Thérèse Bonney was born Mabel Therese Bonney in Syracuse, N.Y. on July 15, 1894; she died of heart failure at the American Hospital in Paris in 1978.
Bonney‘s family had lived in New York State for several generations. Her mother, Addie Robey, was a bookkeeper and her father, Anthony Leroy Bonney, was an electrician. Her sister Louise was born in 1889. Both sisters shared a vision of the importance of design in modern life: Louise as an industrial designer and Therese as an interpreter and curator of modern aesthetics.
The family moved to California circa 1903, living first in Sacramento and then in Oakland. The family made sacrifices to educate their daughters; Therese also contributed by tutoring students at her Oakland high school in French and Spanish to earn money. She graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1916 and made the move back east alone, attending graduate school first at Radcliffe College and then at Columbia University. The attractions of New York City for a francophile were obvious. Along with halving the distance to Paris, Bonney obtained her first position with the Theatre du Vieux Columbier, on tour in North America. When Louise joined her sister, the two opened a French theater bookshop while Therese doubled as the official English translator of Sarah Bernhardt’s repertory.
At the first opportunity, months after war in Europe ended, Bonney was en route to France as a representative of the American Association of Colleges to set up a student exchange program. After earning her doctorate at the Sorbonne (the youngest person and only the fourth woman), Bonney became a correspondent for newspapers in the U.S., Britain, and France, taking up photography to provide her own illustrations. From 1923-1928, she served as Paris fashion editor for the New York Times. The studio apartment of graphic artist Jean Carlu was an early example of her work, displaying her ability to encapsulate several trends in one shot.
Her signature achievement was the creation of the Bonney Service (1923), the first American illustrated press service, specializing in design and architecture, eventually supplying 350+ photos a month for publication in more than 20 countries. When Bonney had to hire additional photographers, rumors began to circulate that she couldn't do her own work. She was also criticized for promoting her own work. “I am not an expatriate; I am the dean of the American press corps in Paris” was how she explained her unprecedented position.
In her spare time, Bonney wrote guidebooks to shopping, restaurants, and the decorative arts of Paris, evn beating Julia Child by decades with her book French Cooking for American Kitchens. About her native country, Bonney wrote: “our furniture and our homes are of the past.” She was well-placed to know: Paris in the inter-war years incubated almost every significant design trend of the 20th century.
A tireless promoter of modern design, Bonney arranged an exhibition of Modern French Decorative Art at Lord & Taylor in New York (1928) and several traveling exhibitions that appeared at the Metropolitan Museum and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
A successful career in New York enabled Louise to bring her widowed mother to the city. Louise became one of a precious few women appointed to the Board of Design for the 1939 World’s Fair. All three Bonney women were involved with planning the fair from 1935 on. Meanwhile, Therese was an official of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair.
In Finland to cover preparations for the 1938 Winter Olympics when the Russians invaded, Bonney stayed on for two years, going on to cover the Nazi invasion and the Battle of France. Her exhibition Those to Whom Wars Are Done appeared at the Library of Congress in 1940, followed by War Comes to the People at the Museum of Modern Art. For her heroic efforts, the French government awarded Bonney the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur. Bonney never married and she kept her personal life private.
Image credits: Bonney donated 4,000 photographic prints to the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum in the late 1930s, a unique documentation of a design era. Many prints are also in the collection of the Bancroft Library at the University of California.
The photograph of Therese Bonney was taken by Lee Miller in 1942. The photographer of Louise Bonney is Therese Bonney.