Off the Cuff: The Human behind the Art, Manhattan’s Mercurial Muse Audrey Munson

The history of American art is filled with little-known human stories that I find generally more fascinating than much of the art.  Today, I’m thinking about a young artists’ model, Audrey Munson, whose mercurial rise to fame was as unlikely as her despairing descent into the black void of the rest of her life.

At the golden dawn of the 20th Century, Audrey Munson, an impoverished pre-teenager, caught the eye of photographer Felix Benedict Herzog as she pressed her face against a department store window and soon thereafter became the most famous artists’ model in American history.

What Herzog saw in Audrey’s face was the Beaux-Arts ideal of womanhood personified. So, he approached Audrey and asked to speak with her mother.  To Kittie, her newly-single, unemployed mother, he proposed paying to have Audrey pose for some portraits, with her mother in the room, of course. All these photoshoots were fully-clothed sessions and Audrey’s mother was paid handsomely for each session.

Herzog’s photographs of Audrey were an instant “hit” in art circles and Kittie allowed him to  introduce her to his wide circle of artist-friends, beginning with the sculptor Isidore Konti who wanted her to model for his important upcoming commission Three Graces for the Hotel Astor. For this, she would have to pose for him nude.  Both Kittie and young Audrey accepted his terms.

Other offers streamed in from sculptors, painters, and photographers all over the East Coast. Virtually overnight, Audrey Munson was the darling of the Beaux-Arts set, thriving with commissions during New York City’s great building boom. She modeled, generally as a goddess or allegorical figure, for Daniel Chester French, Alexander Calder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and a great many others. Her angelic face and classical figure were in high demand.

She was the model for more than 30 statues that still exist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and her image adorns dozens of memorials and bridges and buildings all over the city. In 1913, The New York Sun dubbed her “Miss Manhattan.”

Actress and model Audrey Munson poses for photographer Sholin. A side profile, she sits with one leg up and her arms clasped around that leg. A white, gauzy sheet covers her from breasts to feet. With no background, she is the only thing drawing the eye of the viewer, yet she looks to the side, slightly aloof as if thinking of other things.
Oscar H. Sholin, 1895-1953. Actress and model Audrey Munson posing in draped cloth. Gelatin silver print with ink and gouache, 1917. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

As the Beaux-Arts style grew in popularity and spread west, Audrey followed and her likeness soon began to adorn capitol buildings, halls and monuments on that coast.  In 1915, she posed for three-fifths of the sculptures featured in the expansive Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.  Once on the West Coast, the lure of the budding movie industry was irresistible and Audrey disrobed to play the role of an artist’s model in her first film, Inspiration. She appeared in several more films before Hollywood realized her talent for doing more than posing nude was limited.

Returning to New York City to her mother’s apartment, Audrey was looking forward to a bit of rest before beginning to model again. But things were about to get considerably more complicated. Dr. Walter Wilkins, the retired owner of the apartment building where she and her mother lived, began stopping by frequently to check on things and chat. Whether Audrey encouraged that is not known, but his attention to her steadily increased. But who could have anticipated that on a cold February night in 1919, Dr. Wilkins would murder his own wife with a hammer and lead pipe! Taken into custody and interrogated, the police found Wilkins to be obsessed with Audrey and irrational. His admitted goal was to make room in his life for Audrey.

Audrey and her mother happened to be out of town at the time of the murder, but police brought Audrey in for questioning.  Audrey denied any involvement with Wilkins but, given her “star” status, the press had a field day with the story. At the trial, Wilkins was found guilty and sentenced to death. Not long after, he was found hanged in his cell. Despite finding no clear evidence implicating Audrey in the horrific murder, the publicity surrounding the case and the subsequent trial ruined her career in New York.

Following the trial, Audrey and Kittie fled the city to get some distance from the gossip and humiliation. In the quiet countryside of upstate New York, Kittie supported them by selling kitchen utensils door-to-door. Country life and a return to poverty did not set well with Audrey, who was accustomed to having fine things and being the center of attention. She certainly did not fit in and became increasingly depressed about her unfair fall from grace.  Now in her 30s, she also slowly began to realize that, by the standards of the day, she was too old to ever be sought by artists again.

In 1922, Audrey tried to commit suicide by drinking mercury bichloride.  She survived, but her mother felt sure that she would make a second attempt.  Kittie found a friend with a car to drive her and Audrey to Ogdenburg, NY where she admitted Audrey to the Saint Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane for the rest of her life. Due to hardship and distance, no one came to visit Audrey for over 60 years.

Audrey Munson, once Miss Manhattan, died virtually unknown at the age of 104 on Feb. 20, 1996 in her room at the hospital and was buried in an unmarked grave.

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