great beauty

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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.

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