Once dubbed “The Perfect Woman,” turn-of-the century model and muse Audrey Munson was immortalized in art and architecture that still graces New York today. But her enduring likeness is just part of what makes her so extraordinary.
Thousands of New Yorkers pass by them every day. Perched high atop the Municipal Building, the Manhattan Bridge, Columbus Circle, the Pulitzer Fountain, and scores of other landmarks, striking Beaux Arts statues of beautiful, often nude, women are an essential part of what makes Big Apple architecture so unforgettable. But although these figures are as familiar to locals as hot dog vendors, yellow cabs, or the Empire State Building, their origin contains a secret few realize. All of the monuments mentioned above, and over a dozen more, were created in the likeness of one astonishing woman. Her name was Audrey Munson, and her immortal beauty wasn’t even the most fascinating thing about her.
Munson was a New York-based nude artist’s model who, in her heyday from 1909 to 1919, was known as the “Exposition Girl,” “American Venus,” “The Perfect Woman,” “Miss Manhattan,” and “Queen of the Artists’ Studios.” She posed for innumerable sculptures and paintings before appearing nude in silent films. But Munson’s extraordinary looks and audacity didn’t ensure her a charmed life.
Born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York, to parents Katherine and Edgar, Munson and her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in the mid-1890s, and her parents divorced in 1899. Audrey stayed with her mother and attended the St. Francis Xavier Academy for Girls in Providence. She displayed a passion for performance at an early age, and by her teens, was performing in vaudeville shows at the Rocky Point Amusement Park.
When Audrey was about 15, she and her mother moved to New York City, where Audrey could find more performance opportunities and her mother could thrive in a climate more tolerant of divorced women. Shortly thereafter, Audrey was approached by a photographer on the street in Manhattan. Audrey later wrote, “A young man came up to me, raised his hat, and said he was a photographer and very respectfully asked if I would like to come to his studio and pose for him….He gave me his card…and asked me to talk it over with my mother and bring her to his studio. His suggesting that I bring my mother seemed to show that he was sincere.”
Audrey and her mother accepted the photographer’s invitation, and Audrey went to pose for him at his studio on West 10th Street, an address shared by several artists of the Beaux Arts movement. Sculptor Isidore Konti, one of the photographer’s famous neighbors, saw the pictures and asked Audrey to pose for him. When he was impressed by her initial poses, he provided her with letters of introduction and sent her to meet some of his contemporaries. Munson’s modeling career was launched.
Over the next few years, Munson earned a reputation among New York artists—Daniel Chester French, Adolph Weinman, Robert Aitken, Karl Bitter, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and others—for her classical beauty, open mind, and strong work ethic. With the Beaux Arts masters, she inspired hundreds of works of art that came to define New York in the early 20th century. Her likeness was used in statues all over the city: in at least three of four monumental sculptures on the Manhattan Bridge; several of the sculptures on the USS Maine memorial in Columbus Circle; in the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza; beside the entrance to the New York Public Library; over the doors to the old Penn Station (torn down in the 1960s); atop the Municipal Building; in the lobby of the Astor Hotel; on Riverside Drive Park; and elsewhere. Works of art for which she modeled have homes all over the world today.
By the time the Panama–Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco in early 1915, Munson’s fame had spread. The world’s fair celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal was a festival of arts and culture in the new century, and Munson was nicknamed “the Exposition Girl” for having posed for over half the artwork created for the event. By the time it closed that December, Munson’s likeness had been seen by over 18 million fairgoers from around the world.
Munson didn’t miss a beat. The Exposition had vaulted her from renown among artists into the international spotlight, and she capitalized upon her new position. Her modeling success coincided with the rise of the moving picture in America, and in 1915, Munson became the first woman to appear nude in a non-pornographic American film. (Porn had already established itself in the “stag film” circuit.) As the star of the moralistic tale Inspiration, in which she played a sculptor’s model who rose to fame for her virtue and beauty, Munson was perhaps the first woman whose photographic likeness “in the altogether” had been made available on such a wide scale—and her fame, or perhaps notoriety, skyrocketed. One review of Inspiration read, “It is one nude pose after another….The picture has an educational trend as well as being artful. This will make some people dizzy.”
Whether the film made audiences dizzy, or something more, its success was undeniable. Capitalizing on Munson’s rising fame, Inspiration was followed up the next year by a similarly themed movie called Purity. But when filmmakers sought distribution in 1916, the National Board of Review demanded that multiple naked shots of Munson be cut. The cuts were made, but the film still incited massive controversy. It was banned in the state of Kansas and in many municipalities around the country, and was panned by some critics as a flimsy excuse to exploit a model’s body, while others hailed the film as groundbreaking modern art. By all accounts, it made millions. In St. Louis, on a promotional tour for Purity, Munson and her manager were arrested for “conspiracy to commit acts injurious to public morals,” because Munson was scheduled to appear in a gauzy gown under a spotlight at a showing of the film. Though it doesn’t appear that she was convicted for obscenity, Munson’s name was now legally attached to a scandal.
Next, Munson appeared in The Girl O’ Dreams—which caused less of a stir—before moving back to New York and then traveling to Paris to witness the bustling bohemian scene there. By this time, the Beaux Arts era was drawing to a close, with its reimagining of classical beauty falling flat against the rise of early modernism and the horrors of 20th-century war. With millions dying in the trenches across Europe, the idyllic dreams of the American artists with whom Munson had worked began to feel quaint. The world was changing.
Once Munson’s name was uttered in relation to the case, she became the subject of a nationwide manhunt
And rather abruptly, Munson’s reputation changed as well. In 1919, Audrey and her mother moved into a New York City boarding house owned by an elderly doctor named Walter Wilkins and his wife Julia. When Mrs. Wilkins was the victim of a grisly murder later that year in the couple’s other home on Long Island, her husband reported that a trio of burglars had crushed Julia’s skull. But as the investigation continued, it soon became apparent that Dr. Wilkins himself was the actual culprit. As the case played out in sensational headlines throughout the city, a dark tale of obsession began to emerge.
Shortly after Audrey moved in to the boarding house, Dr. Wilkins fell in love with her. This was perhaps obvious to Mrs. Wilkins, who urged Audrey and her mother to move out. The Munsons decamped to Toronto to perform in vaudeville, but Dr. Wilkins was undeterred, and resorted to murder to make himself available for Audrey. Once Munson’s name was uttered in relation to the case, she became the subject of a nationwide manhunt, along with her mother. Located in Canada, Munson told the police that Dr. Wilkins had been obsessed with her. Dr. Wilkins was convicted of murder and hanged himself in his cell. And although Munson’s name was cleared of any wrongdoing, her reputation suffered. Acting and modeling gigs dried up, and the film production studio where she had been contracted abruptly released Munson from their agreement.
Munson responded by returning to the stage, offering her body—now lauded internationally as “perfect”—as a live mannequin for works of high fashion in vaudeville shows. One night, she was accosted by a man “prominent in the theatrical world”—who she would not name—backstage at The Fashion Show. When he made an amorous advance in her dressing room, Munson hit him and unequivocally rejected his advances. Munson quoted him as saying, “You will have cause to remember this,” before leaving. “A few days later,” she reported to Movie Weekly years later, “I was told The Fashion Show was to close. I had no explanation.”
Undaunted, Munson made the rounds of other studios, production companies, and theaters, but found no work there, either. Audrey Munson, “the Most Famous Art Model in the World,” suddenly found herself blacklisted. She told Daily Variety, “The Wilkins case ruined my career. I’ll never account for anything again. At all events from loving and admiring me, the public seems to have grown to hate me. And I cannot help thinking that the feeling was fostered in some powerful quarters.”
By this time she was approaching 30, and her figure was still lovely, but not as waifish as it had been. Many of the artists she had worked for told her that they already had all the sketches they could need. The beauty that had propelled her to stardom was now being called a curse by the press. In 1920, the story of a beautiful superstar brought low was nothing new, but rarely before had such a dive been made so public.
Munson soon landed a syndicated column in The New York American called “By ‘the Queen of the Artists’ Studios.’” In it, she revealed exciting and salacious details of studio life, pondered the philosophy of art, and offered beauty advice. She also championed modeling as valid labor, despite its tawdry reputation. “I have tried to show that these young women are like those of any other class,” she wrote. “Some are good and some are bad, with the balance decidedly in favor of the former.” Reflecting upon the later lives of artists’ models, she stated, perhaps autobiographically, “Few models come to the happiness they deserve and which their youthful popularity promises them.”
When the newspaper work dried up, Munson and her mother left the city and landed in the small town of Mexico, New York, in 1921—the town where Munson’s parents had been married 37 years earlier. By this time, Munson’s father had become a real-estate man, and he allowed the women to live in a series of empty properties. Katherine worked as a housekeeper and nurse, but Audrey found no steady employment.
Heedless Moths, Munson’s last film, was reportedly based loosely on Munson’s life and was released in 1921 to moderate success. But in a heartbreaking decision by filmmakers, Munson was replaced in all of her acting scenes by a lookalike, and appeared only in nude shots in the final cut. Angry and destitute, Munson sued the studio for failure to pay royalties, but was unsuccessful. According to her own report, she had never earned much more than $35 a week for modeling, and the $2,500 she had been paid for her films had come and gone. Munson was growing desperate.
It’s unclear if the Syracuse Herald’s announcement that “The Perfect Woman” was looking for a husband in the summer of 1921 was genuine, but it drew the public eye back to Munson. She was reportedly seeking a mate as physically beautiful as herself with whom to make “an ideal family.” Hundreds of offers poured in, and the press took off with a story that a man named Joseph J. Stevenson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was the selected specimen. Yet, by May of 1922, the media had been unable to locate Mr. Stevenson.
Munson became a local oddity, wearing colorful scarves on her head and sometimes roller skating into town with the aid of a lawnmower to help her keep her balance.
This romantic disappointment seemed to trigger a downward mental health spiral for Munson from which she never fully recovered. Plagued by depression and poverty, Munson swallowed the topical disinfectant bichloride of mercury in a suicide attempt. The headlines shrieked that she was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, but she recovered. After giving a few interviews in which she was described as wasted and listless, she retreated into silence, refusing to admit visitors into the small home she shared with her mother and six dogs.
Sometime in the 1920s, she attempted to sell stock in The Audrey Munson Producing Corporation via a pamphlet promising high-quality films for national audiences. “The name Audrey Munson means something today,” the pamphlet asserted, but the company never materialized.
The locals in Mexico, NY, were wary of “the girl who took her clothes off for money,” and Munson became a local oddity, wearing colorful scarves on her head and sometimes roller skating into town with the aid of a lawnmower to help her keep her balance.
The Munson women lived in increasing isolation as Audrey descended into paranoia and possible drug abuse. By 1931, Katherine could no longer care for her daughter, who was called before a county court after being implicated in a string of barn fires in the area. Audrey was remanded to institutionalization in the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, New York, where she took up residence on her 40th birthday—June 8, 1931—and remained as a patient for an astonishing 65 years.
In the 1980s, as she approached her 100th birthday, Munson was transferred to a nursing home, presumably needing more care at her advanced age. The nursing home could not hold her, however, and she began making frequent—unapproved—journeys across a four-lane highway to a local pub, where she would enjoy a few drinks before the nursing home staff came to collect her. After one too many trips to the bar for the nursing home’s patience, she was sent back to St. Lawrence.
In the 1990s, she was contacted by a niece from her father’s side of the family who had learned about Munson, although her family never spoke about her. They established a friendship during the last years of Munson’s life, celebrating her 100th birthday over a bottle of wine.
Munson died on February 20, 1996, at the age of 104, to little fanfare, and was buried in an unmarked grave next to her father’s in New Haven, New York. Today, her saga has mostly been forgotten, but her likeness continues to tower over the city where she once found fame and fortune. And although much of her life was as ugly as she was beautiful, in the end, “The Perfect Woman” has indeed found immortality. Not in Hollywood or in tabloids, but as a permanent fixture in the lives of thousands of New Yorkers who continue to pass under her watchful gaze every day.
By Lynsey Griswold
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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