Audrey Munson's career began like a fairy tale. Her life ended like an existential horror movie.
While it's unlikely that you've ever seen any of Munson's films (she appeared in four silent movies, all thought lost until recently, when one was discovered in a French archive) you may have seen her face - at least if you've ever been to New York City. Munson's career began as a sculptor's model, and her likeness is enshrined in at least 15 statues dotting the island of Manhattan. Perhaps the most notable is the USS Maine Monument at Columbus Circle, or the golden statue Civic Fame atop the Manhattan Municipal Building (most famous for movie nerds as where the Ecto-1 drives when visiting the Mayor in Ghostbusters). She's also immortalized in dozens of other sculptures around the country, and her figure made up 75% of the female sculptures at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 (the World's Fair, essentially).
Civic Fame, atop the Manhattan Municipal Building
Munson and her recently divorced mother arrived in New York City (either from upstate New York or Rhode Island, accounts vary) in 1906. Munson was 15 and dreamed of being a dancer; one day while walking the streets she met a photographer who, struck by her beauty, took her on as a model. The photographer introduced Munson to the famed sculptor Isidor Konti, and from there she quickly became one of the most sought-after models in all of New York. She was a socialite and a media darling.
In 1915 Munson moved to California, probably on the heels of her experience modeling for the Pan Pacific Exposition statues. New to Hollywood she broke a major barrier, becoming the first nude woman to appear in an American movie. This may require a bit of explanation: as you would expect, one of the first things to be made using a film camera was pornography. In this case it was a recording of a striptease in 1899, with the earliest record of a hardcore porn film in 1908. By the time that Munson was in California there was already a stag film industry, possibly located in South America but definitely also taking advantage of the young girls moving out to California.
Munson in Inspiration, a lost film from 1915
Munson's breakthrough was to be the first naked woman in a non-porn movie. The movie was Inspiration, and Munson was cast as a sculptor's model. In the film she appears naked a number of times, re-enacting famous poses from paintings. The mixture of high art and nudity forced the censors to back off, and Munson's future films were all in the same vein - young girl disrobes as a high art model. The four movies were thought lost, but apparently a single copy of Purity exists - although it has not been shown to the public. The film's synopsis gives you a sense of what Munson's films were like:
Purity (Munson), a simple country girl, comes to the city and is hired as an artist's model. A young poet becomes obsessed with her, and is distraught when he learns she has been posing nude. But his distress is diminished when he finds that she intends to use her income from modeling to publish his poetry.
The movies were successes (I found a San Francisco newspaper article touting the arrival of Purity at local theaters, claiming thousands were turned away during the New York run), but Munson moved back to New York in 1919. In 1921 she made one last movie, Heedless Moths, which is notable for a couple of things. It's another movie that has Munson playing a model - this time herself - but Munson contributed to the story this time. And Hedda Hopper, later to become Hollywood's nastiest gossip columnist, also stars.
Munson in Heedless Moths, her final film, also lost.
Munson and her mother ended up staying with a wealthy Long Island doctor and his wife; after a while the wife began to suspect her husband had fallen for the famous model. She kicked the Munsons out; not long after the wife turned up murdered. Her husband was convicted, despite claiming burglars had done the crime, and he hung himself in his jail cell.
During the 20s Munson wrote a series of articles for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal American, mostly about modeling and modern standards of beauty. “All girls cannot be perfect 36s, with bodies of mystic warmth and plastic marble effect, colored with rose and a dash of flame,” she wrote. “Of course not.”
In another article she considered her own legacy: “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?’”
One of Munson's columns in the New York Journal American.
Not long after, things began to get bad for Munson. The fallout from the murder case had destroyed her career, and she and her mother returned to upstate New York, living in a town called Mexico. Munson began claiming she was engaged and would become a Baroness. In 1922 she attempted suicide by poisoning herself; this sparked a media frenzy and the tabloids of the time investigated her beau but couldn't find any such person in the world. She seemed to have made him up.
Once the center of attention, Munson began staying home, avoiding others. A series of barn-burnings in her town aroused suspicion, and in 1931 she found herself in front of a local judge. He sentenced her to be incarcerated in an insane asylum... where she would spend the next SIXTY-FIVE YEARS. Audrey Munson died in 1996, aged 105.
Munson was suffering from depression and possibly schizophrenia; in modern times she would have been treated simply with medication. In her own time it was a life sentence. She was 39 years old when she entered that asylum - she lived more than half her life locked away as a madwoman. She lived an entire lifetime locked away.
Immortalized in stone during her lifetime, Munson today is anonymous in death. She was buried in her father's cemetery plot in an unmarked grave.
Audrey Munson in Purity, believed to be her only surviving film.
Note: some of the dates and details of Munson's life are hard to nail down. Please excuse any minor inaccuracies.