How America’s First Supermodel Was Nearly Erased from History

An adaptation from the new book The Curse of Beauty, about the turn-of-the-century icon Audrey Munson, whose face can still be seen all over the country, but whose wild life and tragic end have been almost entirely forgotten.

The following is an adaptation from The Curse of Beauty, which chronicles the life of “America’s first supermodel,” Audrey Munson. The story begins in Munson’s childhood, in 1896, when the five-year-old had her fortune read by a Gypsy traveler in her hometown of East Syracuse, New York.

Though still just “a slip of a girl,” Audrey was already possessed of a limber figure and long bones—she was to grow to five feet eight inches tall. Her features were perfectly symmetrical and sleek: a high brow, chiseled cheekbones, an almond jaw, and that perfectly straight neoclassical nose. Set like gemstones in her milky skin, she had questioning, slightly impertinent gray-blue eyes. The question lurking in those eyes was one she would come to wish she had never asked: “What does my future hold?”

The soothsayer looked on Audrey’s 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.

Audrey did indeed become beloved and famous. Her “most perfect form” still reigns over New York City and across the United States. You probably already know her, without even knowing you know her. You may have passed her on the street many times, unbeknownst. For she was America’s first supermodel. She is the second-largest female figure in New York after the Statue of Liberty. Her gilded form stands 25 feet tall, holding a crown aloft as the symbol of the city, atop the vast Municipal Building across the street from City Hall. She frolics in the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel at the southeast entrance to Central Park, her celebrated dimples on full display to the shoppers at the Apple Store. Every day, office workers tramp past her as the centerpiece of the Maine Monument in Columbus Circle at the opposite corner of Central Park. She stands on the arch at the end of the Manhattan Bridge as the Spirit of Commerce, waving on commuters to their toil. She once also stood sentry at the Brooklyn entrance of the Manhattan Bridge as Miss Manhattan and Miss Brooklyn. But those colossal forms now flank the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. Audrey is immortalized in stone at the New York Public Library and on the Frick museum on Fifth Avenue. She is the reclining bronze figure of memory on the Straus Memorial on the Upper West Side. She is the two grieving stone figures on the Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive. Wherever you go in New York City, Audrey is looking at you.


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