Audrey Munson (Photo: Corbis / Courtesy of Regan Arts)
If you live in New York City, you probably pass her daily without knowing it. A ghost, cast in bronze, sculpted in stone, or hammered out of copper, she stands, unidentified, at the Frick mansion and the New York Public Library; inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art; by the entrances to the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn Museum; at Columbus Circle; and above the fountain by the Plaza Hotel. Her grandest perch is atop the Municipal Building, in Lower Manhattan, where her figure inspired the 25-foot-tall “Civic Fame,” the largest statue of a woman in the city after Lady Liberty.
Born in 1891, Audrey Munson was blessed with a classically beautiful body and the courage to bare it—or, as she put it, to “brazen it out”—in the service of art. In the new book The Curse of Beauty, James Bone argues that Munson was America’s first supermodel, and also Hollywood’s first flameout story. In Gilded Age New York, her figure inspired a generation of American artists, but by the time she got mixed up in the nascent movie business, her life began to unravel. On her 40th birthday, she would be committed to an insane asylum in Ogdensburg, New York, where she far outlived her glamorous legacy, dying unknown in 1996, at the age of 104.
Unlike the statues of her scattered around New York, Munson’s unbelievable life story was not hiding in plain sight. It had to be dug up, the pieces examined, the details stitched together. Bone, a former New York bureau chief for The Times of London, discovered many previously unknown facts about Munson which he culled from her aging relatives, recalcitrant town historians (including one who threatened to have him arrested), forgotten village newspapers, and FBI archives. He tracked down the only surviving copy of her second film, Purity, which was presumed lost until it turned up in a private French pornography collection in the 1990s. He identified the polymath photographer Felix Benedict Herzog, who first discovered Munson window shopping along Fifth Avenue. And he convinced one of her cousins to go to court to unseal the psychiatric evaluations that explained why Munson’s own mother had her locked up.
Munson, who began her New York career working as a Broadway chorus girl, became famous for her ideal “Grecian” proportions. Artists under the spell of neoclassicism considered her a latter-day Venus de Milo. Some fixated on her “fulsome” breasts, others on the two little dimples in the small of her back. One of the artists who sculpted her, Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta, told Munson that this unique feature should be protected at all costs. “Guard those dimples, my girl,” he said. “And if you ever see them going—cut out the apple pie.”
She never forgot the advice. Bone told me he interviewed a nurse who bathed Munson in the asylum when she was in her 90s. “One day, this nurse is giving her a sponge a bath and she says, ‘Audrey, you have dimples in your back!’ And she replies, ‘Yes, they’re very precious. I can’t lose my dimples.’”
Munson’s dimples inspired artists of many stripes, including Beaux Arts-style sculptors like Adolph Alexander Weinman and Daniel Chester French, the Bohemians of “MacDougal Alley,” and avant-garde painters like Francis Picabia. (Bone claims that Munson is the “jeune fille américaine” referenced in one of Picabia’s famous paintings, now at the Pompidou Center in Paris.) While Munson could be haughty about her own beauty and cutting about other women’s physical shortcomings, Bone considers her to be something of a proto-feminist. She refused corsetry and high heels, believing that women’s dress should be natural and practical. By modeling nude and later appearing in American cinema’s first non-pornographic nude scene, she struck an early blow against national prudishness. “That which is the immodesty of other women,” she said, “has been my virtue—my willingness that the world should gaze upon my figure unadorned.”
Bone said that his book coincides with a groundswell of interest in Munson’s life. She was the subject of a long article last year in The Believer, which inspired an episode of Roman Mars’s popular podcast “99% Invisible,” which in turn led to a slew of gee-whiz blog posts about the rich, visible legacy of this little-known model with a tragic biography. “A lot of the stories about her are recycled Internet things which are not particularly well informed because there wasn’t much known about her,” Bone said. “But there is a meme developing about Audrey, a kind of fantasy trope, and I hope I’m going to inform it with a massive amount of actual information.”
“Civic Fame” in New York City (Photo: Courtesy of Regan Arts.)