She went by a variety of aliases: the American Venus, Miss Manhattan, the “most perfect model” and, by her friends and loved ones, Audrey Munson. In the 1910s, Munson worked as a model for a plethora of artists and was the first woman to go nude in a non-pornographic film. The supermodel’s perfectly proportioned face and body inspired numerous works and sculptures that still stand in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx today. She has posed for more public works than anyone and, while New Yorkers may not know it, they see her everywhere they go.
In 1919, her fame collapsed when she became involved in a murder case that ultimately ruined her career and destroyed her sanity.
Early life. Audrey Munson was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1891. She spent most of her younger years in Mexico, N.Y., but after her parents divorced, she and her mother left for the city. When she was 15 years old, photographer Ralph Draper spotted her and thought she was immaculate. He later introduced Munson to his friend and sculptor, Isidore Konti. She modeled for him and for the next decade, Munson became the model of choice for a host of sculptors and artists.
Seeking shelter. Munson spent a good amount of time in California, working on silent films and branching out to further her career. She returned to New York in 1919 and moved into a home on West 65th Street owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins, a married man whose relationship with Munson remains unclear to this day. Wilkins was so smitten by the American Venus that he murdered his wife Julia to free himself up for the supermodel.
Police questioning. Wilkins claimed burglars murdered his wife, but police quickly found holes in his story. Munson reported that Wilkins was obsessed with her and that Julia requested that Munson leave the rooming house. Wilkins was locked up and sentenced to death by electric chair but hanged himself in his jail cell.
There is such a thing as bad publicity. Although police were content that Munson had no role in Julia’s murder, the scandal destroyed Munson’s career. Her mother and her moved to Mexico, N.Y., where they were forced to sell kitchen utensils door-to-door to make ends meet.
Attempting suicide. In 1922, Munson drank bichloride of mercury (which was used to treat syphilis at the time) in an attempt to kill herself. She survived and insisted that she had been engaged to a man named Joseph J. Stevenson of Ann Arbor, Mich., and that he had broken off their engagement. She claimed this is what prompted her suicide attempt. No such man was ever found to exist.
Munson was not well. She found herself more unhinged in the following decade. Munson began referring to herself as “Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Monson.”
Conspiracy theories. Munson believed that there was someone conspiring against her, preventing her from landing industry-related jobs. In 1931, her mental health had fully deteriorated. She missed her life in the big city and would roller-skate along unpaved roads in glamorous clothing. The locals considered her “strange.”
A life left behind and forgotten. Taking care of Munson became too much of a burden for her mother. Munson’s mother checked the 40-year-old into a state mental institution, St. Lawrence State Hospital, for the rest of her days.
The end. As she grew older, Munson was moved into a nursing home 30 miles up the road. The nursing home was next to a bar and Munson would frequently sneak out to drink and tell locals about her big city tales. This forced caregivers to send her back to St. Lawrence State Hospital, where she passed away just short of her 105th birthday. She was institutionalized for a total of 65 years.
Hidden away. Munson was hidden away for nearly two-thirds of her life. However, this public body that was once glamorized has been immortalized. Her body lays amongst various New York landmarks and even across the country.
Where is she now? “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,” wrote Audrey in a 1921 newspaper column, “and asked themselves the question: ‘Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful? What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in the wake?’”
Unmarked. Audrey Munson was buried in an unmarked grave near her family plot, forgotten, remembered only in the cold bronze that her regal face is cast in.