A curse, some coins, and a killing. Little did I know that a road trip to an abandoned mental hospital would lead me to a story about the art world, a scandal and a tragedy.
I believe everyone I meet is a teacher ready to expand my world view and increase my knowledge. The owner of the antique shop in Huevelton, New York proved to be an excellent instructor. He saw my interest in history as I looked through his collection of old books and purchased several yellowed magazines from the early 1900’s. I told him of my interest in St. Lawrence State Hospital. He asked me if I had ever heard of Audrey Munson and opened a whole new path of exploration for me.
Audrey Munson was from my part of the world, upstate New York, but I had never heard of her. She was born in Rochester in 1891 and grew up in Mexico, New York not far form where I attended college. Her father left when she was a child and her mother, Kittie, divorced him in 1899.
When Audrey was five, Kittie took her to East Syracuse to see the Gypsy Queen Eliza who was touring the US from England. Apparently a gypsy festival was an annual event in Central New York since it marked the fall migration of those colorful people from Canada to the south. Audrey wasn’t able to see Queen Eliza but her mom did take her to a fortune teller who saw a distressing future for the little girl. She predicted that Audrey would be famous but happiness would always allude her, that she would make a lot of money but end up poor, and that she would never find love as seven men would promise to make her their bride but none would marry her. All through Audrey’s life, Kittie would, for some reason, reminded her daughter of this fortune teller’s reading. Maybe it was this divorced woman’s way to control her daughter and prevent being abandon once again.
Kittie became a stage mother and encouraged Audrey’s dream of becoming a dancer and an actress. At the age of fourteen, during a trip to New York City for a recital, Audrey was discovered as she walked down a busy Manhattan street. Her career quickly took off as she became a favorite model especially for sculptors. She was sought after and became quite a celebrity known as “Miss Manhattan.” and “The American Venus” as likenesses of her appeared all over the NYC and The US.
She became a star, invited to exhibit openings and all the best parties. People were awestruck with her beauty as she walked down Fifth Avenue dressed in the latest fashions. She believed in the independence of women, their right to charter their own course and was able to donated money to the suffragette movement. As she gained notoriety she earned roles in three movies and was the first nude in a legitimate film appearing as the sprit of inspiration. This was quite a bold step in the 1915 and it rattled the conservative values of many.
She posed for the Star Maiden statue that was reproduced ninety times to become the supports for a exhibit at The 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco.
In statues, movies, newspapers, plays, and public appearances, her lovely image seemed to be everywhere. But with good fortune comes the jealousy of those less fortunate and fame sometimes has the ability to disappear as fast as it comes. Misfortunate happened suddenly for Audrey when she and her mother rented a living space in the boarding house from Dr. Walter Wilkins. The doctor became infatuated with Audrey and one day he claimed his wife had been killed by an assailants. After an investigation it was found that Walter had murdered his wife. Audrey was wanted for questioning, but she and her mother fled to Toronto as terrible rumors and gossip spread in all the tabloids around the world. Eventually the murdering husband was tried, found guilty and sent to the electric chair. He hung himself in his cell before the execution. Audrey soon became labeled as an evil home wrecker Her provocative poses and her nudity in films encouraged the world to think of her as wicked and untrustworthy. She soon found it harder and harder to get work.
Audrey and her mother returned to the farm in Mexico in 1919. Gradually the three prophecies of gypsy fortune teller came to be. Her fame and happiness disappeared. She had made a fortune but with no work the money disappeared. Men had pursued and she had many proposals but she never married. It was rumored that once more a marriage proposal had been rescinded and, on March 27, 1921, Audrey at the age of 28 tried to kill herself by swallowing poison.. From 1921 to 1931 beautiful Audrey slowly fell into despair and her behavior became more erratic. In 1931, Kittie was no longer able to take care of her , either physically or financially and Audrey was committed to the St. Lawrence State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. She spent 65 years in that institution, dying there in 1996 at the age of 104.
Ironically, the subject of so many lovely monuments was buried, until recently, in an unmarked grave in Fair Haven, New York not far from her family’s hometown.
The uncertainty of being a woman clearly played out in this tragic story. Audrey was the ideal, the America’s Venus. She was beautiful and had perfect feminine symmetry and features. But somehow it still wasn’t enough. Not enough for the world who wished to exalt her as it also came to condemn her .
She was the model of myths, the personification of womanhood, the ancient ideal of the revered goddess, the giver of life. But history over time diluted this reverence with archetypes of the ”anima” in stories about mermaids, nymphs, crones and witches who, to quote Carl Jung, “infatuates young men and sucks the life out of them.” And further storytelling continued to be cultural chains for women. The sagas for men had glorious plots of heroic challenges or quests for meaning and truth. But in fairytales the persona of femininity was synonymous with weakness and females were portrayed as needing to be rescued.
This label is substantiated many times. It took many years and much persuasion between the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 until the day in 1920 when American woman were allowed to vote. And poor Audrey was not alone in the the insane asylums of America. In the 1800’s a woman could be declared insane by the recommendation, whether substantiated or not, of a father, brother, husband, or son. The adjective “crazy” is still widely used to put down women today. And the new term “Karen” cautions females not to be too outspoken or assertive.
This manipulation is constant. It hides behind a million customs and norms. It presents itself in print and TV commercials and on our digital devices. It is strengthened in our everyday lives as we judge, compare and label each other, as we engage in and deal with namecalling, slander, and gossip. It is a campaign to create doubt and cause woman to question every aspect of their being from how they look to appropriateness of their intellect.
If only someone had taken the time to really help Audrey Munson, had told her to shut out all the noise. If only someone helped her understood that she was enough, more than enough. If only someone had helped her to rid herself of doubt and had encouraged to keep going.
There is a lesson in this story of America’s first supermodel. Women are heroes and have always been heroes since the beginning of time. We need to be greater heroes in developing our own stories. We must be self-motivated not manipulated. We must listen to our inner voices and not the random opinions of others. The time for uncertainty must end. We need to be more aware and persevere.
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