The Glamorous Life And Tragic Fall of Americas First Supermodel

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Shes the face of every famous statue from Americas Gilded Age and the first actress to appear nude in a Hollywood filmbut Audrey Munsons charmed life ended in tragedy.”>

When Audrey Munson was a girl of five, the Gypsy Queen Eliza came to the United States from England. Eliza Cooper was just eighteen but had reigned over 55,000 Roma since succeeding to the throne at the age of ten. Touring the country by train, Queen Eliza stopped in upstate New York to be hosted by Plato Bucklands thirty-five-strong Gypsy band in East Syracuse. A colorfully painted wagon carried her from the railroad station to the camp on Eastwood Heights, and she was installed with her maidservant in a white tent filled with bright new rugs. In place of a crown, she wore an intricate lace cap on her head.

Bands of gypsies passed through East Syracuse each summer, before their caravans headed south for the winter. They set up their tents on the heights outside the village or near the railroad freight yards. The Gypsy men, though renowned for thieving, earned an honest living from horse-trading and tied up their horses all around. The women sold basketwork and lace and read palms.

Queen Elizas presence provoked intense curiosity. Thousands of nearby residents turned up to catch a glimpse of Gypsy royalty. Many, believing superstitiously in the prophetic powers of the Romany women, crossed their palms with silver to have their fortunes told.

Audrey was taken to the Gypsy camp in East Syracuse by her mother as a child, possibly amid the excitement of the royal visit. She did not see the Gypsy queen. Queen Eliza stayed only thirty-six hours. Audrey was fascinated instead by the games the Gypsy children played amid the covered wagons. The tall, fierce men frightened her. But her mother insisted Audrey have her future read, and led her by the hand into the tent of a bronze-faced seeress.

The soothsayer looked on Audreys fresh beauty; then, mindful of her own sorrows and all the sorrows of the world, she spoke:

You shall be beloved and famous. But when you think that happiness is yours, its Dead Sea fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth.

You, who shall throw away thousands of dollars as a caprice, shall want for a penny. You, who shall mock at love, shall seek love without finding.

Seven men shall love you. Seven times you shall be led by the man who loves you to the steps of the altar, but never shall you wed.

For the rest of her life, Audrey considered the prophecy a curse.

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Like today, it was a period of enormous invention, as new industries grew up with the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the aeroplane, and the motion picture. Those technological innovations transformed the globalizing world as much as the personal computer, the mobile phone, and the Internet and social media have changed our world. In her remarkable life, Audrey was in at the ground floor of vaudeville theater, the fashion industry, the movie business, and even aviation in the United States. She mixed with the most famous artists, the richest families, and the most swashbuckling entrepreneurs of her day. Plutocrats with newly built mansions on Fifth Avenue and vast cottages on the cliffs at Newport stalked the land, their social status measured by their excess. In 1899, when Audrey was eight, the economist Thorstein Veblen, who grew up as one of twelve children on a farm in Minnesota, coined the term conspicuous consumption in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Yet at the same time, the poor and huddled masses of immigrants were flooding into the expanding nation. By 1900, the population of New York Citythen 3.4 millionwhile 98 percent white, was 37 percent foreign-born, roughly the same proportion as it is again today. Like our own, it was an era of great inequality, with the top one percent controlling a fifth of the national income, just as they do once again in our own New Gilded Age.

Audrey certainly was not born into the gilded 1 percent, though she would try to marry into it. Her name is inscribed in the baptism register of St. Patricks Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rochester as (Audrie) Marie Munson, born to Edgar Munson and Kittie Mahoney. Her birth brought together two very different American family stories. The mismatch of their hopes and expectations scarred her life.

Edgar, born in Prattsville, New York, on January 22, 1857, was descended from Captain Thomas Munson, an English Puritan who was one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut. This proud family records their lineage to this day in a publication known as the Munson Record. Audrey, who became more and more fixated on pedigree the more she mixed in high society, grandly claimed her father was not only a colonial American but also a descendant of the British peerage, being Baron Munson, House of the Seven Baronets, a hereditary title which even King George cant change. She sometimes spelled it Monson. There was indeed once a Sir Thomas Monson, first Baronet, who received his hereditary title in 1611 from King James I. He served as a Member of Parliament, the Master of the Armory at the Tower of London, and Master Falconer to the King. But there is no documented link to Edgars lineand Audrey was certainly not his heir. Edgars ancestor Thomas Munson came to America in the 1630s as an English soldier of the lowest rank. Edgar was one of fourteen children. He became a wheeler-dealer real estate agent. In the words of one of his granddaughters, he was considered a bit of a shyster.

Far from being a colonial American, Audreys mother was the daughter of recent Irish immigrants. While the Munsons were Methodist, Kitties family was Catholic at a time when anti-Catholic feeling was still rife. She was born Catherine Mahoney, according to social security records, but generally spelled her name Katherine Mahaney, preserving the lilt of her parents original Irish accents. Everyone always knew her as Kittie. She was born in Belleville, New York, on July 30, 1864. She and her family were simple churchgoing folk embarking on an adventure in the New World. Kitties father died from a cold he contracted while doing decorative plasterwork on the interior of their local church. Kittie had one brother, Robert, and a sister, Alice, who became the beloved village dressmaker. Yet Audrey insisted the Mahaneys came from a line that was as distinguished in its way as the Munsons. Among their forebears, she claimed, was the early Irish nationalist Robert Emmet, who was hanged for treason against the British Crown after leading a failed attempt to establish a provisional government in Dublin in 1803. This marriage united one of the finest Irish families with the English, Audrey optimistically declared of her parents union.

Edgar wooed Kittie on the rocks by Sandy Creek, behind her homestead in Belleville. They wed on January 7, 1885, in the nearby village of Mexico, New York, where Edgars father had a farm. Although Edgar had worked on a farm out West, and as a teenager Kittie had worked in the woolen mills in Auburn, New York, the couple started out in service. Edgar got a post as a coachman for Harriet Disbrow, the widow of a wealthy tobacco manufacturer, on the same broad boulevard in Rochester where Kodak founder George Eastman lived. The newlyweds lived at 9 Factory Street. By 1891 Edgar was working as a driver at 267 State Street. And that is the street where, by her own account, Audrey was born. Toward the end of her life, Audrey was offered the chance to return to her native city, but she refused. Rochester, she declared, despite not having seen it for many decades, was the dirtiest little town.

Both Edgar and Kittie harbored grand dreams. Unfortunately, they were not the same grand dreams. Edgar fantasized of hitting it big in real estate. He had already traveled west in his youth. When he was twenty, he had worked as a farm laborer in Coral, Illinois. After getting married to Kittie back home in Mexico, New York, Edgar headed west again. First he settled in Lemars, Iowa, 400 miles due west of Coral, where the new railroad was giving away one-square-mile lots along the line to develop the land. He bought a quarter lot of 162 acres for $562 and, after working on it for three years, sold it for $3,552. Next, he moved about 150 miles to virgin territory in Fairmont, Minnesota, and tried the same trick again. This time, he bought a similarly sized lakeside lot for $860. The farm lay between a bankers land and his water. Desperate for access to the lake, the banker bought Edgar out for $5,800. Edgars next stop was about another 150 miles farther west in Hudson, South Dakota, where he bought a lot for $960 and flipped it for $3,900. He then followed the hardiest farmers another 150 miles even farther west to buy eighty acres in Tilden, Nebraska, but the land was dry, so he sold it after a year and a half for $1,600. It is not clear for how much of this real estate odyssey Kittie was with him. Though her father was a Methodist, as a child of three or four, Audrey went to the Cathedral School in Rochester, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, while her father might still have been in the West. His pioneering seems to have been too much for Kittie to bear. The Syracuse Herald, which spoke to Edgar, noted drily: His wife was dissatisfied with the West because it was too lonesome on the prairie.

Audreys parents divorced in 1899, when she was eight. The decree, issued in Kitties new home of Providence, Rhode Island, awarded sole custody of Audrey to her mother. Kittie, though a Catholic, later complained that she had no choice but to divorce because Edgar had been carrying on an open affair with the woman who was to become his second wife, Cora Cook, whom he picked up while working as a trolleybus conductor after returning East. He got to going with a woman, German, Cora CookOswego County, New York. She has had eight children by him, Kittie later wrote in a letter. They were not married so I divorced him.

Edgar and Kittie each loved Audrey in their own waybut they most definitely did not still love each other. Edgar struggled with the competing claims of his new family with Cora Cook and their five surviving children: Vivian, born in 1906; Lawrence, born in 1909; Gertrude, born in 1912; Gerald, born in 1914; and Harold, born in 1918. Although Edgar always came to Audreys aid in a crisis, he disliked her nude posing and blamed her mother for it. I wouldnt think shed want to do it. She used to be such a nice quiet-mannered little blue-eyed thing, just the opposite of what youd expect to see [in] an actress, he complained in 1916. It was her mother who talked the stage into her head from the time she was a baby. I can remember taking her to the theater and shed get so excited and so shed stand through the whole thing I dont have any interest in what shes doing now. Id rather she wouldnt but its her affair and it brings her in lots of money and she spends it too just like water.

Kittie brought up Audrey as a single mother and steered her onto the stage. The two lived and traveled together almost the entire time until Audrey was forty. It was only a deep crisis that eventually tore them apart. When Audrey needed help, Kittie turned to other members of the Munson clan, not Edgar. Even decades after their divorce, Kittie tried to stop his second family from being listed in the Munson Record, even though those children, unlike Audrey, went on to multiply and extend the line down to the present day. We do not want her fathers childrens names to go into the history. Put his name with Audrey and myself, Kittie wrote a Munson family genealogist on October 30, 1934. We do not curse him for what he has done. He is Audreys father and a Munson from one of the old aristocratic race. If he lived in England he could be baron. Audrey, Lady Audrey, but he hates the idea.

When Edgar and Kittie first separated, Audrey, then six, went to stay on her paternal grandparents farm in Davenport, New York, where Edgar himself grew up. While playing behind the house, Audrey tumbled into a stream and contracted typhoid from the polluted waters. Kittie rushed to retrieve her ailing daughter and accused the other side of the family of neglect. Audrey recovered but was often a sickly child, attentively nursed by her mother. One of Audreys half nieces still has her childhood doll with a plaster head, which had to be reassembled after being broken into piecesa poignant metaphor for what happened to Audrey herself.

Kittie started her new life as a divorced woman with Audrey in Providence, Rhode Islandat the time, the eleventh-largest metropolis in the United States. It was the hub of jewelry manufacture in the country. The city boasted the largest silverware factory, largest mechanical tools factory, largest screw factory, and largest file factory on Earth. Many large textile mills were also based nearby. The town had a burgeoning immigrant population with Irish, Italian, and Polish parishes. It was also home to Brown University, one of the only nine colleges founded before the American Revolution, and the Rhode Island School of Design. Hall & Lyons Co., on the corner of Westminster and Eddy Streets, claimed to be the largest drugstore in the United States. The city had five theaters, including Keiths Theatre, offering continuous all-day vaudeville acts.

Home for Audrey was a rented boardinghouse that her mother ran at 47 Carpenter Street. It was a household of motley strangersmostly men. When Audrey was nine, her mothers roomers included seven menClive Gill, thirty, a jewelry worker; John McMaugh, twenty-eight, a drugstore clerk; Harry M. Bartrum, twenty-four, a mechanic; Henry N. Whiteman, sixty-three, a solar artist; Frank H. Watson, thirty, a railroad gateman; Joseph Crosby, twenty-six, clerk; and Henry G. Place, fifty, a bill collectoras well as two married couplesJames Callahan, thirty-five, a waiter, and his wife, Mary, twenty-four; and Daniel A. Jordan, twenty-four, a painter, and his wife, Mary, twenty-two. When Audrey was twelve, Kittie and Audrey moved to 258 Pine Street. When she was fourteen, they moved again, to 107 Broadway in Providence.

Their home at 107 Broadway was yet another boardinghouse. Kittie no longer listed herself as a lodging housekeeper but as an agent on corsets. The gateman from Carpenter Street had followed her, though now under the slightly different name of Frank H. Wilsonraising the question of whether the two had any romantic involvement.

Audrey went to Catholic school at the St. Francis Xavier Female Academy, run by the Sisters of Mercy. The Sisters of Mercy academies were tuition-based high schools catering to relatively well-off girls and sought to provide a cultured education within the confines placed on women at the time. The Sisters of Mercy offered art lessons in oil painting, watercolor, pastels, and decorating china. More important for Audrey, there were music lessons on the piano, violin, harp, mandolin, and guitar, as well as singing. At a young age, Audrey became an accomplished musician and performer. Thanks to the nuns, sheand her mothercould dream of a future on the stage.

Just twelve miles around the bay from Providence lay a scenic stretch of coastline known as Rocky Point that had been used for picnic parties by boat since it was first acquired by sea captain William Winslow in 1847. By Audreys time, it was the site of the Rocky Point Amusement Park. Fun-seekers from Providence could reach it by trolleybus in just thirty-five minutes. It was here that Audrey made her first known performance onstage in 1908, as a teenage member of Gerald Hamptons Dancin Dolls.

So young was Audrey when she had her fortune told that she only dimly understood the soothsayers words. Kittie, however, remained preoccupied with the fortune-tellers prediction of both triumph and disaster. I have forgotten many things that the [G]ypsy woman said, but mother has repeated her words to me so many times that I seem to remember them, Audrey said. The old crones premonition would come to haunt her. The curse, as Audrey saw it, would blight her life.

The big question is whether the fortune-teller had discerned something essential about human nature. Did Audreys exceptional beauty not only offer her opportunity and riches but condemn her too? Or did her curse become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was Audrey to be responsible for her own doom? That very question was posed by the Syracuse Herald, then Audreys local newspaper, in the last feature ever written about her in her extremely long lifetimewritten when she was just thirty-five years old. World-Famous Model Cursed by Her Great Beauty, the newspaper headline blared. Does a relentless Nemesis really follow Audrey Munson, once the worlds most beautiful model whose shapely body has inspired some of the finest paintings and many of the most notable statues of recent years? the first paragraph asked. Or have the broken nerves of this famous model caused her to imagine the curse that she says follows her constantly? It was a question that would haunt her for her entire life.

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