Miss Manhattan

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: All over New York City there are semi-clothed or nude women. And they are so baked into New York City architecture that we don’t even see them. For example, when you enter the New York Public Library, on the left hand side, there’s a sculpture of a young woman leaning against a horse.

AT: On 59th & 5th there’s a statue of a woman holding a basket of fruit. On 107th St. & Broadway, there’s a woman reclining on a bed.

RM: That’s former New Yorker Avery Trufelman.

AT: At 100th & Riverside Drive, a stone woman sits in a chair with a child; and on the very top of the New York municipal building, there’s a golden woman holding a crown.

RM: And these women are actually the same woman.

AT: Audrey Munson was the most famous artist model in the United States.

RM: Over 30 statues that the Met are made in her likeness and she adorns dozens of memorials and bridges and regal buildings all over New York City.

AG: She basically was the equivalent of a supermodel at the time.

AT: This is Andrea Geyer, an artist herself and author of Queen of The Artist’s Studios, The story of Audrey Munson.

AG: Everybody knew who she was. Her picture was in the papers, and if one trusts legend like all, every boy had a crush on her. She was a very desired young woman.

AT: In her lifetime, she would go on to decorate buildings and memorials all over the United States. Before becoming a movie star, and eventually getting embroiled in a sensational murder scandal.

RM: And although Audrey Munson’s body has been immortalized in iron and marble, her name is mostly forgotten. But she was a prolific writer and penned a series of articles telling her life in her own words; sometimes in the third person.

(Audrey) Where 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

AT: Like so many supermodels that would come after her, Audrey Marie Munson was scouted on the streets of New York City, in 1906.

RM: Audrey’s mother and father were divorced, which was very unusual at the time. And her mother decided to get a fresh start in the big city. Audrey was 15, enrolled in music school, and one day….

AG: She was picked up on the street by a photographer, when she walked around with her mother.

AT: This photographer gave Audrey his card and asked if she would pose for some portraits. Her mom was invited to, so intentions were good. These photos were fully clothed affairs.

AG: Audrey by chance was picked up as a model, and then in the studio proved that she was somebody who was very good with the camera; very good in creating and generating poses.

RM: This photographer recommended that Audrey meet a friend of his, the famous sculptor Isidore Konti.

AT: At first Konti thought he didn’t really need Audrey, but as Audrey herself later recalled…

(Audrey) Suddenly he rose from the table, walked about me, asked me to stand and walk. And then said that he thought he could use me. “But”, said Mr Konti, “You will have to pose in the altogether.”

RM: Posing in “The Altogether” meant posing naked. Audrey’s mother consented.

AG: If they would have been wealthy people, I don’t think her mother would have let her pose in the nude.

AT: From that encounter, the resulting sculpture was The Three Muses. Three nude women with their arms around each other; all three modeled after Audrey. For decades the sculpture was in the lobby of the Hotel Astor.

RM: Audrey called the statue quote, “a souvenir of my mother’s consent.” And this was the first of many sculptures that she would model for Isidore Konti.

AT: Audrey began to work for many other famous artists in New York. As her reputation grew, she was recommended from studio to studio and slowly, her likeness appeared mostly naked or half naked, all over the city. in 1913, The New York Sun dubbed her “Miss Manhattan.”

RM: But Audrey is not always recognizable in sculpture. Her figure is different in different artist’s eyes. Sometimes she’s lithe, sometimes she’s fuller from sculpture to sculpture, there are no obvious giveaways that you’re looking at Audrey’s body, the clues are in her face.

AG: It’s the expressions of the eyes, and the mouth and nose. Like, once you know how she looks you can see her everywhere, it’s really fascinating. I would like, look at sculptures at the Met and be like, “that looks like her.” and then research and be, yeah be right; that was her.

AT: Before it was easy for artists to snap a reference picture, Audrey could pose in a way that could evoke a mood.

AG: She must have been a very empathetic person. She could really translate emotion fully into her body. Audrey could hold the same pose for hours, sometimes for an entire day. And she worked closely with the artists, learning their temperaments, familiarizing herself with their past work. She thought of herself as a collaborator. As she told The New York Herald in 1915:

(Audrey) Study, yes indeed I do. Every model who is a real success must study the work of the person’s she is with.

AT: Audrey’s unique set of skills earned her a decent salary. About 35.00 a week, which today would be like 800.00 a week. She made enough to give a day’s salary to the suffragists movement, which was in full swing around her. Audrey was an independent, confident woman at a good time to be a sculpture model.

RM: Because the architecture that was in vogue in the United States from the end of the Nineteenth century through World War I was the Beaux-Arts style. And this style required a lot of sculptures and detailed ornamentation.

KM: It was a great time in many ways to be an artist.

AT: This is architectural historian Karen McNeil.

KM: Whether you’re an architect, a sculptor, a painter, a craftsperson making lamps…

RM: You’ve seen Beaux-Arts style architecture. Virtually all state capitals are in this style. That image of an authoritative building with columns and statues all around, maybe a big dome. That’s Beaux-Art.

AT: The style is a cross between like, stately Greek Parthenon, and flowery French Versailles.

KM: So a Beaux-Art building, it’s a Greek temple but then you do have the sculptures on it, you do have the frieze work, you do have all of this ornamental detail that is integral to the building

AT: And architecture and sculpture are really bound together in this movement.

KM: When you take the decorative elements off of a Beaux-Art building, it starts looking weird. The dimensions don’t quite work anymore.

AT: But also, the sculptures are signs of the buildings purpose, they’re very overtly representational. Like in a private home the statues are of domestic scenes, or on a market they’re of harvest and eating. For a government building say, San Francisco City Hall….

KM: It’s all going to tell us about, this is the seat of government, and California’s so great and fabulous and, but it’s all going to be allegorical.

AT: In a government building you might find a statue of a woman holding an olive branch, or the scales of justice, representing the state, liberty, truth; you name it.

KM: Just a women placed on this pedestal of virtue, morality, motherhood, nurturing, strength.

RM: Women decorated the seat of power, they didn’t sit in it.

AT: Why’s it gonna be a lady?

KM: Because women are pure. You know woman with a spear? She would only use that spear, to really defend her kids. Right? So it has to be female.

RM: And for several years, this pure uncorrupt symbol of virtue in the US was Audrey Munson. She was everywhere. At the World’s Fair in 1915 held in San Francisco, Audrey posed for 3/4 of the statues on the premises.

EG: Her face and body appeared everywhere throughout the grounds.

AT: That’s Erin Garcia of the California Historical Society. She curated an exhibit about the 1915 Panama Pacific exposition in San Francisco where Audrey Munson was dubbed, “The Exposition Girl.”

EG:: In the Court of Four Seasons she was the season.

RM: She was at the base of the Fountain of Energy.

EG: She was rain, she was the Priestess of Culture at the Palace of Fine Art.

AT: She posed for 91 figures meant to represent the stars.

EG: She was all over the place.

RM: At about 24 years old, Miss Manhattan had won the West. And there was a new form of art entering the scene; Cinema. The obvious next stop for Audrey Munson was Hollywood.

AT: And Hollywood was unfortunately, the beginning of the end for Audrey Munson.

EG: She is cast in a few films after the exposition; but in every case she was cast as a nude model. As an artist’s model and she appears nude.

RM: Audrey was actually the first leading woman in Hollywood to appear naked on film.

AT: And Audrey may have been a good model, but she honestly wasn’t much of an actress. In a few of her films she actually had an acting double who would basically do everything except the naked posing. And the movies didn’t really end up being worth it for her financially, she was paid very little.

EG: And none of them seem to have been critical successes. That might have been OK for her, her career might have survived that; but then unfortunately she was involved in a murder scandal.

AT: Audrey & her mother had an apartment in New York. And their landlord, Dr Wilkins fell in love with Audrey.

EG: Her landlord apparently became obsessed with her and killed his wife so that he could be with Audrey.

RM: Being with Audrey was a one sided delusion. Audrey had nothing to do with the murder or any kind of romance with Dr Wilkins.

EG: She and her mother had actually moved out of the home before this happened. But they were questioned, they had to testify in court, and they were sort of dragged through the mud in the press.

AT: The so-called Wilkins case became a phenomenal media scandal. As Audrey told the Daily Variety in 1920..

(Audrey) The Wilkins case ruined my career, I’ll never account for anything ever again. From loving and admiring me; the public seems to have grown to hate me.

RM: Audrey couldn’t find any work; in film or in artist’s studios.

AT: But the decline of Audrey’s career wasn’t just because of the Wilkins scandal. She was, after all, totally innocent. There were just a lot of factors changing in the culture around her. For one, the Beaux-Art style wasn’t very popular anymore.

EG: The Beaux-Art style came out of Europe, and there was this thing called World War I, where Western Europe kind of fell apart. And so there was a questioning about whether or not we want to be using that kind of symbolism.

AT: Both European and American architects were trending toward modernism; away from the old world Beaux-Arts precedents.

RM: Also the economics of Beaux-Arts style were impossible

EG: It became increasingly expensive to construct these buildings and pay for all of the artists and artisans to design all the elements of the building and install it.

AT: The architectural world didn’t need Audrey like it used to. And also at 30, she was aging out of the business.

RM: Audrey’s 15 year career as an artist model had come to an end and her money started to run out.

AT: She moved upstate with her mother, who cleaned homes to support them both as they tried to carve out a place for themselves in the small rural town of Mexico, New York.

AG: It’s not a kind of open easy going place.

RM: Andrea Geyer went up there to talk to people about Audrey.

AG: Nobody was unfriendly to me, but there’s something about these close knit communities where as a stranger, you don’t feel welcomed.

AT: Audrey could not get used to small town life. Her whole adulthood she had been traveling around the country, studying art, working with artists, engaging in intellectual discussions, and wearing fine clothes. And suddenly she lost it all.

RM: Well, she still had the clothes.

AG: People told me she was very flamboyant. She liked to dress up in colorful garments. I mean I’m sure she had a pretty impressive wardrobe that was very outlandish for a small community.

AT: But it wasn’t just Audrey’s style that set her apart.

AG: She would dress up on that and then, part of her workout routine in the city was roller skating. So you know, you can imagine a beautiful woman with long hair and a turban on her head, you know, trying to roller skate on a country… unpaved country road; that was quite a scene.

RM: The town knew Audrey as “that crazy woman who used to get naked for money.” Parents would close their windows whenever she came rollerskating by.

AG: The kids of course were totally fascinated with her, but there was a general consensus that she was crazy just because she was different. So it’s not hard to imagine why she would have fallen into a depression.

RM: And on May 27th, 1922 Audrey Munson attempted suicide by swallowing poison.

AG: I don’t know how committed her suicide attempt was. Maybe it was just an expression of being somewhere at the end of her line.

AT: After her failed suicide attempt, several years went by. And Audrey’s mother was struggling to provide for her depressed daughter and she just couldn’t do it anymore.

RM: On Audrey Munson’s 40th birthday, June 8, 1931, Her mother checked her into the state mental institution.

AG: At that time, it was extremely common for families to put relatives into these institutions in moments of of financial hardship where they felt they couldn’t care for a person.

AT: Audrey remained in the institution into her 90’s. Then she was put in a nursing home about 30 miles up the road.

AG: But this home for the elderly was situated on this little 4 lane highway.

RM: And on the other side of the highway was a little strip mall, which had a bar.

AG: And she was known to sneak out of the home for the elderly and sneak across the 4 lane highway to spend her evenings at the bar, ordering drinks and telling stories of her times as a model and as an actress.

AT: They could not stop this 90-something, elegant older woman from running across 4 lanes of traffic to go to the bar.

AG: It sadly meant that they put her back into the mental institution where she you know, she spent the rest of her life.

RM: Audrey Munson lived just short of her 105th birthday. She died in 1996. This public body that once represented truth, civic fame, memory, the universe and the stars, was hidden away for nearly two 2/3 of her life. But that 1/3, that glorious third, immortalized her, and placed her all over American cities; perched high, quietly, out of sight, staring down at us.

(Audrey) I’m wondering if many of my readers have not stood before a masterpiece of lovely sculpture or remarkable painting of a young girl 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.

99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman. With Katie MIngle, Sam Greenspan,
Kurt Kohlstedt, Delaney Hall, Sharif Youssef and me Roman Mars. All Audrey Munson quotes unless otherwise noted were taken from a tell all series called ‘Queen of The Artist Studios’ that Munson wrote for The New York American in 1921. Audrey Munson was voiced by Kara Rose de Fabio.
00:15:55
This story was scored with original music by Sean Reale of the band Little Teeth. His website is seanreale.com We are a production of 99% Invisible Inc. A project of 91.7 KALW San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, an architecture and interiors firm in beautiful, downtown Oakland California.

Comments (12)

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  1. Georgia

    LOVED this story!!! LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE!!

    I will never walk down the streets of NYC the same again.

  2. Kyle SFHandyman

    This is a sad story. I’ve seen Star Maiden at the Crocker Bank in Downtown San Francisco. It is really beautiful.

    And of course I’ve always loved the Weeping Women on top of the Colonnade of the Palace of Fine Arts.

    Alma Spreckles was the model for the sculpture atop the Dewey Monument in Union Square. She became the wife of one of the wealthiest men on the West Coast because he saw her in sculpture and asked to meet her. I won’t try to tell her story here as it is long and fascinating and deserves more than a comment on a blog. She was a truly remarkable woman. I encourage you to read her Biography “Big Alma”. Some topics: Royalty, Rodin, the Navy, Architecture, Swearing, Syphillis, Ships, Sugar, Hawaii, Museums, Patronage, Lesbian Dancers, Paris, …

  3. Marty Merritt

    Interesting. I had just heard about Audrey Munson for the first time last week in the wonderful episode titled “Sex in Monochrome” of the impressive Secret History of Hollywood podcast. What happened to her is a real tragedy and a profound injustice. Institutionalized for 65 years? I can’t even imagine. Her story deserves wider notice for sure.

  4. man_who_was_Thursday

    Thank you for this lovely, touching piece on Audrey Munson. I think of her as my guardian angel, all around New York.

    I didn’t know she supported the Suffrage movement!

  5. ChristineU

    Excellent episode; thank you. I’m happy to see there’s so much information about her online, now that I’ve been reminded to look for the name.

  6. Trevor

    Does anybody know of a map of her statues in NYC? Would love to do a walking tour around town on a nice weekend. Haven’t been able to find one on Google.

  7. Brian

    Funny how an era that we consider to be incredibly prudish and repressed could produce so much nude artwork — art that would probably be far more controversial if it were created today.

    Anyway, a very sad and moving story. But Audrey will apparently have the last laugh… as her form will continue to grace the cities of America long after anyone living today is gone.

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