She adorns the city in bronze, gold and stone. You’ve walked by her in the streets, but never knew her name. Meet Audrey Munson, fabulous New York woman – with a decidedly unfabulous end. The Curse of Beauty, an investigative biography of Munson’s life by James Bone, former New York bureau chief for The Times of London newspaper, documents this New York woman’s spectacular rise and tragic demise in the City of Dreams.
Audrey Munson was America’s first supermodel; the personification of the nation’s ideals and dreams. Gilded Age sculptors carved her form for the city’s institutions and monuments. Bone writes: “This book is a biography of a naked woman, once the most famous nude in America.” The dust jacket of The Curse of Beauty unwraps to reveal a Map of Manhattan showing the locations of Audrey’s image throughout the borough. And yes, Mr. Bone, she’s often naked, but just as often, she is decorously draped in Classical garb or appearing with the addition of angelic wings or ancient headdresses.
Downtown, Audrey Munson stands 25 feet fall on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building, constructed as an administrative site for New York’s consolidated boroughs. As Civic Fame, a splendidly gilded figure in Classical dress by Adolph Weinman, Audrey holds aloft a crown with five towers, representing the five boroughs. Here, she is Manhattan Island’s tallest statue, second in New York only to the Statue of Liberty offshore.
Midtown, Audrey is depicted in the buff and in granite as the personification of Beauty by Frederick MacMonnies, a Brooklyn sculptor. In this form, her voluptuous figure decorates the facade of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.
Across town at Columbus Circle, Audrey is a stern and heavily garbed figure. Here, she serves as the model for Attilio Piccirilli‘s gilded centerpiece for the U.S.S. Maine Monument atop the pylon of Merchants’ Gate at the entrance to Central Park.
Uptown, at Broadway and 106th Street, a bronze Audrey stretches languidly as a water nymph overlooking a small fountain. Here, she represents Memory in Henry Augustus Lukeman’s sculpture at the Isidor & Ida Straus Memorial. The statue and pocket park are dedicated to the memory of the one-time U.S. Congressman and co-owner of Macy’s department store. Straus and his wife, Ida, perished on the maiden voyage of R.M.S. Titanic. The Straus’ lived on Broadway one block south of the park. The couple perished when Ida refused to board a lifeboat without her husband. The choice of a water nymph belies their watery end.
Ten blocks uptown, Audrey, at her most staid. She is the centerpiece of the Columbia University campus, a bronze statue in the form of Athena by sculptor Arthur Chester French. Grandly representing Alma Mater, Audrey sits on the steps of Low Library. Each incoming class is tasked with finding the owl in the voluminous folds of her robes. Columbia tradition has it that the student who finds the owl first will graduate as class valedictorian.
Audrey Munson worked her way up the artistic food chain from a model for photographers, to posing for illustrators, then painters, and finally posing for sculptors. As a model who also painted, Audrey considered herself to be an artist, listing herself as such in the 1916 New York City directory when she was living at 288 West 70th Street. At this time, Cubism, Futurism and Impressionism were all making their mark on artistic production. Audrey described these artists as “just crazy persons, capitalizing on their insanities.”
Too bad for Audrey, her own mental capacities were about to be tested – and the result would be tragic. A woman whose body was the source of her own and others’ inspiration and creativity, scandals followed her and caused her mental breakdown. At the age of 39, Audrey Munson was committed to a an institution for the insane in upstate New York. Here, she died, 65 years later, at the age of 104 – still a fabulous New York woman, and now the subject of a fabulous new book.