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Audrey Munson – America’s First Supermodel and the first actress to appear nude in film spent the last 65 years of her life in a psychiatric asylum

Tijana Radeska

The American Venus, a sparkling diamond in the artists’ ateliers in Manhattan, was forgotten for seven decades before she passed away.

But for a few years, her beauty enchanted America. She was the “Miss Manhattan,” the only model unique enough to deserve such a nickname. Audrey Marie Munson is considered “America’s First Supermodel” and though she was initially an artist’s model, eventually appeared fully nude in films. As a matter of fact, she was the first movie star ever to do so.

Audrey Munson in 1922

If you are aware of the fact that stunt doubles are always made to look as similar as possible to the actor who plays the particular role, well then imagine this – the actual actors were chosen as doubles for Audrey Munson who acted only in the nude scenes.

It looks like America couldn’t resist the sight of her. Audrey’s first movie was the 1915 film Inspiration. It is a silent movie about a sculptor who searches for the perfect model to inspire him. He discovers Audrey, a poverty-stricken girl who he pursues as his model and artistic muse.

Jane Thomas, an actress who resembled Audrey, was hired by the studio to perform in the acting scenes, while Miss Manhattan did only the nude modeling scenes. Even though critics were divided, Inspiration was a box office success. Unfortunately, it is believed that all copies of the movie had been lost.

Promotional brochure for Inspiration, 1915

 

Promotional brochure interior for the movie Inspiration

In 1916, Audrey appeared in the film Purity, which is the only surviving movie of all four she appeared in. Purity was rediscovered in 1993in a French pornography collection and was obtained by the French national cinema archive. Before her film career, Audrey was the model for 12 prominent sculptures around New York City.

Audrey also posed for more than half of the statues exhibited at the Panama–Pacific Exposition in 1915.

A. Stirling Calder at work on the Star Maiden (1913). Audrey Munson was the model

“Long after she and everyone else of this generation shall have become dust, Audrey Munson, who posed for three-fifths of all the statuary of the Panama–Pacific Exposition, will live in the bronzes and canvasses of the art centers of the world”. – New Oxford Item, April 1, 1915

And yet, it was only for those few years of her life that she enjoyed fame and success. Audrey was born in 1891, in Rochester, New York, and lived a normal life until she turned 17 and moved to New York City. Her parents divorced when she was a child, and Audrey lived with her mother. She hoped to become an actress in New York and appeared on Broadway as a footman in The Boy and The Girl in 1909. She appeared in two more plays, but fame didn’t come through the theater.

It happened while she was window-shopping with her mother and was spotted by the photographer Felix Benedict Herzog. He asked her to pose for him at his studio on Broadway where he introduced her to his friends and to the art world.

At the time, the sculptor Isidore Konti asked Audrey to pose for his work-in-progress, Three Graces, a sculpture for the Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Astor in New York’s Times Square.

Star Maiden (1913–15), Oakland Museum, Oakland, CA. A 1980s bronze casting is at the Citicorp Center, San Francisco, California

She was busy working as she was in high demand as a model for many artists. In 1915, Alexander Stirling Calder chose Audrey to pose for a sculpture to be exhibited at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. Miss Manhattan ultimately posed for literally three-fifths of the sculptures created for the event. Consequently, she earned the new nickname “Panama-Pacific Girl.”
Between 1915 and 1917, the Panama-Pacific Girl lived in Santa Barbara, trying to pursue her movie career, but she eventually returned to New York in early 1917 where she mingled with the artistic elite of the city. Her mother pressured the beauty to marry Hermann Oelrichs Jr., an heir to “Comstock Lode” and the richest bachelor in America at the time.

What happened next is unclear, but Munson eventually sent a letter to the US State Department in which she blamed Oelrichs for being a member of a pro-German network that had conspired to sabotage her film career. She also said that she intended to leave for Europe and that she would restart her acting career in England.

In the meantime, Audrey Munson and her mother were living in a Manhattan boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins. Apparently, Dr. Wilkins fell in love with Munson and murdered his wife so that he would available for marriage. He was tried and found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair, but he hanged himself in his prison cell. The two women left New York but were traced in Toronto, in Canada and questioned by agents from the Burns Detective Agency there. Audrey insisted she had never been romantically involved with Wilkins.

Audrey Munson

The first supermodel of America, Miss Manhattan, the Panama-Pacific girl, Audrey Munson couldn’t even find a job by 1920, and she wasn’t even 30.

It is believed that Audrey was the model for the Mercury dime by Adolph Alexander Weinman

She had returned to New York with her mother who supported her by selling kitchen utensils. In 1921, Munson appeared in a movie based on her life story Heedless Moths, for which she was given a $27,500 check that she later claimed was invalid. In 2007, The New York Times cited a 1921 article:

“What becomes of the artists’ models? 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, her very abandonment of draperies accentuating rather than diminishing her modesty and purity, and asked themselves the question, “Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful?” – “The Girl Beneath the Gilding,” by Saki Knafo, published December 9, 2007, New York Times.

Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial (1913) by Augustus Lukeman. Photo credit

In 1922, Audrey attempted suicide by swallowing a solution of bichloride of mercury. In 1931, her mother petitioned a judge for Audrey to be committed to a lunatic asylum. She was admitted to St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg and remained there for 65 years.
America’s first supermodel had no visitors at the hospital until 1984, when she was found by a half-niece, Darlene Bradley. Audrey Munson died in the same hospital in 1996, at the age of 104.