The first was the now-lost 1915 movie, “Inspiration.” In the 1980s, Bowers was researching the history of the studio that made it, Thanhouser. He was determined to trace the lives of as many studio figures as possible. Miraculously, he found Audrey Munson.
“She was still alive,” Bowers told me.
Munson was in a mental hospital in Ogdensburg, N.Y., across the St. Lawrence River from Canada. She had been committed to the asylum in 1931. Munson lived there until her death in 1996 at age 104.
Said Bowers, who lives in New Hampshire: “She lived what I call a tragic life, a life that could have been happier.”
I was hoping for a happy ending for this groundbreaking woman, who inspired artists as a model then appeared unashamedly nude in movies, including 1916’s “Purity,” written by Washington author Clifford Howard.
The people who made those films insisted they were not smut but art. If Munson was naked in them, well so were maidens in beloved paintings and sculptures.
Alas, there was no happy ending for Audrey.
“After ‘Purity,’ she had a breakdown,” James Bone, the London-based author of “The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel,” told me.
Munson was cheated by movie producers. Then in 1919, the landlord of the Long Island, N.Y., boardinghouse she and her mother, Kittie, lived in murdered his wife, allegedly because of his obsession with Audrey. Scandal ensued.
None of this helped Munson’s fragile mental state.
Said Bone: “My take is she was a vulnerable girl from a very poor background, boosted into the spotlight — like so many Hollywood stars — who collapsed under the spotlight. She’s the first Hollywood burnout, really.”
As a model and actress who appeared unclothed, Munson was especially susceptible to the predations of men.
“She was abused in vaudeville and abused and ripped off in Hollywood, shamelessly,” Bone said. “And the shocking thing isn’t that she was abused and ripped off in Hollywood in 1915 and 1916. The shocking thing is it’s still the same now.”
But Munson was also clearly mentally ill. In her 20s, she became virulently anti-Semitic, convinced that Jewish millionaires had stolen her money and ruined her career. She wrote letters to Congress demanding it pass a bill to protect her from “being persecuted by Hebrews.”
On Munson’s 40th birthday, her mother had her committed, claiming that Audrey experienced depression, delusions and hallucinations.
Munson was dead by the time Bone began work on his book, but through a relative of hers, he was able to see a photo of the older Audrey. It was taken in the mental hospital on her 100th birthday. I asked if he could still tell it was her, eight decades after her initial fame.
“Yes, you could,” Bone said. “She definitely had a sweetness in her features — a kind of innocent sweetness, not a come-hither sweetness at all … She still looked great.”
What became of the others involved in Munson’s life? Clifford Howard, the Washington author who wrote “Purity,” worked on a few more films but none after the rise of the talkies, Bone said. Howard died in 1942. His daughter, Hildegarde, became an avian paleontologist, expert in the fossilized birds found in the La Brea Tar Pits.
Louis Brownlow, the D.C. commissioner who banned “Purity” in Washington in 1916, guided the city through the 1918 flu pandemic, closing schools and prohibiting large gatherings. He stepped down as a commissioner in 1920. Later, at the direction of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Brownlow led the effort to reorganize the executive branch. He became a respected expert on public administration and died in 1963.
“Purity,” the movie that caused all the fuss, returned to Washington in 1917 and was shown at the Casino Theater. I found multiple newspaper ads for it but not a single article about any accompanying controversy. I suspect most of the nudity had been edited out of this version.
Audrey Munson lives on in dozens of works of art for which she modeled, but not, it turns out, on Adolph Weinman’s Mercury dime. In the mental hospital, the staff called Munson “the dime girl,” but in fact the model was Elsie Kachel Stevens, wife of poet Wallace Stevens.
Munson was the model for another Weinman work, a stunning sculpture called “Descending Night.” A bronze copy is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
And just inside the gates of the McMillan Reservoir, a block off North Capitol Street, you will find Audrey Munson in triplicate. Herbert Adams’s monumental fountain honoring Sen. James McMillan depicts her as the Three Graces.
The bronze fountain has seen better days. It’s not functional and one figure is missing some fingertips. But as I looked at it the other day, I tried to imagine the beautiful, troubled woman who was its inspiration.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.