The Tragic Life of America’s First Supermodel

(Photo: Corbis Images)

While today’s supermodels are plastered all over social media in a stream of selfies that will vanish as quickly as they appeared, the face of America’s first supermodel is still immortalized all over New York City — outside the New York Public Library, the Plaza Hotel, the Pulitzer Fountain — and across other major cities like Atlanta, San Francisco and Madison.

Unlike Gigi and Kendall, however, you probably don’t know the name Audrey Munson, whose life is chronicled in James Bone’s new investigative biography The Curse of Beauty. The silently storied model died at age 104 in 1996, at the Ogdensburg, New York, insane asylum where she spent the last six decades of her life.

Bone, former New York bureau chief of The Times of London, was introduced to Munson years ago while living in Soho. A friend directed his attention to “Civic Fame,” the 25-foot statue of Munson that sits atop the Municipal Building and is only bested in size by the Statute of Liberty. “[My friend] lived near the building, on a high floor,” Bone tells Yahoo Beauty. “He said, ‘Have you seen the statue?’ It’s 580 feet off the ground, so it takes some effort to see it. But I started to look at her as a model and look at the story — and it was this crazy story.”

Crazy indeed. Munson came to New York to be a chorus girl, but was pulled from obscurity when photographer Felix Benedict Herzog noticed her great beauty while window shopping with her mother on Fifth Avenue. Munson became an actress and a model under his tutelage, and almost accepted a marriage proposal from Herzog before he died suddenly in 1912. “By then, she had artist friends, and she was sort of taken up by the scene,” Bone says.

(photo: Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress)

As an 18-year-old, Munson drew the attention of noted artists for her idealistic physique — “The Most Perfectly Formed Woman in the World,” said press at the time — a throwback to the Greek goddess-esque forms that captivated master painters Raphael and Botticelli. She began posing nude for the likes of sculptor Isidore Konti in 1909 and photographer Arnold Genthe shortly thereafter, soon becoming a favorite in New York City artistic circles.

Munson was adored by men. But she was focused on keeping her place atop the modeling world and turned away many suitors — like smitten railway executive Paul Hardaway, to whom she was engaged for a time around 1914. According to Curse, Munson said eventually realized she “did not love this man enough to be his wife,” setting Hardaway up with another model-friend of hers.

She continued to excel professionally on the West Coast, where Munson caught the eye of movie producers. She starred in commercial fashion shows and became the first American star to appear fully nude on film. But trouble soon followed. “There, she started to have psychological problems,” says Bone. “She was the most famous muse in America, but was unfortunately swept up into a murder case.”

In 1919, Munson’s former landlord Walter Wilkins, a physician who had become obsessed with Munson, was convicted and executed for murdering his wife, allegedly to free himself to marry Munson. Bone says that the stress of the case, coupled with the demands of her career, proved too much for her to handle. Munson dropped entirely out of the art and film scene. “She was a fragile and vulnerable woman, placed under an enormous amount of pressure as a nude model,” he says. “She became a recluse for 10 years. She tried to come back around 1921 for with a movie, but was unsuccessful. She was the original Hollywood flameout — and on her 40th birthday, her mother committed her.”

(Photo: Alamy)

It’s almost unimaginable that Munson spent more than 60 quiet years in a mental institution, right up to her death in 1996. Once beloved by many, she didn’t have visitors for decades. “Her parents died, but her father did have a second family,” Bone says. “Finally, when she was 93, she was rediscovered by her half niece, Darlene — her father’s granddaughter.”

When she died, Munson’s ashes were placed in her father’s burial plot. “There is no headstone, just a plastic flower,” Bone says. “It is hard to believe that the woman who was the inspiration for monuments all around the world, and especially in New York, has no monument herself.”

Bone’s biography of Munson gives us the stunning portrait of an early model’s colorful and glamorous life, rubbing elbows with great artists and celebrities of her time, set against the backdrop of looming tragedy that awaits her final years. Her beauty and her art eventually broke her, the author says. “She found it difficult to appear nude, but thought she would brave it out,” Bone explains.

(photo: Alamy)

Munson wrote quite prophetically back in 1921, wondering how many “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, ‘Where is she now, this model who has been 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 its wake?”

Bone is seeking to preserve those memories and to acknowledge Munson’s legacy. “She’s part of American history now, but has been overlooked,” he says. “I hope to restore her story and open people’s eyes when they go about these great cities, to understand it in new ways. You can’t look at New York the same way once you’re aware of Audrey’s story.”

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