Editor’s Note: This is the first in a monthly West Side Rag series by Marjorie Cohen. Each month, Marjorie will choose an object or document from the archives of the New-York Historical Society that references the Upper West Side and use it as a jumping off point for an article. Her first column (below) is inspired by a pamphlet from the Society’s collection that describes the dedication of the statue of Memory in Straus Park at 106th and Broadway. Thanks to the staff of the Historical Society for all of their help with this project.
From the archives: An article in the April 1915 issue of The Real Estate Magazine with the headline “Simple but Impressive Ceremonies at the Unveiling of the Beautiful Bronze Statue” describes the dedication of the statue “Memory,” as the centerpiece for the Straus Park triangle at 106th Street and Broadway (link to pdf of article here). The statue, dedicated to the memory of Ida and Isador Straus who went down on the Titanic three years before, is a likeness of the face and form of a model named Audrey Munson. Other West Side statues that Audrey modeled for are the Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park at 100th Street and the memorial to the USS Maine in Columbus Circle. Her story is extraordinary.
Born in a small town in upstate New York in 1891, Audrey Munson became an internationally famous model and muse for the most important sculptors of the American Beaux Arts movement. Her face and body were considered the ideal of American beauty; she was widely known as “The American Venus”. She is the woman who posed for the statue of Civic Fame on top of the Municipal Building, the U.S.S. Maine Monument at Columbus Circle, the statue of Abundance on top of the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza and hundreds of other extraordinary pieces of art in this city and others around the U.S. Three quarters of the sculptures created for the Pacific International Exposition in 1915 are modeled on Audrey’s figure and face.
But her story is far from a happy one. It involves a meteoric rise to fame as an artist’s model, a brief career in silent films as the first woman to appear nude on screen, a stint as a newspaper columnist, involvement in a murder case, banishment back to upstate New York, a suicide attempt and finally, commitment to a mental hospital at the age of 39 where she lived until her death at 105.
In a newspaper column that Audrey wrote in 1921 when her fame was waning, she poses this plaintive question: “What becomes of the artists’ models? 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, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’”
Audrey was born in Rochester, New York but her parents –- a Protestant father and a Catholic mother — divorced when she was a young girl. Her mother, Katherine, moved with her to Providence, Rhode Island and enrolled her daughter in Catholic School where she studied music and dance and performed in local theater productions. When she was 15 years old, Audrey and her mother moved to New York City where Audrey’s mother took a job in a corset shop.
Audrey’s “discovery”, as she told it, came about when she and her mother were walking down a Manhattan street and were spotted by Ralph Draper, a successful portrait photographer. She reports that Draper persuaded her to pose for him and that, struck by her beauty and poise, he immediately introduced her to Isidor Konti, a Vienna-born sculptor who asked her to pose for the Three Graces the first piece of art that Audrey’s nude form would inspire.
The early 1900’s in New York is when the Beaux Arts movement flourished. The newly wealthy wanted to embellish their city, their homes and their vacation estates with paintings and sculpture. The time was absolutely right for Audrey to become, as she later called herself, The Queen of the Artists’ Studios. She was both model and muse; her beauty and her artistic imagination inspired some of the most famous sculptors of the time: Konti, Attilio Piccinilli (sculptor of Audrey’s image on the Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park at 100th Street), David Chester French, Augustus Lukeman (the sculptor of the Straus Park statue), Adolph Weinman and Alexander Sterling Calder (the father of Alexander Calder) who chose her to pose for most of the statuary at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Daniel Chester French described Audrey’s uniqueness: “I know of no other model with the particular style that Miss Munson possesses. There is a certain ethereal atmosphere about her that is rare.”
Audrey loved her work. At the height or her popularity, she explained : “In the studio there are thousands of wonderful things to be learned. You come into contact with cultured minds able and willing to impart the spirit of the lands of music, art and literature.”
But this was the early 20th century. Very few women worked and very few were as bold as Audrey on the subject of nudity in art. “I detest false modesty. For my part I see nothing shocking in unclothed bodies.” However, many people did. Elizabeth Gannes, founder of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity, was incensed: “This young woman ought to be ashamed of herself. Maybe she has perfection, as the sculptors call it, of features and figure. That doesn’t give her license to parade her charms to the general public.”
In spite of the attacks by conservative critics and buoyed by her fame in the artists’ studios, Audrey and her mother moved to California in 1915 to make a silent film called Inspiration based on Audrey’s modeling days and mirroring the Pygmalion story. . Not surprisingly, she was the first woman to pose nude in a film. The censors let the film pass because of its artistic premise and although widely seen, it met with extremely mixed reviews. It was one of the highest grossing films of the period but Audrey’s salary was only a small percentage of the producer’s profits. This inequity haunted her throughout her life.
Audrey performed in three more films, the last in 1921 called Heedless Moths was a failure. Before it was released, Audrey and Katherine were implicated in a murder case which marked the beginning of the end for Audrey. The two women had been living in a boarding house on West 65th Street that belonged to Dr. Walter K. Wilkins and his wife Julia. Dr. Wilkins became infatuated with Audrey and believing that she felt the same about him, plotted to murder his wife so that they would be free to marry. Eventually, Audrey and her mother were able to convince the police that they had left the Wilkins’ home weeks before the murder and that Dr. Wilkins’ feelings for her were entirely unrequited. Wilkins was sentenced to death but hanged himself in his cell before the execution date.
Audrey understood what had happened: “ The Wilkins case ruined my career….from loving and admiring me, the public seems to have grown to hate me.” It is also true that at this time, in the early 1920’s, the Beaux Arts style was no longer popular; art had changed its focus to more modern subjects, fewer allegories, fewer depictions of ethereal virtues such as purity, abundance and grace.
Audrey and Katherine moved back to upstate New York where Audrey made one final attempt to return to the spotlight. In a 20- week long series of articles for the Hearst Weekly chronicling her life which she titled “Queen of the Artists Studios” she told about the intricacies of modeling, of having a plaster cast made of her body, of modeling for a Venus with arms made for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, of how a marble statue might be a composite of the features of a half dozen girls and how the dimples on her derriere had made her such a sought-after commodity.
In 1922 Audrey attempted to commit suicide by drinking poison. She was saved by her mother with the help of neighbors but her mental health continued to deteriorate and she began to be known as reclusive “Crazy Audrey” in her small town.
In 1931 she was declared a victim of “ a mental blight” by a local judge and not long after, Katherine had her daughter admitted to a state psychiatric facility where she lived until 1996. In what seems to be an extraordinary irony, Audrey is buried in an unmarked grave, a tragic footnote to the life of a woman who posed for so many of the 20th centuries most exquisite monuments.
For more information on Audrey’s life check out American Venus, by Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer, Balcony Press, 1999.
History Beat graphic by Avi. Photos by Marjorie Cohen.