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The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America's First Supermodel
by James Bone

Published: 2016-04-12
Hardcover : 336 pages
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The tumultuous and heartbreaking life of a world-famous model whose riveting story of beauty, fame, passion, murder, and madness in the Gilded Age captivated a nation.

As America was stepping into the modern era, one great beauty became the artist’s model of choice. Her perfect form ...
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The tumultuous and heartbreaking life of a world-famous model whose riveting story of beauty, fame, passion, murder, and madness in the Gilded Age captivated a nation.

As America was stepping into the modern era, one great beauty became the artist’s model of choice. Her perfect form became the emblem of the Gilded Age and appears on the greatest monuments of New York and the nation. Supermodel, actress, icon—her beauty paved the way for a life of glamour, passion, and ultimately tragedy. She dated the millionaires of the fashionable Newport colony, became the first American movie star ever to appear naked in a film, but her promising film career collapsed, her doctor fell in love with her and killed his own wife, and on her fortieth birthday, her mother committed her to an insane asylum. She remained there until her death in 1996 at the age of 104 and is now buried in an unmarked grave. Her name is Audrey Munson.

Many readers will recognize Audrey Munson, and have walked by her in the street, without even knowing her name. She stands atop New York’s Municipal Building. She sits as “Miss Manhattan” and “Miss Brooklyn” outside the Brooklyn Museum, is immortalized on the Manhattan Bridge, the Frick Mansion, the New York Public Library, and the Pulitzer Fountain outside the Plaza Hotel. In gold, bronze, and stone, she still graces bridges, skyscrapers, fountains, churches, monuments, and public buildings across the nation, from Jacksonville to San Francisco, from Atlanta to the Wisconsin state capitol.

From James Bone, the former New York Bureau Chief of The Times of London, this brilliantly reported investigative biography reveals, for the first time, the riveting truth of the forgotten life of an iconic beauty. 

Editorial Review

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When Audrey Munson was a girl of five, the Gypsy Queen Eliza came to the United States from England. Eliza Cooper was just eighteen but had reigned over 55,000 Roma since succeeding to the throne at the age of ten. Touring the country by train, Queen Eliza stopped in upstate New York to be hosted by Plato Buckland’s thirty-five-strong Gypsy band in East Syracuse. A colorfully painted wagon carried her from the railroad station to the camp on Eastwood Heights, and she was installed with her maidservant in a white tent filled with bright new rugs. In place of a crown, she wore an intricate lace cap on her head. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Audrey was haunted by the words of a Gypsy fortune-teller, who read her palm when she was just 5 years old and spoke the following prophecy:

“You shall be beloved and famous. But when you think that happiness is yours, its Dead Sea fruit shall turn to ashes in your mouth.
You, who shall throw away thousands of dollars as a caprice, shall want for a penny. You, who shall mock at love, shall seek love without finding.
Seven men shall love you. Seven times you shall be led by the man who loves you to the steps of the altar, but never shall you wed.”

Was the gypsy’s curse a self-fulfilling prophecy?

2. Is being beautiful always a blessing? Can you think of other women throughout history who may have been “cursed by beauty”?

3. Do you think Audrey was an early feminist? Why or why not?

4. What does Audrey’s life say about the way society treats women who do not conform to particular roles?

5. Audrey was committed to a mental asylum at the age of 40, and stayed there until her death at age 104. What does Audrey’s treatment tell us about the way mental illness was dealt with in the past, particularly for women? Do we deal with mental illness differently today?

6. Female celebrities today are scrutinized, celebrated and criticized for their physical appearance and the way they present themselves to the world. Can you see any similarities in the treatment of Audrey and the celebrities of today? Which contemporary celebrities in particular have to battle public opinion about their bodies?

7. Broadly.com said The Curse of Beauty is “a tale about the past, but it also reads as a cautionary tale for many of the stars of 2016.” Discuss.

8. What does Audrey’s interaction with the Oelrichs family tell us about American society in the 1920s?

9. How did being involved in the Dr. Wilkin’s scandal impact Audrey’s career? Can you find similarities with any modern day celebrities embroiled in scandal?

10. The Curse of Beauty follows the transformation of the American art world from the great Beaux Arts to the movement of Modernism. How did this change affect Audrey’s career? What does it say about the broader changes in American culture at this time?

11. What do the photos throughout the book tell us about the representation of women in art?

12. Reading Chapter 12, discuss the tension between ‘art’ and ‘pornography’ in the reception of the movie Purity. What other films can you think of that have similar tensions?

Suggested by Members

Do you beieve that Audrey was mentally ill?
by drbeth (see profile) 05/08/17

Why do you think Audrey's family is so protective (or ashamed) of her to this day?
by slamb (see profile) 11/01/16

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Find photos of the monuments Audry posed for.
by drbeth (see profile) 05/08/17

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The Curse of the Beauty"by Shaylee L. (see profile) 11/01/16

It was a very interesting look into the life of an individual I have never heard of before. It really showed what it was like for women in America 100 years ago and how someone can struggle... (read more)

  "The Curse of Beauty"by Mary Beth L. (see profile) 05/08/17

The Curse of Beauty chronicles the life of Audry Munson, the model who posed for sculptors during the Guilded Age of America. Her image can be found on many buildings and historical monument... (read more)

  "Interesting"by Tami P. (see profile) 09/23/16

We felt like this book was like reading a history book in school at some parts. A very interesting time in USA's history.

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