother’s name, claiming she’d invested $500,000. There was no oilfield, and it’s doubtful Robert ever met his mother after she left Milwaukee. His investors soon caught wind of the scheme and stopped payment, causing Robert Henry’s checks to Van Cleef & Arpels to bounce.
Robert fled the country. An eight-count indictment was brought against him by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. “It’s believed Robert was exiled to the island of St. Croix by the family,” says Talg.
Henry Schlesinger never remarried. Henry’s younger brother, Armin, led a happy and successful career as an industrialist. He and his wife were among the first of the wealthy set to settle in Naples, Fla., which became a popular retirement place for well-to-do Milwaukeeans.
In the 1950s, the Schlesinger mansion on Lafayette was torn down. Soon after, the Prospect Avenue mansion burned. What remains is the Armin Schlesinger House, which is now the UW-Milwaukee Edith S. Hefter Conference Center, and the Mac-Laren house, now the UW-Milwaukee Alumni House. It still glitters with the French chandelier Ferdinand Schlesinger brought back in a suitcase from Europe.
As for Mona, today she is known as Mona Von Bismarck, or even as Mona Travis Strader Schlesinger Bush Williams von Bismarck-Schönhausen de Martini. Her old friend, English photographer Cecil Beaton, visited her one last time at her Isle of Capri estate before she died. Her last husband had died in a car accident in 1979, and she was now all alone. Beaton was shocked to find that all traces of her famous beauty had vanished. “Her hair, once white and crisp and a foil to her aquamarine eyes, is now a little dried frizz, and she has painted a grotesque mask on the remains of what was once such a noble-hewn face, the lips enlarged like a clown, the eyebrows penciled with thick black greasepaint, the flesh down to the pale lashes coated with turquoise. Oh, my heart broke for her.”
When she died in 1983, Mona left some $25 million to a foundation that would bear her name forever. She was considerably less generous to son Robert Henry Schlesinger, leaving him $1 million. In real, uninflated dollars, this was less than the $500,000 she had received back in 1920 in return for abandoning the only child Mona would ever have.
B. Ellen von Oostenburg is a freelancer. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources for this story include: the book Kentucky Countess, by James D. Birchfield (1997); a Time magazine story (Feb. 21, 1955); and numerous online articles, including “Mona Bismarck and Her Ilk,” from Brooks Peters’ An Open Book (brookspeters.com/2008/07/multiple-maniacs), and “Mrs. Astor and The Gilded Age,” by Cecil Beaton (mrsastor.com/2009/10/margaret-edmona-mona-travis-strader.html).