Audrey Munson : Exposition Girl

Star Maiden by Stirling Calder
Audrey Munson served as the model for so many works of art for the Pan Pacific Exposition of 1915 (PPIE) that she became known as Exposition Girl.  In fact, by some estimates she was the model for more than 75% of the 1500 or more sculptures displayed at the PPIE.  Today, there is only one reminder of her left in San Francisco.  Star Maiden by Stirling Calder stands in the courtyard of the Citigroup Center building on Sansome and Post. 

Audrey’s career began in 1906 at age 15 when she was approached by photographer Ralph Draper on a New York street.  Draper recommended her to his friend, sculptor Isidor Konti.  Konti convinced Audrey’s mother to let her daughter pose nude for his sculpture The Three Graces, which was commissioned for the Astor Hotel.  With her classic features and perfect proportions, Audrey went on to model for many of the most famous sculptors, muralists and painters of the time.

New York at the turn of the last century was a haven for artists, many of whom had studios around Washington Square.  Popular models like Audrey Munson rushed from studio to studio and posed for multiple artists and many different projects.  Audrey's likeness can still be seen all over New York today.  She was the model for the 20 ft high gilded figure on top of the Municipal Building.  She’s in the center of the Karl Bitter’s Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel.  She is all four of the “Continents” sculpted by Daniel Chester French for the Customs House.  Audrey looks down at you as you climb the stairs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and there are several more sculpted images of her inside.  She was also the model U.S. coins including the Mercury dime and the Liberty half dollar.

In 1912, Stirling Calder, father of contemporary artist Alexander Calder, was named Chief of Sculpture for the PPIE.   Working from his New York studio, Calder commissioned and coordinated work from other New York artists.  These artists presented small-scale clay models that were shipped to San Francisco where Italian and French artisans reproduced them in full size, in either travertine or plaster that was painted to look like marble or bronze.
But while the art of the PPIE drew high praise, it also drew criticism.  The founder and president of the National Christian League for the Promotion of Purity railed against the unclothed figures strewn “promiscuously throughout the exhibition” and attacked Audrey directly saying she should be ashamed of herself.   

Audrey Munson
in the film "Inspiration"
These objections only increased in November of 1915, when the film “Inspiration” debuted in theaters around the country.  Looking to diversify her career, Audrey took the lead role in the film, playing the part of a sculptor’s model.  In this role, she became the first actress to appear naked on film.  An uproar of bad press followed as some cities tried to ban the film on grounds of indecency.  But the film producers appealed to the courts and won.  How could Audrey’s naked body be offensive on screen when that same body was displayed in some of the finest museums and monuments? Audrey left New York for California to appear in two more films but failed to achieve success as a film star.

Back in New York, Audrey and her mother rented rooms in a boarding house owned by Dr. Wilkins and his wife.  The doctor soon fell in love with the famous model.  When Audrey fled the city to escape the doctor’s attentions,Wilkins brutally murdered his wife.  Audrey was eventually cleared of any involvement,but the trial added to Audrey’s notoriety.  Unable to find work as a model, she was reduced to waiting tables and selling kitchen utensils door to door. 

In 1921, hoping to restore her reputation,  she launched a newspaper column offering beauty tips and advice on becoming a model.  In 1922, she started a well-publicized search for husband that would allow her to become the perfect wife.  After reviewing more than 200 responses, Audrey announced her engagement to an aviator named Stevenson.  But on the day he was supposed to arrive to meet her, she received a letter from him breaking off their relationship.   Audrey read it, then swallowed a cleaning compound that contained mercury. Her mother found her near death and called for help.

Audrey survived, but she never fully recovered.  As she became increasingly paranoid and delusional, her mother found it hard to cope.  In 1931, at age 39, Audrey was forced into court-ordered treatment in a psychiatric hospital near Syracuse, New York.  She lived there in seclusion for more than 60 years. 

Once hailed as “Miss Manhattan” and later as “Exposition Girl,” Audrey Munson died forgotten in 1996 at the age of 105.

For more, read :  American Venus, the Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson, Model and Muse by Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer.   See sculptures of Audrey at

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