Munson was born in Rochester, New York, in 1891, but moved to Rhode Island in 1897 after her mother and father divorced. However, they returned to New York so Munson could pursue an acting career.
Munson’s big break as a model came in 1906 when she was spotted by the photographer, Ralph Draper, while window shopping with her mother on Fifth Avenue.
She accepted his invitation to pose for him and through him met the sculptor, Isidore Konti, who used her as his model for the three figures in his ‘Three Graces’ for the new Grand Ballroom at the Hotel Astor in Times Square.
That sculpture made Munson America’s first supermodel and for ten years she modelled for many sculptors and artists in the city. In 1913, the newspaper, The Sun, wrote: ‘Over a hundred artists agree that if the name of Miss Manhattan belongs to anyone, in particular, it is to this young woman’.
In 1915, she became the model for the Panama–Pacific International Exposition and posed for three-fifths of the sculptures created for the event by Alexander Stirling Calder and became known as the Panama–Pacific Girl.
Munson’s fame meant that she was also in demand in the early days of cinema and she starred in four silent films, and as the first woman to appear fully nude in a non-pornographic American movie in ‘Inspiration’, the story of a sculptor’s model. And in a twist on the idea of a body-double, Munson posed for the nude scenes but had a lookalike to do the actual acting.
The only surviving Munson movie is the second, ‘Purity’, made in 1916 in California and rediscovered in France in 1993 and now part of the French national cinema archive.
Munson returned to the East Coast and was feted by high society, but became dogged by scandal. Her movie career was flagging and she planned a move to England to revive it. She and her mother were living in a boarding house owned by one Dr Walter Wilkins who fell madly in love with Munson and murdered his wife in the deluded belief that the two might then marry.
Munson and her mother had left the city before the murder but were wanted for questioning. They were finally tracked down in Toronto and their statements have never been released, but Munson denied any romantic relationship with Wilkins who was found guilty of his wife’s murder and hanged himself in his cell before his death sentence could be carried out.
Unable to find work, Munson was living in Syracuse in 1920, supported by her mother who sold kitchen utensils door-to-door. Then in 1921, she starred in her final film, ‘The Heedless Moth’, based on the story of her life serialised in newspapers across America.
The psychological cracks were beginning to show and in 1922 Munson attempted suicide by swallowing bichloride of mercury. On her 40th birthday, her mother petitioned for her to be committed to a lunatic asylum. She was to remain in the St Lawrence State Hospital for the Insane for 65 years until her death in 1996 at the age of 104.
She was buried without a gravestone in New Haven Cemetery until her family erected a simple memorial earlier this year. However, Munson’s true memorial stones are to be found in the many statues of her on the streets of New York shown in the video below.