Image may contain Back Human and Person

Amber Valletta.

Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, 1996

MY NOSE WOULDN’T STOP BLEEDING. It was the frigid winter of 2019, and I was standing outside the Brooklyn Museum in front of a statue of a woman carved from granite. Her neck was strong, her arms thick. Our chins were both held high–hers with confidence, mine to stop the blood. Chronic nosebleeds had long been a childhood affliction, but at 28, I thought I’d grown out of them.

Moments earlier, I had run into my former piano instructor. “Didn’t your father just die?” he asked. “How old was he? Were you with him?”

“Eight months ago,” I said, shivering. “He was 85. I was holding his hand.”

From there, he deflected, talking about the recent passing of his dog. And then he’d said, “Well, 85. That’s a pretty good run, isn’t it?”

The last time I’d seen my piano instructor, he’d asked me if I’d lost my virginity yet. I was 15. My father picked me up from our lesson that day and sensed something was off. “He asked me questions” was all I said. My father never took me back. Now my father was gone, and this man was staring at my mouth. “Your nose is bleeding,” he said.

My parents met at Mortimer’s in New York City in 1982—my father, John Granger, a British tailor on a business trip from London and my mother, Irit Goldman, a copywriter 21 years his junior. After four years of long-distance dating, they married, my mother moved to London, and they had me.

At the time, my father owned a tailoring shop called Norton & Sons on London’s Savile Row. As a child, I spent hours sitting on his cutting bench. He’d whoop as he rolled giant lengths of tweed my way. I’d catch the bolts and watch his hands guide heavy shears through the cloth, the light through his shop window reflecting off his wedding ring. The ring was made from three interlocked bands–my mother, my father, and me.

When I was eight, my parents told me we were moving to a small town in Connecticut. My maternal grandmother had leukemia, and my mother wanted to be close to her; my father would stay in London with the tailoring business. I had one condition: I’d go to America if I could wear a suit. My father said the cost of fabric and labor was too great, but my mother knew he was prone to giving in to me, so she took me to the boys section of a John Lewis department store. I picked a suit and tie that reminded me of my father. Recently I saw a class picture taken on the first day of third grade in America. The boys are wearing T-shirts, and the girls are wearing dresses. I’m standing in my suit next to them on the bleachers, and I’ve never looked prouder. Later that day, a group of boys sprayed salad dressing all over me. I went crying to my mom. Why had she let me wear a suit to school? “You gave us no choice,” she said. Six months later, my father sold his business and followed us to Connecticut.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I was working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter. The day after I got the phone call, I moved back to Connecticut, where my parents were still settled. My father had adjusted well to life in America, spending his time fly-fishing, wearing blue jeans, and tending his garden. Over the next two years, my mother and I sat next to him through 21 rounds of chemo, but the cancer still spread to his bones. We weren’t sure how much longer this would go on. A friend called me from L.A. “It’s time to get back to your life,” he said and offered me a job writing for his new television show. Through tears, my father told me I needed to take the job and hold on to the good memories. On my first day at work, I FaceTimed my parents from my new office. I could see the Hollywood sign. My name was on the door. Perhaps my father took this as permission to go. One week later, my mother called. He’d fallen into a rapid decline. I flew home that night, and he died the next day.

EIGHT MONTHS LATER, the show went on hiatus and I moved to Brooklyn to stay with a man I’d been seeing. We had met on set—Jack was filling in for someone in the camera department. He never knew my father, but he’d listened patiently to all the stories I’d told about him. When I trudged up the stairs to his apartment and collapsed into sobs, he dropped his grocery bags to hold me. He’d lost his parents too. He’d gone through chemo with his mother. He knew what it was like.

While Jack worked long days, I’d sit in his apartment doing nothing. My mother was two hours away in Connecticut, but she was grieving in her own way—staying as busy as possible. My friends were supportive, but their worlds had kept spinning while mine seemingly stood still. That’s when walking became my distraction. I walked till I was numb. The day after my seven-mile round trip to the Brooklyn Museum, I walked four and a half miles to the main branch of the New York Public Library.

There I stopped, confronted by a sculpture of a naked woman standing with a horse above a fountain. The resemblance was unmistakable. It was the same woman in granite I’d seen at the Brooklyn Museum. I noticed the definition of her hands and thought about my father’s—his fingers, the cloth, his ring. Inside the library I started to research, reading through dusty microfiche. Both sculptors had used a model by the name of Audrey Munson.

Munson was born in 1891, in Rochester, New York. When she was a teen, she and her mother relocated to Manhattan in pursuit of Munson’s dreams of becoming an actress. One day, while window-shopping on Fifth Avenue, she was discovered by a photographer named Felix Benedict Herzog, who had a studio in the Lincoln Arcade on the Upper West Side—known to house artists and musicians, including Marcel Duchamp and Eugene O’Neill. There Herzog introduced Munson to a few of his friends, which led to her first major job: posing nude for sculptor Isidore Konti. Konti had been struggling with a depiction of the Three Graces; he couldn’t find a model who would do the goddesses justice. Then he met Munson.

At the height of her career, Munson became one of the most sought-after muses of her time. In 1919, a morphine-addicted doctor, also her landlord, murdered his wife with 17 hammer blows. They found a picture of Munson in his belongings. She alleged she’d had no relationship with Dr. Wilkins beyond being his tenant, but the press leaped at the opportunity to blame the controversial nude model for the death of an innocent woman. Soon her reputation was damaged, and she and her mother were forced to move back upstate. In 1922, Munson attempted suicide, and on her 40th birthday, her mother placed her in the St. Lawrence State Hospital. Munson remained there until she died, in 1996, at 104 years old. She was buried in an unmarked grave. She was the subject of hundreds of sculptures—she stands atop Manhattan’s Municipal Building, outside the Plaza Hotel, in Columbus Circle, Central Park, and elsewhere—but if her sculptures are recognized, it is almost always for the artist, not his subject.

I spent days scrolling through old newspapers. I read a series of articles Munson wrote for the Sunday papers, titled “Queen of the Artists’ Studios.” In them, she described the feeling of walking into strange men’s studios and taking off her clothes. In my family, clothes were an expression of elegance and modesty. To my father, daring came in the form of outlandish jacket linings. “It’s boring working on blue pinstripes all the time, so we create diversions,” he used to say. I’d worn his navy pinstripe with its scarlet lining to his funeral. Square shoulders and wide trousers he tailored to fit me—it wasn’t about hugging the figure, it was about alluding to one with drape and structure.

That evening, as I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, my frozen hand clutching a tissue to my face, I thought of my father, placing a cool, damp towel on my forehead whenever my nose bled. A doctor once told us that stress levels cause blood pressure to increase—but my father had a hard time acknowledging my imperfections. Instead he blamed the weather. “It’s a soggy day today,” he’d say. Then he would recall memories of courting my mother by making her suits and measuring britches for the Duke of Edinburgh and a dinner jacket for the King of Spain. On my 20th birthday, he gifted me my first coat. It was long and belted and made from sage-green tweed. He’d sewn a message into the breast pocket. On a tiny cloth label was his nearly illegible script: one thousand stitches of love.

Image may contain Necklace Jewelry Accessories Accessory Human Person Home Decor and Hair

The author, photographed in Brooklyn in August.

Photo: David Cortes

IT TOOK ME ONE WEEK to see every statue of Audrey in the city. On the final day, I walked to three on the Upper West Side and tried to imagine her modeling naked for a roomful of strange men. The next morning, I woke up clutching my father’s ring. It had been hanging from a chain around my neck since the night he died. His ring made me feel his presence so strongly that I’d swing it around to my back when I had sex. I clutched it now because the soft, thin gold had stretched under its own weight into an oval. I’d lost the shape of his finger. And that’s when it struck me. Here I was, 28 years old and swinging his ring around to my back. I remained modest—raised in my father’s old English way. But you’re gone. I thought. You left us.

That night, I walked into a figure-drawing class in Greenpoint. The studio was packed with people working with pencil, charcoal, watercolor, and ink. They drank beer from paper bags, and loud music played. I sat down, and a woman with a shaved head walked onstage. She stood tall, put her hands on her hips, and arched her tattoo-covered back. She let me draw every inch of her body.

When class ended, I approached Joe, the class moderator. “I’m just wondering how you find your models?”

Joe was in the middle of scooping cash from the collections bucket. “Are you interested in modeling?”

He didn’t wait for a response. Instead, he told me he was booked out for months and used only professional models. He didn’t like running the risk of no-shows. I felt both reassured and intimidated by his professionalism. Joe said if I followed him on Instagram, he would let me know if he ever had an opening, but that it was unlikely.

The next morning, I woke up to a message: “I need a model on Monday; would you be interested?”

Without thinking, I typed back, “Yes.”

That weekend, I practiced posing for Jack, but I kept having to stop because practicing was making me panic. Monday rolled around. I texted Jack at work: “Why am I doing this?” He texted back, “You’re very brave.” Then, moments later, “There’s whiskey in the cabinet.”

I showed up at the studio in large jeans and an oversized shirt I’d worn so thin there were holes in it. There was no screen to change behind, so I stood there on the platform, frozen. Joe looked at me, concerned: “Class has begun.” I stepped out of my pants, unbuttoned my shirt, removed my underwear, and neatly folded my clothes, naked. Then I let my hair down and stepped onto the platform, legs quaking, heart pounding in my chest.

Right away, I forgot every pose. My arms ached. I had chosen to balance with my legs crossed and two arms up, like an inept ballet dancer. I wanted to change positions, but the session had already begun. Just then, Jack slipped in through the back. I had invited him but didn’t think he’d make it in time. He came there to support me, but I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. Jack sat down and started to draw.

After 15 quick poses, we took a break. As I hurried to put my clothes back on, I acknowledged Jack but was busy processing my terror. An artist came up to me. “Are you available for private sessions?” he asked. I stared at him and felt a rush of defiance.

I took the stage again. The poses were getting longer. Ten minutes now. Then 20. I stared at a spot on the wall, adrenaline coursing through me, lights bright on my pale body. After one final break, I took the stage for an hour-long pose. I let my eyes blur. Soon, I forgot I was naked at all.

It was 10 p.m. when class ended. Joe handed me $60, and on our way out, I noticed a watercolor. The artist said he was a professional pumpkin carver who sometimes painted murals. I said I was a writer doing this for research. Then I paid him the money I’d earned for his painting and proceeded out into the New York night.

Image may contain Astronaut

“On our way out, I noticed a watercolor.” A portrait of Granger from her modeling session.

Watercolor by Marc Evan

I had done something I never would have done if my father were alive. I had done it because he wasn’t. I was going to one day have a partner and kids he would never meet. I was going to hang a nude picture of myself in my bathroom because he would never see it. I was going to tell my mom that I posed for a roomful of strangers and she would shake her head in disbelief. I was going to walk to a bar with Jack, who would beam with admiration. “I’m so in love with you,” he’d say. I was going to do all these things that felt good and scary to do, and I was going to grow into a person my father might not even recognize.

Once, right before he got sick, I flew home from California. I’d been gone only a few months, but when I approached him in the driveway, he was so surprised that for a second he didn’t know who I was. “Can I help you?” he said. I looked at him, smiling. “It’s me, Dad. It’s your daughter.”

“My God,” he said, stretching his arms out to hug me, “You look just like her.” *Some names and identifying details have been changed.

Source: vogue.com