Audrey Munson: America’s first supermodel, who spent 64 years in an asylum

Though few know her name, the likeness of Audrey Munson appears all over the city of New York. Born in 1891, Munson was a supermodel in the context of the early twentieth century, when models weren’t photographed, but sculpted nude into statues for the great Beaux Arts architectural movement. The so called ‘American Venus’ features in 30 statues at the Metropolitan museum of art, appears in a grand piece of artwork at the White House, and has been immortalised in alabaster, stone and gold. She too has been painted numerous times and became the first woman to ever appear nude on film. With such a prolific record, it’s unusual that so few know her at all.

Munson was undoubtedly beautiful, scouted by a popular sculptor at only seventeen years old for her near perfect features and lithe, graceful form. After gaining the approval of her mother – who had moved her to New York to pursue a career for her in acting – she became an extremely sought after model. The country’s most celebrated artists invited her into their studios, Hollywood enlisted her to star in trailblazing films, and newspapers ran her first-person, tell-all articles to the delight of readers hungry for more insight into this captivating woman.

However, Munson was also – in my opinion – a feminist icon, who’s progressive, modern ideas about gender equality would have fit in far better in a 21st century social climate. Munson was unashamed to expose her naked body in a number of artistic contexts, in a time where modesty for a woman was absolutely crucial. She believed that the bare female form was not inherently impure or immodest, and that appearing so vulnerable in her natural state only enhanced her purity rather than diminishing it. She also fought to have the role of the female model recognised as a crucial part of the creative process, rather than being eclipsed by her male co-workers, and publicly exposed salary discrepancies between women and men. In her own words, Munson wrote the following;

In a successful play the principal actors and actresses who contribute to its success are given due praise…and such honours mean increases in salary and a step at least one notch higher on the road to fame and prosperity. Not so with the artist’s model. She remains ever anonymous. She is the tool with which the artist works…though she provides the inspiration for a masterpiece and is the direct cause of enriching the painter or sculptor.”

Ultimately though, in a story not uncommon throughout our patriarchal history, Munson faced her downfall at the hands of men; as she became involved in the scandals of those who had fallen for her beauty, and who drastically overstepped professional boundaries in a manner hauntingly reminiscent of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. During the production of a play, a unnamed yet powerful Broadway producer entered her private dressing room and made sexual advances towards her. In spite of the risk it posed to her career, she boldly stood her ground and rejected the lecher, stating “don’t touch me. I hate you. Your touch is repulsive to me. I would rather have a snake crawl over me than to feel your hand upon me.” It can only be inferred that Munson was appalled by this man’s entitlement to her body simply because she posed nude, and that Munson very much owned her own sexuality. However, this defiance was not well received. A few days later, Munson was told without explanation that the play was closing imminently.

Around this same time, in a shocking turn of events, Munson’s landlord murdered his wife, confessing that he had done so in a desperate bid to be with Munson; in spite of her denying having any relationship with him beyond their landlord-tenant relations. This too became national news, with Munson being blacklisted among the circles she previously moved through simply because of her involvement, and the rumours circling about the murder.

Despite having no part in the actions of these men, and merely being a victim in her own right, she from then on struggled to find work. It seemed that the second Munson began opening her mouth instead of simply opening her robe and standing pretty for sculptors and painters, her career was over, and the artistic medium that had justified her nude work was now casually forgotten. She was now seen as an impure woman, not the idealised household name she had been at her peak. Though thousands still admired the artwork bearing her likeness, her name was soiled in polite society, and her glamorous life began to deteriorate. Munson was quoted as saying around this time;

“I have been so desperate that I have gone to the newspaper offices and asked the editors to insert an account of my death. I thought that if poor Audrey Munson was out of the way, some of those who cared for her and her work might remember and be sorry. And I thought that, under another name, I might have a chance to work and be happy again.”

There’s a certain familiarity that many people can find in this remark. Celebrities who rise fast in their youth before disappearing into obscurity, people who were once at the top of their game before a scandal ripped away everything they knew, and perhaps just ordinary working-class people too, made redundant or fired from their jobs without a word of warning. It’s a situation known universally to be damaging to ones mental health. To be hopelessly out of work, particularly in the public eye, can be devastating.

Munson and her mother soon moved to Syracuse. Munson managed to acquire a low-paid job as a waitress, a far-cry from the lifestyle she’d become accustomed to. Here, she soon began to show signs of mental illness, including depression, paranoid delusions, and narcissistic personality disorder; though throughout her life she never received a formal diagnosis. She began acting eccentrically, believing that the world was out to get her. She called herself “Baroness Audrey Meri Munson-Munson,” and blamed her issues on Jewish people, with Vogue reporting that Munson once asked the US House of Representatives to create a law that would prevent her from being attacked “by the Hebrews.” Munson’s troubled mindset can in-fact be surmised by her own writing;

“Where is she now, this model who was so beautiful? What has been her reward? Is she happy and prosperous or is she sad and forlorn, her beauty gone, leaving only memories in the wake?”

In 1922, a year after Munson wrote these words, she attempted suicide at the age of only 31, feeling that her success had turned to ashes in her mouth. However, she was unsuccessful, and after a long battle with mental illness – and with her mother too sick to take care of her – she was eventually committed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane in Ogdensburg, New York. It was there that she died in 1996, having lived to the remarkable age of 104, and spending two-thirds of her life locked away from society.

It is often debated whether Munson was truly ill enough to be locked away for so long, as 19th-20th century asylums were notoriously difficult to get out of, a subject that has been explored by American Horror Story; Asylum. Audrey was trapped for 64 years, and had nobody to visit her after the death of her mother. However, maddened by her downfall from the pedestal of fame, she still saw herself as a star even then. When a nurse told her, “Audrey, you have dimples in your back!” Munson’s response was “Yes, they’re very precious. I can’t lose my dimples,” demonstrating an obsession with the vanity and beauty that had once brought her to success, now that all else had fallen away.

One would hope that what became of Audrey Munson could never happen in the 21st century. Her story is one plagued by the greed and entitlement of men, the silencing of women, and the drastic impact that this can have on mental health; but we are far less likely to condemn women like Audrey today. However, to this day when stars are deemed mentally ill (like Britney Spears, for example) they remain under legal conservatorships, placing the control of the women’s lives and assets in the hands of other people, and making the stars essentially children in the eyes of the court. They often continue to be milked for their content whilst having their autonomy stripped from them, just as Audrey was placed into confinement beyond her own wishes, where she was trapped indefinitely; the story of all too many mentally ill women who were lost in the old care system. It is important to note that no male celebrity has ended up in these conservatorships, just as far fewer men than women would be locked in Victorian asylums due to male behaviour being perceived as the standard for normality. The #MeToo movement has exposed the power imbalances faced by female artists like Audrey, and the ways in which saying ‘no’ can destroy a woman’s career. However, there is arguably still a huge problem in the way that we treat mentally ill women – including those in the public eye – and how people are taught to deal with the intense pressure to do something with your life, to be a star, to be the best, and how to handle setbacks, without succumbing to mental illness.

For over a decade, Audrey Munson was buried in an unmarked grave, in spite of her face being plastered in gold all over New York City. A campaign raising awareness of her story however was able to purchase a headstone to mark the spot where she now rests. Despite her shortcomings, Audrey Munson was brave, bold and a pioneer for women’s equality. With proper care and compassion, Munson could have recovered and been released into the community, where I’m certain her vitality would have led to great accomplishments over 64 years of wasted life. It is important that we now remember her as she was; as a beautiful and spirited woman who was unapologetically herself, unafraid of speaking up about societal injustice.

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