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It Was Not Very Fun Being America’s First Supermodel

Audrey Munson ended her career early, in scandal and mania, but she can still be seen all around New York.

The Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial
The Isidor and Ida Straus Memorial
Chavie Lieber

There’s a certain contract that many women enter into with society that dictates that if only we are beautiful enough, we will be happy. That’s why we’re willing to spend a great deal on cosmetics and diet regimens and plastic surgery — because we think those things might buy us a happier life.

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For some people maybe that deal does work out! There are lots of beautiful women who seem to be having a pretty good time. Gisele Bundchen seems like she’s in a really good place right now!

But there are others for whom that deal doesn’t work out for at all, like, say, the American Venus, Audrey Munson. In 1915 she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. You may not have heard of Audrey Munson, but if you live in New York you’ve certainly seen her. Born in 1891, she went on to pose for 15 statues around the city, including the one outside the Plaza and one by the New York Public Library. There are depictions of her inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building. They’re everywhere.

The Manhattan Municipal Building. Image: DEA/S. Vannini/Getty

Early in her life, Audrey claimed that a gypsy prophesized that said she’d have seven lovers, marry the last one, and obtain great fortune, but then she would lose everything.

All of that ends up being true. Maybe. She might have had more than seven lovers.

Audrey was supposedly discovered when walking down the street with her mother when she was 15. The two were followed by a photographer who insisted on taking pictures of Audrey — in a way that seems kind of creepy today, but okay. Her mother eventually agreed, and the photographer passed those pictures on to his friend, the sculptor Isidor Konti. Konti explained to Audrey that he’d like to use her as a model but she’d have to pose in the "altogether."

Just a brief note: if you are 15 and someone asks you this, say no. It is not a good idea, and it does not work out remotely well for anyone except Audrey.

But it did — kind of — work out for her! Konti’s statue was featured at the Hotel Astor, and by 1913 newspaper articles were being written about how Audrey’s presence was everywhere. One declared, "All New York Bows to the Real Miss Manhattan."

If you’re wondering what her secret was, she had advice for women who wanted to by physically perfect. It was "eschew all athletic exercise! Athletics overdevelop certain muscles, destroying the natural symmetry of form."

We can all get on board with that.

By 1915 she was making films where she starred in the nude (she was the first American star to do so) and she became spectacularly famous.

The Pulitzer Fountain at The Plaza Hotel. Image: Peter Kramer/Getty

This wasn’t all really fun for Audrey. If you’ve heard stories about models being treated poorly today, well, it wasn’t good then, either. Audrey Munson recalled one time posing for a "distinguished artist" for a painting of her beneath a waterfall. When he dumped a basin of freezing water on her head she jumped away and refused to go back. He then threatened her with a gun and forced her to continue posing. "He shouted," she wrote "that I was the first model who suited his needs and he would kill me if I dared move until he finished." He did pay for her nursing during the attack of pneumonia that followed, which she seemed to feel made that situation okay.

Look, I don’t want to paint Audrey as this wholly wonderful person. After all, she had a taste for genetics that are totally bizarre by the standards of our time. She stated that "I have been myself a demon for pure races, declaring I would never marry any man unless of pure English or Danish blood, in order to have my children of that type." In 1921, she hosted a competition wherein she would marry for the betterment of the race. She ended up picking Andre Delacroix, who was neither English nor Danish, but, according to him "[my] figure and health are perfect and have been pronounced so by experts." If you’re curious about what he looked like, he was 5’7 and a half, so I guess all those guys bumping their height up to 6 feet on dating apps can just decide they’re perfect and stop doing that.

The Maine Memorial at Central Park. Image: New York Daily News Archive/Getty

They did not actually marry. Nor was Audrey married to a Marquis, or an Aviator, or the number of other men the press linked her with romantically.

In part that may have been because in 1919, she was a victim of scandal: her 67-year-old landlord beat his wife to death with a hammer so he would be free to pursue Miss Munson. Miss Munson hadn’t been into this at all — a few days before the murder she’d even moved out because he kept annoying her, telling her "never get married, you’ll lose your symmetrical figure." But that didn’t stop people from thinking that she was a femme fatale who drove men to murder.

"The Wilkins case had ruined my life," she claimed. "The public used to love and admire me. Now all I find is hate." She moved back home to her mother in Syracuse, where she tried to get a job as a librarian’s assistant and was turned down. She was turned down from every job. She went to newspaper editors asking them to let her work for 15 cents a day. Despite her numerous attempts to stage a comeback (like that time she promised to marry for the betterment of the race), she was living in a time when a scandal wasn’t just good press. It was life destroying.

Finally, in 1922, at the age of 31, she swallowed a solution of mercury in an attempt to commit suicide. It didn’t work. It did, however, cause her to go insane, and she began referring to herself as "Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Monson." Supposedly she also began setting fire to farms near her mother’s home, though she was sometimes seen roller-blading over lawns, which sounds pretty fun. Despite her mother’s claims that Audrey was just "nervous," she was finally institutionalized when she attacked a man to try to stop him from beating a horse. She lived in at the St. Lawrence State Hospital until her death in 1996.

Is all of this to tell you not to invest in beauty procedures because they won’t make you truly happy? No! Go for it. If anything it’s telling you not to drink mercury, because that’s a terrible idea. But it is a reminder that beauty can’t insure a happy life for anyone, even the American Venus. The only thing that can do that is a really positive gypsy prophecy.


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