One silver dollar bore the profile of a Philadelphia schoolteacher. Another, a young bride. In between, a silver half dollar featured a professional figure model who briefly dabbled in silent movies.
It was designed by prominent sculptor A.A. Weinman for a 1916 coinage competition. The U.S. Mint reprised his winning motif of a full-length Liberty Walking 70 years later. The classical figure is the obverse for the stunning American Silver Eagle dollar series that debuted in 1986.
But who was the 1916 model? Did she also pose for Weinman’s other winning silver coin design, the Winged Liberty Head dime? And, what happened to her?
Born in 1891 in Rochester, NY, Audrey Munson possessed the classical form sought by sculptors since Ancient Greece. Around 500 B.C., Polyclitus proposed ideal beauty could be achieved by applying mathematical proportions to parts of the human body, both at rest and in motion. A young Audrey came by those ratios naturally.
Standing at a willowy five feet, eight inches tall, her features were, according to the Polyclitus standard, symmetrical. Audrey had a high brow, chiseled cheekbones, an almond-shaped jawline and a neoclassical nose. Her flawless skin was alabaster white.
With Audrey’s father doling out little in child support and alimony, the divorced Kittie Munson took her lissome teenager to New York City to find her work. Audrey and Kittie were part of a trend emerging as the arts and entertainment industry blossomed at the turn of the century: Children with stage mothers, who saw in their talented offspring a way to make money. Minnie Palmer managed her sons as a family comedy act, the Marx Brothers; Charlotte Hennessey, her daughter, Mary Pickford, the stage actor who would seamlessly transition to the screen.
While Audrey did land small roles in Broadway chorus lines, a chance encounter with a photographer changed how she supported herself and her mother. With a portfolio and the photographer’s connections, Audrey found more steady work as a figure model. Sculptor Isidore Konti was reportedly so captivated by her classical features that he asked the guileless nineteen-year-old to pose nude. She obliged.
On meeting Audrey, Weinman is to have said “You look as if you should pose all the time. You are quite Grecian and yet you seem to have the warmth of emotion the modern public likes to see in its models.”
Long-time coin collectors know Weinman’s Liberty Walking design won the 1916 competition for the silver half dollar. So did his other winning design, the Winged Liberty Head dime. But did Audrey pose for the ten-cent piece, too?
Queen of the Artists’ Studios
America’s Beaux Arts movement was reaching a crescendo with its manifestations of classical themes from Greece and Rome. Cities were pouring money into commissions for grand public statues to rival those found in Europe. Audrey was so in demand as a figure model for New York City statues, she earned the nickname “Miss Manhattan.”
Then, in 1916, Weinman wanted to enter the U.S. Treasury’s nationwide competition for new coinage designs. With a diameter of slightly more than 1.2”, the half dollar gave Weinman space for a full-length Lady Liberty. He had Audrey pose clothed and walking towards a rising sun, her right arm welcoming and outstretched, her left holding oak branches as symbols of strength and the national tree. A U.S. flag fluttered in the background like a mantle around her shoulders.
Just a year earlier, Audrey signed her first of four contracts to pose – disrobed – in silent films as action occurred around her. Following the path of Mary Pickford, daughter and mother soon moved to California in hopes of building Audrey a more lucrative film career. To raise her visibility, Audrey took to writing a column in Sunday newspaper supplements. In one, she wrote that clothing “…[does] harm to our bodies and worse to our soul.”
But Audrey’s career never got beyond posing as the nude model in allegorical art films. In 1919, the daughter-mother pair returned to Manhattan. Fate was waiting.
Audrey and Kittie took a room in a boarding house on West 65th Street. Their landlord was Walter Wilkins, a 67-year-old doctor about whom rumors swirled of an infatuation with the famous artists’ famous model. But jobs weren’t as forthcoming as Wilkins’ advances. And then Wilkins’ wife was found murdered in their Long Island home. The doctor claimed it was a foiled robbery attempt. Just ahead of tabloid headlines, the daughter and mother moved across the St. Lawrence River into Canada where New York police had to go to question the 28-year-old Audrey. She denied any involvement with Wilkins.
Cleared of any wrong-doing, but clearly no longer the fetching ingenue with the ideal Grecian proportions, Audrey’s life spiraled downward. When she turned 40 in 1922, Kittie committed her to the state hospital in Ogdensburg, NY near the St. Lawrence River. Kittie thought it would be a temporary respite and that her daughter could resume earning a living. But Audrey never left.
Tabloid stories that did appear in the following decades hinted at her having been Weinman’s model for his Winged Liberty Head dime. But from the sources listed below, it could have been hospital staff who promoted that connection. Even the family of Elsie Wallace was mounting evidence that the then-new wife of poet Wallace Stevens – the couple rented an apartment from Weinman – was the model for the silver dime profile.
More decades passed. Both the Liberty Walking silver half dollar and the Winged Liberty Head silver dime were finding their way into collectors’ albums as the coins disappeared from circulation, and new designs replaced them. On February 20, 1996, Audrey Munson died at the age of 104. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the New Haven Cemetery in New Haven, NY. Twenty years after her death, private donors raised money to put up a headstone in her memory. A roadside marker was erected in 2015.
A movie is expected on Audrey’s life by the independent film company Felix Culpa, co-founded by Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, Riley Keogh. Meantime, if you collect coins based on their back stories, please share with us in the comments section below. Thanks!