“The Curse of Beauty”
Regan Arts, $26.95
In a hundred years will the lives of high-profile models such as Heidi Klum or Cindy Crawford make engaging biographies?
“The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel” by James Bone raises the question: Is beauty inherently interesting? Or is it simply that beauty arouses a kind of insatiable curiosity? It’s what we don’t know about the reality star Kim Kardashian that keeps us all intrigued. Readers of the future would, I suspect, not only marvel at our standards of beauty but also wonder that we hung on every syllable from a woman with so little to say.
Only the most energetic students of Beaux Arts architecture will know the name Audrey Munson. Yet from the Gilded Age into the early 20th century Munson was as ubiquitous as Cindy Crawford’s mole and as sought after by gossip columnists as any celebrity today. Audrey was the artist’s model of her time, famed as “the most perfectly formed woman in the world.”
The image of her flawless breasts and profile are forever enshrined in public works found most prolifically throughout New York: sculptures flanking the entrance to the Brooklyn Museum and on top of the Municipal Arts Building, as well as at the Frick Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. If you live in New York, chances are you pass Audrey all the time.
“The Curse of Beauty” promises “glamour, passion, and ultimately tragedy” straight off the jacket. At the start, Mr. Bone unfurls a tantalizing story. When Audrey was a girl of 5, a “bronze-faced” Gypsy predicted that she would be “beloved and famous” — an auspicious fortune, were it not for what followed. The “Dead Sea fruit” would “turn to ashes” in her mouth: Audrey would throw thousands away for a “caprice” and “want for a penny” and fail to marry any of the seven men who fell in love with her.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the life of Audrey Munson. Whoops, spoiler alert. Whether the Gypsy’s prediction for Munson’s future was clairvoyance or self-fulfilling prophecy is anyone’s guess, says Mr. Bone. Either way, “The Curse of Beauty” makes for tedious reading, though the author rallies every available historical factoid to bring his subject alive.
Munson cruised through her life — much like the sculptures for which she posed — with an uncanny ability to be entirely unmoved by it. Paranoid, poor, and unemployable at 40, she ended up in an upstate “lunatic asylum,” committed by the embittered stage mother who had banked on her daughter. There, Audrey lived happily as an exiled queen, the role that seems ultimately to have suited her best, dying at the incredible age of 104.
What, what, I asked myself again and again, could have possessed Mr. Bone to choose Munson as his subject? He is a former New York bureau chief of The Times of London and has covered everything from mafia trials, Wall Street frauds, and terrorist attacks to art sales and celebrity weddings. He hails from “generations of artists,” many of whom were active at the same time as those in the book and must certainly have been more interesting.
As a subject Audrey adds fuel to the old idea that models are dim bulbs — “simple, sweet, homelike,” in the words of a reporter. She was the first woman to pose nude in a film, named, without irony, “Purity.” This did not make her a feminist, as Mr. Bone proposes, but a gal who had a pretty good idea of how her bread was buttered. In the four films Audrey made in total, critics found Munson’s acting ability seriously wanting.
Munson lived in unusually interesting times, working with notable artists such as Isidore Konti, Daniel Chester French, and Adolph Weinman. Mr. Bone so vividly chronicles this context that it’s disappointing when he returns to his subject. To her credit, I suppose, Audrey took her work seriously, eschewing alcohol, late nights, and distracting romantic entanglements.
She came to see herself, grandiosely, as an artist as well, though the import of Modernism escaped her entirely. After sitting for Francis Picabia, Audrey called the famed Cubist “one of those hangers-on at the fringe of art. . . .” She ended up on the “wrong side of history,” admits Mr. Bone, in damning contemporary artists as “crazy persons capitalizing on their insanities.”
Audrey’s undeniable beauty gave her access to people not only of talent but also of phenomenal wealth. She was fleetingly engaged to Hermann Oelrichs Jr., son of a Newport, R.I., society scion and heir to a silver-mining fortune. That he was gay would hardly have mattered to Audrey; she appears to have been averse to sex, reading between the lines. Nonetheless, her ambitious mother listed her daughter as “Audrey Oelrichs” on a New York State census, claiming she had married Hermann in a secret wedding. As for that Gypsy curse: Of the many men who came knocking — none stuck.
The great scandal of “The Curse of Beauty” comes midway. “What took place on the brick walkway outside the Wilkinses’ cottage . . . at exactly ‘9:28 1/2 pm’ on Thursday, February 27, 1919, changed Audrey’s life forever,” begins Mr. Bone, portentously. Dr. Harry Wilkins — Audrey’s landlord and doctor — bludgeoned his wife to death with a club, claiming an intruder had surprised them outside their house. A photo of Audrey found among his possessions fueled very public rumors of an affair; as the murder trial raged, Audrey was nowhere to be found. In fact, the evidence was disappointingly slim that Audrey’s acquaintance with Dr. Wilkins was much more than nodding.
That Audrey was beautiful, clueless, and misused is an age-old story, calculated to arouse a reader’s sympathy. But as Audrey fell into obscurity, she became a wacky caricature. She nursed a host of conspiracy theories — offensively anti-Semitic — that erupted into letters to the State Department demanding its help in retrieving profits due on her films. Virtually destitute, Audrey finally parlayed what little fame she had left into a “Bachelorette”-like contest to find a husband of “pure race.” She chose a phantom; his name was an alias leading to no one at all.
The story of Audrey Munson makes a great footnote, a diverting article, and a Wikipedia entry sure to delight someone browsing the internet. With all due respect to Mr. Bone’s formidable research and reporting skills, “The Curse of Beauty” is more information than most readers will ever want or need. Remember Audrey Munson simply as the muse who launched a host of sculptures, representing what is best and noblest in public creativity.
Ellen T. White, former managing editor at the New York Public Library, is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” a book about history’s great romantic women. She lives in Springs.
James Bone lives on Shelter Island. “The Curse of Beauty” will be out in paperback on April 18.