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.