The Life of Therese Bonney


Therese Bonney was born Mabel Therese Bonney in Syracuse, New York on July 15, 1894, the daughter of Anthony Le Roy and Addie Bonney.  At the age of five Therese moved with her mother to California and remained there until her graduation from the University of California at Berkley.  It was at this point in her life that she stopped using her first name and began going by Therese.  A year after her graduation she went to Harvard and got her MA in Romance Languages.  She then went to Columbia university to prepare for her Ph.D.  She finished her education in Paris where she was the first American to receive a scholarship to attend the Sorbonne.  She received the degree of Docteur des Lettres degree there in 1921 after passing her exam with the highest honors.  After her graduation she was awarded multiple scholastic honors, including the Horatio Stebbins Scholarship, The Belknap, Baudrillart, Billy Fellowships, and the Carl Schurz Memorial Foundation Oberländer grant in 1936 in order to study Germany's contributions to the history of photography.    

After her education she spent much of her life abroad with Paris as her "headquarters" (Robertson).  Even though she had initially wanted to be an academic, her experiences in Europe caused her to change her plans.  It was now her goal to help develop cultural relations between the United States and France.  In the years following her graduate studies she helped to establish the Red Cross' correspondence exchange between the children of Europe and the children of the United States.  She also traveled throughout all of Europe lecturing and helping to organize Junior Red Cross groups in other countries.  It was during this time that Bonney became interested in journalism and the power of the media.  She had assimilated herself into French society and set up her headquarters in Paris and soon became a frequent contributor to newspapers and periodicals in England, France, and the United States.  Soon after, she founded the first American illustrated press service in Europe known as the Bonney service.  

Bonney was also a sought after model.  She was "acclaimed as the most perfect da Vinci model in the world."  (Syracuse Herald)  She modeled for artists in France and Spain.

In 1929 Therese Bonney added writing books to her list of accomplishments when Robert M. McBride and Company published a series of guide books which she prepared in collaboration with her sister Louise Bonney.  These books included such titles as Buying Antique and Modern Furniture in Paris, A Shopping Guide to Paris, Guide to the Restaurants of Paris, and French Cooking for American Kitchens.  

In 1932, an exhibition of photographs from her personal collection was displayed at the George Petit gallery in Paris under the title "Gay Nineties". It later made its way to New York, along with various other Midwestern American cities.  This exhibition showed the lives of all classes of people around Europe, but most notably the royalty.  It was noted as an important collection preserving elements of the social history of Edwardian Europe, providing, among other things, a record of Victorian fashion.  It brought Bonney a great deal of notice.  After her tour ended in 1933 the exhibition was published as "Remember When".  

Image from Remember When of Nicholas II, Czar of Russia, last of the Romanoff rulers, with his daughters.  

Her exhibition had made Bonney a well known figure in the art community in America. In 1935 she took a position as the director of a gallery of French art in Rockefeller Center.  She took the job because she felt it was another way for her to foster better cultural relations between France and America.  

Bonney was becoming more upset with the poor quality and lack of dramatic content in the pictures which her agency's photographers were bringing to her.  She decided that if she wanted it done her way she would have to do it herself and set off to take some of the photographs herself.

Image from Remember When of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria and his family.  World War I began following his assassination. 

In 1939 Bonney finally took the world stage in photography to become a truly prominent photo journalist.  Her first work was a behind the scenes look at "The Vatican".  That same year she gained world wide recognition for her documentation of the Russo-Finnish war.  While all the other journalists at this time went to the Balkans, Bonney went to Finland intending to photograph preparations for the Olympics.  Instead she got caught right in the middle of the Russo-Finnish war and for a few months was the only journalist present, having the entire story to herself.  Her efforts gained the respect of the Finnish people and she was decorated with Finland's highest honor, The White Rose.

Image from The Vadican

She left Scandinavia in 1940, just before the Nazi invasion.  She returned to France and began working with the American Red Cross and with the American Friends of France.  When the war came to France she took up post on the Franco-Belgian border and assisted with the evacuation of refugees until the situation in the region became too intense and she was forced to flee to Paris.  In June of 1940 she was appointed the official photographer of military headquarters of the French army and was given full privileges in the war zone.  She was the only foreign journalist at the Battle of the Meuse, and is credited with creating the most complete record of the Battle of France in existence.  She retreated with the French army and then left for America. 
Image from Europe's Children

Upon return to the United States she arranged an exhibition of her photographs for the Library of Congress which she entitled "To Whom the Wars are Done" showing the impact which the war was having on the common people in Europe.  Due to the emotional impact that these pictures had on the people in America and their value as primary historical documents, the Carnegie Corporation of New York gave her a grant so that she might return to Europe after the war to photograph the civilian population and illustrate the effects of the war on the innocent.  On February 1941 she made her way back to Europe.    

Returning to Europe, she first made her way through Portugal and Spain where she found that the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War had brought starvation.  Bonney moved on to unoccupied France and once again took up her efforts with the Red Cross' relief efforts.  In May 1941 she received the Criox de Guerre, with star, from the French Ministry of War because of her efforts to awaken the United Nations to the plight of children in war ravaged countries.  From 1941 through 1942 she continued taking pictures throughout Europe along with assisting the Red Cross, and in October of 1943 an exhibit was set up for the benefit of the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies Inc.  showcasing pictures that would soon become the content of her most famous book, Europe's Children.  

Image from Europe's Children

After compiling the photographs of the exhibition into book form she had ten different publishers turn it down.  So Bonney published it herself.  When the initial stock of two thousand copies sold out, Duell, Sloan and Pearce picked it up for publication.  Upon her return home in the United States she was asked by reporters what she wanted to do next.  To this she responded that she would like to go to Africa to photograph more wars; Bonney would not get this opportunity. 

Image from Europe's Children

Though she lived much of her life in Paris, Bonney never considered herself an ex-patriate.  Rather, as she noted in 1978, "I have made my headquarters in France since 1918...I am the dean of the American press corps in Paris.  Nobody outdates me." (Robertson)

In Therese Bonney's old age she was still interested in helping others.  She now set out to reveal the plight of the elderly around the world, and wanted to compose a book on the elderly, in the same style she made Europe's Children.  She took up efforts to extend Medicare to elderly Americans over seas and worked to raise awareness of the elderly around the world.  At the age of 80 Bonney was presented with a second Doctorate in gerontology at the Sorbonne.   Unfortunately she died soon after at the age of 83 on January 23, 1978 in an American hospital in Paris.