Miss Manhattan: The famous artist’s model who sits in iron and marble throughout the city

The Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial at Straus Park, modeled after Audrey Munson. Courtesy of NYC P

The Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial at Straus Park, modeled after Audrey Munson. Courtesy of NYC Parks.

Audrey Marie Munson. The name may not ring a bell, but you’ve undoubtedly seen her likeness around town. From the New York Public Library to the Brooklyn Bridge, this woman in various states of undress was once the most famous artist’s model in the country.

The story of Munson began in 1906, when she was 15 years old and was spotted window shopping on Fifth Avenue by photographer Felix Benedict Herzog. After he took a series of portraits of her, she was introduced to well-known sculptor Isadore Konti, who began her career as “Miss Manhattan,” immortalizing her in iron in stone. But a short-lived hiatus as a film actress, followed by a murder scandal, changed things for the model.

The now-gone “Three Muses”

Munson moved to the city when her mother wanted a fresh start after divorcing her father, which wasn’t common at the time. When she first met with Konti, he thought he wouldn’t need her, but then after taking a better look changed his mind as long as she wold pose in “the altogether,” meaning naked. In need of money, her mother agreed, and Munson’s first sculpture appeared in the lobby of the Astor Hotel. Called “Three Muses,” she referred to it as “a souvenir of my mother’s consent.”

“Miss Manhattan” by David Chester French. It was originally alongside the Manhattan Bridge, but was moved to the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

After this, she began working for many other artists across the country, standing in not only for sculptures and monuments, but illustrations, paintings, and murals. “She was known for being able to evoke a mood with her posture and expression and could hold poses for as long as needed,” explained 99% Invisible, and in 1913, the New York Sun dubbed her Miss Manhattan. She’d also be called America’s first supermodel and the American Venus.

Star for the “Colonnade of Stars” Court of the Universe building at the Panama Pacific International Exposition by Alexander Stirling Calder.

As time went on, the Beaux-Arts style continued to gain popularity across the country. This was good for Munson, as it required a lot of detail, ornamentation, and statue. She was making about $35 a week, $800 by today’s standards, but some accounts said she was spending it “like water.” At the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (world’s fair) in San Francisco, she modeled for 75 percent of the statues, and there was even a map showing all of her locations.

A shot of Audrey Munson in 1915’s “Inspiration,” the first film in which an actress appeared nude

Not surprisingly, she found herself in Hollywood, most often playing the role of a model. She starred in four silent films, and in 1915, she became the first actress to appear fully nude in a non-pornographic film. Though she was criticized by some for the nudity, she said, “That which is the immodesty of other women has been my virtue.”

The following year, she returned to New York and was living with her mother on the Upper West Side in a boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins. He became infatuated with Audrey and murdered his wife so that he could be with her. At the time of the killing, Munson and her mother had already left New York, but when the police reached out to question them, they refused to return. A national hunt ensued, and they were eventually located in Toronto. Despite being found to have no involvement, Munson could not find work after the scandal. The fact that she was nearly 30 by this time did not help either, nor did the trend away from the Beaux-Arts style.

So she and her mother moved upstate, but when the small-town life proved depressing (she was working as a waitress at a Syracuse diner), Munson attempted suicide in 1922, and ten years later, at the age of 40, she was admitted to the state mental institution. She stayed there until her 90s, at which time she was relocated to a nearby nursing home. However, after repeatedly sneaking out to go to the bar across the street, she was moved back to the mental institution, which is where she died in 1996, just before her 105th birthday. She was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Firemen’s Memorial at Riverside Drive and 100th Street

The pediment above the Frick, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

“Beauty” outside the New York Public Library, courtesy of the Travel Channel. 

Though her life took a rather tragic turn at the end, Audrey Munson is forever remembered throughout the country in her sculptures. Here in New York, there are 30 statues alone at the Met modeled after here. Other notable locations include Pulitzer Fountain in Grand Army Plaza, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, the pediment of the Frick Collection, the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Ida and Isidor Straus Memorial at Straus Park, the New York Public Library, Central Park, the Firemen’s Memorial, the Music of the Waters Fountain at Riverside Drive, and the Manhattan Municipal Building.

“Civic Fame,” the 25-foot statue atop the Manhattan Municipal Building. The only figure of a female in the city larger than this is the Statue of Liberty.

Earlier this year, author James Bone released a book called The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel. Learn more about it here.

[Via 99% Invisible]


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