The heartbreaking story behind America's first supermodel.
All over New York there are magnificent statues located in front of prominent buildings and places. They greet you when you enter the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. They stare down at you from the Manhattan Municipal Building and entrances in Central Park. Like some kind of gatekeepers, their gaze silently judges you before you enter their realm. But these sculpted beauties scattered around the city aren’t just some anonymous Greek effigies. In fact, most of their faces and bodies are based on a real person; Audrey Munson. Forever engraved in stone they tell a story of America’s most beloved model, one that started her career right here in New York City.
Audrey Munson was born in Rochester, New York in 1981. She was 6 years old when her parents divorced and moved with her mother to New York City at 15. As a young girl, Audrey dreamed of being a famous dancer who would entertain thousands on stage. Little did she know that by the time she was 25, millions of people would know her name. One day while she was shopping with her mother, Audrey was approached by a photographer who wanted to take pictures of her in his studio. Enchanted by her beauty, this photographer introduced Audrey to a famous sculptor who needed a model for his upcoming work of art. A few months later she posed for Isidor Konti, who used her likeness to carve a beautiful statue for the Astor Hotel known as the “Three Graces”.
Audrey soon became a model for some of the most famous sculptors, painters, and muralists in America thanks to her perfectly proportioned body and classical appearance. Her ability to keep a pose that was calm yet exerting emotion made her the perfect muse for Beaux Art sculptures. In New York City she soon appeared as Civic Fame, a 25-foot statue on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building and the Spirit of Commerce on the Manhattan Bridge. Her likeness was also featured in sculptures outside of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum. Her newfound reputation soon took her across the country to California where at the age of 24, she was the model for most of the sculptures at the Jewel City exhibit at the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco.
Audrey’s immodesty in front of strangers also helped her acting career, allowing her to become the first woman to appear nude in a silent film. Some of these films like Purity and Inspiration became box office hits. While some of her works created public outrage over her nudity, Audrey dismissed it as sheer jealousy knowing that the image of her body was sought after throughout the world. Her brief stint in Hollywood further raised her notoriety and she even got married to a famous film producer. This marriage however, didn’t last long as her husband was actually previously engaged to another woman. After leaving California, she traveled throughout the states performing in a variety of shows and performances that at times were shut down by the police for being too lewd and provocative. When this style of work became less popular, Audrey found it hard to find work and she moved back to New York. To support herself and her mother, she found a job at a department store where she barely made enough to make ends meet.
As Audrey’s career began to decline, her life started taking on a strange course. Not being able to afford an apartment, she was forced to live in a boarding house in Long Island. Within the first few weeks that she was there, the married couple that owned the house started to fight and argue over the new guest. Apparently the owner of the house wanted to be with Audrey so bad that he killed his wife to make himself available. While she had already left the residence and was actually in Canada when this happened, it still made her a suspect to the police and made for some very sensual newspaper headlines. This horrific event quickly tarnished Audrey’s name and she could no longer find suitable work in the industry. Plagued with withdrawal and depression, she attempted suicide by swallowing mercury. Luckily the doctors were able to save her, but after the incident she would never be the same again.
Audrey moved back to a small town in New York with her mother after her suicide attempt. During her stay, she started acting erratically and news spread around town that recent barn fires may have been caused by her. Whether these rumors were true or not nobody knows, but most of the people knew Audrey’s past and they were not too keen on having her living in their neighborhood. Audrey’s mother committed her to the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane when she was left with no choice. Tucked away from society, Audrey spent 64 years institutionalized all the way up to her last days. On February 20, 1996 at the tender age of 104, one of America’s most famous and adored models died alone in a mental hospital without anybody knowing it. It is believed her remains were buried next to her father in an unmarked grave where her legend would never be spoken of again.
It’s been almost a century since the public has had a chance to be graced by the beauty of Audrey Munson. Even though she has passed away, her presence can still be felt and seen all over America, especially in New York City. While her story is unique, it is all too similar to many of Hollywood’s fallen stars these days. Captivated by fame at an early age, this little starlet flew too close to the sun and had her wings burned. Fortunately the legacy she left behind will still be with us for another century or more. So next time you take a stroll down the streets of Manhattan, take a second to look up at a statue around you. Maybe you’ll be privileged to see Audrey’s face staring back at you, giving you a small glimpse into the beauty that gave her the nickname Miss Manhattan.