Käsebier, Gertrude (1903), Portrait (Miss N) (photograph)
|Born||Florence Evelyn Nesbit
December 25, 1884
Tarentum, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||January 14, 1967
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
|Occupation||Model, chorus girl, actress|
|Children||Russell William Thaw|
In the early part of the 20th century, the figure and face of Evelyn Nesbit were everywhere, appearing in mass circulation newspaper and magazine advertisements, on souvenir items and calendars, making her a cultural celebrity. Her career began in her early teens in Philadelphia and continued in New York, where she posed for a cadre of respected artists of the era, James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick S. Church, and notably Charles Dana Gibson, who idealized her as a "Gibson Girl". She had the distinction of being an early "live model", in an era when fashion photography as an advertising medium was just beginning its ascendancy.
Nesbit claimed that as a stage performer, and while still a 14-year-old, she attracted the attention of the then 47-year-old architect and New York socialite Stanford White, who first gained the family's trust then sexually assaulted Evelyn while she was unconscious. Nesbit achieved world-wide notoriety when her husband, multi-millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, shot and murdered Stanford White on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, leading to what the press would call "The Trial of the Century".
- 1 Early life
- 2 Modeling career
- 3 Chorus girl and actress
- 4 Relationships
- 5 Harry Kendall Thaw
- 6 Murder of Stanford White
- 7 "The Trial of the Century"
- 8 Child
- 9 Later years
- 10 Death
- 11 Filmography
- 12 Stage
- 13 In popular culture
- 14 See also
- 15 References
- 16 Further reading
- 17 External links
Nesbit was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on December 25, 1884, in Tarentum, a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her actual year of birth remains unconfirmed; her real year of birth may have been 1886. In later years, Nesbit confirmed that her mother at times added several years to her age in order to circumvent child labor laws.[page needed][page needed] She was the daughter of Winfield Scott Nesbit and his wife, née Evelyn Florence McKenzie and was of Scots-Irish ancestry. Legend has it that the newborn girl was so beautiful that neighbors came for months after her birth to gaze at and admire her. Two years later, a son named Howard was born to the family.
Nesbit had an especially close relationship with her father, striving to please him with her accomplishments. Nesbit recognized his daughter's intellectual interests and encouraged her curiosity and self-confidence. Cognizant of her love of reading, he chose books for her to read and set up a small library for her. It contained diverse material, including fairy tales, fantasies, and books regarded as of interest to boys only—the "pluck and luck" stories that were popular in that era. When Nesbit showed an interest in music and dance, he encouraged her to take lessons in those areas. Although Mr. Nesbit displayed no outward favoritism toward either of his children, Nesbit knew she was her father's "star".
The Nesbit family moved to Pittsburgh around 1893. By all accounts, her father, an unambitious attorney, was an affable man and a feckless manager of the family’s finances. Her mother, Evelyn, was an example of the Victorian woman, content to dedicate her adult life to the domestic responsibilities of running a household and raising children. Her father, Winfield died suddenly at age 40 when Evelyn was 11, leaving his family penniless. They lost their home and watched as all their possessions were auctioned off to pay outstanding debts. Mrs. Nesbit was unable to find work to earn money using her dressmaking skills, and a protracted period of time followed where the family existed solely through the charity of family and friends. They lived a nomadic existence, sharing a single room in a series of boarding houses. To ease the financial burden, little Howard Nesbit was often sent to live with relatives or family friends for indeterminate periods of time.
Eventually Mrs. Nesbit used donated funds to rent a house, intending to run her own boardinghouse. Loath to collect the boarders' rent herself, she forced that responsibility upon her 12-year-old daughter, certain that the girl's considerable prepubescent charm would easily coax money from the traveling salesmen and other transient males who constituted the establishment’s core clientele. Many years later in 1915, Nesbit described this period in her family’s misfortunes: "Mamma was always worried about the rent ... it was too hard a thing for her to actually ask for every week, and it never went smoothly." Even at such a young age, Nesbit recalled her discomfort with being the rent collector; instinctively she sensed it was somehow inappropriate. Since Mrs. Nesbit lacked the temperament or savvy to run a boardinghouse, this attempt to provide her family with financial stability ultimately failed.
Under continuous financial distress which showed no prospect of improvement, Mrs. Nesbit moved to Philadelphia in 1898. She had acted on the encouragement of a friend who advised her that relocation to Philadelphia could open opportunities for her employment as a seamstress. Evelyn and her brother Howard were sent to an aunt, and then transferred to a family in Allegany whose acquaintance their mother had made some years earlier.
Mrs. Nesbit obtained employment, not as a seamstress but as a sales clerk, at the fabric counter of Wanamaker’s department store. She sent for her children, and both 14-year-old Evelyn and 12-year-old Howard also became Wanamaker employees, working 12-hour days, six days a week. It was at this time that Nesbit's modeling career began, through a serendipitous encounter with an artist who was struck by the teenager's beauty and evocative charm. The artist asked Nesbit to pose for a portrait and, after verifying that the artist was a woman, Mrs. Nesbit agreed to let her daughter pose. Nesbit sat for five hours and earned one dollar (approximately $27.50 in 2016).
This led to introductions to other artists in the Philadelphia area, and she became the favorite model of a group of respected, reputable illustrators, portrait painters, and stained-glass artisans. In later life Nesbit explained: "When I saw I could earn more money posing as an artist's model than I could at Wanamaker's, I gave my mother no peace until she permitted me to pose for a livelihood."
Supermodel and pin-up girl
In June 1900, Mrs. Nesbit, leaving her children in the care of others, relocated to New York City, again hoping to find work as a seamstress or clothing designer. However, she had even less success in finding employment in the competitive environment of New York City than she had had in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Philadelphia artists, with the idea of boosting Evelyn's modeling career, had provided letters of introduction to New York artists, but Mrs. Nesbit made no use of these prospective contacts. In November 1900, still without employment, she finally sent for her children. The three were reunited and shared a single back room in a building on 22nd Street in Manhattan. Financial necessity and Evelyn's insistence on resuming modeling finally prompted Mrs. Nesbit to make use of the Philadelphia recommendations by contacting James Carroll Beckwith, whose primary patron was John Jacob Astor. This association opened up a world of further modeling opportunities for Evelyn, as Beckwith was a respected painter and instructor of life classes at the Art Students League. An elderly, courtly man, Beckwith felt protective of the teenage girl, whose self-directed determination to pursue a modeling career aroused his paternal concern. He provided her with letters of introduction to legitimate artists such as Frederick S. Church, Herbert Morgan, and Carle J. Blenner.
Unhappily, Mrs. Nesbit was thrust into the role of managing her daughter’s career. Unsophisticated, indecisive, and plagued with bouts of inertia, Evelyn's mother was unable to provide either business acumen or guardianship for her teenage daughter. In a later interview with reporters, Mrs. Nesbit maintained: "I never allowed Evelyn to pose in the altogether" (in the nude). Two artworks, one by Frederick Church, and another by Beckwith in 1901, contradict Mrs. Nesbit, as they display a skimpily clad or partially nude Evelyn.
Evelyn became a popular cover face on women's magazines of the period, including Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, The Delineator, Women's Home Companion, Ladies' Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. Inside the advertising pages of these magazines and in newspapers, her role became the business of creating consumer demand for toothpaste, face creams, and a sundry array of other commercial goods. Her likeness and form were ubiquitous, showcased on sheet music and souvenir items — beer trays, tobacco cards, pocket mirrors, postcards, chromolithographs. She often posed in vignettes, dressed in various guises: a Japanese geisha, country gal, woodland nymph, Grecian goddess or Roma maiden. The photo postcards were known as mignon (sweet, lovely), their pictorials being of a suggestive sensuality in contrast to the graphic display of the female body depicted in the notorious "French postcards" of the day. Evelyn Nesbit arguably became the first pin-up girl, posing for calendars for Prudential Life Insurance, Swift, Coca-Cola, and other corporations.
Charles Dana Gibson, one of the country’s most renowned artists of the era, added Nesbit to his pantheon of "Gibson Girls," her profile framed by her luxuriant hair, rendered to resemble a question mark. The work, formerly titled "Women: The Eternal Question" (1905) remains one of Gibson's best-known works.
The photograph, use of which was then referred to as the "live model" in newspaper and magazine advertising, was still in its infancy, yet gaining in popularity, moving to supplant print illustration. Evelyn obtained work modeling for an early pioneer in fashion photography, Joel Feder. The assignments were less strenuous, posing sessions being shorter in duration, and the work was lucrative. While working for Feder, Evelyn earned five dollars for a half-day shoot and ten dollars for a full day - approximately 260 dollars per day in 2010 dollars. Eventually, the fees she earned from her prolific modeling career exceeded the combined income she, her brother, and mother had earned at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. The high cost of living in New York City, however, still caused strain on their finances.
Chorus girl and actress
Evelyn became disaffected and bored with the long hours spent in confined environments maintaining the immobile poses required of a studio model. Her popularity modeling had attracted the interests of theatrical promoters, some legitimate and some disreputable, offering her acting opportunities. Evelyn pressed her mother to let her enter the theatre world, and Mrs. Nesbit ultimately agreed to let her daughter attempt this new way to augment their finances. An interview was arranged for the aspiring performer with John C. Fisher, company manager of the wildly popular play Florodora, then enjoying a long run at the Casino Theatre on Broadway. Mrs. Nesbit's initial objections were softened by the knowledge that some of the girls in the show had managed to marry millionaires. In July 1901, costumed as a "Spanish maiden," Evelyn became a member of the show's chorus line, whose enthusiastic public dubbed them the "Florodora Girls." Billed as "Florence Evelyn," the new chorus girl was called "Flossie the Fuss," by the cast, a nickname which displeased her, and induced her to change her theatrical name to Evelyn Nesbit.
After her stint as a "Florodora Girl" ended, Evelyn sought out other theatrical possibilities. She won a part in a production which had just come to Broadway, The Wild Rose. After an initial interview with Evelyn, the show's producer, George Lederer, sensed he had discovered a new sensation. He offered her a contract for a year and, more significantly, moved her out of the chorus line and into a position as a featured player — the role of the Roma girl "Vashti." The publicity machine began to roll, possibly fueled by Stanford White's influence, and she was hyped up in the gossip columns and theatrical periodicals of the day. On May 4, 1902, The New York Herald showcased her in a two-page article, liberally enhanced by photographs, promoting her rise as a new theatrical light, and detailing her career trajectory from model to chorus line to key cast member. "Her Winsome Face to be Seen Only from 8 to 11pm," the newspaper title announced to the public. The press coverage invariably touted her physical charms and potent stage presence; her acting skills were rarely mentioned.
As a chorus girl on Broadway in 1901, Evelyn was introduced to the acclaimed architect Stanford White by Edna Goodrich, who along with Evelyn was a member of the company of Florodora. White, a notorious womanizer known as "Stanny" by his close friends and relatives, was then 47 years old and Evelyn 16. With her actual birth year often obscured by her mother, she may have actually been just 14 years old when she first met Stanford White. A practised voluptuary, White used intermediaries to disarm the girl. Evelyn was initially struck by White’s imposing size, which “was appalling... he seemed terribly old.”
"The Red Velvet Swing"
White maintained a multi-floor apartment on West Twenty-fourth Street situated above the toy store FAO Schwarz. The entrance way to the apartment was a doorway located adjacent to the store’s back delivery entrance. White invited Evelyn and Edna Goodrich to join him there for lunch. In her memoir Prodigal Days, Evelyn described her introduction to White’s apartment. She was immediately overwhelmed by the décor; the walls adorned with fine paintings, the ornate, carved furniture, and the heavy red velvet draperies, which were drawn against the afternoon light. The only illumination in the room was the glow of soft light emanating from concealed lighting in the room. The other guest in attendance was an older man whom White introduced as Reginald Ronalds. The luncheon table was laid with food, which to Evelyn was an exotic delight — gourmet dishes prepared by Delmonico's restaurant. She was allowed one glass of champagne. Afterwards, they all ascended two flights up into a room decorated in green where a large, red velvet swing was suspended from the ceiling by ropes entwined with ivy-like vines. Evelyn was amused by the swing and consented to sit in it as White, with increasing momentum, propelled her vigorously into the air. A game ensued whereby Edna Goodrich held a Japanese paper parasol by a cord; the object was for Evelyn's foot to target the parasol, repeatedly swinging and aiming until the parasol was shredded. Nothing improper took place that day other than an aesthetic delight in the day’s festivities.[page needed]
Outwardly a witty, kind, generous man, White was frequently described in the newspapers as “masterful,” “intense,” “burly yet boyish.” He was able to impress both Evelyn and her mother as an “interesting companion.” White moved mother, son and daughter into a suite at the Wellington Hotel, which he himself had opulently decorated. Evelyn's bedroom was white and rose red, the drawing room a deep green, a reference to the green-hued room at White’s 24th-Street apartment where the red velvet swing hung from the ceiling.
Mrs. Nesbit grew favorably disposed to Stanford White. His interest appeared genuinely paternal, arranging for her fatherless son, Howard, to attend the Chester Military Academy, near Philadelphia. Over time, White managed to convince Mrs. Nesbit that a brief trip to visit friends in Pittsburgh would be a beneficial respite. He overcame her anxieties concerning her daughter’s welfare, left unchaperoned in New York, by pledging his assurance that he would watch over the young girl.
The "Mirror Room"
Several nights after her mother left for Pittsburgh, Evelyn and White were together in his 24th-Street apartment. The two dined and drank champagne. White then proceeded to give Evelyn a tour of rooms, with the finale an unveiling of the “mirror room.” This ten-by-ten-foot room, situated on the same floor where the red velvet swing was installed, had walls and ceiling entirely paneled in mirrors and was furnished with a green velvet sofa. More champagne was consumed and Evelyn changed into a yellow satin kimono. She claimed that this was the last memory she had before losing consciousness. She subsequently awoke lying nearly naked in bed next to White. She had "entered that room a virgin," but did not come out as one.
John Barrymore, known as “Jack,” had seen the show The Wild Rose at least a dozen times since its opening, so entranced had he become with Evelyn Nesbit on the stage. The two actually met at a lavish party given by Stanford White, who had invited Barrymore, the brother of a friend, the stage actress, Ethel Barrymore. In 1902, a romance blossomed between Evelyn and the young Barrymore. It was a unique relationship for Evelyn in that the 21-year-old Barrymore was a contemporary, a man close to her own age. He was a witty, fun-loving companion and Evelyn became smitten with him. After an evening out, the couple often returned to Barrymore’s apartment, remaining there together well into the early-morning hours. Avoiding the family path of entering the acting world, Barrymore was casually pursuing a career as illustrator and cartoonist. Although he showed some promise in this chosen field, his salary was small and Evelyn's mother considered him an unsuitable match for her 17-year-old daughter. Both Mrs. Nesbit and White were greatly displeased when they found out about the relationship. White engineered a plan to separate the couple by arranging for Evelyn's enrollment in a boarding school in New Jersey and administered by Mathilda DeMille, the mother of the noted film director, Cecil B. DeMille. In the presence of both Mrs. Nesbit and White, Barrymore had asked Evelyn to become his wife, but she turned down his marriage proposal. Many decades later, Barrymore's nephew Samuel Colt (Ethel's son) made an uncredited appearance in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a 1955 movie about Nesbit.
Harry Kendall Thaw
Aside from her relationship with John Barrymore, Evelyn Nesbit was involved with other men who vied for her attention. Among those were the polo player James Montgomery Waterbury also known as "Monte" and the young magazine publisher Robert J. Collier. Throughout these relationships, Stanford White still maintained a potent presence in her life, maintaining his position as benefactor. The association which would come to dominate Nesbit's life, however, came in the person of Harry Kendall Thaw, the son of a Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron. With a history of pronounced mental instability since childhood, Thaw, heir to a 40-million dollar fortune, led a reckless, self-indulgent life. Thaw had been in the audience of The Wild Rose, attending some 40 performances for the better part of a year. Through an intermediary, he ultimately arranged a meeting with Evelyn, introducing himself as “Mr. Munroe.” Thaw maintained this subterfuge, with the help of confederates, while showering her with gifts and money, before he felt the time was right to reveal his true identity. The day came when he confronted Evelyn and announced: “I am not Munroe... I am Henry Kendall Thaw, of Pittsburgh!”
Fateful revelations in Europe
Evelyn underwent emergency surgery. The nature of the surgery has remained a subject of controversy. The official diagnosis was an appendectomy; however, some sources speculate that she was pregnant by John "Jack" Barrymore and had an abortion. Evelyn’s grandson, Russell Thaw, has said: "I think she went away to have an abortion." It is conjectured that Evelyn may have had at least two aborted pregnancies. Subsequently, under oath at Thaw’s murder trials, both Barrymore and she denied the pregnancies and abortion.
Evelyn's medical situation elicited the solicitous side of Thaw. He promoted a European trip, convincing Evelyn and her mother that such a pleasure excursion would hasten Evelyn's recovery from surgery. The trip proved to be anything but recuperative. Thaw’s usual hectic mode of travel escalated into a non-stop itinerary, calculated to weaken Evelyn's emotional resilience, compound her physical frailty, and unnerve and exhaust Mrs. Nesbit. As tensions mounted, mother and daughter began to bicker and quarrel, leading to Mrs. Nesbit’s insistence on returning to America. Having effectively alienated her from her mother, Thaw then took Evelyn to Paris, leaving Mrs. Nesbit in London.
In Paris, Thaw continued to press Evelyn to become his wife; again she refused. Aware of Thaw’s obsession with female chastity, she could not in good conscience accept his marriage proposal without revealing to him the truth of her relationship with Stanford White. What transpired next was a marathon session of inquisition, during which time Thaw managed to extract every detail of that night: how, when plied with champagne, Nesbit lay intoxicated, and unconscious, while White “had his way with her.” Throughout the grueling question-and-answer ordeal, Evelyn was tearful and hysterical; Thaw by turns was agitated, weeping, and gratified by her responses. He further drove the wedge between mother and daughter, condemning Mrs. Nesbit as an unfit parent. Evelyn blamed the outcome of events on her own willful defiance of her mother’s cautionary advice and defended her mother as naïve and unwitting.
Thaw and Evelyn continued their travel through Europe. Thaw, as guide, chose a bizarre agenda, a tour of sites devoted to the cult of virgin martyrdom. In Domrémy, France, the birthplace of Joan of Arc, Thaw left a telling inscription in the visitor’s book: “she would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around.”
Thaw took Evelyn to Katzenstein Castle in the Austrian state of Tyrol, with the foreboding gothic structure sitting near a high mountaintop. Thaw segregated the three servants in residence, butler, cook and maid, in one end of the castle; he and Evelyn took quarters isolating them at the opposite end. This was where Evelyn, to her horror, became Thaw’s prisoner. She was locked in her room by Thaw, whose persona took on a dimension she had never before seen. Manic and violent, he beat her with a whip and sexually assaulted her over a two-week period. After his reign of terror had been expended, he was apologetic, and incongruously, after what had just transpired, was in an upbeat mood.
On her return to New York from Europe, in the company of friends, Evelyn unburdened herself, disclosing the ordeal of her imprisonment in the Austrian castle. It was only now that others came forward with dark disclosures about Thaw and his propensity toward myriad addictive behaviors. From several men she was told that Thaw “…took morphine, [that] he was crazy.”
Although he was still a part of her life, over time Evelyn came to realize that she had no future with Stanford White. She also knew her entanglement with White had compromised her reputation; if the extent of their involvement became common knowledge, no respectable man would make her his wife. She also harbored some resentment towards White, faulting him for never being candid with her about Thaw’s excesses and derangement.
As a teenager, Evelyn had spent much of her formative years thrust into the adult society of artists and theatre people; her development had proceeded without the camaraderie of contemporaries of her own age. Her mother had remarried, and although she had been an inept guardian, their estrangement was now a fact; the new Mrs. Charles Holman was now effectively out of her daughter’s life. Evelyn also feared a renewal of the poverty and deprivation that she, her brother and mother had suffered for many years. Her vulnerability and isolation became palpable.
Thaw had pursued Evelyn Nesbit obsessively for nearly four years, continuously pressing her for marriage. He told her he would change his behavior— once they were married, he would live the life of a “Benedictine monk.” Thaw was contrite about what had transpired at the Austrian castle. His explosive anger and rage had been directed at the man he called “The Beast,” Stanford White. He knew Nesbit had been White’s victim. Thaw, with a perverted sense of justice, and a show of magnanimous charity, assured Nesbit he had forgiven her.
Craving financial stability in her life, and keeping Thaw's "sweet, generous, and gentle side” to the forefront, Evelyn finally consented to become his wife. “Mama Thaw”, Thaw's mother, agreed to the marriage, decreeing that her future daughter-in-law give up the theatre and modeling and that her past life be forever obliterated; it was never to be talked of or referred to.
Evelyn and Thaw were married on April 4, 1905. Thaw himself chose Evelyn's wedding dress. Eschewing the traditional white gown, he dressed her in a black traveling suit decorated with brown trim. Newspapers announced that the new Mrs. Thaw was now the "Mistress of Millions."
The two took up residence in the Thaw family home, "Lyndhurst", in Pittsburgh. Isolated with “Mama Thaw,” subject to her strict religious precepts and the puritanical like-minded social group which assembled in the Thaw home, Evelyn became the proverbial “bird in a gilded cage.” In later years she took measure of life in the Thaw household, saying that the Thaws were anything but intellectuals and that their value system was shallow and self-serving: “the plane of materialism which finds joy in the little things that do not matter — the appearance of... [things].”
Envisioning a life of travel and entertaining, the newlywed Mrs. Harry Kendall Thaw was rudely awakened to a reality markedly different. Thaw himself entered into his mother’s sphere of influence, seemingly without protest, taking on the pose of pious son and husband. It was at this time that Thaw instituted a zealous campaign to expose Stanford White, corresponding with the reformer Anthony Comstock, the crusader for moral probity and the expulsion of vice. Because of his activity, Thaw became convinced that he was being stalked by members of the notorious Monk Eastman Gang, hired by White to kill him. Thaw started to carry a gun. Evelyn later corroborated his mindset: “[Thaw] imagined his life was in danger because of the work he was doing in connection with the vigilance societies and the exposures he had made to those societies of the happenings in White’s flat.”
Murder of Stanford White
It is conjectured that Stanford White himself was unaware of Harry Kendall Thaw’s long-standing vendetta against him. White considered Thaw a poseur of little consequence, categorized him as a clown, and most tellingly, called him the “Pennsylvania pug”—a reference to Thaw’s baby-faced features.
June 25, 1906 was an inordinately hot day. Thaw and Nesbit were stopping in New York briefly before boarding a luxury liner bound for a European holiday. Nesbit had been tense and uneasy throughout the day, as Thaw spent the day in and out of their hotel suite ostensibly taking care of last-minute details for their voyage. It was not until late that day that Thaw disclosed his plans for the evening. He had purchased tickets for a new show, Mam'zelle Champagne, written by Edgar Allan Woolf, premiering on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. Accompanying them would be two of Thaw’s male friends. They first stopped at the Cafe Martin, where they inadvertently saw Stanford White, before proceeding on to Madison Square Garden. In spite of the suffocating heat, which did not abate as night fell, Thaw inappropriately wore a long black overcoat over his tuxedo, which he refused to take off throughout the entire evening.
At 11:00 pm, as the stage show was coming to a close, Stanford White appeared, taking his place at the table that was customarily reserved for him. Thaw had been agitated all evening, and abruptly bounced back and forth from his own table throughout the performance. Spotting White’s arrival, Thaw tentatively approached him several times, each time withdrawing in hesitation. During the finale, "I Could Love A Million Girls", Thaw produced a pistol, and standing some two feet from his target, fired three shots into Stanford White's head and back, killing him instantly. Part of White’s face and skull was torn away and the rest of his features were unrecognizable, blackened by gunpowder. Thaw remained standing over White’s fallen and bleeding body, displaying the gun aloft in the air, addressing the crowd. Witness reports differ as to the exact pronouncements Thaw made, and while the specific wording varies, all share a similar theme: “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then abandoned her! …You'll never go out with that woman again." In his book The Murder of Stanford White, Gerald Langford quoted Thaw as saying "You ruined my life," or "You ruined my wife," and The New York Times account the following day stated "Another witness said the word was "wife" instead of "life,"" contradicting the report made by the arresting officer.
The crowd initially suspected the shooting might be part of the show, as elaborate practical jokes were popular in high society at the time. Soon, however, it became apparent that Stanford White was dead. Thaw, still brandishing the gun high above his head, walked through the crowd and met Nesbit at the elevator. When she asked what he'd done, Thaw said that he had "probably saved your life."
As Thaw was taken into police custody, Nesbit managed to extricate herself from the ensuing chaos on the Madison Square rooftop. Not wanting to return to the hotel suite she shared with Thaw, she took refuge for several days in the apartment of a chorus girl with whom she had struck up a friendship. Years later, Nesbit described her traumatic condition: “A complete numbness of mind and body took possession of me… I moved like a person in a trance for hours afterward.
As early as the morning following the murder, news coverage became both chaotic and single-minded, and ground forward with unrelenting momentum. A person, a place, or event, no matter how peripheral to the murder of Stanford White was seized on by reporters and hyped as newsworthy copy. Facts were thin but sensationalist reportage was plentiful, in the heyday of tabloid journalism.
The hard-boiled male reporters of the yellow press were bolstered by a contingent of female counterparts, christened “Sob Sisters”—also known as “The Pity Patrol.” Initially female spectators were allowed in to witness the proceedings. However, as the trial continued, the judge banned women from the courtroom— excepting Thaw family members and the female news reporters there on “legitimate business.” The stock in trade of this female contingent was the human-interest piece, heavy on sentimental tropes and melodrama, crafted to pull on the emotions and punch them up to fever pitch.
As a composite group, the female journalists tended to tread "very gently" with the defendant, Harry Kendall Thaw. They crafted their reportage to present him as a heroic figure who had married Nesbit in spite of her past. An individual of inherent virtue, Thaw was the embodiment of the duty with which every male in society was charged: man as protector of woman. They obscured Thaw’s mental instability, drug addiction, and abusive behavior, and downplayed the considerations granted him by male prerogative and the privilege which his wealth and class afforded him.
The picture they painted of Nesbit was less empathetic, more measured. Nixola Greely Smith wrote of Nesbit: “I think that she was sold to one man [Stanford White] and later sold herself to another [Harry Kendall Thaw].” In an article titled “The Vivisection of a Woman’s Soul,” Greely Smith described Nesbit’s unmaidenly revelations as she testified on the stand: "Before her audience of many hundred men young Mrs. Thaw was compelled to reveal in all its hideousness every detail of her association with Stanford White after his crime against her.”
The rampant interest in the White murder and its key players were used by both the defense and prosecution to feed malleable reporters any “scoops” that would give their respective sides an advantage in the public forum. News coverage mercilessly dissected all the key players in what was called the “Garden Murder.” One florid account, written to tug the heartstrings, keynoted Nesbit's vulnerability: “Her baby beauty proved her undoing. She toddled as innocently into the arms of Satan as an infant into the outstretched arms of parental love…” Neither was her mother spared the scrutiny of rogue reporting: “She [her mother] knew better. She also knew she was sacrificing her child’s soul for money…”
Church groups lobbied to restrict the media coverage, asking the government to step in as censor. President Theodore Roosevelt decried the newspapers penchant for printing the "full disgusting particulars" of the trial proceedings. He conferred with the US Postmaster General on the viability of prohibiting the dissemination of such printed matter through the United States mail and censorship was threatened but never carried out.
Stanford White, in death, was not spared the firestorm of printed invective, which not only excoriated him as a man, but also questioned his professional achievements as architect. The Evening Standard concluded he was “more of an artist than architect,” his work spoke of his “social dissolution.” The Nation was also critical: “…He adorned many an American mansion with irrelevant plunder.” Richard Harding Davis, a war correspondent and reputedly the model for the “Gibson Man,” was angered by the tabloid press, who, he was adamant, had distorted the facts. An editorial, which appeared in Vanity Fair, lambasting White and shredding his reputation, prompted Davis to pen his own rebuttal. The article, which appeared on August 8, 1906 in Collier's magazine attested that
…He admired a beautiful woman as he admired every other beautiful thing God has given us; and his delight over one was as keen, as boyish, as grateful over any others.
"The Trial of the Century"
Thaw’s mother was adamant that her son not be stigmatized by clinical insanity. She pressed for the defense to follow a compromise strategy; one of temporary insanity, or what in that era was referred to as a “brainstorm.” Acutely conscious that her own family had a history of hereditary insanity, and after years of protecting her son’s hidden life, she feared her son’s past would be dragged out into the open ripe for public scrutiny. Protecting the Thaw family reputation had become nothing less than a lifetime crusade for Thaw’s mother. She proceeded to hire a team of doctors, at a cost of some one-half million dollars to substantiate that her son’s act of murder constituted a single aberrant act. Evelyn Nesbit in later years described the determination with which Thaw’s family worked to favorably spin his mental deficiency: “…the Thaws will put the biggest lunacy experts that money can buy on the stand… Harry was a madman but they will prove it nicely…”
Again maneuvering her way through the gauntlet of reporters, the curious public, the sketch artists and photographers enlisted to capture the effect the “harrowing circumstances [had] on her beauty,” Nesbit returned to her hotel and the assembled Thaw family.
It is conjectured the Thaws promised Nesbit a comfortable financial future if she provided testimony at trial favorable to Thaw’s case. It was a conditional agreement; if the outcome proved negative, she would receive nothing. The rumored amount of money the Thaws pledged for her cooperation ranged from twenty-five thousand dollars to one million dollars. Nesbit was now well aware that any solicitude or kindness shown her by the Thaw enclave was predicated on her pivotal performance on the witness stand. She was to present a pitiful portrait of innocence betrayed by the lascivious Stanford White. Thaw was to be the white knight whose noble, courageous act had avenged his wife’s ruin.
Nesbit's mother remained conspicuously absent throughout her daughter's entire ordeal. Mrs. Nesbit had been cooperating with the prosecution as Thaw's lawyers considered her culpable of prostituting her daughter to Stanford White. Her brother Howard, who had come to regard Stanford White as a father figure, blamed Evelyn for his death.
The two trials
Harry Kendall Thaw was tried twice for the murder of Stanford White. Nesbit testified at both trials; her examination on the witness stand was an emotionally tortuous ordeal. In open court she was forced to expose her relationship with Stanford White, and to describe the intimate details of the night she lost her virginity. Until then, the night of her sexual assault had been a secret she had guarded at the request of White. Other than White, only she and Thaw knew what had transpired.
Due to the unusual amount of publicity the case had garnered, it was ordered that the jury members be sequestered—the first time in the history of American jurisprudence that such a restriction was ordered. The trial proceedings began on January 23, 1907, and the jury went into deliberation on April 11. After forty-seven hours, the twelve jurors emerged deadlocked. Seven had voted guilty, and five deemed Henry Kendall Thaw not guilty. Thaw was outraged that the trial had not vindicated the murder; that the jurors had not recognized it as the act of one chivalrous man defending innocent womanhood. The second trial took place from January, 1908 through February 1, 1908. At the second trial Thaw pleaded temporary insanity.
Thaw was sentenced to incarceration for life in the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York. His wealth allowed him to arrange accommodations for his comfort and be granted privileges not given to the general Matteawan population. Immediately after his confinement, Thaw marshaled the forces of a legal team charged with the mission of having him declared sane; the effort took seven years. The prolonged legal procedures compelled his escape from Matteawan. In 1913, he strolled out of the asylum where a prearranged car and driver waited to take him over the Canada–US border into Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was extradited back to the US, but in 1915 was released from custody after being judged sane.
Nesbit gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw, on October 25, 1910 in Berlin, Germany. Nesbit always maintained he was Thaw’s biological child, conceived during a conjugal visit to Thaw while he was confined at Matteawan. Thaw throughout his life denied paternity. Speculatively, she may have allowed another – e.g., the wealthy Collier, Waterbury or her lover Barrymore – back into her life.
In 1911, Nesbit reconciled with her mother, who took on the role of caregiver for the child while Nesbit sought out opportunities to support herself and her son. Russell Thaw appeared with his mother in at least six films: Threads of Destiny (1918), Redemption (1917), Her Mistake (1918), The Woman Who Gave (1918), I Want to Forget (1918), and The Hidden Woman (1922).
Russell Thaw became an accomplished pilot, placing third in the 1935 Bendix Trophy race from Los Angeles to Cleveland, ahead of Amelia Earhart in fifth place, and during World War II, Thaw became one of the most noted American pilots, obtaining five air victories, three of them as part of the 103rd Squadron.
Throughout the prolonged court proceedings, Nesbit had received financial support from the Thaws. These payments, made to her through the Thaws' attorneys, had been inconsistent and far from generous. After the close of the second trial, the Thaws virtually abandoned her, cutting off all funds. Nesbit’s grandson, Russell Thaw, recounted a piece of family lore in a 2005 interview with the Los Angeles Times: purportedly, Nesbit received $25,000 from the Thaw family after the culmination of the trials. To spite the Thaws, Nesbit then donated the money to political anarchist Emma Goldman, who subsequently turned it over to investigative journalist and political activist John Reed.
Nesbit was left to her own resources to provide for herself. She found modest success working in vaudeville and on the silent screen. In 1914, she appeared in Threads of Destiny, produced at the Betzwood studios of film producer Siegmund Lubin.
Nesbit divorced Thaw in 1915. In 1916, she married dancer Jack Clifford; the two had worked up a stage act together. Their marriage was not a success; Nesbit seemed unable to start a new life as the public refused to let her relinquish her past. Audiences came to see “the lethal beauty” associated with the “playboy killer" who murdered Stanford White. Clifford came to find his wife’s notoriety an insurmountable issue, with his own identity subsumed by that of “Mr. Evelyn Nesbit.” He left her in 1918, and she divorced him in 1933.
In the 1920s, Nesbit became the proprietor of either a tearoom or speakeasy located in the West Fifties in Manhattan. The actual libation served remains obscured in history. She may have run more than one establishment during this decade. It was during this period and well into the 1930s that Nesbit struggled with alcoholism and morphine addiction. During the 1930s, she worked on burlesque stages throughout the country, though not as a stripper. In 1939, the then 53-year-old Nesbit told a New York Times reporter: "I wish I were a strip-teaser. I wouldn’t have to bother with so many clothes."
Thaw, who as late as 1926 was still keeping his ex-wife under surveillance by private detectives, went to Chicago where Nesbit was hospitalized. He learned Nesbit, despondent after losing her job dancing at the Moulin Rouge Café, had swallowed a disinfectant in a suicide attempt. The reunion generated speculation on the status of their relationship. One newspaper reported on January 8, 1926: “Thaw to Visit Chicago: Reconciliation Rumor.” In an interview with the press, Thaw revealed he had for some time been giving Nesbit ten dollars a day through an attorney as a “token of pleasant memories of the past when we were happy.” They were photographed together in June 1926, and Nesbit gave an interview to The New York Times, stating that she and Thaw had reconciled, but nothing came of the renewed relationship. Thaw died in 1947; in his will he left Nesbit a $10,000 bequest from an estate valued at over one million dollars.
She was a technical adviser on the movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), for which she was paid $10,000. The movie ultimately proved to be a highly fictionalized account of events in Nesbit's life.
- Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride (1904 Edison; uncredited as young wife on train with Arthur Byron and Francis Wilson)
- Threads of Destiny (1914)
- A Lucky Leap (1916)
- Redemption (1917)
- Her Mistake (1918)
- The Woman Who Gave (1918)
- I Want to Forget (1918)
- Woman, Woman! (1919)
- Thou Shalt Not (1919)
- A Fallen Idol (1919)
- My Little Sister (1919)
- The Hidden Woman (1922)
- Broadway Gossip No.2 (short), 1932.
- Florodora (1901)
- The Wild Rose (1902)
- Tommy Rot (1902)
In popular culture
Illustrations and photographs
- Charles Dana Gibson reportedly used Nesbit as the inspiration for his illustrations of the "Gibson Girl".
- The author Lucy Maud Montgomery, unaware of her notoriety, used a photograph of Nesbit—from the Metropolitan Magazine as the model for the heroine of her book Anne of Green Gables (1908).
- Alexander Theroux's novel Laura Warholic; or, The Sexual Intellectual (2007) features a photograph of Nesbit for its cover.
- Collins, Frederick L. (April 21, 2012). Glamorous Sinners. Literary Licensing, LLC. ISBN 978-1258294854.
- Gammel, Irene (2008). Looking for Anne of Green Gables: How Lucy Maud Montgomery Dreamed Up a Literary Classic (First;hardcover ed.). Key Porter Books. ISBN 978-1552639856.
- Langford, Gerald (1962). The Murder of Stanford White (First; hardcover ed.). Bobbs-Merrill. ASIN B0007DZ4RY.
- Lessard, Suzannah(White's great-granddaughter) (October 1, 1996). The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family (First; hardcover ed.). The Dial Press. ISBN 978-0385314459.
- Mooney, Michael Macdonald. Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age (1976 ed.). William Morrow. ASIN B019NEBPLQ.
- Nesbit, Evelyn (1914). The Story of My Life (First; hardcover ed.). London: John Long. OCLC 780487288.
- Nesbit, Evelyn (1934). Prodigal Days: The Untold Story of Evelyn Nesbit (First; hardcover ed.). Julian Messner, Inc. ASIN B002672NVE.
- Samuels, Charles (1953). The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Fawcett Publications. ASIN B0007EYS3O.
- Thaw, Harry K. (1926). The Traitor: Being the Untampered With, Unrevised Account of the Trial and All That Led to It (Unstated; hardcover ed.). Dorrance & Company/Argus Publisher. ASIN B001KXL6UE.
- Uruburu, Paula (May 1, 2007). American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the 'It' Girl, and the 'Crime of the Century' (First; hardcover ed.). Riverhead books. ASIN B008251Z3G.
- The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy (1907 film) 
- In chapter 14 of Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun (1938), the character Bonni asks the protagonist if she looks like Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, because "all her husbands said she looked just like [her]."
- The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955 movie)
- E. L. Doctorow's historical fiction novel Ragtime (1975) was adapted into two works:
- Dementia Americana (1994), a long narrative poem by Keith Maillard
- La fille coupée en deux (A Girl Cut in Two) (2007), a film by Claude Chabrol
- My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon (2010), a dramatic comedy play by Don Nigro
- In Boardwalk Empire (2010 HBO television series), the character Gillian is loosely based on Evelyn Nesbit
- Paul, Deborah, Tragic Beauty: The Lost 1914 Memoirs of Evelyn Nesbit, Lulu
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- Evelyn's Story (affidavit) (Evelyn Nesbit vs. Harry K. Thaw), October 27, 1903, retrieved July 29, 2012[permanent dead link]. The affidavit was introduced at the close of the state's case in the Harry Thaw murder trial.
- Uruburu 2008, p. 225.
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- "Thaw Murders Stanford White", The New York Times, p. 1, June 26, 1906.
- Uruburu 2008, p. 297.
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- "Mrs Thaw Urged Her Husband On", The Washington Post (an alleged statement to police by Nesbit’s former friend, actress Edna McClure), p. 1, July 9, 1906
- Sob sister video, USC Annenberg, School for Communication and Journalism, August 21, 2012.[dead link]
- Uruburu 2008, p. 318.
- Lutes 2007, p. 74.
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- Rasmussen, Cecilia (December 11, 2005). "Girl in Red Velvet Swing Longed to Flee Her Past". The LA Times. Retrieved August 18, 2012..
- Uruburu 2008, pp. 358–61.
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- "Gotham". From the Square. Retrieved July 9, 2012.
- "Harry K Thaw", Afflictor (old print articles), retrieved July 20, 2012.
- "Evelyn Nesbit". Neo humanism. Retrieved July 20, 2012..
- Nesbit, Evelyn (1914). The Story of My Life (First; hardcover ed.). London: John Long. OCLC 780487288.
- Nesbit, Evelyn (1934). Prodigal Days: The Untold Story of Evelyn Nesbit (First; hardcover ed.). Julian Messner, Inc. ASIN B002672NVE.
- "Mrs. Thaw Dies; Early Trial Figure". Los Angeles Times News Service. January 18, 1967. Retrieved 2010-10-09.
Mrs. Thaw, died Tuesday in a convalescent home here. ... After the murder trial she toured Europe with a dancing troupe where a son, Russell Thaw, was born. ...
- "Evelyn Nesbit, 82, Dies In California; Evelyn Nesbit of '06 Thaw Case Dies". The New York Times. Associated Press. January 18, 1967. Retrieved 2010-10-09.
Evelyn Nesbit, the last surviving principal in the sensational Harry K. Thaw-Stanford White murder case of 60 years ago, died in a convalescent home here yesterday, where she had been a patient, for more than a year. She was 82 years old.
- "Irene Gammel, Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and her Literary Classic (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009)". Youtube.com. 2008-01-10. Retrieved 2012-07-30.
- The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy. IMDb. 1907.
- Nigro, Don (December 2, 2010). My Sweetheart's the Man in the Moon. Samuel French, Inc. ISBN 978-0573642388.
- Lutes, Jean Marie (2007). Front Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Culture and Fiction: 1880–1930. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-7412-5.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Evelyn Nesbit.|
- 40733 Evelyn Nesbit at the Internet Broadway Database
- Evelyn Nesbit on IMDb
- "Harry Thaw's trial". Urban Sculptures. March 1907. Archived from the original on 2011-07-17.. Scans of a dinner program with jurists' autographs.
- "Murder of the Century". PBS.org. Includes excerpts from Nesbit's autobiographies.
- "The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing". Crime Library. Archived from the original on 2014-04-24.