Mona Parsons was born February 17, 1901 in the town of Middleton, in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. Her father, Norval Parsons, was a prosperous businessman and her mother Mary (Keith) looked after their home and two sons, Ross and Gwyn. Their first child, Matilda didn't survive infancy, so Mona was both the only daughter and the baby in the family - doted on by all, but particularly her father
Reports of the final days of World War Two in Europe paint vivid pictures of triumph and despair, compassion and cruelty. Canadian soldiers fighting to liberate Holland raced to deliver food parcels to a nation brought to the brink of starvation during the Nazi occupation. In the small town of Vlagtwedde, near the German border in north-eastern Holland, members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders were astounded when an emaciated and sick woman approached them for help, claiming that, after nearly four years in Nazi prisons and camps, she had walked across Germany following a desperate and dramatic escape. Badly infected blisters on her bare feet were evidence of her three-week trek, but the soldiers were incredulous when she told them she was a Canadian - Mona Parsons from Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
In 1911 Norval's business burnt to the ground in a fire that destroyed several businesses, devastating the town. He packed up his family and moved them down the line to Wolfville. There, Mona attended school at the Acadia Ladies Seminary and got her first taste of live theatre through the touring companies and amateur performances. Her acting and musical abilities eventually led her to parts in local productions.
World War One broke out when Mona was thirteen. The impressionable teenager developed a strong sense of patriotism, knitting socks for soldiers and engaging in community activities to support the troops and the war effort. Her father and her brothers enlisted in the Overseas Expeditionary Force, and her brother Ross was wounded at Lens in 1917.
The war years were a turning point for Mona Parsons. Not only did she see the devastating effects on the families of those who died or were wounded, she also saw women emerge from the shadows of husbands, fathers and brothers to take control of farms and businesses, and even more dramatically, to assume roles as nurses near the battlefront. Although many women returned to their former domestic roles after the war was over, for Mona things could never be the same. She wanted a career and independence before she would ever consider marriage. And even then, she would have to be recognized as an equal.
Upon graduating with a certificate in Elocution, Mona Parsons attended the Currie School of Expression in Boston. Through the 1920s, she moved back and forth between Wolfville and the United States, taking classes at Acadia University and teaching elocution at Central College in Conway, Arkansas, before she landed a role in the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. The Follies were the largest musical theatre review of the twentieth century, and their impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, was said to have been impressed by Mona - but then he had a reputation for a lovely voice, a pretty face and a nicely turned leg.
But Mona quickly grew bored with the Follies, and with the wealthy men who sought the company of showgirls. She craved roles in plays crafted by some of the great writers of the twentieth century, but before she could pursue them she received an urgent telegram in February 1930, summoning her home. Her mother had suffered a stroke. Shortly after she arrived home, her mother suffered a second, and fatal stroke.
Her mother's death was another turning point for Mona. She was 29 years old - old for a showgirl in those days. Her theatre career wasn't going in the direction she wanted. The stock market had crashed in October 1929, destroying the fortunes of many of the people she'd known. She needed a career, one that would provide stability in tough times. Influenced by her memories of stories about World War One nurses, and influenced by the nurse who tended to her mother in her final illness, she enrolled in the Jersey School of Medicine to become a nurse. She graduated with honours in September 1935, wrote her R.N. exams in February 1935 and landed a job in the office of a Park Avenue Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist - an ex-pat Nova Scotian named Ross Faulkner. In the midst of the Great Depression, Mona was an independent woman embarking on a solid career with a good future, living in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the North American continent.
February seemed to be a significant month for her. It marked the month of her birth, the month of her mother's death, the month in which she passed her R.N. exam, the month in which she launched her nursing career, and in 1937 February brought another significant event. She met Willem Leonhardt, the man who would become her first husband. Leonhardt was quiet and conservative, born to a distinguished Dutch family - and he was a millionaire. Better yet, his fortunes had weathered the Depression and had even improved. His business? Plumbing fixtures. That may seem odd, but consider that his family's business had started in the nineteenth century, laying the foundation of the modern water and sewer in Amsterdam. And in the twentieth century, when indoor facilities were more the norm and Hollywood films began to depict bathrooms as a place of splendour and opulence, the room was no longer on the list of things not to be discussed in polite company. And the Leonhardt fortune grew with the new interest. Mona's brother, based in Rhode Island with the Nicholson File Company, called her one day to ask a favour. Would she be willing to show a business associate the sites of New York? She readily agreed and a meeting with Willem Leonhardt was set up. Mona's beauty, vivacity and energy captivated Willem.
A few days later, he left New York to continue his business trip to Mexico. Before heading back to Amsterdam a few weeks later, he made a point of stopping off in New York to propose marriage. Before she accepted, Willem told her that he was divorced (something not as common as it is now - and even considered scandalous in those days) because of his first wife, Winnifred's adulterous affair. That affair, he told Mona, had resulted in the birth of a boy. Willem had wanted to disown both of them, but his father had said that such a thing might bring scandal on the family's good name. Willem told Mona that he had conferred a sum of money on Winnifred and the boy, quietly divorced her and had not heard from them since. He thought they had left the country.
Mona appreciated Willem's honesty and readily accepted his proposal. September 1 was set for the nuptials in Holland. Willem returned to New York in July, and together they sailed in luxury to Europe on the New York-Bremen line.
Upon arriving in Holland, Mona was given rooms in Schoonoord, Willem's parents' estate in s'Graveland, where she was introduced to her personal maid, Gertrude and her chauffeur, de Boer.
The house is still a local landmark with its three-storeys and long, sloping, thatched roof, though the rolling pastures, farmlands and orchards that once belonged to the estate have long since been subdivided and developed.
A quiet wedding ceremony, attended only by immediate family and close friends, took place at the Town Hall on September 1, 1937. It was followed by a lavish reception in the gardens at Schoonord. Afterwards, they set off in Willem's Jaguar for an extended honeymoon along the French and Italian Rivieras. Upon returning to Holland, they purchased land in Laren, where they built a three-storey dream home, surrounded by lavish gardens. They dubbed their estate "Ingleside". It seemed that Mona had found her Prince Charming. The only thing that remained to be done was to live happily ever after.