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Overlooked no more: Audrey Munson, forgotten but, living on in sculptures, not gone
Henry Augustus Lukeman’s “Memory,” at Broadway and West 106th Street in Manhattan, March 31, 2014. Audrey Munson modeled for the bronze statue, which was made in 1913. (Emon Hassan/The New York Times)

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- “What becomes of the artists’ models?” Audrey Munson asked plaintively a century ago. “Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful? What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous, or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in the wake?”

Munson, herself an artists’ model, was neither happy nor prosperous toward the end of her career, when she expressed that lament in a bylined article syndicated by the Hearst newspapers. But her beauty has not been forgotten — if you know where to look.

Her face and figure were immortalized throughout New York City. For Adolph Weinman, she was the gilded “Civic Fame,” the city’s loftiest effigy, atop the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan, across the street from City Hall. Attilio Piccirilli used her likeness in his monument to the mariners of the sunken USS Maine at the entrance to Central Park on Columbus Circle. She was the model for Henry Augustus Lukeman’s sculpture “Memory,” at Broadway and West 106th Street, in honor of Isidor and Ida Straus, who drowned when the Titanic sunk. She is Daniel Chester French’s granite maiden guarding the Brooklyn entrance to the Manhattan Bridge.

And there others, so many that she became revered as “the American Venus.”

In 1917, when she was in her mid-20s, The Sun proclaimed Munson “Miss Manhattan” after she modeled for Carl Augustus Heber’s “Spirit of Commerce,” which decorated one of two pylons supporting the Manhattan Bridge’s arched gateway at Canal Street.

“Yes, she is the real Miss Manhattan now,” Heber told The Sun. “She has grit, determination and, best of all, a sense of humor.”

Audrey Marie Munson was born on June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York. Her father, Edgar Munson, was a streetcar conductor and Western real estate speculator who descended from English Puritans. Her mother, Catherine (Mahoney) Munson, a daughter of Irish immigrants, later worked in a corset shop. The parents divorced in 1899.

Audrey and her mother eventually moved to a boardinghouse in Rhode Island, where the girl made her stage debut as one of five Dancing Dolls. They then transplanted themselves to an apartment in Washington Heights, in Upper Manhattan.

As the story goes, Audrey was discovered by a professional photographer while window shopping on Fifth Avenue. He then filmed her at his studio in the West 60s and introduced her to Viennese sculptor Isidore Konti. She made her debut as a sculptor’s model at 17. Soon she was modeling for hundreds of works overseen by sculptor A. Stirling Calder (father of sculptor Alexander Calder) for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Munson was the first American leading lady to appear nude in a mainstream movie, titled “Inspiration,” the first of three silent films in which she had nude scenes. But she was also a protofeminist, joining Helen Sargent Hitchcock’s Art Workers’ Club for Women in demanding equality in the workplace and maintaining that women could look their best, and more natural, by chucking corsets, garter belts and high heels.

One of her bare-all films, cheekily titled “Purity,” from 1916, fantasized about a model posing to raise money to publish her boyfriend’s poetry.

The New York Times, reviewing the film, concluded that Munson’s figure was “systematically and thoroughly exploited” on behalf of “a bad and extraordinarily funereal looking poet.” The review concluded, “From the sample of his verse flashed on the screen you fear the end did not justify the means.”

Munson gained little from her movie ventures, writing that she had been undervalued as just another pretty face, comparing it to her work as a model.

Actors, she argued, were part of a collaborative process: When a show is financially successful, the actors, playwright, director and other principals are rewarded with “increases in salary and a step at least one notch higher on the road to fame and prosperity.”

“Not so with the artist’s model,” she added, in a 20-part series syndicated by The New York American, a Hearst paper. “She remains ever anonymous. She is the tool with which the artist works, though she provides the inspiration for a masterpiece and is the direct cause of enriching the painter or sculptor.”

Munson’s personal life was equally joyless.

One purported romance ended with her delivering a virulent and very public antisemitic rant directed at, among others, German Jews in the film industry. Later, when a Manhattan doctor murdered his wife, the police suspected her as the coveted woman in his love triangle.

Munson fled to Canada to avoid the scandal, then returned to upstate New York. But Miss Manhattan missed Manhattan. She staged a nationwide contest to find the perfect husband and soon claimed one. But when he failed to show up, two weeks before her 31st birthday in 1922, she attempted suicide, only to botch it. By then she had already tried, and failed, to have herself declared dead by placing an obituary under her name in a Syracuse newspaper.

In 1931, her mother petitioned a New York court to have Munson institutionalized. On June 8, her 40th birthday, a judge agreed to commit her to an asylum upstate (albeit a progressive one; it was said to be the first in the nation to have an on-site beauty parlor, to boost patients’ self-esteem).

“It is unclear,” Andrea Geyer wrote, in “Queen of the Artists’ Studios: The Story of Audrey Munson” (2007), “whether she was in fact mentally ill or a tragically misunderstood artist and feminist.”

Munson died at the asylum on Feb. 20, 1996, at 104 and was buried in an unmarked grave. (Relatives installed a headstone in the cemetery a decade later.)

By then, the sculptors’ model who had been crowned the American Venus — the celebrity who was called Miss Manhattan when New York and the rest of the nation, high on bootlegged booze, were giddily plunging into the Roaring Twenties — had been forgotten.

But she did not vanish altogether, of course. As journalist Norman Rose wrote in a syndicated newspaper article in 1915, Munson “will live in marble and bronze and canvas, in the art centers of the world, long, long after she and everyone else of this generation shall have become dust.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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