- Architect: Thomas Hastings; Sculpture: Karl Bitter, Isidore Conti
- Date: 1916
- Location: Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets.
The exquisite female figure atop the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel is an allegorical depiction of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruitful abundance. Symbolizing bounty, she holds a basket of fruit as the water pours out into the pools below decorated by rams’ heads and horns of plenty.
This impressive fountain is a creation of sculptor Karl Bitter, one of the most respected and prominent sculptors in the country, and architect Thomas Hastings of the noted New York architectural firm Carrère and Hastings. It stands in the middle of the Grand Army Plaza, also designed by Karl Bitter. Manhattan’s grid did not provide room for European looking plazas, making this one quite unique in the city of streets and avenues.
Karl Bitter’s life and career were tragically aborted in an unfortunate accident that happened while the sculptor worked on the statue of Pomona. One fateful day in 1915, when the work on the plaster model was finished, he decided to celebrate by taking his wife to the Metropolitan Opera. The sculptor worked in his studio in Weehawken, and this trip across the Hudson River to Manhattan turned out to be his last. As the couple exited the opera house after the performance, they were struck by an automobile. The sculptor saved his wife’s life by pushing her out of the way. But Bitter himself, succumbing to his injuries, died in the hospital the next morning.
After his death, Karl Bitter left only a 24 in. (61 cm) “sketch model” and a full “staff model” of Pomona made of plaster. The work of making the actual statue fell to his friend and colleague, sculptor Isidore Konti.
The model for Pomona was Ms. Audrey Munson who, owning to her flawless beauty, was known as the American Venus. Her perfect body and classical features appear in many sculptures all over New York City. Her uncanny ability to strike and hold a dramatic pose made her the sculptors’ favorite model of her time. Audrey Munson’s fate is more unbelievable than any made-up tale. After being discovered by chance she meteorically rose to celebrity status, enjoying notoriety, admiration, money and plenty of modeling work. Her career started to falter when she took off her clothes not for sculptors but for the camera, becoming the first woman in America to star nude on the silver screen. The scandal that effectively ended her career was caused by a man who, obsessed with Audrey, murdered his wife. Audrey Munson ended up in a mental institution at the age of 40 and spent there the next 64 years of her life. Ms. Munson died in 1996 at the age of 104.
Another beauty, actress Dorothy Doscher, claimed that it was her glorious body that graced the fountain while Ms. Munson only provided her head. Dorothy Doscher was, in fact, Karl Bitter’s original model and up until the end of her life maintained that she was “the original Lady of the Plaza.” Karl Bitter most likely used both models. After Bitter’s tragic death, the work was finished by Isidore Konti, who only used Audrey Munson for his final product.
The undisputed fact remains that the final sculpture featured a perfect female body that delighted all but caused quite a bit of distress to one person – the poor, proper Alice Vanderbilt. Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s widow resided in the largest private residence in New York City at the corner of 5th Avenue and 58th streets and used to enjoy an unobstructed view of Central Park through her north-facing bedroom windows. Offending Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sensibilities, the view was now interrupted by Pomona’s glorious posterior. Despite the fact that this particular part of the model’s anatomy was widely appreciated, as Ms. Munson’s famous lower back dimples were considered a rare mark of beauty, Alice Vanderbilt clearly did not enjoy the view and moved her bedroom to another part of the house.
The fountain carries the name of Joseph Pulitzer. One of the great American immigrant success stories, Joseph Pulitzer came to the US from Hungary and, having started his career as a humble reporter, ended up as one of the most powerful journalists in the country. Most people recognize the name Pulitzer from the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award for achievement in journalism. The annual prize was underwritten in Pulitzer’s will along with the endowment for the Columbia University School of Journalism. Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911, bequeathed $50,000 for the Pulitzer Fountain, with instructions to create “a fountain like those in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.”
Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s mansion was demolished in 1927, to be replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store. Not offending anyone anymore, the nude slender figure of Pomona still stands over her overflowing basket of fruit, bringing nothing but delight to New Yorkers and the city’s visitors.
- James Bone “The Curse of Beauty: The Scandalous & Tragic Life of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel.”
- The Vintage News “Sad but True: Audrey Munson, America’s first supermodel ended up living in psychiatric asylum for 65 years https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/07/21/audrey-munson/
- New England “Historical Society The Tragedy of Audrey Munson, America’s First Supermodel” http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/tragedy-audrey-munson-americas-first-supermodel
- Vogue “A New Book Tells the Unbelievable Life Story of America’s First Supermodel” https://www.vogue.com/article/the-curse-of-beauty-audrey-munson
- Untapped Cities “Audrey Munson: The Most Visible New York Woman You Don’t Know” https://untappedcities.com/2016/04/15/audrey-munson-the-most-visible-new-york-woman-you-dont-know/
- 99% Invisible “Miss Manhattan” https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/miss-manhattan/
One Comment Add yours
A terrific story with such a nuanced balance of tragedy and comedy. The most enjoyable read.