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Audrey Munson: Exposition Girl

by Gloria Lenhart

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Audrey Munson in 1915

Audrey Munson served as the model for so many works of art for the Panama-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 percent 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 photographer Ralph Draper approached her on a New York street. Draper recommended her to his friend, sculptor Isidor Konti, who convinced Audrey’s mother to let her 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 also was the model for several U.S. coins, including the Mercury dime and the Liberty half-dollar.

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Stirling Calder at work on “Star Maiden” in 1913

In 1912, Stirling Calder, father of noted 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. The artists made 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 painted to look like marble or bronze.

But while the art of the PPIE drew praise, it also drew criticism. 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.

These objections only increased in November of 1915, when the film Inspiration debuted in theaters around the country. Audrey had the lead role, playing a sculptor’s model. She became the first actress to appear naked on film. An uproar of bad press followed as some cities tried to ban the film. 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 appeared in two more films but failed to achieve success as a film star.

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Audrey Munson in “Descending Night” by Adolph Weiman

Back in New York, Audrey and her mother rented rooms in a boarding house owned by a Dr. Wilkins and his wife. The doctor soon fell in love with the famous model. When Audrey fled 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. Soon she was reduced to selling kitchen utensils door to door.

To restore her reputation, she launched a newspaper column in 1921 that offered beauty tips and advice on modeling. In 1922, she started a well-publicized search for a husband who 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 that he was supposed to meet her, she received a letter from him breaking off their relationship. After Audrey read it, she swallowed a cleaning compound that contained mercury. Her mother found her near death and called for help.

Audrey survived but 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.

Text is reprinted by permission from Gloria Lenhart’s blog, www.mysfpast.com. She recently launched a travel app called City Explorer San Francisco, www.cityexplorersf.com.

Photos are from Wikipedia or public domain.

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