Audrey of Washington Square

by Michael Walsh

Courtesy of Glenn Reynolds, the great Instapundit, this link to a fascinating story in The Daily about the fabulous Audrey Munson, the “American Venus” and “Queen of the Artists,” who inspired a host of sculptures in and around New York City and won everlasting cinematic fame as the first woman to appear without her knickers in a major motion picture:

Dreamy and pale, slender and softly curved, Audrey played muse to a generation of New York City sculptors at the turn of the 20th century. Her undraped figure still graces Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum and the Municipal Building…

Audrey was 15 when her career began. Decades later, she recalled the not-so-gentle nudging of artist Adolph Weinman, best known today for designing coins for the U.S. Mint, to persuade her to undress for him: “Do you think I can tell anything about a woman with her clothes on?” And though she agonized later over her decision to disrobe — “I am just a model, just so many pounds of flesh and blood. He will not be scanning Audrey, the girl — but just a girl, the model” — she consented…

Soon after her debut in stone, she became the “queen of the artists’ studios.” Sculptors were commissioned by New York’s new rich and by the booming city itself, building, in accordance with Beaux Arts sensibility, works intended to convey strength and wealth and taste. The sculptors clamored for Audrey, praising her classical proportions and her modern, expressive face.

She was asked to personify, among other notions, memory, peace, abundance, mourning, industry, beauty, and America. Her statues still dot her city, from the Firemen’s Memorial in Riverside Park to the Brooklyn Museum. Daniel Chester French, sculptor of “Memory” and later of Lincoln for the president’s Washington, D.C., memorial, called her ethereal. 

That she was. Audrey was born and/or raised in my old stomping grounds of Rochester, New York, (amazing, en passant, how many significant figures in early 20th century American history came from the old Flour City) around 1891. She died in 1996, having spent the last 65 years of her life in an asylum after the failure of her silent-movie career, a scandal, and a suicide attempt. You can find a list of the statues Audrey posed for at this link, which includes a couple of period photographs of la Munson doing what God gave her a birthday suit to do. 

What especially interested me about this item is, upon reflection, it seems clear that Audrey was also the inspiration for the song “Rose of Washington Square,” written in 1919 by James F. Hanley and Ballard MacDonald. The song exists in both a straight and a gag version, the former lyrics all perfumed mock-Victoriana and the second set, well, take a look:

I’m Rosie, the queen of the models,
I used to live up in the Bronx,
but I wander’d from there down to Washington Square,
and Bohemian Honky Tonks.
One day I met Harrison Fisher,
said he, “You’re like roses, the stems,
I want you to pose for a picture 
On the cover of ‘Jim Jam Jems’”.
And that’s how I first got my start,
now my life is devoted to art, they call me:, 

Rose of Washington Square.
I’m withering there, in basement air I’m fading.
Pose with or without my clothes?
They say my turned up nose,
It seems to please artistic people.
Beaux, I’ve plenty of those.
With second-hand clothes, and nice long hair!
I’ve got those Broadway vampires lashed to the mast.
I’ve got no future, but oh! What a past.
I’m Rose of Washington Square.

(If for some indefensible reason you are unfamiliar with Jim Jam Jems, once published in Bismarck, N.D., and the “official magazine of the bar flies of America,” you can learn all about it here.)

Better yet, through the magic of the Wayback Machine, aka You Tube, listen to Billy Murray sing it:

Love the reference to Rube Goldberg, too. What a marvelous country this once was. So the next time you are circumambulating the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon, take a closer look at that naked lady immortalized in bronze or stone, and thank Audrey Munson for the civic gift of her beauty. 

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