Audrey Munson: Death of America's Venus
Statues of Munson populate New York City and San Francisco. So why don't you know her name?
Illustration by Julia Carusillo
Audrey Munson was the muse of America's Beaux Arts explosion of the early 20th century. Her gilded visage balances delicately on top of New York City's municipal building. Granite chiselings of her body adorn the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge. Wrapped in ceremonial robes of ancient Greece or crested with macabre wings, sculptures of Munson populate museums from San Francisco to South Carolina. During the height of her fame in the 1910s, Munson was emblazoned on the mercury dime. She was called an American Venus and the Queen of the Artist's Studio. Sadly though, Munson's life, which for a brief time was so fantastic and mythic, ended in quiet obscurity when she was buried in an unmarked grave in 1996.
Born in 1891 in Rochester, New York, Munson's early life was filled with the same tough-upbringing we've come to expect from turn-of-the-century living. When she was six, Munson's parents divorced and her father took custody. When Munson fell into a cold stream and contracted typhoid fever, Munson's mother, Catherine, snatched her back. Munson would not be around her father again until she was interned in his burial plot nearly a century later.
Munson and her mother moved to New York City in 1906, where the 15-year-old was enrolled at a conservatory. The teenage Munson was discovered walking down New York's Broadway Avenue by a middle-aged Russian artist and photographer, referred to only as Mr. Herzog. Herzog gushed over Munson's beauty, adding that he'd been looking for a model with "wonderful Grecian features." Herzog insisted on photographing Munson. With her mother's approval, the two arrived at Herzog's studio the next day. On top of photographing the adolescent Munson, Herzog also offered to marry the young girl. While Munson was flattered, her mother thought that to be a bridge too far.
Through Herzog's connections, Munson became the fresh new face of the artistic scene and gained a reputation for being the most perfectly formed woman in the world. Munson's figure and face were crafted into sculptures, murals, coins, tableaus, paintings and stained glass windows all around New York City.
The Sun wrote in 1913 of Munson: "If the name Miss Manhattan belongs to anyone in particular, it is to this young woman."
With her modeling career booming, Munson and her mother moved west in 1915, to leverage her fame into the nascent film industry. She gained entrance to the studios through her new husband, Hermann Oelrich, a Vanderbilt nephew and film producer. Her initial film—Inspiration, released in 1915—marked the first time any woman appeared nude in a "legitimate" American movie. The movie has been lost, but here's a synopsis: "a waif-like, poverty stricken girl is discovered by a young sculptor to be the embodiment of the perfect model he has always longed for. When she wanders off he visits all the famous statues in Manhattan hoping to find her again."
After Inspiration, Munson was essentially typecast: an artist's model who spent a chunk of screen time naked. "[Being a model] had the great advantage for the filmmakers in that she had a good reason to take off her clothes and stand around naked—in the name of Art," says James Bone, author of an upcoming biography of Munson, The Curse of Beauty: The Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel. "It was particularly useful because female nudity was more acceptable when the woman was not in motion, and there aren't many movies where the star is expected to stand still."
Not everyone was pleased with this outward display of sexuality, though. "Purity groups" protested her movies, decreeing the end of Christian values while calling for censorship. Their wishes would be granted in 1930 with the institution of the Motion Picture Production Code, forbidding nudity to leak past the precious eyes of American audiences.
Munson dismissed the pearl-clutching. "I have observed that the public is a good deal cleaner minded than most of the people who set themselves up to hand out morality," she said.
While in California, Munson found out that Oelrich had been previously engaged to a woman from a powerful family, one that didn't take kindly to this young model stealing their daughter's betrothed. Munson and Oelrich fought, soon separated, and she was out of the picture business. Munson took to vaudeville, where her performances included "provocative" costumes and dances. In Kansas City, she was taken to court after morality-based complaints, which the judge quickly threw out. At a later performance in Detroit, the venue was forced to close by the fire marshall due to an overpacked crowd (Munson's mother believed this forced closure was instituted by the aforementioned jealous family of Oelrich's former fiancee). The Munsons moved back to New York and in 1917, Munson began working as a department store product demonstrator, earning just enough to keep the two of them afloat.
Due to their financial hardship—even as a model, she earned only $35 a week—Munson and her mother were forced to board in the home of a Long Island doctor named Walter Wilkins. He quickly took a liking to Munson, despite being married. Upon seeing the way her husband was acting, Wilkins' wife kicked the Munsons out. Even though the Munsons were out of New York by this time, Wilkins murdered his wife to make himself available Audrey. The police wanted to question Munson and launched a national dragnet to find her (she and her mother was in Toronto on business). The search fueled rumors and gossip that Munson was a culprit in the murder.
When police finally found them and dismissed the two as innocent parties, the damage to Munson's reputation was already done. "The Wilkins case has ruined my career," she later said. "From loving and admiring me, the public has turned to hating me." She took whatever work she could, including selling kitchen utensils door-to-door.
In the early 1920s, Munson attempted a comeback. She wrote a series for Hearst's New York Journal American where she discussed the life of a model. "All girls cannot be perfect 36s, with bodies of mystic warmth and plastic marble effect, colored with rose and a dash of flame," she wrote in one piece. "I am wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or a remarkable painting of a young girl [...] and asked themselves the question, 'Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?'" she asked in another.
"It would be vain for us to think that she was misunderstood by an earlier era but now we understand her," writes Bone. "Anyone who knows present-day Hollywood will recognize her story."
Munson also took to the newspapers in an odd stunt where she announced that she'd marry a man—as long as they met her "exact specifications for physical perfection to equal her own beauty." Munson's ideal: six feet tall, 187 pounds, forty-two inch chest, eighteen-inch biceps, nine-inch wrists. More than 250 men applied, before she reportedly settled on a lucky Ann Arbor man named Joseph J. Stevenson. But when reporters tried to track him down, there was no one to be found. It's still unclear whether this was a failed publicity stunt or the first signs of something more severe.
In 1922, Munson attempted suicide by ingesting mercury biochloride. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, survived, and went back to live with her mother in a small upstate New York town named Mexico. In 1925, she was accused of burning down a barn. True or not, the town's residents were aware that Audrey's mental condition was deteriorating. They also knew that she had removed her clothes in movie picture shows. In 1931, her mother had her committed to a New York mental hospital, St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane. A few years later, Catherine reportedly tried to recant and take Audrey back, but the hospital blocked the move.
To this day, her life at St. Lawrence remains a big blank. She was known to be kind to the staff, and was called the hospital's "resident celebrity," but that's about it. Her mother died in the 1950s, leaving Audrey with no regular visitors. "The state tried to sub-contract her out to a seniors center to free up beds," writes Bone. "She didn't like it and was allowed to go 'home' to the asylum." On February 20th, 1996, after sixty-four years in the hospital, Audrey Munson died. She was 104 years old.
What are we to make of Munson's life? The story has a bit of everything: The classic rise-and-fall arch of stardom, the literal embodiment of the male gaze, reputation gangrene from scandal shrapnel due to a man's unwanted advances, virulent attacks for showcasing her sexuality, and the unexamined sixty-four year stretch when she was locked away. But the most important aspect may be the continuing silence following her death.
Barry M. Popik, economist and nutrition epidemiologist, has been trying to get Munson national recognition since hearing her story back in 1986. When she was still alive, Popik attempted to shine the light back onto her. He wrote to the Art Commissions of the Met, and they "wouldn't do anything for her." He pleaded with USPS to put her on a stamp; they ignored him. He tried to get the attention of the Brooklyn Museum, but "no one gave a damn."
"I wrote to Gloria Steinem twice about Miss Munson—once after last year's First Awards, and again after the Miss Munson NYC scavenger hunt in 2015, and [she] never replied," writes Popik, in an email. "In fifty years that [Munson has] been in front of the Brooklyn Museum, they can't do a damn thing for her?"
Instead of being celebrated, she's forgotten. Though there's that new book coming out, and a shorter one was published back in '99. But that's about it. Another artist's muse, siphoned in her youth, abandoned when she was spent, same as it ever was.
While a century has passed since her statues glared down upon San Francisco, the landscape where she worked is essentially the same. Models are still underpaid, rarely credited. Gross men are still creeping through the guise of artistic pursuit, whether it's as a photographer, casting agent, actor, or publicist. The slow creep of slut-shaming persists. The story of Audrey Munson, then, is not quirky history to be examined through temporal distance, that we know better here on the "more advanced" side of the timeline. It's an early chapter in the book we're all still living in.