You can find an image of her, in the ether, from when she was in her glorious pomp. She’s there, proudly, daringly and completely naked, arms outstretched, posing for an artist at his easel. Her present day chronicler has called her the world’s first supermodel – a term as applied to her not strictly adhering to our modern definition. But she was famous, her name on everyone’s lips around the equivalent of the water cooler back then. Her propensity for nudity and the depictions of her being so enough to set most male pulses pumping. At the height of her fame one of her city’s daily rags tagged her ‘Miss Manhattan’, an indication of how her star was burning so brightly in the years leading up to and during World War One. There was none brighter in the firmament – yet she went on to have the longest crash and burn of perhaps any celebrity in history.
It wasn’t the aforementioned photograph that first attracted me to her, but one I came across on an Instagram feed called ‘all_thats_interesting’ – photos with intriguing stories attached. Bit of a goldmine, actually, for someone like me. There I found a more demure picture, a portrait, but it took my eye just the same, along with its caption, that ‘World’s First Supermodel’ business. I was immediately most taken and resolved to dig deeper. What I found was a ripping, if ultimately sad, yarn.
Of course the largest statue of a woman in the environs of NYC is ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’. It’s a symbol of freedom and womanhood, better known to us all as the ‘Statue of Liberty’. The sculptor’s mother was reportedly the inspiration. But the second largest is to be found attached to the municipal buildings in Manhattan. It was modelled for by one Audrey Munson and is sheathed in golden robes. Another prominent one sits atop the Pulitzer Fountain in the forecourt of the Plaza Hotel. It features an unclad depiction of the Roman god Pomona and it’s again Audrey. It is estimated that, of the 1500 statues that graced the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, a goodly 200 or so supposedly were posed for by, yes, you guessed it, Miss Munson, in various stages of undress. But ultimately, it could be said, that it was the West Coast, not her home in the East, that led to her downfall. Had she not gone West, well, who knows?
After an unsettled childhood Audrey and her mother moved to the Big Apple where the fifteen year old soon found work in the risque chorus lines springing up in entertainment venues all over the city; the novelty being recently imported from Europe and going gangbusters, as exemplified by the Ziegfield Follies. No, she wasn’t plucked from those, just being one of the alluring young lasses all hoping their ‘hoofin’ and ‘bump and grinding’ would lead to fame and fortune. That they would be the one plucked from obscurity. Yes, she was indeed the lucky one, but it didn’t come from her stage work. And she certainly ended up gaining plenty of the fame, if not the other hoped for commodity. Her finding was an even more a clichéd story than that.
Felix Benedict Herzog, it was, who discovered the young Miss Manhattan-to-be. Audrey and her mum were out and about, doing a bit of window shopping, when she was spotted by the inventor, electrician (back in those days the equivalent of being a start-up whizz in these) and camera fancier. Felix, in his fifties, excitedly introduced himself to the pair, engaged in some small talk, complimented Audrey on her looks and deportment before asking if she would consider tastefully posing for him. With her mother’s permission and agreement to act as chaperone the proposal was accepted. For her first session the girl was tastefully draped and Herzog was soon discerning she was a natural, so he introduced her to his circle. It wasn’t long before mother and daughter were being asked to consider Audrey being less well draped. A smooth-taking sculptor asked her to disrobe completely for a work he was planning portraying the Three Graces. He rabbited on about artistic purity and so on to the degree that the mother and daughter agreed. Once that step was taken she was on her way to the notoriety she later achieved. She was soon in high demand and the fact that she charged peanuts (around $15 in today’s terms) for a session aided her popularity.
Herzog knew the traps such a young and vulnerable lass could fall into once she went down the path of posing nude and despite the age difference, he was willing to marry her in order to protect her from those that might take advantage of her. Had this occurred her journey may have been entirely different, but he suddenly passed away in 1912.
When she posed for a fully-armed replica of the Venus de Milo, ordered by Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands, she cracked the big time as far as being a celebrity of the age was concerned. She was now fodder for the media of the time – her ample figure and vibrant good looks ensured she was destined to be continuously in the public eye, her every move filling the gossip columns. It is safe to say it went to her head a bit. She now determined that she would find the perfect man who would be a suitable fit for her perfect body. That led to an interest in the science of eugenics, well and truly discredited now, but all the rage then.
And then Hollywood, or its pre-WW1 equivalent, came calling. The film industry hadn’t entirely migrated to the area around LA then, still being active on the East Coast. Of course the attraction of Miss Munson was obvious and she was soon participating in the first silver screen nude scene. Pornography had already found moving pictures a vehicle for the salacious, but Munson’s ‘Inspiration’ was meant to be for the general public. But various American church organisations had other ideas, with the movie soon being shut down all over the country. The template was set though. Henceforth the modelling community would be a breeding ground for future stars – and so it remains today.
To get away from all that Audrey Munson decided to make a move to a fresh start on the West Coast. Here she used her fame to become an early advocate of ‘wellness’, also a fad of the age, associated with the fascination for eugenics. Movie offers came in, but it soon became apparent that, although she looked a million dollars on the big screen, she actually couldn’t act. When her film, ‘Purity’, tanked at the box office work, full stop, started to dry up. It was then Munson lost the plot.
The first indication that something was badly amiss was when she wrote to the US government accusing many in her association of pro-German sympathies because they failed to give her, being of English descent, on-going work. The newspapers had a field day with her when a doctor, living in the same apartment block as she and her mother, committed suicide over his infatuation with her. The infatuation that was unrequited.
It was all too much. Mother and daughter, now struggling financially, fled the city for a small town in upstate New York. There mum went out to work daily, now supporting her daughter who was recovering from her own suicide attempt. She’d thought she’d finally found her ‘perfect fit’ in a man. He rejected her. She took poison. Audrey then seems to have retreated into her own mind, with delusions regarding her past and her present straightened circumstances, making her difficult to live with. Her new community came to regard her, at best, an eccentric, at worst a serial pest stirring up trouble in all quarters. Eventually it all became too much for her ageing mother, so, on the former artist model’s fortieth birthday, Miss Manhattan was committed to a lunatic asylum out of harm’s way up near the Canadian border. There she lived, once the talk of the town, with her horizons now so narrow. She died in 1996. She was in her 104th year.
She would have faded completely from view after that had it not been for investigative journalist James Bone. He cottoned onto her story. With the assistance of some family members and the public record, he pieced together her quite sorry saga for his 2016 publication ‘The Curse of Beauty.’
It’s a salutary story, this one of Audrey Munsom. She flew so high but the wrong turns led her astray. But in the ether she remains, as well as on the pages of a book. Consider her tale, be in awe of her beauty and let that take precedence over her troubled mind during her steep descent.