Though her modeling career ended by 1922, you can still see the image of Audrey Munson 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 Walking Liberty Half Dollar.
People who saw Audrey Munson everywhere in New York nicknamed her ‘Miss Manhattan.’
Audrey appears atop the Municipal Building, at the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge and on the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza.
She fell as swiftly and as spectacularly as she rose 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 her demise resulted from 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 Irish Catholic mother Kittie divorced Edgar when Audrey was eight.
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.
Ever since then, she would consider the gypsy’s words a curse.
Fame and Fortune
When Audrey turned eight, Kittie moved them to Providence, where they lived in a series of boardinghouses.
Audrey grew into a tall, striking beauty. Most of all, her good looks personified the Beaux-Arts ideal of womanhood. Kittie saw her daughter’s potential and pushed her toward the theater.
She debuted on stage 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 found work 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 spotted her on the street in Manhattan, and 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.
Before the Fall
Audrey Munson had money and fame. Her father complained she spent money like water. In 1916 she moved to California to appear in the infant motion picture industry.
Audrey Munson 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., belonged to a pro-German cabal that drove her out of the film industry.
At that point, she and her mother lived in a boarding house in New York. An elderly doctor, Walter Wilkins, owned the house. In February 1919 Wilkins murdered his wife Julia outside of their Long Island home by beating her with a hammer and lead pipe.
Police subsequently discovered Wilkins had become obsessed with Audrey Munson. As a result, 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 Wilkins. 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.
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 at 39 had a reputation as the ‘once-famous artists model.’ She tried to commit suicide that year by drinking bichloride of mercury.
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, N.Y., for 65 years. Decades passed when no one came to visit her. Finally, Darlene Bradley rediscovered her 93-year-old Aunt Audrey in 1984.
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. But on her 125th birthday, her family placed a simple tombstone on her grave.
With thanks to The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel by James Bone.
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
If you like this story about Audrey Munson, you may also enjoy this story about Ethel Reed (here), the beautiful poster model who disappeared. This story was updated in 2020.