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Harrison Williams, once the "richest man in America"

The Kentucky Countess


The rise and fall of Avon's wealthiest son

Filed by bmitchell August 25th, 2012 in News.

By Brian Mitchell

Harrison Charles Williams was born in Avon in 1873, and by 1929 he was the richest man in America, controling nearly one-sixth of all American utilites. A mysterious and at times ... business tycoon, he was married to the best-dressed woman in the world, was close friends with a former king of England ...

According to the Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders (DABL), Williams was born to Everett Williams and Laurett A. Williams. Not much is known about Williams' time in Avon.

He did graduate from Elyria High School in 1890 and took a job as a bookkeeper shortly afterward. His father was in the milling business and later became vice president of the First National Bank of Elyria. Williams' life story really begins in 1892, when at age 19 he first entered the business world.

Quite possibly the only interview Williams ever gave to a newspaper appeared in the Spartanburg Herald in 1937. According to the article, in 1892 Williams took over a controlling stake in Fay Manufacturing Co. in Elyria. At the time, the company was manufacturing parts for bicycles and tricycles. [Where did the money come from for this investment? Clearly Williams was not "The Great Gatsby".]

During the 1890s, America was overtaken by a "bicycle craze," and Williams started producing bicycles full time at his factory in Elyria. Later that same year, Williams formed the Lorain Wheel Co. It was this fateful move to making bike tires that set Williams on the path to becoming the richest man in America.

No one had ever produced child-sized bike tires and bikes until Williams starting making them at his Lorain and Elyria factories. Upon displaying the new "Fay Boy's Bike" at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he reportedly received enough orders to run his plant for an entire year.

In 1899, Williams sold his bike business to the American Bicycle Co., and with $2 million in his pocket he moved to New York City. Sticking with what he knew, Williams started making car tires, but quickly sold his stake in the tire business to Michelin in 1904.

What happened next is best left to Williams' own words from the Spartanburg Herald interview.

"When I came to New York I lived at the Engineers Club. The General Electric engineers had made that club their headquarters and it was there that I got to know Charlie Coffins son. It was Charlie Coffin who had built up the G.E., and he advised me to go into utilities. He put Sidney Z. Hitchell, and H.L. Doherty into the situation, and the three of us were the original syndicate that formed the American Gas and Electric company."

According to the DABL, Williams and his group spent the early 1900s buying controlling stock in various utility companies throughout the U.S. One of his early successes came in 1912, when Williams formed the Central States Electric Co. for the purpose of buying 60 percent of the Cleveland Illuminating Co, for around $5 million.

In 1926, as head of the Cleveland Illuminating Co., Williams built the power plant in Avon Lake for a cost of $30 million. At the time of the plant's construction, it was the largest of its kind in the world.

According to the DABL, between 1924 and 1929, the stock of Williams' companies split some 60 times. The stock price of Williams' Central States Electric Co. went from $10.50 a share to $5,600 per share. In 1929, Williams' net worth was $680 million, nearly $8 to $9 billion today making him the richest man in America.

It was during the 1920s that Williams began activities outside of the world of business. In 1923 he financed an expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The expedition was led by the famous naturalist William Beebe. Because Williams financed the trip to the islands, the leaders of the expedition named a volcano after him, making Williams the only Avon resident, past or present, to have their name bestowed on a volcano.

In Williams' personal life, the 53-year-old utilities tycoon married 29-year-old Mona Bush. For their honeymoon, the couple traveled the world in Williams' megayacht, named Warrior. The 1,450-ton ship was the most expensive personal ship ever built at the time. Bush would eventually earn the title of "Best Dressed Woman in the World" several times. She even had her portrait painted by Salvador Dali.

Also during this time, Williams became friends with Edward VIII of the British monarchy, who, when visiting America, always stayed at Williams' home. Edward famously renounced the British throne after proposing marriage to a twice-divorced American socialite in 1936.

By 1929 Williams was holding the title of "Richest Man in America," until the famous stock market crash later that year. According to the DABL, by 1931 Williams' utility company stock had dropped to $5 million. Also in 1929, Williams' nearly $200 million worth of investments with the firm Goldman Sachs had all collapsed, leading to a congressional inquiry.

In 1935 the U.S. Congress passed the Public Utilities Holding Act, and Williams was forced to reduce his holdings in all his companies to below 10 percent. Additionally, despite Williams' massive wealth and controlling stake in vast portions of America's utilities infrastructure, he somehow had managed to remain relatively unknown to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission until it opened an investigation into his dealings in 1937.

Williams ran his companies through subordinates, never actually naming himself as the head of any of his interests. This led to a reputation of being a mysterious, or shady, businessman, not helping his case with the SEC ...


Harrison Charles Williams obituary (born 1873; died 1953)

Williams died in 1953, no longer the mmulti millionaire he once was -- but by no means totally broke, even by today's standards. His rise and fall is again best left to his own words.

"A fortune is what it can be liquidated for -- and that -- is often very problematic."

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The Kentucky Countess


Mona von Bismarck

Born Mona Travis Strader, February 5, 1897, Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.

Died July 10, 1983 (aged 86) Paris, France

Occupation Socialite


Henry J. Schlesinger (1917--1920)

James Irving Bush (1921--1925)

Harrison Williams (1926--1953)

Albrecht Edzard Heinrich Karl, Graf von Bismarck-Schönhausen (1955--1970)

Umberto de Martini (1971--1979)

Children Robert Henry Schlesinger

Mona Travis Strader (February 5, 1897 -- July 10, 1983), known as Mona Bismarck, was an American socialite and fashion icon. She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.

She was born Mona Travis Strader in Louisville, Kentucky in 1897 to Robert Sims Strader and his wife, Bird O'Shockeny. Her parents divorced in 1902, and Mona and her brother were raised in Lexington, Kentucky, by their paternal grandmother.

In 1917, she married Henry J. Schlesinger, a man 18 years her senior who owned Fairland Farm in Lexington where her father was a professional trainer, and moved to Milwaukee where he had an iron and coke business. During the marriage, Mona bore a son, Robert Henry, whom she left in the custody of Schlesinger in exchange for half a million dollars when they divorced in 1920. (Her son would marry Frederica Barker, elder sister of actor Lex Barker.)

In 1921, she married the banker James Irving Bush [no relation to George H. W. Bush], 14 years her senior, said to be the "handsomest man in America". They divorced in Paris in 1925.

In 1926, Mona opened a New York dress shop with her friend Laura Merriam Curtis, the daughter of William Rush "Spooky" Merriam, a former Governor of Minnesota.

At the time, Laura was engaged to Harrison Williams, said to be the richest man in America with an estimated fortune of $600 million ($8,000,000,000 in today dollars), made in financing public utilities.

On July 2, 1926, Mona married Williams, a widower 24 years her senior. For their honeymoon they went on a cruise around the world on Williams' Warrior, at the time, the largest, most expensive pleasure boat in the world.

When they returned from their honeymoon, Williams bought the Georgian mansion at the corner of 94th Street and Fifth Avenue designed by Delano and Aldrich in 1915 for Willard Straight. Mona had it decorated by Syrie Maugham.

They also kept an estate named Oak Point on Bayville Avenue, Bayville, Long Island, for which Delano and Aldrich also did alterations. They kept a home on North Ocean Avenue in Palm Beach, and the villa Il Fortino overlooking Capri's Marina Grande, on land which belonged first to Caesar Augustus, and later to the Emperor Tiberius.

In 1933, Mona was named "The Best Dressed Woman in the World" by Chanel, Molyneux, Vionnet, Lelong, and Lanvin, becoming the first American to be so honored. The Duchess of Windsor (1934) and Elsie de Wolfe (1935) would also earn that title.

In "Ridin' High", (1936) Cole Porter had Ethel Merman sing: "What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams is the best dressed woman in town?" In 1943, Mona's portrait was painted by Salvador DalĂ­.

Williams died in 1953; and in January 1955, Mona married her "secretary" Albrecht Edzard Heinrich Karl, Graf von Bismarck-Sch¶nhausen (1903-1970), an "interior decorator" of an aristocratic sort and the son of Herbert von Bismarck and grandson of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, civilly in New Jersey and, in February 1956, religiously in Rome. They lived mostly in Paris at an apartment in the famed Hotel Lambert, later at Mona's townhouse at 34 avenue de New York, and at Capri.

In 1970, Mona was widowed again and, in 1971, married Bismarck's physician, "Count" Umberto de Martini, a nobleman (after Mona acquired a title for him from King Umberto II of Italy), who was 14 years younger than she.

Mona died in 1983, her will having established the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture in Paris. She is buried at Bayville, on Long Island.



Harrison Charles Williams (1873 - 1953) was an American entrepreneur, investor and multi-millionaire.

Harrison Williams was born in Avon Township, Ohio in 1873 to Everett Williams and Laurett A. Williams. He graduated from Elyria High School in 1890.

In 1900, he married Katherine Gordon Breed in Pittsburgh. She died in 1915.

In 1906 he created American Gas and Electric Co., and six years later created another holding company, Central States Electric Corp.

During World War I he served as an assistant to Bernard Baruch, at the War Industries Board, in Washington D.C., through Baruch he was introduced to attorney John Foster Dulles, who represented Williams throughout his business career.

When the Prince of Wales visited the United States on various occasions, he was Williams' guest at Glen Cove, Long Island, in the house Williams rented from banker J. P. Morgan, Jr., and later at Williams' estate located in Bayville, on Pine Island.

In 1923, Williams financed and sponsored a trip to the Galapagos Islands through the New York Zoological Society that was led by naturalist William Beebe. Because of his patronage, there is a volcano in the Galapagos named after him.

With Vincent Astor and Marshall Field he also financed Beebe's expedition to the Sargasso Sea. He also contributed financially to the American Museum of Natural History's 1926 expedition to Greenland, led by George P. Putnam.

Williams bought the Krupp-built Vanadis, then the largest private yacht afloat, with a cruising radius of 12,000 mi., renamed her Warrior, and refitted her for his own oceanographic and pleasure purposes. Today she serves as a floating hotel in Stockholm harbor, Sweden.

In 1926, at age 53, after being a widower for 11 years, Williams married the divorcee Mona Bush, 24 years his junior. They departed on a year-long around the world honeymoon cruise on the Warrior. The trip was chronicled by Paul Cravath, a prominent New York City attorney.

When they returned, the couple bought Elbert Gary's mansion at 94th Street and Fifth Avenue in the City. The mansion is now owned by Bruce Kovner. They also purchased "Dunstable" in the Village of Bayville, on Pine Island, New York near Oyster Bay, Long Island (renaming it "Oak Point"), and an additional home "Blythedunes", designed by Maurice Fatio, at 513 North County Blvd., in Palm Beach, Florida. In later years Mona would several times be voted the "Best Dressed Woman in the World."

"Dunstable" had been the home of Winslow S. Pierce, the senior partner in the Wall Street law firm of Pierce and Greer, and the attorney for George Jay Gould I, the railroad executive and son of railroad financier Jay Gould.

Williams had the Pierce mansion converted from a Dutch Colonial exterior to an English Georgian motif by the New York architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich. He also added an indoor tennis and swimming pavilion, several holes of golf, beautiful formal gardens, and a U-shaped carriage house for his fourteen Rolls-Royce automobiles, which now serves as the Village Hall and library for the Village of Bayville.

In 1927 Williams commissioned muralist Josep Maria Sert to create paintings depicting astronauts, tightrope walkers and acrobats to decorate the sports pavilion.

By 1929, Williams had accumulated a fortune estimated at a $680 million in public utilities, making him the wealthiest man in the country. He also began a business partnership with Waddill Catchings of Goldman Sachs and Co.

In 1937 he was investigated regarding investment trusts by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

After Williams' death at Bayville in 1953, his wife Mona married her "secretary," Count Albrecht "Eddy" Von Bismarck, and spent much of the balance of her life living in Paris, and summering at her villa on the Isle of Capri, but returned to her Bayville estate several times each year.

At Mona's death in 1983, by then known as "The Kentucky Countess," her will established the Mona Bismarck Foundation, at 34 Avenue de New York in Paris. The foundation is dedicated to improving Franco-American cultural relations and is housed in Mona's former Parisian townhouse. The house also houses the American Club in Paris.

For the genalogy of Harrison Charles Williams, see


For the autobiography of Howard Williams, see


For biography of Harrison Williams, see


for a photo of the Williams House in Avon, see


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