The Tragic Tale of Audrey Munson, the World’s First Supermodel

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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When Audrey Munson was five years old, her mother took her to see a fortune teller.

Within the perfumed walls of her tent, the soothsayer took young Audrey’s hand and delivered this chilling proclamation:

“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.”

From that moment on, Audrey Munson considered the fortune teller’s words not just a prediction, but a curse, one that would haunt her throughout her life.

Every word of it came true.

“You shall be beloved and famous.”

Audrey Munson may have been cursed by fate, but she was blessed with incredible beauty. If you don’t believe me, just consider the fact that her nickname was “America’s Venus.”

Audrey’s mom, Kittie, was kind of like the early 20th-century version of a Dance Mom. Kittie recognized her daughter’s precociousness from a young age and pushed Audrey to perform in local theater productions. Eventually, Kittie packed their bags and moved them to NYC, hoping Audrey would score her big break.

And score a big break Audrey did – just not in the way she or her mother were picturing.

Like everything in Audrey Munson’s life, her “discovery” was something out of a fairy tale. Audrey and her mother were window-shopping on Fifth Avenue when a famous photographer, Felix Herzog, spotted Audrey on the street and asked her to come model for him. Audrey accepted, and soon she began to pose for many of the biggest artists of the time.

Audrey Munson wasn’t a supermodel in the way we think of today. She didn’t strut down any catwalks, she posed nude more than she posed with clothes, and, as far as we know, Tyra Banks never taught her how to “smize.” But Audrey was the most prolific model of her time: as construction was booming across the United States, so was Audrey Munson’s career. Every great new building or park needed a statue to make it truly legit, and Audrey Munson was the model for many of those statues.

Just check out some of the statues that bear Audrey’s likeness in New York City alone:

 

  • Memory by David Chester French at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Brooklyn and Manhattan by David Chester French at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
  • Maidenhood by Sherry Edmundson Fry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Spirit of Commerce by Carl Augustus Heber at the Manhattan Bridge
  • Three Graces by Isidore Konti at the Hotel Astor
  • Beauty by Frederick MacMonnies at the New York Public Library
  • Civic Fame by Adolph Alexander Weinman at the Manhattan Municipal Building

 

Basically, you can’t buy a hot dog in New York City without encountering the legacy of Audrey Munson.

At the height of her career, Audrey Munson and her perfect figure earned the title “Miss Manhattan.” With her likeness topping some of New York City’s tallest and most famous buildings, Audrey Munson was literally on top of the world.

“Its Dead Sea Fruit Shall Turn to Ashes in Your Mouth”

Audrey Munson with her cat; Wikimedia Commons

In 1915, Audrey Munson was beloved, wealthy and famous.

By 1920, she was destitute.

By 1930, she was forgotten.

Audrey’s meteoric rise as the darling of the Beaux Arts world was bookended by a swift, harsh fall from grace.

Audrey’s life from 1915 to 1920 reads like the Hollywood version of A Series of Unfortunate Events. First, Audrey moved out to Los Angeles, hoping to capitalize on her modeling career and become an actress. She found that her previous career did help her get roles – but not the kind she wanted.

Producers in Hollywood had heard of Audrey Munson and they, like the sculptors before them, were only interested in her body. Audrey became the first woman to bare it all in an American motion picture, but she never really moved beyond that. Only one of her movies survives today, discovered as part of a “pornography” collection in France.

Disgraced and out of work, Audrey returned to the East Coast, where she decided to try her hand at the socialite scene. That took a weird turn, however, when Audrey accused Hermann Oelrichs Jr., a really, really rich bachelor, of conspiring against her with Germany’s help (yes, the country). Audrey wrote a long, rambling letter to the State Department detailing Oelrichs’ plot, which was basically to prevent Audrey from starring in any major motion pictures. The State Department, shockingly, ignored Audrey’s fantastical account and she found herself on the outs with the high society crowd, all of whom sided with Oelrichs.

By 1919, Audrey was back in Manhattan, living in a boarding house with her mom. The man who owned the boarding house, named Dr. Walter Wilkins, was head-over-heels in love with Audrey. So much so, in fact, that Dr. Wilkins killed his wife so he and Audrey could be together.

Audrey, for her part, had never wanted to marry Dr. Wilkins. Afraid that she would be blamed for the murder, Audrey and her mother went on the run, fleeing Manhattan to avoid questioning. The pair was found in Toronto, where Audrey strongly denied any involvement with Wilkins.

With nowhere else to turn, Audrey and her mother moved to Syracuse, New York. There, Audrey’s mother sold kitchen utensils door-to-door, while Audrey fell into a deeper and deeper depression.

In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide. She was saved and lived in obscurity for several more years before her mother obtained a court order to institutionalize Audrey from depression and schizophrenia.

Audrey Munson entered the institution in 1931, at age 35, and remained there until she died, 65 years later.

Cursed By Fate?

In 1984, Audrey’s half-niece, Darlene Bradley, found her aunt in that same institution Audrey had been committed to half a century earlier. In those fifty years, Audrey had never had a single visitor.

By the time Audrey died, at the age of 104, she had been beloved and famous. But, just like the soothsayer predicted, her success had turned to ashes, her fame to obscurity. Audrey had never found love and was abandoned by her mother, the only person who ever truly cared for her.

So what happened to Audrey Munson?

Was she truly cursed by the fortune teller she met when she was a child?

Or is her story a more familiar one, of a young starlet whose life took a sad turn from which she could never recover?

We may never know. Regardless of what you think happened to Audrey Munson, the next time you’re in New York City, take a look around.

Chances all, you’ll catch a glimpse of her, serene and immortal, watching us from the top of the world.

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