Audrey Munson: America's First Supermodel
Audrey Munson's mother took her to see a fortune teller when Audrey was only five years old. The walls of the tent where the fortune teller worked were perfumed, and it was dark. The fortune teller sat across from Audrey and gently reached over and took the young girl's hand. After a few seconds, the soothsayer began speaking. The fortune teller told Audrey she would be famous and loved by many. She said when Audrey believed she had happiness, it would turn to ash. Audrey would waste thousands of dollars to satisfy her every foolish whim. She would then want for a penny. Audrey would mock love. She would always seek love without finding it. Audrey and her mother felt what the fortune teller had said could be a curse. They were right. Everything predicted by the fortune teller about young Audrey Munson eventually came true.
Audrey Marie Munson was born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester New York. Her father's name was Edgar and her mother was Katherine “Kittie” Mahaney. Audrey's mother realized her daughter was clever and had a level of maturity more advanced than some adults. Kittie pushed Audrey to prove her talent at local theater productions. This did not provide enough success and recognition. In 1909, when Audrey was 17 years old, Kittie packed their bags and they moved to New York City. The goal was to provide Audrey with an opportunity to get her big break as a chorus girl and actress.
Audrey was able to get a part as a footman on the Broadway production of The Boy and The Girl. It took place at the Aerial Garden theater in 1909. It ran from May 31st to June 19th of that year. During this time, she was also involved in other Broadway productions including Girlies and La Belle Paree as well as The Girl and the Wizard and others.
One day Audrey and her mother were walking along New York City's Fifth Avenue doing some window shopping. A photographer spotted Audrey. He approached the two and asked if Audrey would pose for him at his studio. The photographer's name was Felix Benedict Herzog and his studio was located at Broadway and 65th Street in the Lincoln Arcade Building. Herzog was very impressed with Audrey Munson. He made introductions of her to his most influential friends in the art world. In a short time, Audrey was posing for many different artists. Isidore Konti was a sculptor and was the first artist to persuade Audrey to pose nude. She was the model for his sculpture Three Graces. She was each of the three figures in the sculpture. It was placed in the Hotel Astor's Ballroom located in Times Square. For the next ten years, Audrey was the preferred model for many New York painters and sculptors. A 1913 article in the New York newspaper The Sun stated more than a hundred New York artists agree the title of Miss Manhattan belongs to Audrey Munson. In 1915, she posted for three-fifths of the sculptures done by Alexander Stirling for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that took place that year. This resulted in Audrey Munson often being referred to as the Panama-Pacific Girl. At this time, she had wealth and fame. Audrey's mother and father complained how she spent large sums of money on anything and everything. She went to California to be part of the newly emerging motion picture industry.
Audrey Munson's celebrity status led her to be asked to appear in movies. She starred in three silent films. In 1915, she appeared in the movie Inspiration. In this, she played a sculptor's model. She appeared fully nude in the movie. Audrey Munson is the first women to do this in the history of American cinema. Movie censors struggled to not ban the film. There was fear Renaissance art would also have to be banned. The movie studios would have an actress named Jane Thomas do the scenes in the movie Inspiration where Munson would be required to act. Audrey Munson would only do the scenes where she needed to pose nude. Purity was made in 1916 and was Audrey Munson's second film. It is the only one of her films to survive. It was discovered in France in 1933 as part of a pornography collection. The move was placed in the French national cinema archive. The Girl O' Dreams was her third film and completed in 1916. On December 31, 1918, it was copyrighted. It was not released by the studio.
Hermann Oelrichs Jr. was a very wealthy bachelor. Audrey Munson publicly accused him of conspiring against her with the nation of Germany. She wrote a letter to the State Department that was long and rambling. She detailed the plot to keep her from acting in any more major motion pictures. The State Department ignored Audrey's letter. After this incident, Audrey Monroe was ostracized by all high society. They believed Oelrichs and they labeled Audrey as a crazy person. Any artist who associated with her was also shunned.
Deadly Love Triangle
When Audrey Munson returned from making movies on the west coast, she returned to the boarding house she shared with her mother. The building was owned by a man named Dr. Walter Wilkins. There had been no established relationship between Audrey and Wilkins, but he claimed to be madly in love with Audrey. Wilkins murdered his wife Julia so he would be able to marry Audrey. Upon learning this, Audrey and her mother immediately left New York. Police investigating the case wanted to speak with them. A nationwide search was conducted and they were discovered. Audrey and her mother refused to go back to New York. They agreed to speak with agents from a detective agency in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Audrey strongly denied any type of romantic relationship with Wilkins. After a trial, Dr. Wilkins was found guilty. He was sentenced to death but hung himself before he could be sent to the electric chair.
After the Hermann Oelrichs Jr. and Dr. Wilkins experiences, Audrey Munson was unable to find any type of modeling or acting work. She and her mother moved to Syracuse, New York. Audrey's mother Kittie was able to support them by going door to door selling kitchen utensils. Audrey was 39 in 1922. Her reputation was of once being a famous model for artists. In this year, she tried to commit suicide. She did this by drinking bichloride of mercury. The next year, on Audrey's 40th birthday, her mother petitioned to have Audrey committed to an insane asylum. The once famous and wealthy Audrey Munson spent the next 65 years of her life in the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane. It is located in Ogdensburg, New York. Many years passed and Audrey Munson never had a visitor.
Audrey Munson Images
Today, it is still possible to see the image of Audrey Munson in museums all over the United States. At the Longfellow Memorial in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Audrey is holding a Bible as Evangeline. There is a statue of her presiding over Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Audrey was in mass circulation on the Walking Liberty Half Dollar coin. She modeled for the image featured on it. In New York, Audrey is often remembered by her nickname of Miss Manhattan because her image is still seen in so many places. She is on the Pulitzer fountain in front of the plaza as well as on top of the Municipal Building at the Manhattan Bridge entrance and more.
On February 20, 1996, Audrey Munson passed away. At the time, she was 104. Audrey was buried without her own gravestone in New Haven Cemetery at the Munson family plot. In 2016, when Audrey would have been 125 years old, her family decided to place a simple tombstone on her grave.
New England Historical Society
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