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Munson in 1922. 'She looked more like the Venus de Milo than any of the other [models],’ Mr. Bone said, which spurred reporters to call her the American Venus. BETTMAN/CORBIS

Munson in 1922. ‘She looked more like the Venus de Milo than any of the other [models],’ Mr. Bone said, which spurred reporters to call her the American Venus. BETTMAN/CORBIS

 “America’s Venus” 

 Audrey Munson was Famous for Posing Naked and Being Cloaked in Scandal.

“I detest false modesty. For my part I see nothing shocking in our unclothed bodies.”

—Audrey Munson

This proto-celebrity vanished long ago but her neoclassical features and figure live on in allegorical monuments and paintings across the United States.

Even if you’ve never heard Audrey Munson’s name, you may have seen her: The Gilded Age supermodel served as the basis for the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, the woman on the Manhattan Bridge, and the statue outside the New York Public Library. During her lifetime, she starred in the earliest nude films, rode roller skates to the post office, and inspired countless works of art.

As America was stepping into the modern era, one great beauty became the artist’s model of choice. Her perfect form became the emblem of the Gilded Age and appears on the greatest monuments of New York and the nation. Supermodel, actress, icon—her beauty paved the way for a life of glamour, passion, and ultimately tragedy. She dated the millionaires of the fashionable Newport colony, became the first American movie star ever to appear naked in a film, but her promising film career collapsed, her doctor fell in love with her and killed his own wife, and on her fortieth birthday, her mother committed her to an insane asylum. She remained there until her death in 1996 at the age of 104 and is now buried in an unmarked grave.

She was known as “the most perfect model,” and in her heyday, one headline proclaimed, “All New York Bows to the Real Miss Manhattan.” She earned the name not just because she was the toast of the town in the 1910s, but also because her perfectly proportioned face and body inspired numerous works of sculpture that still stand in Manhattan, Brooklyn and The Bronx today.

One contemporary account concluded that Audrey Munson “posed for more public works than anyone” — at least a dozen of which are still on public display. New Yorkers may not know it, but they see Munson everywhere.

Her face and body were the basis for “Civic Fame,” the statue that stands atop the Municipal Building as well as the figure of Columbia adorning the USS Maine National Monument in Columbus Circle and the “Spirit of Commerce” angel at the northern base of the Manhattan Bridge.

As a teen, Audrey was discovered by a photographer while window-shopping on Fifth Avenue. Her Aphrodite-like physique stood out among many aspiring models. “She looked more like the Venus de Milo than any of the other girls.

“She was the first supermodel — and the first model to have a standing in society.

Born in 1891, Audrey Munson was blessed with a classically beautiful body and the courage to bare it—or, as she put it, to “brazen it out”—in the service of art.

In Gilded Age New York, her figure inspired a generation of American artists. That’s her likeness lounging above the front door of the Frick and coyly tucked in a niche outside the New York Public Library’s main branch. She is the face of Pomona, the Roman goddess of abundance, on the Pulitzer Fountain at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the Plaza Hotel.

While many girls gave modelling a try, few stayed the course. It was more the kind of thing you did if you had nothing else to do, But Audrey took her work seriously. “A model who means business cannot go out and stay up all hours of night,” she said at 22. “Models…take care of their complexions and their tempers, for it does not do to carry a nervous grouch to a studio with you.”

Despite the discipline, Audrey claimed she was poorly paid, earning at most $30 a week—in an era, when a pint of milk cost a nickel and a dozen eggs roughly 25 cents. The model also said she made just $450 from her screen debut, “Inspiration,” a tiny percentage of the film’s box-office takings.

Audrey Munson in 1915. Photo: Library of Congress

Audrey Munson in 1915. Photo: Library of Congress

In Munson’s childhood, in 1896, when she was  five-years-old, she had her fortune read by a Gypsy traveller in her hometown of East Syracuse, New York.

Though still just “a slip of a girl,” Audrey was already possessed of a limber figure and long bones—she was to grow to five feet eight inches tall. Her features were perfectly symmetrical and sleek: a high brow, chiselled cheekbones, an almond jaw, and that perfectly straight neoclassical nose. Set like gemstones in her milky skin, she had questioning, slightly impertinent gray-blue eyes.

The question lurking in those eyes was one she would come to wish she had never asked:

“What does my future hold?”

The soothsayer looked on Audrey’s fresh beauty; then, mindful of her own sorrows and all the sorrows of the world, she spoke:

 “You shall be beloved and famous. But when you think that happiness is yours, its Dead Sea fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth.

“You, who shall throw away thousands of dollars as a caprice, shall want for a penny. You, who shall mock at love, shall seek love without finding.

“Seven men shall love you. Seven times you shall be led by the man who loves you to the steps of the altar, but never shall you wed.”

For the rest of her life, Audrey considered the prophecy a curse.

Audrey did indeed become beloved and famous. Her “most perfect form” still reigns over New York City and across the United States.

The New York native modeled for roughly three-quarters of the works in the Jewel City exhibition at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Star Maiden by Alexander Stirling Calder, image by Eugen Neuhaus (public domain)

The New York native modeled for roughly three-quarters of the works in the Jewel City exhibition at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Star Maiden by Alexander Stirling Calder, image by Eugen Neuhaus (public domain)

Munson was born in Rochester in 1891. Audrey certainly was not born into the gilded 1 percent, though she would try to marry into it. Her name is inscribed in the baptism register of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rochester as (Audrie) Marie Munson, born to Edgar Munson and Kittie Mahoney. Her birth brought together two very different American family stories. The mismatch of their hopes and expectations scarred her life.

Audrey’s parents divorced in 1899, when she was eight. The decree, issued in Kittie’s new home of Providence, Rhode Island, awarded sole custody of Audrey to her mother. Kittie, though a Catholic, later complained that she had no choice but to divorce because Edgar had been carrying on an open affair with the woman who was to become his second wife, Cora Cook, whom he picked up while working as a trolleybus conductor after returning East. “He got to going with a woman, German, Cora Cook—Oswego County, New York. She has had eight children by him,” Kittie later wrote in a letter. “They were not married so I divorced him.”

Edgar and Kittie each loved Audrey in their own way—but they most definitely did not still love each other. Edgar struggled with the competing claims of his new family with Cora Cook and their five surviving children: Vivian, born in 1906; Lawrence, born in 1909; Gertrude, born in 1912; Gerald, born in 1914; and Harold, born in 1918. Although Edgar always came to Audrey’s aid in a crisis, he disliked her nude posing and blamed her mother for it. “I wouldn’t think she’d want to do it. She used to be such a nice quiet-mannered little blue-eyed thing, just the opposite of what you’d expect to see in an actress,” he complained in 1916. “It was her mother who talked the stage into her head from the time she was a baby. I can remember taking her to the theater and she’d get so excited and so she’d stand through the whole thing… I don’t have any interest in what she’s doing now. I’d rather she wouldn’t but it’s her affair and it brings her in lots of money and she spends it too just like water.”

In 1909, when she was 17 years old, Audrey Munson moved to New York with her mother to become an actress and chorus girl.Her first role on Broadway was as a “footman” in The Boy and The Girl at the Aerial Garden, which ran from May 31-June 19, 1909. She also appeared in The Girl and the Wizard, Girlies and La Belle Paree.

Like so many supermodels that would come after her, Audrey Marie Munson was scouted on the streets of New York City in 1906. A photographer approached her one day and gave Audrey his card, asking if she would pose for some portraits. Her mom was invited too. Intentions were good. These photoshoots were fully-clothed affairs.

After some success, the photographer introduced Munson to his friend and famous sculptor Isidore Konti. He, too, was interested in hiring Munson for his work. But for this endeavor she would have to pose “in the altogether” (without clothes). She and her mother agreed. For decades, the resulting sculptural set (three muses, all patterned after Audrey) was in the lobby of the Hotel Astor. Audrey called this statue “a souvenir of my mother’s consent.”

Audrey began to work for many other famous artists in New York, and her reputation grew. She was known for being able to evoke a mood with her posture and expression and could hold poses for as long as needed. In 1913, The New York Sun dubbed her “Miss Manhattan.”

She worked closely with the artists, learning their temperaments, familiarizing herself with their work. She thought of herself as a collaborator. It helped that the architecture that was in vogue at the time was the Beaux-Arts style, which required a lot of sculptures and detailed ornamentation.

As the Beaux-Arts style grew in popularity and started spreading west, Audrey followed, both in flesh and in sculpture. Her likeness now adorned capitol buildings and halls and monuments on both coasts.

at a 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco, the World Panama–Pacific International Exposition, three-quarters of the statues on the grounds were modeled after her. There was even a map highlighting all of her locations on the site.

Once out west, she wound up in Hollywood, where she was always cast in the role of a model. The modelling bit was really the only part she could play, for her skill at evoking a mood and conveying expression seemed to end the moment she broke pose. She was even given an acting double in some cases–who did everything except the non-moving parts.

"The Isador and Ida Straus Memorial." Photo: Lynne Ciccaglione

“The Isador and Ida Straus Memorial.” Photo: Lynne Ciccaglione

Her newfound celebrity helped launch her career in the nascent film industry and she starred in four silent films. In the first, Inspiration (1915), the story of a sculptor’s model, she appeared fully nude, the first woman to do so in an American motion picture. The censors were reluctant to ban the film, fearing they would also have to ban Renaissance art. Munson’s films were a box office success, although the critics were divided. The studio hired a lookalike named Jane Thomas to do Munson’s acting scenes, while Munson did the scenes where she posed nude. Her second film, Purity (1916), made in Santa Barbara, California, is the only one of her films to survive, being rediscovered in 1993 in a “pornography” collection in France and acquired by the French national cinema archive. Her third film, The Girl o’ Dreams, also made in Santa Barbara, was completed by the fall of 1916 and was copyrighted on December 31, 1918, but appears never to have been released.

Munson returned to the East Coast by train via Syracuse in December 1916 and became involved with high society in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Her mother insisted she marry “Comstock Lode” silver heir Hermann Oelrichs Jr., then the richest bachelor in America, but there is no record of Audrey Munson’s making this claim herself. On January 27, 1919, she wrote a rambling letter to the US State Department denouncing Hermann Oelrichs Jr. as part of a pro-German network that had driven her out of the movie business. She said she planned to abandon the United States to restart her movie career in England.

Audrey Munson presides over a corner of Central Park at Columbus Circle in Attilio Piccirilli’s glittering bronze memorial to the dead in the explosion of the battleship Maine. VLADIMIR KOROSTYSHEVSKIY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Audrey Munson presides over a corner of Central Park at Columbus Circle in Attilio Piccirilli’s glittering bronze memorial to the dead in the explosion of the battleship Maine. VLADIMIR KOROSTYSHEVSKIY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Audrey Munson helped to pioneer the one-piece bathing suit for women. (Photo: Photofest)

Audrey Munson helped to pioneer the one-piece bathing suit for women. (Photo: Photofest)

By 1919, Audrey had moved back to New York to continue modelling. She lived with her mother in a boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins on West 65th Street. Wilkins became infatuated with Audrey, causing his jealous wife Julia to kick the girl and her mother out of the house. That February, Julia Wilkins was found dead in their home on Long Island.

Dr. Wilkins insisted that he and his wife had returned home from a trip to the city and found 3 burglars in the house. These men knocked him unconscious and murdered his wife. Investigators searched for months, trying to find these mysterious burglars. Eventually, however, evidence mounted against Dr. Wilkins, and rumours of his love for Audrey Munson began to swirl. Audrey and her mother had vanished during the preceding manhunt, and the call was soon put out that they were wanted for questioning in the case.

The two women were eventually found in Toronto and interrogated, but no legal fault could be found with either. The good doctor, however, was not so lucky. Accused of his wife’s murder, he went into hiding in Baltimore. After a week, though, he turned himself in and was arrested at Penn Station in Manhattan.

His trial began on June 9th, and on the afternoon of June 28th, 1919, Dr. Walter Keene Wilkins was convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The very next day, however, at Nassau County Jail, Wilkins used a length of rope to hang himself in the prison bathroom.

The Wilkins murder scandal destroyed Audrey Munson’s reputation. Incapable of finding modeling or acting work, she moved with her mother back to her small hometown of Mexico, New York, where she got a job selling kitchen utensils door-to-door.ny-times-march-25-1919

NY Times, June 28, 1919

NY Times, June 28, 1919

NY Times, May 28, 1922

NY Times, May 28, 1922

By 1920, Munson, unable to find work anywhere, was living in Syracuse, New York, supported by her mother, who sold kitchen utensils door to door. In February 1921, agent-producer Allan Rock took out advertisements showing a $27,500 check he said he had paid Munson to star in a fourth film titled Heedless Moths. She later said the $27,500 check was just a “publicity stunt,” and she filed suit against Allan Rock. The 1921 film was based on her life story, which was then being serialized in dozens of newspapers, and on short stories and other articles she had written for Hearst’s Sunday Magazine. In the series of twenty articles that recounted her life story, she asked the reader to imagine her future:

What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, “Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?”

On May 27, 1922, a despondent Audrey took 4 capsules of mercury bichloride in an attempted suicide. She was rushed to a hospital in Syracuse, where her life was spared.

But Audrey was not well. Upon awakening, she insisted that she had been engaged to a man named Joseph J. Stevenson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and that he had broken off the engagement, prompting her suicide attempt. No such man could be found to exist, however. And within a few days of her recovery, she started referring to herself as “Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Monson,” and claimed that “powerful influences” were preventing her from getting jobs in the motion picture industry.

Healthy physically, Audrey’s mental state continued to deteriorate.

On June 8, 1931, Munson’s 40th birthday, her mother petitioned a judge to commit her to a lunatic asylum. The Oswego County judge ordered Munson be admitted into a psychiatric facility for treatment. She remained in the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg for 65 years, until her death at the age of 104. For decades, she had no visitors at all, but she was rediscovered in the asylum by a half-niece, Darlene Bradley, in 1984, when Munson was 93

Audrey lived a very long time and died in 1996, she was locked away for most of her life, her records sealed, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. A generation of her family even refused to utter her name. Her closest surviving relatives remain reluctant to speak openly about her to this day.

The statue of Civic Fame on top of the Municipal Building, installed in March 1913, is a gilded figure designed by Adolph A. Weinman. At 25 feet (8 m) tall, it is the second largest statue in all of Manhattan.

The statue of Civic Fame on top of the Municipal Building, installed in March 1913, is a gilded figure designed by Adolph A. Weinman. At 25 feet (8 m) tall, it is the second largest statue in all of Manhattan.

Civic Fame was commissioned by the City to celebrate the five boroughs uniting to become the City of New York. Weinman (1870-1952), designed the statue, perched atop the tower of the Manhattan Municipal Building, as well as the relief sculptures on the lower floors of the building. Weinman’s credits include the Liberty Dime and the half dollar. The German-born sculptor’s training and style coincided with the classical traditions exemplified by McKim, Mead and White, the architectural firm that designed the Municipal Building. Their collaborations were part of what is known as the American Renaissance; a movement to integrate all the arts of design as co-equal partners in a total ensemble of architecture. Civic Fame is a grand figure three times life size, of gilded copper supported on an iron skeleton. In construction she is similar to that of the Statue of Liberty, and like the Statue of Liberty she bears the emblems of her role: A shield with the coat of arms of the City, a branch of leaves, and “mural” crown — that is a crown with five crenellations as of a City wall, representing the five boroughs of the City. Also on the crown are dolphins, symbolizing New York’s maritime setting.

The 25 foot statue was installed 580′ above the City.

A portrait of Audrey Munson, taken by Arnold Genthe in 1915, at the height of her celebrity. PHOTO: ARNOLD GENTHE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

A portrait of Audrey Munson, taken by Arnold Genthe in 1915, at the height of her celebrity. PHOTO: ARNOLD GENTHE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The Saint Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, NY, where Audrey spent the final 65 years of her life.

The Saint Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, NY, where Audrey spent the final 65 years of her life.

Audrey strongly believed that women were naturally beautiful, and should cast aside corsets and high heels, yet she was never able to take full control of her own body. The facts suggest she was exploited at every turn. She was paid just 50 cents an hour to pose nude. Men besieged her. Hundreds of suitors tried to woo her by mail. Some who had seen her nude photos even wrote from faraway Japan. It was men who lavished her with rich rewards for her beauty; and it was men who made her pay the terrible price she did.

Audrey once said:

“If there is immorality in posing in the nude, anybody who takes a bath ought to be arrested.”

But Audrey was known above all, in art and in movies, for her naked body—and her daring readiness to put it on show. She was advertised as “the world’s most perfectly formed woman.” Audrey’s defense of her public nudity, and some—but certainly not all—of her other views on women, made her an early feminist. Indeed, she once contributed five dollars to the suffrage movement pushing to get women the right to vote, which was finally achieved in her heyday, with the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920.

When Audrey was committed to a lunatic asylum in 1931 it was very hard to get out, in our time, it’s very hard to stay in. In her extreme old age, the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, NY, threw her out to save beds and moved her to a nursing home.

This move, however, did not last long. The nursing home sat across from a strip mall which housed a bar. She was known to sneak out of the home and across the four-lane highway to spend her evenings ordering drinks and telling stories of her times as a model and actress. Sadly, this caused her caregivers to send her back to the mental institution, where she died in 1996, just short of her 105th birthday.

An ancient, broken woman, barely a ripple went through the news media as she was laid to rest beneath an inauspicious grave in New Haven, New York. The girl once dubbed “Miss Manhattan,” whose regal face still holds court above almost every corner of New York City, died in obscurity, remembered only in the cold stone and bronze so taken for granted by so many.

“Model Who Attempted Suicide by Poison Will Recover”

A New Book Tells the Unbelievable Life Story of America’s First …

The Rise and Fall of Audrey Munson, the ‘American Venus’ – WSJ

Miss Manhattan – 99% Invisible

How America’s First Supermodel Was Nearly Erased from History …

America’s First Supermodel Died Alone in a Mental Asylum | Broadly

The Tragic Life of America’s First Supermodel – The New York Times

Queen of the artists’ studios, the story of Audrey Munson[*] | multitudes

Audrey Munson – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Sad Life of Audrey Munson « Twenty Four Frames


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