America's First Supermodel Died Alone in a Mental Asylum
In his new book "The Curse of Beauty," James Bone uncovers the extraordinary and tragic life of Audrey Munson, who served as an inspiration for some of the most famous statues in New York before succumbing to mental illness.
Photograph of Audrey Munson. Bettman/CORBIS. All photos courtesy of Regan Arts
Even if you've never heard Audrey Munson's name, you've seen her: The Gilded Age supermodel served as the basis for the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, the woman on the Manhattan Bridge, and the statue outside the New York Public Library. During her lifetime, she starred in the earliest nude films, rode roller skates to the post office, and inspired countless works of art. She is what 21st century D-listers think they are: iconic.
Munson's story has faded from American memory, but British literary journalist James Bone has written a new biography called The Curse of Beauty to tell her full story for the very first time.
"Audrey was the proto-celebrity in America," Bone tells Broadly in an email. "She was a hyphenated model-actress-movie star. She was also the original Hollywood flame-out. As the first American movie star to go fully naked on screen, Audrey would have appreciated Kim Kardashian's nude tweets—although she would probably have found them quite tame."
Bone fell in love with Munson's life while living in New York. A naturalized New Yorker, he worked in the Times of London's New York bureau for 22 years. After he learned that one model had inspired most of the city's famous Gilded Age statues, he used investigative reporting techniques to unearth new details about Munson's life. He found letters, dug through archives, filed FOIA requests, and successfully sued to gain Munson's sealed committal proceedings released. "I was very surprised how much I was able to find, considering her heyday was 100 years ago," Bone says. "Discovering Audrey's story made me see New York with fresh eyes—and I wanted to allow others to see the city afresh also."
Munson was born in Rochester, NY, in 1891. Her mother, who was appropriately named Kitty, moved her to New York as a teenager. Like Kris Jenner, she wanted to make her daughter a sex goddess—and to profit off her success. According to the Wall Street Journal's review of The Curse of Beauty, a photographer discovered Munson in a Fifth Avenue store window when she was a teenager.
The serendipitous encounter led to Munson modeling for photographers and sculptors. According to Vogue, the artist Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta told her, "Guard those dimples, my girl." Munson started socializing, partying hard. At one point, she dated the millionaire Hermann Oelrichs Jr.
At the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair, Munson dominated the event. According to the Journal, she modeled for nearly 75 percent of the statues in the Jewel City exhibit. In the same year, Munson starred in a film called Inspiration, which was loosely based on her own life story. In a key scene, she appeared entirely naked, "the first leading lady in America to appear nude in a film," according to Bone.
Her name grew bigger, but nudity didn't increase Munson's income. Bone reports that she received $450 for the film, a paltry amount even in the 1900s. At most, Munson earned $30 a week from her modeling; many of the statues she inspired are now situated in areas where an apartment costs over a million dollars.
When taste changed in the 1920s, Munson fell out of favor. Bone explains that she was a Gilded Age star, and, when Modernism took over America, the art Audrey inspired seemed dated. "Modernists stripped the female statues from the public space," Bone says. "On a personal level, Audrey fell out with powerful figures in the theater and the press. Sometimes it was their fault, sometimes hers."
Broke, Munson and Kitty moved to Mexico, NY, outside Syracuse. Munson scored a low-paid job as a waitress. In Mexico, Munson showed signs of mental illness. She called herself "Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Munson" and attempted suicide. She blamed her issues on Jewish people. At one point, Vogue reports, Munson asked the US House of Representatives to create a law that would prevent her from being attacked "by the Hebrews."
Three days after Munson's 40th birthday, she was sent to the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, NY. In the hospital, she still saw herself as a star. Vogue reports that a nurse told her, "Audrey, you have dimples in your back!" Munson's response: "Yes, they're very precious. I can't lose my dimples." Munson would die in the hospital 60 years later.
The Curse of Beauty is a tale about the past, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for many of the stars of 2016. Our culture is far less likely to condemn women like Audrey today—bloggers defend celebrities and socialites vehemently when men call them sluts for posing nude; Madonna has reinvented herself at least five times. However, when stars are deemed mentally ill, like Britney Spears and Amanda Bynes, they remain under legal conservatorships. The legal bound place the control of the women's lives in assets in the hand of other people, making the stars essentially children in the eyes of the court. No male celebrity has ended up in these conservatorships.
"When Audrey was committed to a lunatic asylum in 1931 it was very hard to get out," Bone says. "In our time, it's very hard to stay in. In her extreme old age, the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, NY, threw her out to save beds and moved her to a nursing home, but she got back. When it tried to throw her out a second time, when she was 104, she died."