Walking around New York City, it’s hard to avoid Audrey Munson. The girl is everywhere, gazing down on us from above. She has been holding vigil over Manhattan for generations and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come. But hardly anyone knows who she is.
Audrey Marie Munson was born June 8, 1891, in Rochester, New York. Her parents, Edgar and Katherine, divorced when Audrey was young, and she moved with her mother to New York City. It was there that, in 1906, 15-year-old Audrey was noticed by photographer Ralph Draper. Captivated by her looks, he presented the girl to his noted sculptor friend Isidore Konti, who was similarly taken under her spell.
She was beautiful; there is no denying that. And her looks captured the zeitgeist of her day: strong but feminine, pale but with lively rosey skin. For the next near-decade, Audrey posed for a litany of different works of art. Her face was slathered onto canvas, woven into tapestries, and chiseled out of stone.
When wealthy patrons needed an angel for their mausoleum, Audrey sprouted wings. When the Hotel Astor on Times Square wanted a statue of The Three Graces for their lobby, Audrey danced as a trio. When Wisconsin built a new capitol building, Audrey stood atop its dome. When a monument to the USS Maine was commissioned, Audrey graced its base in stone and its top in gold. And when the Municipal Building was constructed in 1913 to house Greater New York’s city government, a 25-foot-tall Audrey was perched 580 feet above the city streets.
Audrey was everywhere. She was the go-to model for virtually every respected artist in early-20th-century America. And her supple, often-nude body did not fail to scandalize. When Joseph Pulitzer bequeathed money to the city for the construction of a fountain at 59th Street and 5th Avenue, Audrey was transformed into a bronze of the Roman goddess Pomona. Her bare buttocks faced directly toward the mansion of Alice Vanderbilt, who became so upset at the view that she ordered her bedroom moved to the opposite side of the house.
By 1915, Audrey was so popular as a model that she was chosen to be the muse for almost all carvings at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. Her face and body adorned virtually every building at the fair, and she became an overnight sensation. Riding her wave of increased fame, Audrey moved to California from New York, where she got involved in the budding motion picture industry.
In 1915, she starred in her first film, entitled “Inspiration.” Portraying an artist’s muse in the silent film, Audrey became the first woman to appear fully nude in a non-pornographic moving picture.
By 1919, Audrey had moved back to New York to continue modeling. She lived with her mother in a boarding house owned by Dr. Walter Wilkins on West 65th Street. Wilkins became infatuated with Audrey, causing his jealous wife Julia to kick the girl and her mother out of the house. That February, Julia Wilkins was found dead in their home on Long Island.
Dr. Wilkins insisted that he and his wife had returned home from a trip to the city and found 3 burglars in the house. These men knocked him unconscious and murdered his wife. Investigators searched for months, trying to find these myterious burglars. Eventually, however, evidence mounted against Dr. Wilkins, and rumors of his love for Audrey Munson began to swirl. Audrey and her mother had vanished during the preceding manhunt, and the call was soon put out that they were wanted for questioning in the case.
The two women were eventually found in Toronto and interrogated, but no legal fault could be found with either. The good doctor, however, was not so lucky. Accused of his wife’s murder, he went into hiding in Baltimore. After a week, though, he turned himself in and was arrested at Penn Station in Manhattan.
His trial began on June 9th, and on the afternoon of June 28th, 1919, Dr. Walter Keene Wilkins was convicted of murder in the first degree, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The very next day, however, at Nassau County Jail, Wilkins used a length of rope to hang himself in the prison bathroom.
The Wilkins murder scandal destroyed Audrey Munson’s reputation. Incapable of finding modeling or acting work, she moved with her mother back to her small hometown of Mexico, New York, where she got a job selling kitchen utensils door-to-door. On May 27, 1922, a despondent Audrey took 4 capsules of mercury bichloride in an attempted suicide. She was rushed to a hospital in Syracuse, where her life was spared.
But Audrey was not well. Upon awakening, she insisted that she had been engaged to a man named Joseph J. Stevenson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and that he had broken off the engagement, prompting her suicide attempt. No such man could be found to exist, however. And within a few days of her recovery, she started referring to herself as “Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Monson,” and claimed that “powerful influences” were preventing her from getting jobs in the motion picture industry.
Healthy physically, Audrey’s mental state continued to deteriorate, and in 1931, a judge ordered her committed to the Saint Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg, New York. There she stayed for the next 65 years. She died at age 105 on February 20, 1996.
An ancient, broken woman, barely a ripple went through the news media as she was laid to rest beneath an inauspicious grave in New Haven, New York. The girl once dubbed “Miss Manhattan,” whose regal face still holds court above almost every corner of New York City, died in obscurity, remembered only in the cold stone and bronze so taken for granted by so many.
Poor Audrey. These stories of fame gained then lost are almost unbearably poignant but at least she did taste fame and adoration which not many do. To live 65 years in a psychiatric hospital only adds to the tragic circumstances of this woman’s life
Look up Harriet Hubbard Ayer who was put away in an insane asylum in 1893 after creating the first cosmetic business (Recamier Preparations, 1886) owned and operated by a woman. She, however, escaped after 14 months, recuperated, and became the highest paid woman journalist working for Joseph Pulitzer’s NY World.
65 years?!? Jesus! It’d be interesting to see if they have a visitors log on record.
I will attest to her having visitors for the last 12+ yrs of her life. My Mother (Audrey’s niece) researched, at the inquiry of my failing health grandfather, Harold Munson. He was Audrey’s youngest half-brother, almost 30 yrs her junior, and was shocked to find his sister Audrey still alive. There’s sooooo, much more to her story then space and time will allow me to provide here. Lastly, posts that Aunt Audrey is buried in a humble unmarked plot are grossly UNTRUE. She was lovely laid to rest btwn my Great-Grandfather (her father) Edgar and my Great-Grandmother Cora. Her grave is there, but unmarked as to preserve her privacy, which was very important to her through 2/3+ of her life.
Thank you, Todd, for such a personal account of Audrey’s life! I can honestly say that her story was among my favorites to research, as there seemed to be just so much more to the story than what was on the surface! And you’ve proven my suspicions correct! It finally adds a bit of optimism to what had previously been a rather melancholy feeling I got every time I saw one of her likenesses around the city. Thanks again, Todd.
I’m a New York City tour guide. I talk about Civic Fame and Pomona. Audrey Muson’s life story is just as important than the stutues that she represented. She was an amazing woman. Thanks for the personal story.
reading your comment, its reassuring that she didnt die alone and had people who cared, visit her.
She was HIGHLY alert and aware of her rediscovery by her direct family long before she passed (near 15yrs). She LOVED small treats (candy) so we made CERTAIN that she was never again at a loss when her sweet tooth began to fester! FYI…she was stunningly beautiful with the purest white shimmering hair and the smoothest, unblemished skin into her late 90’s.
What a tragic story. Thank you for writing about her.
Civic Fame is supposed to be Manhattan’s largest statue, second only to the Statue of Liberty.
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Fascinating. I was unfamiliar with Audrey’s story. Thanks for enlightening me!
Fascinating – so glad I came across your blog.
Keith Thank you for a great historical story! I had no idea who she was…and yet her face is all over the place! I just love this! I’m working my way through all your blogs! Thank You again! You are fantastic! Please keep the great stories coming!
Thank you for reading! I’ve struggled to find time to write anything substantial for the blog lately (it’s a surprisingly time-consuming hobby!) but I promise I’ll try!
I read that Audrey was born in Rochester, NY but the newspaper clipping above says she was born elsewhere. Where was she born?
I believe she is sometimes incorrectly cited as having been born in Mexico NY due to the fact that she had family there. By all accounts that I can find, she was indeed born in Rochester.
Thanks for reading!
I came here from your story on Evelyn McHale as per your recommendation…poignant story, so horrid that her reputation was ruined forever – and that it seemed to cause or bring on a madness – we all know how mental health was then – who knows if she even needed to be there all that time! Thanks for sharing the story – my daughter visited New York last year and I researched things to see and do before her trip…never did the name Audrey Munson come up – even though as you say she is all over the city….odd. I love reading about obscure things and I like your tag line “history made interesting.” Hope there’s the odd teacher reading this!
Audrey may be represented in our local statue “Portlandia” although with a narrower nose. The rest of Portlandia’s face looks like the unfortunate Audrey Munson. http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3202/2654246721_05e86e3336_z.jpg
Indcredible is the fact, how times and people change. Then – the scandal broke her cereer. Today – it would probably even boost it and she would probably be perfectly well.
Thanks, Keith, for a great and sad true tale.
Only the innocent hide out in Toronto. 🙂
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This past Saturday I attended “The Pageant of the Masters.” An annual show in Laguna Beach, CA that recreates classic art on stage using live models and actors. During the performance a short biography of Audrey Munson was read to the audience. I found myself with my jaw hanging open as the narrator went deeper into her story. And when he told us that Audrey had lived her final 65 years in a mental hospital and passed away at the age of 104, the crowd of some 3,000 people GASPED as one. It was hard to hold back the tears. I am glad she will be a part of our world for many hundreds of years to come.
I forgot to mention that the statue they recreated was “Star Maiden.”
Oh, I would have absolutely loved to have been at this event. It still amazes me how often I see Audrey’s face around New York. She’s quite literally everywhere, and most people have never heard of her! Thanks for reading and for your great comments.
I attended “The Pageant of the Masters”, in Laguna Beach, CA, last night. They featured Audrey’s story and the statues that she posed for. I wanted to learn more about her so that’s how I found this site. I was wondering, are there any more recent photos of her? This is such an interesting story and it’s so sad. Glad that it ended with loved ones around! It’s time that someone made a movie about her life story!
Hi Pam, thanks for reading! Throughout my research of Audrey, I could find no photos from any time beyond her modeling days. I’m sure photos exist, and I’d be interested to see them if/when they turn up.