Audrey Munson with photographer Arnold Genthe’s cat Buzzer, 1915. Image from Library of Congress.
She adorns New York City in bronze, gold and stone. You’ve walked by her in the streets, but never knew her name. Meet Audrey Munson, fabulous New York woman who met a decidedly unfabulous end.
Audrey Munson was America’s first supermodel; the personification of the nation’s ideals and dreams. Gilded Age sculptors carved her form into statues for the city’s institutions and monuments.
Downtown, Audrey Munson stands 25 feet tall on top of the Manhattan Municipal Building, constructed as an administrative site for New York’s consolidated boroughs. As Civic Fame, a splendidly gilded figure in Classical dress by Adolph Weinman, Audrey holds aloft a crown with five towers, representing the five boroughs. Here, she is Manhattan’s tallest statue, second in New York only to her sister, the Statue of Liberty, offshore.
Midtown, Audrey is depicted in the buff and in granite as the personification of Beauty by Frederick MacMonnies, a Brooklyn sculptor. In this form, her voluptuous figure decorates the facade of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street.
Across town at Columbus Circle, Audrey is a stern and heavily garbed figure. Here, she serves as the model for Attilio Piccirilli‘s gilded centerpiece for the USS Maine Monument atop the pylon of Merchants’ Gate at the southwest entrance to Central Park.
Uptown, at Broadway and 106th Street, a bronze Audrey stretches languidly as a water nymph overlooking a small fountain. Here, she represents Memory in Henry Augustus Lukeman’s sculpture at the Isidor & Ida Straus Memorial. The statue and pocket park are dedicated in memory of the one-time U.S. Congressman and co-owner of Macy’s department store, Straus and his wife who lived on Broadway, one block south of the park. The couple perished on the maiden voyage of RMS Titanic, when Ida refused to board a lifeboat without her husband. Isidor’s body was recovered from sea, but Ida was never found. The choice of a water nymph belies their watery end.
Ten blocks uptown is Audrey at her most staid. She is the centerpiece of the Columbia University campus, a bronze statue in the form of Athena by sculptor Arthur Chester French. Grandly representing Alma Mater, Audrey sits on the steps of the Low Memorial Library where each incoming class is tasked with finding the owl in the voluminous folds of her robes. Columbia tradition has it that the student who finds the owl first will graduate as class valedictorian.
Audrey Munson worked her way up the artistic food chain from a model for photographers, to posing for illustrators, then painters, and finally posing for sculptors. As a model who also painted, Audrey considered herself to be an artist, listing herself as such in the 1916 New York City directory when she was living at 288 West 70th Street. At this time, Cubism, Futurism and Impressionism were all making their mark on artistic production. Audrey described these artists as “just crazy persons, capitalizing on their insanities.”
Too bad for Audrey, her own mental capacities were about to be tested – and the result would be tragic. As a woman whose body was the source of her own and others’ inspiration and creativity, scandals followed her and caused her mental breakdown. At the age of 39, Audrey Munson was committed to an institution for the insane in upstate New York. Here, she died, 65 years later, at the age of 104 – still a fabulous New York woman.
Next, read A Tale of the Titanic: In Their Death They Were Not Divided about the Straus Memorial and watch Inside Video Look of the New York Municipal Building, One of NYC’s First Skyscrapers.