Queen of the artists’ studios, the story of Audrey Munson[*]

 

A woman posed. A city represented. A text doubled by another. An allegory. Allos=other. Agoreuei=to speak (publicly), or the impulse to appreciate the transience of things and to rescue them for eternity. I look again, this time walking on the street, I look up at her and wonder what was rescued from the oblivion of history, a young woman’s body or Civic Fame? As days pass and I pass her, the body prevails. Traveling through my everyday and through the city, I recognize her not only atop the Municipal Building, but other places, on facades, in pediments, on pedestals. I notice a face, a wave of hair, a curve of a body, a gesture of hands, and a position of feet. Recognizable, I think, to my surprise, a slight familiarity carved in marble, in stone, in copper or bronze, or painted. A woman stands, a body made permanent to represent glory, power, memory, peace, purity, virtue… the inexpressible, the infinite, the highest fullness of being as it sought form in the public space of an emerging metropolis. The American Beaux Arts. The revival of Roman and Greek mythology and the elevation of their virtues as universal. Humble human shapes in front, atop, along the public architecture of the early 20th century suggested a common ground of values to the diversity of a nation trying to find identity across many. Today these sculptures stand still, and the bodies they came from safely tucked away, drained for higher ends, under the embracing gaze of a public’s (eternal) melancholy. Like photographs, documents and newspapers, the sculptures prevail over time as objects, organized and reorganized, classified, qualified, evaluated, recognized, dismissed. As such, they are part of what is used to build our narratives, our genealogies, our histories. Of course there is the purpose marked in the moment of their creation and then there always has been, over and over again a new, maybe slightly different claim within every present moment since, with different historians, politicians, passersby coming and going. I realize these sculptures still claim their space, here and now, in our present moment.

I am surprised to find a name, a story, Audrey Munson. She posed for Civic Fame in the early 1910s and many other sculptures, murals, paintings and stained glass windows. A model with a name. But not only a model but the model of her time. A supermodel. I look again, now knowingly, not at a sculpture, but a body, not at any body, but at Audrey Munson. I look again at her face made in stone. I am trying to understand something of the mind behind this face that posed. What did she do before rushing to the studio that day, where did she come from? Did she pose it the morning, the afternoon, or the evening or an 8 hour day? Did she take the subway? Did she walk, was she scared of the anarchists’ bombs exploding around the city? Did she pass the suffragists marching, or a picket line of young girls her age, fighting for just wages and healthy work conditions? Had she gotten hold of one of Margaret Sanger’s educational pamphlets on birth control? Had she stopped at Union Square to hear Emma Goldman give one of her engaging speeches, which had yet again drawn a mob? Or did she pass the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the Dada artist marching around Washington Square Park wearing an inverted coalscuttle for a hat, a vegetable grater as a broach, long ice cream spoons for earrings, and metal tea balls attached to her breasts? Or did she have a plan to have a drink later at the bar where Djuna Barnes sometimes did readings, or maybe the Heterodoxy Club above the Washington Square bookstore, where women met? Had she heard of Willa Cather, read her books? Or had she noticed a handsome European man, with hair combed back, called “Marcel” by his colleagues, at the café at the Brevoort Hotel? Or maybe she had to go home to meet a deadline for one of her articles, when she was writing for the New York American, a Hearst Paper. Or she may have been worried about her mother, getting older, and therefore she was ready to rush off, knowing that her mother was waiting impatiently for her at home. Or maybe, maybe she was not thinking anything except about her pose, and the artist, whose eyes were traveling over her body…

 

 

I find a record in an archive showing that Audrey Munson gave 5 dollars (a day’s salary worth) to the Suffragist movement in 1917. I am interested in the histories of women. I am interested in the scripts written for individuals within the narratives of history. I am interested in the forces that fit certain lives into these scripts, cutting away contradictions and ellipses. I am interested in Audrey Munson as an allegory, not for Peace or Memory, but for the thing that was employed to represent (universal) values and write histories, but was never intended to be visible. I am interested in insisting upon looking at what the builders of these buildings with their grand-scale statues of high virtues did not want me to see. I am interested in her, as a young woman, trying to find a voice, doing her job, working 10-hour days, seriously, committed, disciplined. I am interested in her who is not named by history, in her goals and ambitions. I am interested in who Munson might have met, with whom she talked, discussed her ideas. I am interest in her views on politics, the city, the arts. I am interested in her judgment of the men who worshiped her, had her picked up in fancy cars, invited her to parties. I am interested in who might have been her lover. There are rumors of a man called Herman Oelrich, from a rich Long Island family, who supposedly married her in 1916. I read this in her mother’s letters but I cannot find a record of the marriage in the city history. Maybe Audrey was not interested in marriage at all and just kept up the facade of such a search for a husband to sooth public opinion. Maybe she was attracted to women, or maybe she wanted to stay independent, making choices on her own terms. I am interested in looking at her convictions, of taking her seriously in her endeavor, ignoring the drama of the story written around her in newspaper articles and coffee table books. The craziness, the despair. But I am not trying to dismiss the struggles or the suffering that she surely endured, but looking closely, to me it seems obvious that her life was not driven through or by them. Why chose to look only at them and not at her bold moves, her passion for art, her determination, her clear decisions, her hard work? I do not want to write or rewrite her story, but I would like to insist to leave it open, it to be rewritten, constantly imagined, recontextualized over and over again, with any glimpse we catch of a sculpture or of a painting that we pass.

Audrey Munson was probably a girl like many others, with dreams and desires. Born in 1891 in Rochester, New York. Her parents divorce under unknown circumstances in 1899. In 1909, Audrey and her mother move to New York. We don’t know why but probably because the city was the only place for a divorced Catholic woman to live and a place for her to find work. Young Audrey wanted to be a dancer and to study music, I read and once in the city her desire to be seen is brought together with the coincidence of “being discovered.” Upon a photographer’s invitation Audrey, still a teenager, has the courage to step first in front of a camera, then in front of an artist, then in the nude. I often wonder why Katherine Munson, would have given her consent. I have to suspect that it was the potential income that the women most likely needed. Later I find other stories of Munson’s first introduction into the studios: once she is alone, once with her mother, once in love with the photographer. But however the past unfolded, once Audrey entered this world, she quickly became a wanted model and part of a scene of influential sculptors, artists and their financial backers. In the city’s directory of 1909, Audrey lists herself as an actress. After 1915 she will call herself, in this same directory, an artist. Audrey Munson also wrote articles for newspapers. As an author she describes the artists’ studios as a marketplace of vanity, speaks about the construction of beauty, about exploitation and the power of men around her. She advocates to leave corsets behind, and wear low heels. She warns of the lure that girls are exposed to when they are beautiful. And she also advocates for her profession, the artist’s model, sometimes with a slight force of despair, defending herself and her colleagues, their hard labor and more then once elaborating on their share in the creative act while posing. She points to the fact, that models are never credited but rather despised for their work; never considered creative but always indecent. She also writes about the artist. High on her stand in the midst of the studio, she confidently returns his gaze. Reading along, I recognize an old struggle in the creative process: the Muse and the Artist. The woman and the man. The informant and the maker. An issue that is relevant still and again today. I also recognize Munson’s critical, self-reflective mind. An object turned subject, and a voice speaking up over the noise of signification.

 

 

With the 1920s times changed. The demand for Audrey as a model started to fade. Newspaper articles appear claiming that she got cursed with misfortune. Audrey tells stories that she felt led to her demise: one of them the Wilkins murder case. In 1919, Dr. Walter Keene Wilkins, her landlord, brutally killed his wife, and when arrested told the police that he did it only to be able to marry Audrey Munson. Audrey, in Canada on business at the time, was not reachable which let speculations inflate disproportionately and implicated her name deeply with the case. At the same time Audrey was aging, now in her early thirties, her body was not that of a young girl anymore. With this sudden lack of fame, the invitations to social engagements and the admiration by the high society of New York ceded. She had served their desire for the beautiful, the daring, the scandalous, in the moment of its fashion. Money ran short for the Munson women soon after, and little or no savings had been arranged from the successful years. Audrey says in an interview that she never thought it possible for her career to end so suddenly. Her pay as a model never much exceeded 35 dollars a week. It had been merely the gifts and invitations of the artist and the society that surrounded them that had afforded her and her mother a lifestyle much beyond those means. The women, not meeting the day’s needs, moved back north, to Mexico, New York. But Audrey’s fame had even reached this little town tucked in-between the rolling hills of mostly agricultural landscapes. People knew what she did — what she had done for a living. Audrey was seen in unusual outfits, often wearing colorful scarves wrapped like a turban around her head. A woman I meet tells me that she remembers as a little girl, her mother would storm to the sunparlor and close the curtains when Audrey “who had undressed for money” passed by. People did not care for her fame, her life in the city, her travel, her stories. Mexico after all was a small town, a tight community of proper people, in which an independent, creative woman like Audrey had no ground on which to be accepted. She was considered improper, and soon thereafter, plain crazy: the safe place societies reserve for those who are different and in their difference challenge the established values and norms. What Munson had described in her articles became her fate. Her work had made her an indecent person, desirable in marble and on screen but not in flesh and blood.

On May 27, 1922, Audrey tries to take her life by swallowing poison. Papers report that this incident occurs after Audrey received a telegraph that called her announced wedding off, but her mother describes her daughter’s desperate act as a response to their financial struggles. Probably a little of both, plus the dire reality of her life in front of her, as rejected, living under poor conditions in the countryside in complete isolation, after a fulfilled life of stardom, public attention and celebration. Audrey survives the poison and recovers from her suicide attempt physically but probably never quite mentally. After a few more articles, things quiet down around her. Besides in search of yet another scandal, the public eye loses interest in her, now not glamorous but suffering. There is no fame in the struggles with poverty, and the struggles of the mind especially not if the mind and poverty in question belongs to a woman. I find a picture in a newspaper, Audrey has six large dogs standing around her, that keep her and her mother company. On my research trip to Mexico I am fortunate to encounter Ralph Schmidt, a senior Mexico resident. He remembers when he was about eight years old, once in while he would see Audrey passing by the farm he lived on. She was roller-skating, he tells me. His memory, today still vivid, describes Audrey pushing a lawnmower in front of her to keep balance on her skates on the dirt road. “She for sure was a beautiful women,” he tells me with a smile. Audrey made one more attempt to earn respectable money from her expertise. She founded The Audrey Munson Producing Corporation. It is in these papers that I find her very own signature, her handwriting. I feel I am very close. The Corporation never achieves any success. I read somewhere that she most likely abused drugs to soothe her depression. On June 8, 1931, on her fortieth birthday, Audrey is admitted by her mother and with the help of a local judge to the Psychiatric Center at the State Hospital in Ogdensburg, New York. Probably her mother admitted her with what would be named today a severe depression, or maybe because of drug addiction. Or was it because her way of thinking, her voice, her determination, that could not find anyone to listen, had to be designated in a woman of 40 years of age, as mad?

 

 

In the 1930s, the Ogdensburg State Hospital was a repository not only for people who were mentally sick but also was used by the surrounding communities to place relatives that could for all kind of reasons not be cared for by their families. The hospital is located north of the town of Ogdensburg on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Set up as a self-sufficient community, it had its own power plant, a farm, a little store, a trolley station, a ferry boat for weekend rides, a summer camp, a police force, a fire station, a post office, a theater, a baseball team, a bowling alley, and a beauty parlor. There were weekly dances and theatrical plays. The buildings were designed according to the Kirkbride Plan, with high ceilings, allowing maximum space and light for all patients. There were verandas surrounding most buildings for patients to enjoy the view of the river and the fresh air. The wards were furnished in a friendly manner with rocking chairs, carpets, sofas, and pictures decorating the walls. Food was cooked from the hospital farm’s own produce and meat. The buildings were surrounded by lakes and beautiful flowerbeds. It is unclear what treatment Audrey receives. Her mother cannot visit her often, due to the cost of the train ride. The hospital is 150 miles north. By the 1950s, her parents are both deceased and Audrey does not receive visitors anymore. She is on her own, making her own life within the community of the State Hospital. There is no indication that Audrey was on any medication. I am told that she was spending her time in the library and caring for the many cats that lived on the grounds. I am also told that she took great care of her appearance, making all kind of remedies for her skin including ingredients from milk, to yogurt, to urine. Audrey stays at the hospital, despite the waves of patient downsizing and the tremendous changes that occurred in Mental Hygiene since the 1950s. “She was a very modest fine lady”, I am told.

In the 1980s, the hospital decides to place Audrey into a nursing home, 30 miles north of Ogdensburg in Massonia. Audrey, in her nineties now, has her own room, which she keeps neatly organized. I am told she had a doll that she cared for a great deal. But once in a while she left the home to go on a little excursion on her own. She would cross the four-lane highway in front of the nursing home to reach the little strip mall and visit the local bar. At the bar, she would have a couple of drinks and I imagine conversations filled with her breathtaking memories. The caretakers at the nursing home had to go repeatedly to collect her. They would carry her back against her will, because she had been enjoying herself at the bar and did not want to leave. After a while this behavior was not considered tolerable, an petite old lady in her nineties, crossing a highway, having some drinks in a bar… They sent her back to the State Hospital in Ogdensburg. I meet a male nurse, now retired, who tells me that he had a special connection with Audrey. He would see her walking the long halls of the hospital, always a striking posture, always wishing him a good day. He recounts that some time after her 100th birthday, when her health had declined — she had broken her hip and was forced to stay in bed at this point — he visited her in her room. Another nurse present suggested that Audrey sing her favorite nurse a Valentine song. Audrey, with no teeth, and barely any hearing left, sang him a fine little melody. He still smiles when he recounts it to me. In 1996, just short of her 105th birthday, Audrey dies at the hospital. The part of the hospital that where Audrey mostly lived is now closed off. The old buildings that had been home for a community of 3,000 in its heydays stays boarded up, unheated and rotting away, on what is now considered valuable real estate. The patients and the flowerbeds are gone, the lakes are filled up. It all feels like a great loss. I walk along the grown-over verandas and wonder if Audrey would have been part of the official history books, if she had married and lived a family life. What would have changed if she had not been designated a mad person? Or what would have happened if one of the sculptors she worked with, one of those who owed some of his masterpieces to the inspirations she gave him, what if one of these men would have paid her a modest allowance, to stay and live in the city with people who heard her, understood her way of thinking?

 

 

Returning from my research trip, I find myself back on the street carrying folders full of copies of documents and images. Glancing up at her again, trying to meet her gaze. I see Audrey Munson, a statue, a life lived. Out in the street or in the Metropolitan museum’s vitrine, she stands a statue, an allegory, an unnamed women, amidst the named busts of white men. I don’t see the bronze or the stone anymore, I don’t see a sculpture by an artist, but I see a body, hear a voice. I can feel her agency, now and then, standing solid in her fragile nudity. I know that these sculptures link together many histories, relations and anecdotes, my work and the work of those who have been working with me on this project have become part and intractably linked to this maelstrom of Audrey Munson. And with this essay, I extend that link, that inevitable connection and insight to you as a reader. Because why would you care to read a story like this if not to retell? The sculptures seen this way are documents of emotions, of desires, of power, of money, of exploitation, of morality, of change, of struggle. The sculptures become a code of reference that inevitably binds the public to the private and back to the political. They tell the story of one young woman and turn it into the story of many, a text, upon a text, upon a text, upon a text, folding the past into the present and into the future. Audrey Munson’s gaze returned in her writing, in her sculptures and in the story of her life, represents for me a line of demarcation that inserts into the everyday, not another truth, but meaning. Meaning that does not add up to a coherent story, a biography that can be written and shelved, but instead in its present fragmentation, and as a screen for all our current and past desires, it unfolds along the lines of a complex struggle of young women to have a voice and to be heard, to be respected, to be acknowledged, that Audrey Munson shared and shares still today with many others. For me and you, passing by, now and again now, always only in the present moment, these quiet sculptures can be a gentle reminder of this presence of endless moments, of many radical condensations of personal and political struggles woven into the fabric of New York City.

 

Notes

[ *] Pages 135 à 154 : Andrea Geyer, Queen of the Artists’ Studios, the Story of AudreyMunson (excerpt), 2007. Intimate secrets of studio life revealed by the most perfect, most versatile, most famous of American models, whose face and figure have inspired thousands of modern masterpieces of sculpture and painting.Retour

Geyer Andrea

Artiste. Vit et travaille à New York et Fribourg (Allemagne). Ses travaux entremêlent la fiction et le documentaire, le texte et l’image. Ils s’imprègnent de spécificités nationales, culturelles, de genre et de classe, en un temps où les significations culturelles comme les mémoires sociales connaissent un réajustement permanent. Ils ont été montrés dans le monde entier et notamment à la Documenta 12 (Kassel), au Whitney Museum (New York), au Witte de With (Rotterdam), à la Serpentine Gallery (Londres), à la Sécession de Vienne et à la galerie Hohenlohe (Vienne).