Wednesday, 01 June 2016 09:38

The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel

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The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel

The tumultuous and heartbreaking life of a world-famous model whose riveting story of beauty, fame, passion, murder, and madness in the Gilded Age captivated a nation.

As America was stepping into the modern era, one great beauty became the artist’s model of choice. Her perfect form became the emblem of the Gilded Age and appears on the greatest monuments of New York and the nation. Supermodel, actress, icon—her beauty paved the way for a life of glamour, passion, and ultimately tragedy. She dated the millionaires of the fashionable Newport colony, became the first American movie star ever to appear naked in a film, but her promising film career collapsed, her doctor fell in love with her and killed his own wife, and on her fortieth birthday, her mother committed her to an insane asylum. She remained there until her death in 1996 at the age of 104 and is now buried in an unmarked grave. Her name is Audrey Munson.

Many readers will recognize Audrey Munson, and have walked by her in the street, without even knowing her name. She stands atop New York’s Municipal Building. She sits as “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” outside the Brooklyn Museum, is immortalized on the Manhattan Bridge, the Frick Mansion, the New York Public Library, and the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. In gold, bronze, and stone, she still graces bridges, skyscrapers, fountains, churches, monuments, and public buildings across the nation, from Jacksonville to San Francisco, from Atlanta to the Wisconsin state capitol.

Crazy indeed. Munson came to New York to be a chorus girl, but was pulled from obscurity when photographer Felix Benedict Herzog noticed the great beauty while window-shopping with her mother on Fifth Avenue. Munson became an actress and a model under his tutelage and almost accepted a marriage proposal from Herzog before he died suddenly in 1912. “By then, she had artist friends, and she was sort of taken up by the scene.

As an 18-year-old, Munson drew the attention of noted artists for her idealistic physique — “The Most Perfectly Formed Woman in the World,” said press at the time — a throwback to the Greek goddessesque forms that captivated master painters Raphael and Botticelli. She began posing nude for the likes of sculptor Isidore Konti in 1909 and photographer Arnold Genthe shortly thereafter, soon becoming a favorite in New York City artistic circles.

Munson was adored by men. But she was focused on keeping her place atop the modeling world and turned away many suitors — like smitten railway executive Paul Hardaway, to whom she was engaged for a time, around 1914. According to Curse, Munson eventually realized she “did not love this man enough to be his wife,” setting Hardaway up with another model-friend of hers.

She continued to excel professionally when she headed to the West Coast, where Munson caught the eye of movie producers. She starred in commercial fashion shows and became the first American star to appear fully nude on film. But trouble soon followed. “There, she started to have psychological problems,” says Bone. “She was the most famous muse in America, but was unfortunately swept up into a murder case.”

In 1919, Munson’s former landlord, Walter Wilkins, a physician who had become obsessed with Munson, was convicted and executed for murdering his wife, allegedly to free himself to marry Munson. Bone says that the stress of the case, coupled with the demands of her career, proved too much for her to handle. Munson dropped entirely out of the art and film scene. “She was a fragile and vulnerable woman, placed under an enormous amount of pressure as a nude model,” he says. “She became a recluse for 10 years. She tried to come back around 1921 for a movie, but was unsuccessful. She was the original Hollywood flameout — and on her 40th birthday, her mother committed her.”

It’s almost unimaginable that Munson spent more than 60 quiet years in a mental institution, right up to her death in 1996. Once beloved by many, she didn’t have visitors for decades. “Her parents died, but her father did have a second family,” Bone says. “Finally, when she was 93, she was rediscovered by her half niece, Darlene — her father’s granddaughter.”

When she died, Munson’s ashes were placed in her father’s burial plot. “There is no headstone, just a plastic flower,” Bone says. “It is hard to believe that the woman who was the inspiration for monuments all around the world, and especially in New York, has no monument herself.”

 

 

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