David Crumpler| Florida Times-Union
Audrey Munson has been called America’s first supermodel.
Her softly chiseled face and classically beautiful figure made Munson the most sought-after muse of her day.
At the height of her celebrity — in the early part of the 20th century — she was in demand by a multitude of sculptors and painters in New York.
Today, her image can be still found around the country: in the fountain representing Beauty outside the entrance to the New York Public Library, in the Peace Monument in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, and the figure representing Enlightenment in the North Pediment of the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, to name just a few. There are locator maps of Manhattan, in fact, identifying more than a dozen statues for which Munson served as the model.
There was even a time when her image could even be found in the nation’s money supply. Munson was the model for Lady Liberty on the U.S. Walking Liberty Half Dollar, and perhaps the Winged Liberty Head on the Mercury Dime as well.
Munson also has a local connection, to the surprise of some Jacksonville residents with a keen interest in the city’s history.
She was the model for the central figure in the monument dedicated to the “Women of the Southland” in Confederate Park in Springfield — and perhaps too the bronze sculpture positioned atop the monument.
Munson began posing for artists about 1910, and worked steadily for almost a decade. She also appeared in several movies, and in 1915, became the first woman to appear nude in an American film.
But a personal scandal stemming from her association with a married man brought her career to an abrupt end.
Later, she began to show signs of mental illness. In 1931, at the age of 40, Munson was committed to a state psychiatric asylum in upstate New York, where she remained until her death in 1996 at the age of 104.
The combination of beauty, art, celebrity and tragedy has made Munson the subject of several books. The most recent, published in 2016, is “The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous and Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel,” by James Bone.
But her connection with Jacksonville didn’t seem to be part of the local conversation until a small group of tourists from Syracuse, N.Y., got the ball rolling in late October.
SEEKING ‘DIGNAN PARK’
Gary Sass, president of AdLib Luxury Tours &Transportation, was giving four women a driving tour of Jacksonville. They had requested a “flexible tour,” an option Sass offers where he tries to cater to the client’s personal interests.
One of the women asked Sass to take them to Dignan Park. “I have a relative who was the model for the statue there,” Sass said she told him.
Sass paused. Dignan Park sounded familiar, but he had to think for a moment.
“Then I realized she was talking about Confederate Park,” he said. But when it opened in 1907, it was named to honor the former chairman of the city’s Board of Public Works.
When the “Women of the Southland” monument, commonly known as the Women of the Confederacy monument, was completed in 1915, Dignan Park was renamed Confederate Park.
The woman from Syracuse was a distant relative of Munson’s, Sass learned, but she was quite knowledgeable about the once-famous model.
Sass was taken with the connection between Munson and the statue, and followed up with some research of his own. He, in turn, shared the information in an email to Joel McEachin, the city’s historic preservation planner.
In the email, Sass noted with gentle amusement the irony — that the model for a monument to Confederate women was, in fact, a Yankee.
McEachin forwarded the email to Chris Farley, a Springfield resident and currently treasurer of the Springfield Improvement Association and Archives. Farley contacted Jeff Gardner, the group’s director and a Springfield resident as well, knowing he would also have a strong interest in Munson and any Jacksonville connection.
The detective work was about to begin.
THE WOMAN AND ‘THE WOMEN’
“I started doing research right away,” Gardner said. So did Farley.
Coincidentally, Farley mentioned Munson to a friend when they were making dinner plans. The woman told Farley she had read a book about her.
Gardner eventually accessed Bone’s book “The Curse of Beauty,” which mentioned the link between Munson and the statue in the first chapter.
The statue’s sculptor was Allen Newman, who is perhaps best known for “The Hiker,” a statue of a slouching Spanish-American War soldier first installed as part of a memorial in Providence, R.I.
Newman was among the many New York artists Munson posed for. Gardner said there was nothing incompatible about a group of Confederate veterans and officials from the state of Florida doing business with an artist in the Northeast when they commissioned the monument destined for Jacksonville.
“They wanted the best statues,” he said. They chose [Newman] because they wanted the best.”
As a result of their own digging, Gardner and Farley are confident that Munson was the model for the sculpture of the woman with a child in each arm. And the facial features, they pointed out, are identical.
They also are convinced that she posed for the statue atop the monument, 60 feet above the ground.
It’s not something they’ve been able to confirm, but they repeated that conviction during a recent trip to the park, with photocopies of images of Munson in hand.
“That’s Audrey’s nose, definitely,” Gardner said, comparing the two.
“She’s gorgeous,” Farley said.
Munson’s face and body were right for the beaux arts style of the day, Gardner said. But in an ever-changing world of art — and celebrity — her look eventually went out of style. There was also the matter of the scandal she became caught up in.
Munson was implicated as the “other woman” in a love triangle and murder. In the 1919 case, a Manhattan doctor was believed to have fallen in love with her and killed his wife so he could marry Munson.
She and her mother left New York, but after a nationwide hunt they were located and questioned. Munson denied any romantic involvement with the doctor, who was tried, found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair.
He hanged himself in prison before the sentence could be carried out.
After her fall from grace, Munson’s deteriorating mental state came to define much of the remainder of her life.
ENRICHING THE STORY
After Newman completed the sculpture, he wrote to the group that commissioned it.
“When the Greeks wished to honor a divinity they made a statue of her or him and built a temple around it.
“The design of the monument to the Women of the South, for which I have had the honor of furnishing the enshrined sculpture, has always suggested this sentiment to me and I have approached the subject from this attitude of reverence.”
He concluded the letter with, “So in brief the group represents the Woman of the South, instructing future generations, as well as showing her the most privileged guardian of the home ties.”
To Farley, the monument’s plaque makes its purpose clear: It reads, “In Memory of the Women of the Southland.”
“The idea behind it was to commemorate the women who lost sons, brothers and husbands,” she said. “They kept the home fires burning.”
The connection between Munson and the statue, or statues, in Confederate Park “makes the story richer,” Gardner said. “Like any artwork, you want to know more.”
“As a tour guide, you try to relate to people and connect with clients,” Sass said. “It’s a great little tidbit to share on a tour, and that they can relate to as they go back home.”
David Crumpler: (904) 359-4164