Tragic Beauty

Just finished a fascinating book called The Curse of Beauty  by British journalist James Bone.   He chronicles the life and tragic fate of a woman he terms the world’s first “supermodel”: Audrey Munson.

I had never heard of her, but had seen many representations of her (while not realizing it), for Audrey was the model for many early 20th centuries sculptures, including statues in front of NYC’s Manhattan Bridge, at the 42nd Street New York Public Library, in the Plaza Fountain, and as part of the “Maine” monument at Columbus Circle.

Audrey Munson was born near Syracuse, New York in 1891; after her parents’ divorce, she helped her mother run a series of boarding houses.  One day when she and her mother were walking along a NYC sidewalk, a photographer approached her and asked if she’d pose for him.  With her mother along as her chaperone, Audrey did, and quickly became one of the most sought after models in NYC.

Audrey Munson photo

Eventually, one of those photographers suggested she pose nude;  after some deliberation, she did, and the elegant photos made of her partially or fully unclothed caught the attention of various sculptors.

In the early 20th century,  American city planners were eager to construct beautifully designed buildings and monuments that celebrated important events as well as eternal  concepts of beauty, truth, and innocence.   Audrey’s classic profile, as well as her beautiful body, seemed perfect for many of the statues that would grace buildings and parks.

Audrey Munson reclining statue


Audrey Munson Maine monumentThe “Maine” Monument at Columbus Circle in NYC.

Audrey Munson statueThis sculpture was one of the symbols of the 1915 San Francisco Exhibition.

As her fame grew, new opportunities presented themselves.  Audrey was offered roles on Broadway (where she wore more clothes – barely) and, of course, in the movies.   Audrey made three movies, two in the NYC area and one in California.  She appeared nude in each one (but she basically played the same role, as an artist’s model).  All but one of the films have disappeared since then;  there is only one print of the third film, called “Purity.”

Audrey Munson Purity advert

But it was one thing to erect sculptures of naked or half-naked women;  it was another thing for a woman to take her clothes off in a film, and various groups objected to the screening of Audrey’s films.   Audrey was expected to make public appearances to promote her films, and even though she didn’t entirely disrobe for those promotional bits, she was constantly threatened with arrest for public lewdness.

Her notoriety took its toll on her personal life;  she had a series of failed love affairs, and may or may not have actually married a wealthy playboy named Howard Oelrich in 1914 (his family claimed there was no marriage, her family did – but there’s no record of an actual marriage).   By the time she made her third – and last- film , Audrey was exhibiting signs of acute paranoia and schizophrenia.  (She wrote a letter to the FBI, for example, asking the agency to investigate Jewish film producers who were responsible, she claimed, for destroying her marriage and career).

Perhaps the final blow to her career and sanity was her involvement, probably innocent, in a murder case on Long Island.  In 1919, Dr. Walter K. Wilkins was accused of beating and stabbing his elderly wife Julia to death in their Long Island cottage.   Prosecutors argued that the doctor’s motive was to be able to pursue a relationship with one of the tenants in his NYC apartment house – Audrey Munson.  Audrey, and her mother, always insisted they barely knew Dr. Wilkins, and that there had never been any romantic relationship, but the tabloids couldn’t resist sensationalizing the case, plastering photos of Audrey on their front pages and dogging her movements.  In order to avoid testifying, Audrey fled the country for Toronto, only returning after the doctor had been convicted and sentenced to death by electrocution (he committed suicide in jail).

Unable to find work, and increasingly unstable, Audrey and her devoted mother returned to upstate New York, where Audrey’s father, real estate developer Edgar Munson, had remarried and fathered five children with his second wife, Cora.   Although Audrey’s publicity agent continued to work on her behalf for a few years, by the late 1920s, Audrey had gained the reputation in the small town of Mexico, New York, for being “crazy”;  she wore flimsy dresses and gowns in all weather, and rollerskated to town to do her grocery shopping.   When she threatened a neighbor with a pitchfork, Audrey’s mother decided she could no longer properly care for her only daughter.

On Audrey’s 40th birthday, in 1931, she was committed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Mentally Ill, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.   There she remained until nearly the end of her life, forgotten by most people.   When her father, Edgar, died in May 1945, his obituary never mentioned her;  after Audrey’s mother died shortly after World War II, no one visited Audrey until a niece contacted her in the 1980s.  By then, Audrey no longer showed any symptoms of mental illness, but was unable to care for herself.  She died, a ward of the State of New York, in 1995, at the age of 104.

The story of Audrey Munson is a sad one;  she, like many other beautiful women, were celebrated and exploited until their lives were ruined;  but her story will certainly make me look twice at beautiful statues!



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