Say, isn’t that Audrey Munson?

February 18, 2017


So much depends on the guide.

Last summer we took two of our grandsons on the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. Although they are siblings–all right, maybe because they are siblings–we took them one at a time.

On the first cruise, the guide was wonderful. Like a lot of guides in New York, he wasn’t really a guide — he was an actor. And his acting skill served him well as he regaled us with a stream of colorful stories and quirky facts, some of which probably were true. On the second cruise, the guide didn’t even come out on the deck. He recited his monotonous narrative over a p.a. system from some air-conditioned sanctuary.

I’m especially grateful to that first guide for talking at great length about a woman I had never heard of, Audrey Munson. Rather than being the face that launched a thousand ships, Audrey was the woman of a thousand faces (I’m exaggerating for effect), most of them in oil, bronze, or stone. The principal reason the guide was talking about Audrey was that her face has been preserved on more than a dozen statues in New York City, including the woman dominating the group below, which is on the Manhattan Bridge.


Audrey was born upstate in 1891 and arrived in New York City with her divorced mother in 1909 aiming to become an entertainer, and in that same she year actually got her first role on Broadway in a turkey that ran for about twenty days.

But a chance meeting on Fifth Avenue with a professional photographer led to a career for Audrey as an artists’ model. One of those artists was sculptor Isidore Konti who was the first to have her pose nude and who used her as the model for the figures in “Three Graces,” which he executed for the new ballroom at the Hotel Astor. In 1915, she posed for the majority of the sculptures created for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair held in San Francisco.

Around that same time, Audrey got into the new film industry, starring in four silent films. In the first one, Inspiration, she became the first woman to appear nude in an American film. She didn’t really act in that film, she posed in various scenes. An actress who resembled her did the dramatic work. None of these films did much for Audrey’s career; one of them evidently was never released.


The Straus Memorial to the sinking of the Titanic


In 1919, Audrey and her mother, apparently down on their luck, were living in a boarding house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The owner of the place, Dr. Walter Wilkins, fell in love with Audrey and murdered his wife so that he could marry Audrey. Audrey and mom fled to Canada where they were pursued and questioned by private detectives. Nothing came of that, and Wilkins was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but he took his own life while in prison.

By 1920, no one seemed to want Audrey, and she was reduced to living off her mother, who supported herself and her daughter by peddling kitchen wares door to door. In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide, and in 1931 her mother had her committed to a hospital for the insane in Ogdensburg, New York, where the unfortunate woman lived for 65 years until she died in 1996 at 104 years of age.

Audrey, who has been characterized as America’s first supermodel once wrote in a magazine article:

“What becomes of the artists’ models? I am wondering if many of my readers 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 the question, ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?’ ”

For a video by Robert Serrini exploring images of Audrey Munson, click HERE.


2 Responses to “Say, isn’t that Audrey Munson?”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    This tickled me: “he regaled us with a stream of colorful stories and quirky facts, some of which probably were true.”

    How a tale can be so sad and yet so intriguing is remarkable. To go from such a public life to years and years of isolation and disregard — it’s hard to understand. I did look for some additional details, and found that the whole episode with Walter Wilkins apparently led to the fall from grace and difficulties. It’s clearly a story worth more exploration.

    I did smile to see a 2016 article about her in The Daily Mail that said she was 61 years old when she died. That’s one fact that isn’t true.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      “Sad” is the right word for the outcome of Audrey Munson’s life. I read that in all the decades she spent in the mental hospital, no one visited her. That reminded me of the many forgotten people I used to encounter when I visited a large psychiatric hospital here in New Jersey. By the way, if you ever visit the New York area, that cruise around Manhattan Island is worth the time. You see all five boroughs and a sweeping view that puts the city in a different context. In Manhattan especially, one becomes absorbed in the neighborhood, or even the intersection, of the present moment. This cruise provides a sense of the immensity and diversity of the whole city, from the congestion of midtown to the grime of the South Bronx to the woodlands on both sides of the Hudson in New Jersey and Upper Manhattan that have been preserved from development in perpetuity. One thing we didn’t anticipate was that the boat passes under 22 bridges during the tour.

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