20 December, 2016

The curse of beauty : the scandalous & tragic life of Audrey Munson, America's first supermodel / James Bone.

This new investigative biography sets out to uncover the story of a remarkable woman who would otherwise have been erased from history. A renowned artists model, Audrey Munson was celebrated in the early 20th century as 'the American Venus' and 'the world’s most perfectly formed woman'. She posed for many Beaux Arts statues and monuments across the United States and is the largest female figure in New York City after the Statue of Liberty, towering 25 feet above the Municipal Building opposite City Hall.

Sculptures of her posing as goddesses, nymphs, angels and heroines also stand outside the Brooklyn and Frick Museums, New York Public Library and the Pulitzer fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, plus many others across the U.S.

At the height of her fame she moved in high society and dated millionaires.
Munson began appearing in silent films during the industry’s nascence and is credited as the first woman to appear naked in a film. So how did she end up dying alone and forgotten in a mental asylum where she had been incarcerated for decades?

One of the most compelling things I found about Munson was that she was a woman very much ahead of her time. An early feminist, she campaigned for women's right to vote and transgressed societal norms: eschewing corsets and high heels and celebrating the female form in its natural state.

However, Munson’s beauty, fame and celebrity were to prove ephemeral. Her career became tarnished by scandal, engagements were broken off and she was cheated out of money owed to her. Eventually she was reduced to working as waitress in a diner.

Ominously, her life’s trajectory followed a gypsy fortune teller’s prediction given to her as a young woman. The gypsy foresaw her achieving wealth and acclaim but “when you think happiness is yours, its fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth”. For the rest of her life Munson believed she was cursed.

What struck me most, reading about her fascinating and ultimately tragic life, was the huge price she paid for her beauty. On the one hand she was exalted and rewarded for being a sex goddess but on the other hand she was exploited and punished for the same power she had over the opposite sex. I found it very disturbing how much sexism, misogyny and censorship played a part in her downfall in what were still very repressive times to be a woman. I am glad that she is now getting the recognition that she deserves.

Title: The curse of beauty : the scandalous & tragic life of Audrey Munson, America's first supermodel 
Author: James Bone

Also recommended: Empty mansions : the mysterious life of Huguette Clark and the spending of a great American fortune / Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr. 

Karen I likes reading memoirs and biographies about people with interesting and unusual lives because she spends a lot of time reading and doesn't get out much.

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