The Sad Life of Audrey Munson

Audrey_Munson_1922

You may be asking yourself who is Audrey Munson? Well, if you lived in the early years of the 20th Century, and you were into the art scene of the day, you would know that Munson was a well-known artist model. The New York City art community certainly knew Munson. She was the first “super model” before the term was even invented. Her career began in 1906 when she was only 15 and she remained at the top until early in the 1920’s when her world would begin to unravel. But that was still in the future.

Civic Fame statue on top of the Municipal Building in Manhattan.

Civic Fame statue on top of the Municipal Building in Manhattan.

In 1915, Munson was selected by sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder as the model for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. She posed for many of the works on display, made by various artists, and would became known as the World’s Fair Girl. She has a multitude of works on display throughout New York, at least 15 are scattered around the city, included “Civic Fame,” (Adolph A. Weinman – Sculptor) located atop the Municipal Building in downtown Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge. The sculpture, to this day, is the tallest statue in Manhattan and the second tallest in all of New York City just behind the Statue of Liberty. Among her other modeling works, she posed for “Pomona” the female statue in the fountain (Grand Army Plaza) ,near the Plaza Hotel, and the Fireman’s Memorial on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Munson posed for many sculptors and artists and her image can be seen in many other cities throughout the country. It is also said that she was the model on the Mercury Dime and the Walking Liberty half-dollar, but I am not sure if this has ever been confirmed or not.

Pomona by Karl Bitter - Grand Army Plaza

Pomona by Karl Bitter – Grand Army Plaza

Like many models who would follow her, Audrey Munson made her way to Hollywood where she appeared in the silent film Inspiration, a tale about a sculptor (Thomas A. Curran) searching for the perfect model to inspire his art. The artist naturally falls in love with his muse. After she mysteriously disappears, he goes searching for her, eventually finding her and they soon marry. What made the film famous or infamous is that the voluptuous Ms. Munson became the first woman to appear fully nude in a non porn feature film. In the film, Munson appears nude multiple times mostly in model poses.

LEAD Technologies Inc. V1.01Directed by George Foster Platt, Inspiration is one of many films that have been lost or destroyed from the silent era. No copies are known to exist. At the time of its release, the film apparently met with mixed reviews by film critics but not surprisingly was a financial hit. The following year, Munson appeared unclothe again in a film called Purity. In all, Munson appeared in four films all thought to be lost until one was recently discovered in a French archive.

Audrey Munson and Thomas A. Curran in INSPIRATION.

Audrey Munson and Thomas A. Curran in INSPIRATION.

In 1921, Munson moved back to Long Island in New York where she worked for a short period writing articles about modeling for the New York Journal-American. During this period, she lived with her mother, both staying at the home of a financially well off Doctor and his wife. Things turned ugly when the husband fell in love with Munson and the wife accused him of having an affair with her. She threw both mother and daughter out of her home. Shortly thereafter, the wife turned up dead and the good doctor was soon arrested and convicted of killing her. While in jail the doctor ended his own life by hanging himself before he came to trial.

For Munson, life would continue to go even further downhill. With her career as a model over, almost forgotten, she now lived in a small town in Upstate New York, known to neighbors only as the girl who undressed. The May 29th 1922 edition of The New York Times reported that Munson “attempted to end her life by swallowing a solution of bichloride of mercury at her home in Mexico, Oswego County (New York).” The Times articles goes on to says “Audrey Munson, widely known as “Queen of the studios” is a woman whose Grecian beauty of face and figure have made her the chosen model of dozens of famous artists. Sculptors have made her immortal, painters have found her an inexhaustible subject, and more recently the movies have claimed her.”

However, for Audrey Munson, life only got worst. In 1931, she would be committed to a mental hospital, the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane near Odgenburg, New York, where she would spend the rest of her life (65 years) until her death in 1996 at the age of 105. Why she was committed is unclear; paranoia, schizophrenia, depression? Maybe a combination of all three. Did she really need to be there? Possibly, but that remains unclear too.

Throughout it all her legacy remains. Her figure inspired hundreds and hundreds of works of sculpture and painting by a multitude of artists. Today, her gravestone remains unmarked with only the name Munson engraved on it.

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14 comments on “The Sad Life of Audrey Munson

  1. Dar Dobs says:

    ‘Why she was committed is unclear’ FYI:Mercuric chloride is one of the most toxic salts of mercury…it’s a neurotoxin:
    tagis.dep.wv.gov/tri/cheminfo/csfs217.txt
    Mercury poisoning can cause “shakes”, irritability, sore gums
    Serious personality changes and brain damage…
    ps yet another great essay,Prof John… many thanks

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks for the information on the mercuric choride! That explains a lot, and thank you for the kind words.

  2. This is fascinating. Thanks for a great piece on this forgotten soul.

  3. Didn’t know this story at all! Thanks for post.

  4. Gee whiz, what a horrible story! Poor Audrey.

  5. doriantb says:

    John, I remember my mom and I strolling around New York City back when we lived in Manhattan; we always loved the statues. What shame about poor Audrey; if only doctors of the time could have helped her. I’m glad you explained her story for others. Thanks for sharing Audrey’s story, my friend!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dorian. Yeah, you pass these statues so many times and never really think about who posed for them. Surprisingly, in many cases, it was the same woman.

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John, sorry to say that the only “Munson” I know is the legendary catcher who played for the New York Yankees, and his first name was Thurman. Your piece is both fascinating and a call for greater recognition for an obviously formidable artist. Your piece here is authoritative and passionate!

    • John Greco says:

      “the only “Munson” I know is the legendary catcher who played for the New York Yankees, and his first name was Thurman.”

      Same went for me Sam until I happened to come across one article, on another topic, that led me to an article on Munson and as I continued to research I found her life fascinating though sad. Thanks as always!!!

  7. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Sad story, indeed. Reminds me a bit of the dreary tale of another famed NYC model, Evelyn Nesbitt, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.” Fascinating.

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