There are many rags to riches stories in the American experience, as well as the stories of falling from grace and losing fortunes. But out of all of them – hers was the most bizarre. Her name was Audrey Munson. The name was forgotten, but her likeness, cast in granite, bronze, and marble, is here to stay.
She stands, 25 feet tall, on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building as “Civic Fame”. As “Memory” in Straus Park, she is grieving Ida and Isidor Straus, who perished in the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic. She is “Pomona” of the Pulitzer Fountain at the Grand Army Plaza. Representing both “Brooklyn” and “Manhattan”, she adorned the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge and now greets visitors to the Brooklyn Museum. “The Spirit of Commerce” on Manhattan bridge is also her. She demures as “Beauty” on the facade of the New York Public Library. She rides a chariot as “Columbia Triumphant” on top of USS Maine National Monument and represents “Peace” at its bottom. She personifies “Duty” and “Sacrifice” at Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park. Her likeness charms, seduces, grieves and inspires throughout the Metropolitan Museum.
Her story started as a fairytale when she and her mother moved to New York City and beautiful Audrey was discovered on the street by a famous photographer who hired her for some portrait work. She was blessed with perfect proportions and classic features – a “Beaux Arts” perfection. In addition to that, she possed a unique ability to stand absolutely still for hours without changing a pose which was invaluable for a sculptor model. She got introduced to Isidore Konti, a famous sculptor, who hired her to pose nude. She agreed and very quickly became the most sought after model in town. Her career started when she was just a teenager and developed spectacularly for about a decade. By 1915 she was the model of choice for the best sculptors in the country, she was in a spotlight, she had money and fame; she was referred to as “Miss Manhattan” and hailed as “the most perfectly formed woman in the world.” She treated her modeling as an art form and considered herself an artist collaborator. She trained herself to hold still for hours no matter the conditions – a task that required strength, endurance, and dedication. The first American supermodel invented the art of striking a pose with drama and elegance which was instrumental in the process of creating a sculpture. Her fame went far beyond the Gotham city. When Alexander Stirling Calder became Director of Sculpture for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco, he chose Miss Munson for his model. Her figure was “ninety times repeated against the sky” on one building alone. In fact, Munson posed for three-fifths of the sculpture created for the event and earned fame as the “Panama–Pacific Girl”.
Being out west and on top of her game, she decided to expand into the new art of motion pictures. She shot three silent films in which she dared to appear completely naked. Audrey was the first woman to do so in American film and was apparently way ahead of her time. Nudity didn’t go well with Victorian morality of the time and her movie career brought her infamy rather than fame. From that moment on, her good fortune seemed to have left her. In 1916 she returned back to the East coast and spent some time in Rhode Island mingling with high society. An affair with the richest bachelor in America at the time – the silver heir Hermann Oelrichs Jr. – did not result in fairytale nuptials. What could have been a Cinderella-like turn in her story where she marries a prince, ended up with her first major breakdown. She wrote a rambling letter to the US State Department blaming Oelrichs for ruining her movie career as a part of some German/Jewish conspiracy.
Her fall from grace was as spectacular as her rise to fame. By 1919 Audrey Munson found herself without much work and money. She and her mother moved to a modest boarding house on West 65th Street in Manhattan. At this point, her story twisted into a narrative worthy of a Greek tragedy. The owner of the boarding house, Dr. Walter Wilkins, obsessed with Audrey, decided that the best way to proceed with a romance was to murder his wife in order to marry beautiful Miss Munson. The results were truly devastating: Dr. Wilkins was sentenced to death and hanged himself in his prison. The scandal surrounding the story put an end to Audrey’s career – nobody was interested in hiring her anymore. She was just 28…
Audrey Munson tried to reinvent herself through controversial practices of writing about her experiences as a model. What would be a hit nowadays, a kind of behind the scene memoirs of a famous model, didn’t play in her favor and didn’t increase her chances of being hired. The last splash of notoriety was making another movie and a bizarre attempt to find a perfect husband through a nationwide search carried by the United Press.
By the time she was 30, Audrey who was once known as “the Queen of the Artists’ Studios,” became infamous as “the woman who took her clothes off for money.” Her psychological problems were neither noticed nor treated. She attempted suicide, but alas, dying young was not her fate. She and her mother descended into poverty and Audrey’s behavior was becoming more and more erratic. In 1931, when Audrey turned 40 years old, her mother decided to commit her to a lunatic asylum.
Audrey Munson was destined to live a very long life. She lived to be 104 years old. The first American supermodel died in 1996 having spent 65 years in a mental institution.
This is one of the most twisted and shocking stories of a rise to fame and fall from grace. As horrible as it sounds, she was not miserable in the asylum. She found solace that she needed and was treated there as a celebrity. At the very end of her life, after decades of having no callers, she was found by the family of her half brother. They paid regular kind visits to her from the time she was 93 until her death.
When Audrey Munson was at her prime, every part of her was simply perfect. Sometimes sculptors used parts of her body – her perfect long legs, her breasts, her arms, her classic face, her graceful neck and her very special dimples on the small of her back. These dimples drove the city mad with admiration and she was still proud of them in the asylum.
We can see her classic features all over the city, her elongated figure, her elegant posture and, of course, standing next to the Plaza and looking at the back of Pomona of the Pulitzer Fountain, we can still admire her famous dimples.
1891 – born in Rochester, New York
1909 – moves to New York City and starts her modeling career
1915 – starts a career in the film industry and stars in three films
1916 – returns to the East Coast
1919 – Dr. William K. Wilkins kills his wife to be able to pursue Audrey
1920 – unable to find work moves to Syracuse, New York
1921 – publishes a series of articles entitled ‘By the ‘Queen of the Artists’ Studios’
1921 – conducts a nationwide search for the perfect man to marry
1922 – attempts suicide
1931 – is committed to a psychiatric facility to be treated for depression and schizophrenia
1984 – discovered by the family of her half-brother after not being visited by anyone for decades
1996 – dies at the age of 104
These are some of the sculptures featuring Miss Audrey Munson located in Manhattan:
- “Spirit of Commerce” by Carl Augustus Heber (the Manhattan Bridge)
- “Pomona” by Isidore Konti (Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza)
- “Memory” by Augustus Lukeman (Straus Memorial, Straus Park)
- “Duty” and “Sacrifice” by Attilio Piccirilli (Firemen’s Memorial, Riverside Park)
- “Memory” by David Chester French (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- “Maidenhood” by Sherry Edmundson Fry (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
James Bone “The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel.”
The Vintage News “Sad but True: Audrey Munson, America’s first supermodel ended up living in psychiatric asylum for 65 years”
New England “Historical Society The Tragedy of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel”
Vogue “A New Book Tells the Unbelievable Life Story of America’s First Supermodel”
Untapped Cities “Audrey Munson: The Most Visible New York Woman You Don’t Know”
99% Invisible “Miss Manhattan”
The Believer “Descending Night”