Helene Baroness von Bothmer

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Helene von Bothmer , née Davis, (born December 8, 1908 in Bolivar , Missouri , USA ; † February 22, 1996 in Wilsonville , Oregon , USA) was an American model . By marriage she became the owner of the Fürstenhäusle and museum curator and in 1956 donated the Meersburger Droste Prize , the oldest German literary prize.

Helene von Bothmer in 1989 with the Federal Cross of Merit and the Merit Medal of Baden-Württemberg

Youth, modeling career and marriage in the USA

Bergdorf Goodman's main house (2007)

Marta Helene Davis was born the seventh child of William Davis and Mona Frady in a small town in Missouri in the Midwest . Her father, a notary, came from an old Irish-American family who, like her mother's family, owned plantations in Carolina ; he was a great-nephew of the President of the Southern States , Jefferson Davis , whose youngest daughter Varina Anne Davis had been raised in Karlsruhe . An Indian woman was also one of Helene's ancestors. As a child, Helene was shy, insecure and unhappy. At fourteen, she followed her mother, who separated from her father, and first moved to Tennessee , where her mother had received a coal mine as a severance payment. After it was sold, they lived in Chicago , where Helene graduated from high school at the age of 18. One of her teachers recommended that she work as a model because of her looks and talent for movement. Against the resistance of her mother, she married a bar pianist at a very young age, which was only known from her autobiography, who left her. She initially worked for advertising agencies, and then worked in the elegant Blackstone fashion shop in Chicago . She soon became known because in 1933 the painter Ernest Brierly won first prize at the A Century of Progress World's Fair with a portrait of her . She continued her career from 1932 in New York City for the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman . a. specialized in Parisian fashion and became the star model of which she became. In addition, she trained as a fashion illustrator and trained a. a. by attending cultural events. In New York - against the warnings of her relatives about Hitler Germany - she married in the press on August 29, 1936 the multilingual Heinrich von Bothmer- Schwegerhoff (born January 1, 1897 in Charlottenburg ), who was then in New York for Carl Schurz Society worked in German-American cultural exchange after completing an agricultural training course at his father's request.

Relocation to Berlin during World War II

Heinrich von Bothmer first introduced Helene to his parents, the owners of Gut Schwegerhoff in Ostercappeln near Osnabrück , during a visit in 1938. This was her first encounter with the German language and culture, which she had previously unknown. Heinrich's mother, Carola von Bothmer, born on February 20, 1940 died. Baron Droste zu Hülshoff , a daughter of Heinrich von Droste zu Hülshoff , the owner of Hülshoff Castle and nephew of the poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff . Heinrich von Bothmer's father Walter, who was already 75 years old, asked him as his only son for support. Because the Atlantic was unsafe in 1940 because of the submarine war , the couple traveled via San Francisco by ship to Japan and from Vladivostok under adventurous circumstances with the Trans-Siberian Railway via Poland to Berlin . Contrary to the plan, Heinrich, as an expert on the USA, was hired to support the protocol department of the Foreign Office . Because of his criticism of the German war of aggression by the Nazis under pressure, Heinrich made himself available as a war correspondent on the Eastern Front . Helene escaped the obligation to do labor first in Vienna as a fashion draftsman for a film project and - after her US origins had been discovered - back in Berlin in the care of war injured at the German Red Cross .

War and post-war period in Ostercappeln

In 1945, Helene von Bothmer paid off a loan in the bombed-out Münster (here in 1945)

Because of the increasing Allied air raids on Berlin - once she was buried with her husband in an underpass - Helene fled to her father-in-law in Ostercappeln . There she helped him save the family property. According to the legislation of the Third Reich , this should be expropriated because it was indebted and was not run by a farmer himself . However, despite internships with hard physical labor in two training centers, Helene did not succeed in completing an agricultural training course: she failed when she tried to milk cows, but Germany soon sank into chaos. After a brief reunion with her husband Heinrich, whose letters she had not reached during his years on the Eastern Front, in 1945 at his station on the Rhine, Helene got caught up in the German-American fighting over the Ludendorff Bridge in Remagen . She made her way to Ostercappeln on foot, by bicycle and as a hitchhiker at risk of death. She almost perished in the bombing raid on Altenkirchen (Westerwald) . The title Asche und Rubin in her biography alludes to a gruesome find in the ruins of the hotel where she actually wanted to seek refuge . When she returned to Ostercappeln, she managed to settle the debts of the property: she took a suitcase of cash from a painting by her father-in-law to his bank in Münster , 77 km away, by bicycle , even though the city and the bank were completely in ruins lay. She was exposed to fire from low-flying aircraft and found shelter with her relatives in Hülshoff Castle . The bank director canceled the note and she was allowed to take the suitcase back with her. She also helped hide and rescue the family's valuables. One of her most terrible experiences was the rescue of the victims of a plane shot in the immediate vicinity of the manor house. After the surrender , with the help of the British military governor of Osnabrück, she succeeded in freeing her husband, who suffered from severe war trauma and the consequences of a stroke, from a French prisoner of war in which he had barely escaped a massacre.

Reinstallation of the Droste Museum Fürstenhäusle in Meersburg

Fürstenhäusle in Meersburg, owned by Helene von Bothmer from 1950–1960, her residence until 1977

The Schwegerhoff manor house was still overcrowded by refugees in 1947, so the stay there was not suitable for Helene's husband to recover. Heinrich, who was a great-great-nephew of the poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff through his mother and who had inherited her former property, the idyllically situated Fürstenhäusle in Meersburg , moved there with her. The last heir of the poet, Hildegard von Laßberg, had sold the Fürstenhäusle to her cousin Carl Caspar von Droste zu Hülshoff in 1915 , and after it had been enlarged, he lived in it as his retirement home until 1922. His widow Marie, b. von Bothmer-Schwegerhoff, had set up the first museum there in 1923 and then sold it to her relatives in Schwegerhoff. When Helene and Heinrich von Bothmer arrived there, the Fürstenhäusle was demolished, emptied and occupied by refugees. In order to make it habitable again, but also with the wish to be able to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the poet's death there, the seriously ill Heinrich was dependent on his wife. She succeeded in overcoming all the resistance that initially faced her as an American with the help of the Alsatian district governor of the French occupation forces , Colonel Lindemann, who was an admirer of the poet. She also succeeded in obtaining further loans from relatives for the museum. Thanks to Helene's hard work, including manual work, the Fürstenhäusle was able to go public during the 100th anniversary celebration on May 24, 1948 and afterwards through poetry readings and concerts .

Working as a museum owner and third marriage

Annette Freiin Droste zu Hülshoff

At Heinrich's request, Helene was married to him as a Catholic shortly before his death on October 18, 1950 - in Heiligenberg (Lake Constance district) . He was buried in the grave of the Barons von Laßberg and Droste zu Hülshoff in the cemetery in Meersburg. Helene, heiress of the Fürstenhäusle, had promised him to continue running the museum. She succeeded in doing this, also successfully in business, by selling the poet's works. Helene, although she kept a slight American accent throughout her life, worked so well into the German language and into the poet's work that she was able to personally guide the museum visitors and increase the number of visitors considerably. She put loneliness and the poet's second face in the foreground and thus aroused human sympathy. In contrast, allegations made by the press that the poet had lived in the prince's house and that she, Helene, was herself a great-great-niece of the poet, baroness or baroness (her husband's family branch did not have this title) were inaccurate. Helene identified herself with her job in such a way that she impressed the visitors, as numerous enthusiastic thank you letters and guest book entries prove. In her correspondence she answered questions about the person and work of the poet, arranged contacts and promoted the education of v. a. young people. The work of the museum , which is now much more extensive, was particularly supported by the cultural politician Arno Hennig . On November 12, 1951, Helene married the Droste admirer Otto Vollnhals, co-owner of the Munich-Sendling engine factory , with whom she a. a. went on a trip to Italy, but died on April 24, 1952.

Foundation of the Meersburger Droste Prize and fourth marriage

Helene von Bothmer and Karl Graf von Bothmer (wedding)

After the death of her father-in-law, Helene took over the Schwegerhoff estate, but passed it on to her husband's relatives, the Counts of Bothmer. In 1952, on the 105th anniversary of the poet's death, Helene co-founded the International Bodenseeclub and donated the Droste Prize , which the city of Meersburg later took over. That year Helene saw a cousin of her deceased husband from the Hungarian branch of the family, Karl Graf von Bothmer (diplomat) , former Hungarian envoy to Switzerland . She had already met him in Berlin when he was the Hungarian consul general in Vienna . They married on November 13, 1953 in Bern and Helen lived there with him - when they were not traveling (e.g. to the USA, Hungary, Israel) - during the winter months. Later, until his death on November 28, 1971, they lived entirely in the Fürstenhäusle, which they had added an annex to. He was also buried in the Laßberg-Droste family grave in Hülshoff. Helene and Karl were in contact with many personalities of contemporary history, including Zita von Bourbon-Parma and her son Otto von Habsburg and with many authors such as Reinhold Schneider , Gertrud von le Fort , Werner Bergengruen , Nelly Sachs , Christine Busta , Rose Ausländer , Hilde Domin , Dino Larese and their friend and later biographer Monika Taubitz . In 1960 Helene sold the Fürstenhäusle with inventory for 200,000 DM to the state of Baden-Württemberg , but continued to work and live there as a curator until 1977. At that time, Wilderich von Droste zu Hülshoff , with whose family she remained closely connected, also lived with her for a time .

Handover of the Princely House and return to the USA

In 1977 she handed over the care of the Fürstenhäusle to the musician couple Anton Johannes Schmid and Gerlinde Schmid-Nafz, but continued to live in Meersburg until 1985. At that time she donated a bust of the poet to the Droste-Hülshoff-Schule in Friedrichshafen . She spent the winters in her apartment in Clearwater (Florida) , USA, before finally moving to a retirement home in Wilsonville (Oregon) , USA in 1993 . There, too, she campaigns for German-American cultural exchange. In 1995 she gave a lecture in Wilsonville about her time in Meersburg. Her flatmate, Kathleen Wiley Pietsch, who was also elderly, interviewed her and wrote her "autobiography" in English. She died there on February 22, 1996, being looked after by relatives living there. At her request, her urn was on 12 March 1996 by a Catholic memorial service under large sympathy of the families and the public on the cemetery Meersburg buried in the family grave in Meersburg. Wilderich von Droste zu Hülshoff held the German-English funeral speech .

Your legacy in the USA

In the United States, Helene kept in touch with her nephew Charles Davis, his wife and their sons in California . A son of this family, Paul, who died early, had lived with her in the Fürstenhäusle in the 1970s and studied architecture in Germany. His younger brother, George Criser Davis, born in Santa Monica in 1952 , who was then an assistant teacher at a high school, brought Helene near his home in Beaverton (Oregon) . After her death, he became Helene's heir.

George Criser Davis has been named Graf und Freiherr von Bothmer since 1996 . He has got through in a paternity suit before the Washington County Circuit Court with the claim that he is a biological descendant of Helene and Karl Graf von Bothmer. Helene testified to this shortly before her death. Several press reports published in Oregon and Washington state doubt this. It is also improbable because of the contradicting documents, because of Helene's age (44 years at the time of birth) and given the previous "secrecy". His birth mother, Wilda Gretzinger, author of novels , according to an earlier birth certificate , published a biography authorized by Helene in 1996 . The facts on which it is based agree with family tradition in Germany. According to this source, Helene did the first trip to the USA with Karl only after he left the diplomatic service in 1956; there is no mention of a visit to George's family.

George Criser Davis liked to show the inherited valuables from the noble families Droste zu Hülshoff and Bothmer in his house in Washington State (state) . There he was - with minor injuries - the victim of a robbery in 2012, about which the local press reported in detail.



  • Genealogical manual of the nobility . Noble houses A Volume XXI, Volume 98 of the complete series, CA Starke Verlag, Limburg (Lahn) 1990, ISSN  0435-2408 , pages 37-74.
  • Genealogical manual of the nobility. Adelslexikon Volume II, Volume 58 of the complete series, CA Starke Verlag, Limburg (Lahn) 1974
  • Helen Baroness von Bothmer-Davis (Davia): The princely house of the poet Annette Freiin von Droste zu Hülshoff. Self-published, Meersburg 1951
  • Wilderich from Droste to Hülshoff : 900 years of Droste to Hülshoff . Verlag LPV Hortense von Gelmini, Horben 2018, ISBN 978-3-936509-16-8
  • Walter Gödden: Annette von Droste-Hülshoff at Meersburg Castle. Turm-Verlag Meersburg, 1993
  • Wilda Gretzinger (ed.) And Kathleen Wiley Pietsch (author): A Kindred Spirit - the autobiography of Helene Baronin von Bothmer. Portland (Oregon), USA, 1996, publisher Donald P. Muno
  • Dino Larese: cultural workers in the Lake Constance area - Helene Baronin von Bothmer. Amriswil Academy, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, September 1993
  • Wilhelm Restle: The Meersburger Droste booklet. Publishing house Droste-Museum Fürstenhäusle Meersburg 1966
  • Helene Freifrau von Bothmer zu Schwegerhoff: the keeper of the Droste souvenir was buried in Meersburg - the museum in the Fürstenhäusle was shaped in its present form. In: Schwäbische Zeitung. March 16, 1996
  • City of Meersburg: A life for Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. University of Innsbruck Bulletin No. 10 of March 7, 1996
  • Monika Taubitz: Meersburger Dichterinnentreffen - From the early days of the IBC. IBC News 2003
  • Monika Taubitz : Asche and Rubin Helene von Bothmer. A biography , Neisse-Verlag Dresden, 2016.

Individual evidence

  1. Monika Taubitz: Ash and Rubin. Helene von Bothmer. A biography, p. 25
  2. Monika Taubitz: Ash and Rubin. Helene von Bothmer. A biography , I.-III. chapter
  3. Monika Taubitz: Ash and Tubin. Helene von Bothmer. A biography. Dresden 2016, p. 130
  4. Monika Taubitz: Ash and Rubin. Helene von Bothmer. A biography , p. 173ff
  5. Monika Taubitz: Ash and Rubin. Helene von Bothmer. A biography , p. 187
  6. Wilda Gretzinger (ed.) And Kathleen Wiley Pietsch (author): A Kindred Spirit - the autobiography of Helene Baronin von Bothmer. Portland (Oregon), USA, 1996, publisher Donald P. Muno
  7. Kim Christensen: The Baron of Beaverton . In: The Oregonian . Portland (USA) April 16, 2000.
  8. Kim Lunman: Royal rumble rocks Victoria Society's leading ladies square off in court against a big-talking baron from California (case study) In: Business Law .
  9. https://www.oregonlive.com/lake-oswego/2014/10/death_row_inmate_who_robbed_te.html
  10. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-bloody-barons-crazy-mixed-up-robbery