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‘American Muse’ story of beauty from Oswego County carved in stone, forgotten in memory

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Audrey Munson left a legacy of beauty when she died alone in 1996 at the age of 105 at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.

It’s a legacy forged in stone, marble and bronze — staying power for the woman who is barely remembered in the north country. But the life story of Miss Munson is being revived in a new stage production.

Her beauty is scattered across the country — especially in New York City, where more than a dozen statues bear her likeness. One in Saratoga Springs, “The Spirit of Life,” is the city’s iconic symbol. All capture Miss Munson’s “perfect, classic figure” from her heyday, when she was known as “the Modern Venus” and “Divine Audrey.”

She was also an early film star, one of the first actresses to appear nude in a movie. In that 1915 production, “Inspiration,” Miss Munson portrayed a model posing for an artist. The movie’s producers convinced censors that it was art, not obscenity.

Also in 1915, she was selected to be the primary model for sculptures and murals for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, where the Kansas City Star noted she was being called “The Most Perfectly Formed Woman in the World.”

Audrey Munson was the model for one of the gems in the coin-collecting world: the Walking Liberty half dollar, first minted in 1916. She’s seen close up on the Mercury dime.

How the career of the Mexico, Oswego County, native flourished and crashed is the subject of a new musical drama, “American Muse” by Dr. Elaine Kuracina, a Potsdam dentist, playwright and actress.

The production is an update of a multimedia play Dr. Kuracina co-produced in 2009 with SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Miss Munson is played by Imman Merdanovic, a native of Bosnia-Herzegovina who is a communications and theater major at St. Lawrence University, Canton. She has been a finalist in the European version of the “X Factor” TV show.

“American Muse,” presented by Canton-based Grasse River Players, will be staged at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Russell Opera House, on the upper level of the town office building, 4 Pestle St. Part of the proceeds will benefit the opera house renovation project.

It will also be presented at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Saratoga Arts Center. All proceeds will benefit “The Spirit of Life,” a statue in Congress Park in the city that memorializes Spencer Trask, a financier, philanthropist and venture capitalist who died in 1909.

Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation, said Mr. Trask worked tirelessly on behalf of the city and in particular to preserve its springs.

“It serves as an important reminder to give back to the community,” she said of “The Spirit of Life.”

A familiar face

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Dr. Kuracina first came across the likenesses of Miss Munson when she was a student at New York City’s Barnard College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in music. Dr. Kuracina, who would later graduate from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, said she noticed several statues all around New York City that seemed to have the same features of a particular woman. They range from the archway of the Manhattan Bridge to the Firemen’s Memorial on Riverside Drive.

“I never thought about the statues I saw as being formed from a real person, posing,” Dr. Kuracina said.

In 2007, her husband, Lawrence Brehm, a physics professor at SUNY Potsdam, read a New York Times article that mentioned a book about Audrey Munson, “Queen of the Artists’ Studios,” by artist Andrea Geyer.

“When I heard about how this famous model ended up in the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, I was hooked on finding out how that happened,” Dr. Kuracina said.

“American Muse” tells how that happened through drama, dance and video projections of statuary.

The Grasse River Players will be joined by three dancers from SUNY Potsdam in Russell. The Saratoga Springs shows will have 10 dancers from Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs.

Dr. Kuracina, the play’s writer, director and producer, said “American Muse” differs from her 2009 production in several ways.

“The 2009 version featured dance numbers which chronicle the rise of dance through the century of Audrey’s life,” Dr. Kuracina said. “The new version has (eight) original songs and more elaborate video and projections. Dancers are integrated as bird symbols and pose as statues.”

Dr. Kuracina wrote “American Muse” under the “guidance and mentorship” of Kimberly A. Bouchard, associate professor of theater and dance at SUNY Potsdam. Dr. Kuracina, who also wrote the original songs, said Ms. Bouchard was a tremendous resource.

“She guided me, helped me with character development and gave me some ideas about how to morph time from one period to another,” Dr. Kuracina said. “My idea was to have old Audrey remembering her youth as a famous New York City model.”

A discovery

According to a biography written by Nancy E. Searles, the late New Haven, Oswego County, historian, Audrey Munson was born in Mexico in 1891 to Edgar and Katherine “Kittie” Mahaney Munson, although some records say she was born in Rochester. Mrs. Searles wrote that Miss Munson attended Mexico Academy but left the village in 1906 to move with her mother, who had divorced, to New York City.

“Her father had abandoned her and her mother for a younger woman,” Dr. Kuracina said.

Despite the move, Miss Munson loved the north country.

“I have visited Belleville, Adams, Mexico and Watertown many times, and with its lovely scenery, I have often regretted that its businessmen have not organized a film company to work among scenes familiar to me,” Miss Munson told the Watertown Daily Times in the spring of 1919.

Mrs. Searles wrote that Miss Munson was discovered by a professional photographer in New York City who passed her on the street.

The 2007 New York Times article by Saki Knafo offered more detail:

“Her mother, a Catholic, accompanied her daughter to a photographer’s studio. When the photographer asked Audrey to undress, the elder Munson, who had been supporting herself and her daughter on her meager earnings as a worker in a corset factory, did not object.”

So began a career as a model for sculptures ranging from the figure above the Wisconsin state capitol dome to a depiction of the Venus de Milo made for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

Miss Munson’s classical Greek look, so attractive to sculptors and filmmakers, was a beauty that she shared but did not flaunt.

“I detest false modesty,” Miss Munson is quoted as saying in a synopsis in the Internet Movie Database. “For my part, I see nothing shocking in our unclothed bodies.”

Dr. Kuracina compares that sentiment to today’s headlines.

“I get a big kick out of celebrities today,” Dr. Kuracina said. “They get so upset when nude photos of them appear on the Internet. Then I think of Audrey and how she posed nude because she did it for art, and was proud of the fact.”

The sort of purity that Miss Munson exhibited is a theme in “American Muse.”

“Themes came together and helped me develop my characters and their situations,” Dr. Kuracina said. “Everything in the play is true.”

“Purity” also happens to be the name of the only surviving film out of about a half dozen in which Ms. Munson starred. It was released in 1916.

Three years later, her career began a decline.

a murder, a downfall

Miss Munson and her mother were boarders at the home of Dr. Walter Keene Wilkins in New York City. But they gave up their lease shortly before Dr. Wilkins’s wife was murdered at the couple’s home on Long Island in 1919.

Police suspected Dr. Wilkins murdered his wife to be with Miss Munson. The model became annoyed that police wanted to question her about the murder and about the private life of Dr. Wilkins.

She was eventually questioned while she was in Toronto, but she was never connected to the murder. Dr. Wilkins, who said he and his wife were robbed before her death, was found guilty of his wife’s murder on June 28, 1919. He hanged himself in his jail cell a few days later.

Canceled film contracts for Miss Munson followed the episode.

“In 1922, Audrey and her mother returned to the Mexico area due to her tarnished image and ruined career,” Mrs. Searles, the historian, wrote. “She was broke, tired and depressed.”

That same year, she attempted suicide. The Watertown Daily Times reported she swallowed poison shortly after receiving a telegram. The paper said she was expected to marry a Joseph J. Stevenson of Ann Arbor, Mich. “It is believed the wire may have come from him,” the paper said.

She recovered, but never regained a vigor for life. A 1926 article in the Watertown Daily Times said Miss Munson remained “in the squalor of her little home at Mexico” and appeared “haggard in appearance and broken in spirit.” Some reports said that she sold kitchen utensils door to door.

In 1931, she was committed to the Ogdensburg Psychiatric Institution for depression and schizophrenia. She lived there for 65 years.

Julie A. Manders, who plays Dr. Wilkins’s wife in “American Muse,” was an employee of the facility, which later became known as St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, when Miss Munson was a patient there.

Ms. Manders worked at the center from 1981 to 2013. In the play, she also plays a nurse at the center. In real life, she worked there as a dance therapist.

“I didn’t actually work with her, but I knew who she was,” Ms. Manders said. “There was this big mall area where the patients could go out and hang around. I saw her out there several times.”

In the early 20th century, people were committed to mental institutions much more readily than today.

“It could be for nothing,” Ms. Manders said. “She was in our hospital for a long time, probably for an unwarranted length of stay. These days, nobody would be in a hospital for 65 years.”

But Miss Munson may have not had anyplace else to go. One report says her mother died in 1958 and is buried in Oswego. Miss Munson never married.

“She needed someplace, and that’s where they put depressed middle-age women,” Ms. Manders said.

Audrey Munson was buried in the New Haven Cemetery in Oswego County at the foot of her father and her stepmother, Emma Munson.

A great irony is cast over the famed model’s resting place: It is a grave with no memorial.

The details

WHAT: “American Muse,” a musical/drama by Dr. Elaine Kuracina

WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, at the Russell Opera House in the Russell Town Hall, 4 Pestle St. General admission tickets are available at the door for $8. Part of the proceeds will benefit the restoration of the theater. It will also be staged at the Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 4, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5. All proceeds will benefit the Spencer Trask Memorial restoration project. The memorial features the statue “The Spirit of Life.”

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