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The Tragedy of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel

The image of Audrey Munson is still on display in museums from Hartford to San Francisco. A statue of her, America's first supermodel, presides over Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. She holds a Bible as Evangeline in the Longfellow Memorial in Cambridge, Mass. She was even in mass circulation for decades as the model for the Winged Liberty Head Dime and the Walking Liberty Half Dollar.

She was so ubiquitous in New York she was nicknamed ‘Miss Manhattan.’

Audrey Munson as Winged Mercury

Audrey Munson as Winged Mercury

Audrey appears atop the Municipal Building, at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, on the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza.

Her fall was as swift and as spectacular as was her rise to fame. By the time the coins bearing her image were taken out of circulation, she was completely forgotten, confined to an insane asylum and then buried in an unmarked grave.

She always believed she was the victim of a gypsy curse.

The Curse of Audrey Munson

Audrey Munson was born in Rochester, N.Y., on June 8, 1891. Her father, Edgar, worked as a trolley car conductor with dreams of hitting it big in real estate. Her mother, Kittie, was an Irish Catholic who divorced Edgar when Audrey was eight. She had to, she said, because he was having an open affair with another woman he later married.

When Audrey was five years old, her mother took her to have her fortune told in East Syracuse, N.Y. Gypsy Queen Eliza told her:

You shall be beloved and famous. But when you think that happiness is yours, its Dead Sea fruit 'shall turn to ashes in your mouth.

You, who shall throw away thousands of dollars as a caprice, shall want for a penny. You, who shall mock at love, shall seek love without finding.

Seven men shall love you. Seven times you shall be led by the man who loves you to the steps of the altar, but never shall you wed.

She would always consider the gypsy’s words a curse.

Audrey Munson in 1915

Audrey Munson in 1915

Fame and Fortune

Audrey Munson as Mourning Victory, considered Daniel Chester French's masterpiece

Audrey Munson as Mourning Victory, considered Daniel Chester French's masterpiece

When Audrey was eight, Kittie moved them to Providence, where they lived in a series of boardinghouses.

Audrey grew into a beauty. Her tall good looks personified the Beaux-Arts ideal of womanhood. Kittie saw her daughter’s potential and pushed her toward the theater.

She made her stage debut as a teenager in 1908 as a member of Gerald Hampton's Dancin' Dolls at Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick, R.I. By then, Kittie had moved them to New York City, and Audrey was posing for artists.

Two years earlier, at the age of 15, she had caught the attention of photographer Felix Benedict Herzog. According to legend, he had spotted her on the street in Manhattan. He introduced her to his circle of artists. His friend Isidore Konti persuaded Audrey to pose for him nude.

From 1910 to 1915, Audrey Munson was the darling of the Beaux-Arts set, thriving with commissions during New York City's great building boom. She modeled, as a goddess or allegorical image, for Daniel Chester French, Alexander Stirling Calder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Adolph Alexander Weinman.

She appeared in two dozen sculptures in New York City alone. She also posed for three-fifths of the sculptures for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.

Audrey Munson as Evangeline

Audrey Munson as Evangeline

Before the Fall

Audrey Munson was rich and famous. Her father complained she was spending money like water. In 1916 she moved to California to appear in the infant motion picture industry. She took off her clothes for her first film, Inspiration, in which she played a sculptor’s model. It was considered the first non-pornographic film to feature a nude woman.

She acted in three more films and then returned to the East Coast. She began dating rich men in New York and Newport, R.I., including silver heir Hermann Oelrichs, Jr. He was the richest bachelor in America.

Audrey showed signs of trouble in January 1919 when she wrote a rambling letter to the U.S. State Department. In it, she claimed Hermann Oelrichs, Jr., was part of a pro-German cabal that drove her of the film industry.

She and her mother were then living in a boarding house in New York. It was owned by an elderly doctor, Walter Wilkins. In February 1919 Wilkins murdered his wife Julia outside of their Long Island home by beating her with a hammer and lead pipe.

Police discovered Wilkins had become obsessed with Audrey Munson. They believed he killed his wife to be with her.

Audrey and her mother had left New York before the murder, but police tracked them down in Canada. Audrey denied any involvement with Willkins. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Before he met the electric chair, he hanged himself in his cell.

The publicity ruined Audrey’s career.

Audrey Munson in the film Heedless Moths

Audrey Munson in the film Heedless Moths

Attempted Suicide

Finding no work, Audrey and Kittie moved to Syracuse, N.Y., where Kittie supported them by selling kitchen utensils door to door.

By 1922 Audrey was known as the ‘once-famous artists model.’ She tried to commit suicide that year by drinking bichloride of mercury. She was 39 years old.

On her 40th birthday, her mother petitioned to commit her to an insane asylum. Audrey remained in the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg for 65 years. Decades passed when no one came to visit her. In 1984, when she was 93, her half-niece, Darlene Bradley, rediscovered her.

Audrey Munson died at the age of 104 on Feb. 20, 1996. She was buried in an unmarked grave in New Haven Cemetery in New Haven, N.Y. On her 125th birthday, her family placed a simple tombstone on her grave.

Photo: Mourning Victory By liz west from Boxborough, MA, USA - Mourning Victory, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46563394

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