SECRET LIVES

The Glamorous Life And Tragic Fall of America’s First Supermodel

She’s the face of every famous statue from America’s Gilded Age and the first actress to appear nude in a Hollywood film—but Audrey Munson’s charmed life ended in tragedy.

04.24.16 4:01 AM ET

When Audrey Munson was a girl of five, the Gypsy Queen Eliza came to the United States from England. Eliza Cooper was just eighteen but had reigned over 55,000 Roma since succeeding to the throne at the age of ten. Touring the country by train, Queen Eliza stopped in upstate New York to be hosted by Plato Buckland’s thirty-five-strong Gypsy band in East Syracuse. A colorfully painted wagon carried her from the railroad station to the camp on Eastwood Heights, and she was installed with her maidservant in a white tent filled with bright new rugs. In place of a crown, she wore an intricate lace cap on her head.

Bands of gypsies passed through East Syracuse each summer, before their caravans headed south for the winter. They set up their tents on the heights outside the village or near the railroad freight yards. The Gypsy men, though renowned for thieving, earned an honest living from horse-trading and tied up their horses all around. The women sold basketwork and lace and read palms.

Queen Eliza’s presence provoked intense curiosity. Thousands of nearby residents turned up to catch a glimpse of Gypsy royalty. Many, believing superstitiously in the prophetic powers of the Romany women, “crossed their palms with silver” to have their fortunes told.

Audrey was taken to the Gypsy camp in East Syracuse by her mother as a child, possibly amid the excitement of the royal visit. She did not see the Gypsy queen. Queen Eliza stayed only thirty-six hours. Audrey was fascinated instead by the games the Gypsy children played amid the covered wagons. The tall, fierce men frightened her. But her mother insisted Audrey have her future read, and led her by the hand into the tent of a “bronze-faced seeress.”

Nude photograph of Audrey Munson.

Library of Congress

Nude photograph of Audrey Munson.

Though still just “a slip of a girl,” Audrey was already possessed of a limber figure and long bones—she was to grow to 5 ́8 ̋ tall. Her features were perfectly symmetrical and sleek: a high brow, chiseled cheekbones, an almond jaw, and that perfectly straight neoclassical nose. Set like gemstones in her milky skin, she had questioning, slightly impertinent gray-blue eyes. The question lurking in those eyes was one she would come to wish she had never asked: “What does my future hold?”

The soothsayer looked on Audrey’s fresh beauty; then, mindful of her own sorrows and all the sorrows of the world, she spoke:

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.

For the rest of her life, Audrey considered the prophecy a curse.

Audrey Munson as a woman who would not leave her husband on the sinking Titanic at The Straus Memorial.

courtesy of Regan Arts

Audrey Munson as a woman who would not leave her husband on the sinking Titanic at The Straus Memorial.

Audrey did indeed become beloved and famous. Her “most perfect form” still reigns over New York City and across the United States. You probably already know her, without even knowing you know her. You may have passed her on the street many times, unbeknownst. For she was America’s first supermodel. She is the second-largest female figure in New York after the Statue of Liberty. Her gilded form stands twenty-five feet tall, holding a crown aloft as the symbol of the city, atop the vast Municipal Building across the street from City Hall. She frolics in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel at the southeast entrance to Central Park, her celebrated dimples on full display to the shoppers at the Apple Store. Every day, office workers tramp past her as the centerpiece of the Maine Monument in Columbus Circle at the opposite corner of Central Park. She stands on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge as the Spirit of Commerce, waving on commuters to their toil. She once also stood sentry at the Brooklyn entrance of the Manhattan Bridge as Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn. But those colossal forms now flank the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. Audrey is immortalized in stone at the New York Public Library and on the Frick House on Fifth Avenue. She is the reclining bronze figure of Memory on the Straus Memorial on the Upper West Side. She is the two grieving stone figures on the Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive. Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.

Across the nation, from Florida to California, Audrey remains in our everyday lives. She stands as Liberty and Sapienta (Wisdom) on the Wisconsin State Capitol. She can be seen as the nymphs on the James McMillan Memorial Fountain by the reservoir in Washington, DC. She was the model for Allen George Newman’s Monument to Women of the Confederacy in Jacksonville, Florida, and for his Peace Monument in Piedmont Park, in Atlanta, Georgia. She posed for the figure of Evangeline inscribed on the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Memorial in the garden of the poet’s house by the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She inspired three-quarters of the statuary of the Jewel City built in San Francisco for the 1915 World’s Fair. A famous bronze of one of those statues, Descending Night, was acquired by press baron William Randolph Hearst, and now resides at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, on the California coast. One of her surviving Star Maidens from the fair now stands in the courtyard of the Citigroup Center building in San Francisco.

Audrey Munson as Pomona in Grand Army Plaza, New York City.

courtesy of Regan Arts

Audrey Munson as Pomona in Grand Army Plaza, New York City.

It is even still possible to see Audrey in motion. She was the first movie star to go naked in an American film. Inspiration (1915) has been lost, but we can yet marvel at her in Purity (1916). Playing the scantily clad allegorical character Virtue, her breasts popping out of her robes at every opportunity, Audrey was quite literally a sex goddess.

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Of course, every woman is a naked woman, every man a naked man. Audrey herself once said: “If there is immorality in posing in the nude, anybody who takes a bath ought to be arrested.” But Audrey was known above all, in art and in movies, for her naked body—and her daring readiness to put it on show. She was advertised as “the world’s most perfectly formed woman.” Audrey’s defense of her public nudity, and some—but certainly not all—of her other views on women, made her an early feminist. Indeed, she once contributed five dollars to the suffrage movement pushing to get women the right to vote, which was finally achieved in her heyday, with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Audrey strongly believed that women were naturally beautiful, and should cast aside corsets and high heels, yet she was never able to take full control of her own body. The facts suggest she was exploited at every turn. She was paid just fifty cents an hour to pose nude. Men besieged her. Hundreds of suitors tried to woo her by mail. Some who had seen her nude photos even wrote from faraway Japan. It was men who lavished her with rich rewards for her beauty; and it was men who made her pay the terrible price she did. This, perforce, is the story of those men—besotted, jealous, lustful, greedy men—as well as the biography of Audrey’s sometimes glamorous, often scandalous, and ultimately tragic life.

Although Audrey lived a very long time and died in 1996, she was locked away for most of her life, her records sealed, and she was buried in an unmarked grave. A generation of her family even refused to utter her name. Her closest surviving relatives remain reluctant to speak openly about her to this day. The official historian of Oswego County, who got his hands on a treasure chest of Audrey’s old possessions, tried unsuccessfully to have this author arrested, claiming he was being “protective” of Audrey. But Audrey left an indelible trace: in letters, court documents, newspaper clippings, in the FBI archive, in photographs, in oil paint, on film, and, above all, in bronze and stone. Once a household name, Audrey was disappeared from history. The Curse of Beauty is not just a biography but also an investigation into how and why she was erased.

Although she was nameless in her many statues, she will be no more.

***

courtesy of Regan Arts

Audrey was born on June 8, 1891, into an America that was very different from today, and yet uncannily the same. America’s Gilded Age is remembered as a period of robber barons accumulating great fortunes in the rapidly industrializing republic. But it draws its name from Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s satirical novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), whose title contains the implicit warning that all that glitters is not gold.

Like today, it was a period of enormous invention, as new industries grew up with the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the aeroplane, and the motion picture. Those technological innovations transformed the globalizing world as much as the personal computer, the mobile phone, and the Internet and social media have changed our world. In her remarkable life, Audrey was in at the ground floor of vaudeville theater, the fashion industry, the movie business, and even aviation in the United States. She mixed with the most famous artists, the richest families, and the most swashbuckling entrepreneurs of her day. Plutocrats with newly built mansions on Fifth Avenue and vast “cottages” on the cliffs at Newport stalked the land, their social status measured by their excess. In 1899, when Audrey was eight, the economist Thorstein Veblen, who grew up as one of twelve children on a farm in Minnesota, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Yet at the same time, the poor and huddled masses of immigrants were flooding into the expanding nation. By 1900, the population of New York City—then 3.4 million—while 98 percent white, was 37 percent foreign-born, roughly the same proportion as it is again today. Like our own, it was an era of great inequality, with the top one percent controlling a fifth of the national income, just as they do once again in our own New Gilded Age.

Audrey certainly was not born into the gilded 1 percent, though she would try to marry into it. Her name is inscribed in the baptism register of St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rochester as (Audrie) Marie Munson, born to Edgar Munson and Kittie Mahoney. Her birth brought together two very different American family stories. The mismatch of their hopes and expectations scarred her life.

Edgar, born in Prattsville, New York, on January 22, 1857, was descended from Captain Thomas Munson, an English Puritan who was one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut. This proud family records their lineage to this day in a publication known as the Munson Record. Audrey, who became more and more fixated on pedigree the more she mixed in high society, grandly claimed her father was not only a “colonial American” but also “a descendant of the British peerage, being Baron Munson, ‘House of the Seven Baronets,’ a hereditary title which even King George can’t change.” She sometimes spelled it “Monson.” There was indeed once a Sir Thomas Monson, first Baronet, who received his hereditary title in 1611 from King James I. He served as a Member of Parliament, the Master of the Armory at the Tower of London, and Master Falconer to the King. But there is no documented link to Edgar’s line—and Audrey was certainly not his heir. Edgar’s ancestor Thomas Munson came to America in the 1630s as an English soldier “of the lowest rank.” Edgar was one of fourteen children. He became a wheeler-dealer real estate agent. In the words of one of his granddaughters, he was considered “a bit of a shyster.”

Far from being a “colonial American,” Audrey’s mother was the daughter of recent Irish immigrants. While the Munsons were Methodist, Kittie’s family was Catholic at a time when anti-Catholic feeling was still rife. She was born Catherine Mahoney, according to social security records, but generally spelled her name Katherine Mahaney, preserving the lilt of her parents’ original Irish accents. Everyone always knew her as Kittie. She was born in Belleville, New York, on July 30, 1864. She and her family were simple churchgoing folk embarking on an adventure in the New World. Kittie’s father died from a cold he contracted while doing decorative plasterwork on the interior of their local church. Kittie had one brother, Robert, and a sister, Alice, who became the beloved village dressmaker. Yet Audrey insisted the Mahaneys came from a line that was as distinguished in its way as the Munsons. Among their forebears, she claimed, was the early Irish nationalist Robert Emmet, who was hanged for treason against the British Crown after leading a failed attempt to establish a provisional government in Dublin in 1803. “This marriage united one of the finest Irish families with the English,” Audrey optimistically declared of her parents’ union.

Edgar wooed Kittie on the rocks by Sandy Creek, behind her homestead in Belleville. They wed on January 7, 1885, in the nearby village of Mexico, New York, where Edgar’s father had a farm. Although Edgar had worked on a farm out West, and as a teenager Kittie had worked in the woolen mills in Auburn, New York, the couple started out in service. Edgar got a post as a coachman for Harriet Disbrow, the widow of a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, on the same broad boulevard in Rochester where Kodak founder George Eastman lived. The newlyweds lived at 9 Factory Street. By 1891 Edgar was working as a driver at 267 State Street. And that is the street where, by her own account, Audrey was born. Toward the end of her life, Audrey was offered the chance to return to her native city, but she refused. Rochester, she declared, despite not having seen it for many decades, was “the dirtiest little town.”

Both Edgar and Kittie harbored grand dreams. Unfortunately, they were not the same grand dreams. Edgar fantasized of hitting it big in real estate. He had already traveled west in his youth. When he was twenty, he had worked as a farm laborer in Coral, Illinois. After getting married to Kittie back home in Mexico, New York, Edgar headed west again. First he settled in Lemars, Iowa, 400 miles due west of Coral, where the new railroad was giving away one-square-mile lots along the line to develop the land. He bought a quarter lot of 162 acres for $562 and, after working on it for three years, sold it for $3,552. Next, he moved about 150 miles to virgin territory in Fairmont, Minnesota, and tried the same trick again. This time, he bought a similarly sized lakeside lot for $860. The farm lay between a banker’s land and his water. Desperate for access to the lake, the banker bought Edgar out for $5,800. Edgar’s next stop was about another 150 miles farther west in Hudson, South Dakota, where he bought a lot for $960 and flipped it for $3,900. He then followed the hardiest farmers another 150 miles even farther west to buy eighty acres in Tilden, Nebraska, but the land was dry, so he sold it after a year and a half for $1,600. It is not clear for how much of this real estate odyssey Kittie was with him. Though her father was a Methodist, as a child of three or four, Audrey went to the Cathedral School in Rochester, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, while her father might still have been in the West. His pioneering seems to have been too much for Kittie to bear. The Syracuse Herald, which spoke to Edgar, noted drily: “His wife was dissatisfied with the West because it was too lonesome on the prairie.”

Audrey’s parents divorced in 1899, when she was eight. The decree, issued in Kittie’s new home of Providence, Rhode Island, awarded sole custody of Audrey to her mother. Kittie, though a Catholic, later complained that she had no choice but to divorce because Edgar had been carrying on an open affair with the woman who was to become his second wife, Cora Cook, whom he picked up while working as a trolleybus conductor after returning East. “He got to going with a woman, German, Cora Cook—Oswego County, New York. She has had eight children by him,” Kittie later wrote in a letter. “They were not married so I divorced him.”

Edgar and Kittie each loved Audrey in their own way—but they most definitely did not still love each other. Edgar struggled with the competing claims of his new family with Cora Cook and their five surviving children: Vivian, born in 1906; Lawrence, born in 1909; Gertrude, born in 1912; Gerald, born in 1914; and Harold, born in 1918. Although Edgar always came to Audrey’s aid in a crisis, he disliked her nude posing and blamed her mother for it. “I wouldn’t think she’d want to do it. She used to be such a nice quiet-mannered little blue-eyed thing, just the opposite of what you’d expect to see [in] an actress,” he complained in 1916. “It was her mother who talked the stage into her head from the time she was a baby. I can remember taking her to the theater and she’d get so excited and so she’d stand through the whole thing… I don’t have any interest in what she’s doing now. I’d rather she wouldn’t but it’s her affair and it brings her in lots of money and she spends it too just like water.”

Kittie brought up Audrey as a single mother and steered her onto the stage. The two lived and traveled together almost the entire time until Audrey was forty. It was only a deep crisis that eventually tore them apart. When Audrey needed help, Kittie turned to other members of the Munson clan, not Edgar. Even decades after their divorce, Kittie tried to stop his second family from being listed in the Munson Record, even though those children, unlike Audrey, went on to multiply and extend the line down to the present day. “We do not want her father’s children’s names to go into the history. Put his name with Audrey and myself,” Kittie wrote a Munson family genealogist on October 30, 1934. “We do not curse him for what he has done. He is Audrey’s father and a Munson from one of the old aristocratic race. If he lived in England he could be baron. Audrey, Lady Audrey, but he hates the idea.”

When Edgar and Kittie first separated, Audrey, then six, went to stay on her paternal grandparents’ farm in Davenport, New York, where Edgar himself grew up. While playing behind the house, Audrey tumbled into a stream and contracted typhoid from the polluted waters. Kittie rushed to retrieve her ailing daughter and accused the other side of the family of neglect. Audrey recovered but was often a sickly child, attentively nursed by her mother. One of Audrey’s half nieces still has her childhood doll with a plaster head, which had to be reassembled after being broken into pieces—a poignant metaphor for what happened to Audrey herself.

Kittie started her new life as a divorced woman with Audrey in Providence, Rhode Island—at the time, the eleventh-largest metropolis in the United States. It was the hub of jewelry manufacture in the country. The city boasted the largest silverware factory, largest mechanical tools factory, largest screw factory, and largest file factory on Earth. Many large textile mills were also based nearby. The town had a burgeoning immigrant population with Irish, Italian, and Polish parishes. It was also home to Brown University, one of the only nine colleges founded before the American Revolution, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Hall & Lyons Co., on the corner of Westminster and Eddy Streets, claimed to be “the largest drugstore in the United States.” The city had five theaters, including Keith’s Theatre, offering continuous all-day vaudeville acts.

Home for Audrey was a rented boardinghouse that her mother ran at 47 Carpenter Street. It was a household of motley strangers—mostly men. When Audrey was nine, her mother’s roomers included seven men—Clive Gill, thirty, a jewelry worker; John McMaugh, twenty-eight, a drugstore clerk; Harry M. Bartrum, twenty-four, a mechanic; Henry N. Whiteman, sixty-three, a “solar artist”; Frank H. Watson, thirty, a railroad “gateman”; Joseph Crosby, twenty-six, clerk; and Henry G. Place, fifty, a bill collector—as well as two married couples—James Callahan, thirty-five, a waiter, and his wife, Mary, twenty-four; and Daniel A. Jordan, twenty-four, a painter, and his wife, Mary, twenty-two. When Audrey was twelve, Kittie and Audrey moved to 258 Pine Street. When she was fourteen, they moved again, to 107 Broadway in Providence.

Their home at 107 Broadway was yet another boardinghouse. Kittie no longer listed herself as a lodging housekeeper but as an “agent on corsets.” The gateman from Carpenter Street had followed her, though now under the slightly different name of Frank H. Wilson—raising the question of whether the two had any romantic involvement.

Audrey went to Catholic school at the St. Francis Xavier Female Academy, run by the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy academies were tuition-based high schools catering to relatively well-off girls and sought to provide a cultured education within the confines placed on women at the time. The Sisters of Mercy offered art lessons in oil painting, watercolor, pastels, and decorating china. More important for Audrey, there were music lessons on the piano, violin, harp, mandolin, and guitar, as well as singing. At a young age, Audrey became an accomplished musician and performer. Thanks to the nuns, she—and her mother—could dream of a future on the stage.

Just twelve miles around the bay from Providence lay a scenic stretch of coastline known as Rocky Point that had been used for picnic parties by boat since it was first acquired by sea captain William Winslow in 1847. By Audrey’s time, it was the site of the Rocky Point Amusement Park. Fun-seekers from Providence could reach it by trolleybus in just thirty-five minutes. It was here that Audrey made her first known performance onstage in 1908, as a teenage member of Gerald Hampton’s Dancin’ Dolls.

So young was Audrey when she had her fortune told that she only dimly understood the soothsayer’s words. Kittie, however, remained preoccupied with the fortune-teller’s prediction of both triumph and disaster. “I have forgotten many things that the [G]ypsy woman said, but mother has repeated her words to me so many times that I seem to remember them,” Audrey said. The old crone’s premonition would come to haunt her. The curse, as Audrey saw it, would blight her life.

The big question is whether the fortune-teller had discerned something essential about human nature. Did Audrey’s exceptional beauty not only offer her opportunity and riches but condemn her too? Or did her “curse” become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was Audrey to be responsible for her own doom? That very question was posed by the Syracuse Herald, then Audrey’s local newspaper, in the last feature ever written about her in her extremely long lifetime—written when she was just thirty-five years old. World-Famous Model Cursed by Her Great Beauty, the newspaper headline blared. “Does a relentless Nemesis really follow Audrey Munson, once the world’s most beautiful model whose shapely body has inspired some of the finest paintings and many of the most notable statues of recent years?” the first paragraph asked. “Or have the broken ‘nerves’ of this famous model caused her to imagine the curse that she says follows her constantly?” It was a question that would haunt her for her entire life.