Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Evelyn Nesbit and the Murder of the Century

It was called the Murder of the Century. Eighty years before the trial of OJ Simpson captured the attention of the nation and the world, there was the murder of architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw at the entertainment complex that he created Madison Square Garden. The story had everything, society -- money, rage, lust, envy. Within a week of the murder, the Biograph Company had produced a motion picture dramatization.

And at the center of this love triangle gone wrong was a young copper haired beauty named Evelyn Nesbit.

She was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on Christmas Day in 1884 in Tarentum, a small town near Pittsburgh, PA, the same city that her future husband, Harry K. Thaw hailed from. But while Harry grew up in the lap of luxury living on the big hill, Evelyn and her family were barely scraping above the poverty line after the untimely death of her father when she was 8. Her mother tried to turn their home into a boarding house with minimal success. They often had so little money that they were reduced to eating mustard sandwiches. A dreamy child, Evelyn spend her time imaginging an existence where she was a princess in a castle, or rescued by a handsome prince from the poverty of her existence. But the reality was that there was only one person who could save the family and that was Evelyn.

From the time she was born it was clear that Evelyn was going to turn into a great beauty. When she was fourteen, her mother moved the family to Philadelphia, where Evelyn and her mother soon took jobs at Wanamaker’s department store. However, Evelyn was soon discovered by a local artist, Mrs. Darragh who was taken by her beauty. While she didn’t have the voluptuous figure that was popular during the Gilded Age, Evelyn was willowy, with the type of figure and face that artists adored sketching. Soon Evelyn found she was being sought out by artists such as Carl Blender and F.S. Church.

Modeling in the 19th century was not the career aspiration that it is today. It was considered, like acting, one step above prostitution. Well brought up young ladies didn’t model. In Evelyn’s case, despite her mother’s misgivings, she was able to earn enough to keep the family intact, fed and clothed. Soon Evelyn decided that the family should move to New York, where she could make even more money as an artist’s model. They took rooms in a boarding house on 22nd Street, and Evelyn using a letter of recommendation from an artist in Philadelphia, began making the rounds of the studios of famous artists.

Soon Evelyn had met and posed for Carroll Beckwith, who introduced her to other New York artists, among them Charles Dana Gibson, Frederick S. Church and photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer. Before she knew it, she was one of the most sought after artist models in the city. Sculptor George Grey Barnard used her for his famous piece “Innocence” which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographic fashion modeling, while in its infancy, was becoming more and more popular in the fifteen daily newspapers, and paid more as well. Evelyn learned that she could make up to $5 for a half-day shot or $10 for a full day shoot (that’s about $40 per hour in 2008 dollars). With this kind of money, she was able to bring her younger brother Howard to New York to live with them.

The minute her pictures began to appear in the paper, Evelyn was famous, and theatrical producers began to come around wanting to feature her, not caring whether or not she had any actual talent. Evelyn was cast as one of the Spanish dancers in the hit musical Floradora, but what she really wanted to be was part of the Floradora Sextette, 6 girls who were the show piece the show. Stage Door Johnnies flocked to escort the Floradora girls out to parties and to dinner at restaurants like Delmonico’s and Rectors. Often they send around flowers backstage with money attached. One of these Stage Door Johnnies was Stanford White, the most famous architect in New York if not the entire country. At the time that they met, Evelyn was 16 years old and ‘Stanny’ as he was known was 47, and married with a wife and son conveniently spending most of their time out on Long Island.

Stanford stood over 6 feet tall, with red hair and a moustache. He had incredible energy, often working on 40 and 50 projects at the same time. The architectural firm which he helped to co-found, McKim, Mead & White was responsible for the Arch in Washington Square Park, The Players Club, the Metropolitan Club and various other landmarks around New York City, including the magnificent Madison Square Garden (the second building on the spot and the last to actually be on Madison Square). He also spent more than he earned, entertaining lavishly. He was not only the architect but he also furnished the houses that he built, taking buying trips to Europe where he would return laden down with furniture and art work.

He also had a reputation for ‘befriending’ teenage girls, luring them to his lavish private tower apartment at Madison Square Garden, or to a little studio hideway on West 24th Street (now sadly demolished) that came complete with a red velvet swing. Stanford would push his darlings on the swing, sometimes while they were naked, Evelyn later wrote how he would push her higher while she kicked a hole in the Japanese parasols that were hung from the ceiling. Evelyn’s mother however chose to overlook his dubious reputation for his patronage. White had Evelyn’s teeth fixed, and took her and her mother out shopping. Eventually, money was found to send her brother to military school, and to move her and her mother to a better apartment in the city.

When Evelyn’s mother had to go out of town, Stanford promised to look after her daughter. He looked after her alright. According to the story she told Thaw and then later on in court, White brought her back to his private apartment, plied her with champagne that was drugged, and then took her virginity. However, at the end of her life, Evelyn claimed that Stanford White was the only man she had ever loved. Despite the dubious beginnings of their relationship, Evelyn was White’s mistress for about a year. She soon learned that she wasn’t the only one enjoying the attentions of Stanford White.

Evelyn was soon being courted by other men, including the young and extremely gorgeous John Barrymore who was 22 at the time. However, at the time that they were together, Barrymore was not the matinee idol and movie star that he became later on. He was broke and dabbling as an artist and photographer. Still he was madly in love with her and proposed to her at least twice. She also became pregnant with his child. White swooped in to fix the situation, sending Evelyn off to a boarding school run by Cecil B. DeMille’s mother in New Jersey, where she was treated for ‘appendicitis’ for the first time (apparently she later on had a second attack of ‘appendicitis.’ Who knew you could have more than one?)

Her fortunes took a turn for the better or worse, depending on how one looks at it, when she made the acquaintance of Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh as he was fond of introducing himself. Harry Kendall Thaw was the heir to a multi-million dollar mining and railroad fortune. While Evelyn and her family moved from place to place, trying to stay one step of ahead of abject poverty, Harry’s life was one of privilege with mansions, servants, ponies, luxurious coaches and private schools. He also, from birth, was subject to temper tantrums, fits, and violent outbursts. Still he managed to somehow get into Harvard, where he spent his time playing poker. When Harry’s father passed away, his will left him a trust that would allow him a measly $200 per month. Harry’s indulgent mother, known to everyone as Mother Thaw, immediately raised his yearly allowance to $80,000 a year.

Thaw was obsessed with the theater, and he was a regular attendee at Broadway shows. He squired chorus girls around town, but there were darker rumors that Thaw had a penchant for dog whips. Harry was a huge fan of the show Floradora, and a particular fan of a certain copper-haired beauty named Evelyn Nesbit. He first approached Evelyn under an assumed name, “Mr. Monroe,” before finally revealing himself. Evelyn, at first, wanted nothing to do with him, but Thaw was persistent. He even managed to find out where she was in New Jersey, pursuing her with a vengeance. Finally Evelyn agreed to go out with him.

Harry worked his charm on her mother as well, persuading her mother that a trip to Europe was just what Evelyn needed to recover from her ‘appendicitis.’ They spend several weeks traveling around France, but before they left Stanford White gave Evelyn a line of credit for $500 just in case. It was while in Europe that Thaw first revealed his true colors. He would fly into rages on the slightest provocation, or disappear for a day or two, finally returning with a manic gleam in his eye. Finally, Evelyn learned that Thaw was addicted to cocaine and morphine. After her mother had had enough of Thaw’s behavior, she returned to the States. Thaw had promised to hire a chaperone to watch over Evelyn but that somehow never materialized.

Having finally gotten the object of his desire alone, Thaw pressed Evelyn about her relationship with Stanford White, who he hated with a passion bordering on obsession. There are various theories for Thaw’s unwavering animosity for White. One story has it that Thaw had invited a show girl Frances Belmont and her friends to huge party with all his male cronies. On the night before the party, Frances walked in to Sherry’s restaurant with her beau, Frank Crowninshield, the future editor of Vanity Fair. Thaw was there also and snubbed her. Furious, Frances decided to take all her friends to a party at White’s tower instead, leaving Thaw waiting without entertainment for his male friends. Thaw blamed his humiliation on White.

Thaw pressed Evelyn for details of her ‘seduction’ by Stanford White. When he discovered what White had supposedly done to her, he flew into a rage, beating Evelyn with a whip until she begged for mercy. When Evelyn returned to New York, she went straight to Stanford and told him what Thaw had done. White had Evelyn give her statement to his lawyer, and Thaw was forbidden to see Evelyn until she came of age, even though she’d already turned 18. If Evelyn had hoped that telling White about Thaw would rekindle his feelings for her, she was sadly mistaken. White had moved onto to another pretty young thing. He would always have a fondness for Evelyn but their relationship as lovers was now over.

Although she had previously told Harry that she could never marry him because she planned on devoting her life to the stage, Evelyn now changed her mind. Her mother had remarried a Mr. Holman, Stanny was no longer available to her, and perhaps after seeing what a life of luxury could be like, decided to make the best of it and marry Thaw. She’d seen how contrite he could be after one of his rages. Perhaps she felt that in some strange way, marrying Thaw kept her close to Stanny given Thaw’s feelings towards him. Harry had already informed her that he had detectives following White’s every move. His hatred of White was so complete that he even went to Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and reported that White had debauched over three hundred young girls. He also kept a pistol on his person, claiming that the Monk Eastman gang, on White’s orders was after him. Thaw and Evelyn were wed on April 4, 1905 in Pittsburgh when she was 20 and Thaw was 33.

After their marriage, Evelyn and Thaw moved in with his mother at the family estate in Lyndhurst. Although living with her mother-in-law was not how Evelyn envisaged her marriage, she decided to stick it out. She could always convince Thaw to take her to every play, opera, ballet and musical that played Pittsburgh. Her free time was spent redecorating her rooms in the gloomy house. For all their money, the Thaws apparently had no idea how to furnish a house.

Matters finally came to a head on June 25, 1906. Evelyn and Thaw were in New York staying at the hotel Lorraine, preparing to spend the summer in Europe. That night they had plans to see the first night of a new show Mam’zelle Champagne at the roof theatre at Madison Square Garden, which Evelyn found curious, given Thaw’s hatred of White. Before they left for the theatre, Thaw had left Evelyn at the hotel to have a few drinks down at Sherry’s, where the hat check girl noted that despite the June weather, Thaw refused to take off his overcoat. While they were at dinner at Cafe Martin, Evelyn passed Harry a note saying that the Beast, Thaw's preferred nickname for White, had been in the restaurant.

During the song, ‘I Could Love a Million Girls,’ Thaw went up to White and fired three shots at close range into White’s face, killing him instantly. He then immediately emptied the barrel of the gun and held it over his head to show that he had no intentions of firing again. Various people reported that Thaw either shouted, “You’ll never see that woman again!” or “You ruined my wife,” before firing his gun. Thaw was arrested and taken to the county jail where he had his meals catered by Delmonico’s while he awaited trial.

There were two trials. At the first Thaw plead temporary insanity, claiming that he had the moral right to kill White because of what he did to Evelyn. Evelyn showed up every day at the trial wearing a white blouse, dark skirt, and a charming black hat, looking more like a school girl than the 22 year old wife. Evelyn knew that she had a part to play, and she was ready. It was her greatest acting performance ever. Her outfit soon became a fashion statement due to drawings in the daily papers. When she took the stand, the district attorney, William Travers Jerome, couldn't shake Evelyn's story since she was telling the jury what she told Thaw, not what might have really happened concerning her relationship with Shaw. Instead he tried to smear her character, hammering her on the witness. His strategy had the reverse effect, he just looked like he was bullying a sweet, young girl.

In the meantime a smear campaign was waged against the character of Stanford White. Newspapers dug up all kinds of stories concerning White's debauched behavior with models and showgirls. Other girls came forward and claimed that he was a perfect gentleman. Conspicuously silent where White's friends. Mother Thaw paid not only for a film to be made but also an Off-Broadway play that painted White as a degenerate and debaucher of young girls. It was one of the first cases where the defense went all out to smear the victim (a practice that has become de rigueur since then). In a shocking move, Evelyn's mother came forward to defend Stanford White's character, claiming that she had letters from White that proved that his intentions towards Evelyn had been honorable. However, Mother Thaw took care of the problem, paying her $25,000 for her silence.

The first jury was deadlocked, ending in a hung jury. At the second trial, his lawyers now pleaded that Thaw was definitely insane. Thaw’s mother, always referred to as Mother Thaw, offered to pay Evelyn $1,000,000 to testify that White had raped her and that the thought send Thaw around the bend. After the verdict came in that Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity, he was treated like a hero. Many felt that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice that was bought by a great deal of money. It was clear from the testimony given that Thaw had suffered from severe mental delusions for years compounded by an addiction to cocaine and morphine. It was also clear that Thaw knew exactly what he was doing when he killed Stanford White.

After Thaw was sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York, he and Evelyn were divorced but she never received the $1,000,000 from Mother Thaw. Evelyn had initially tried to obtain an annulment from Thaw, until she found out it meant that she would have no claim to his estate if anything happened to him. Mother Thaw, however, was a shrewd woman and she'd had Evelyn tailed by detectives who discovered that Evelyn had not

been the adoring wife except in public while Thaw was in jail awaiting trial or while he was incacerated at Matteawan.

Thaw meanwhile enjoyed almost total freedom at Matteawan. While there, he spent his time trying to get the verdict of insanity appealed. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court but was upheld. Thaw managed to escape temporarily to Canada in 1913. He was extradited back to the States, but was finally released in 1915 after being judged sane. But that wasn't the end of Thaw's trouble's. Thaw was accused of sexually assaulting and horsewhipping a young boy and was sent back to a mental hospital until 1924. After his release, he moved to Virginia where he bought a historic home called Kenilworth, ingratiating himself with the locals. When he died in Florida in 1947, he left Evelyn $10,000 in his will.

The years were not kind to Evelyn after White’s death. She gave birth to a son, Russell Thaw, in 1910 that she claimed was Thaw’s child but he denied it, and Evelyn eventually admitted that Russell was not Thaw’s although she refused to say who was. She went into vaudeville, with a partner Jack Clifford who she later married, demonstrating the new dances like the fox-trot. She attempted suicide several times, and miraculously she and Thaw apparently attempted to reconcile but nothing came of it. She lived quietly for many years in New Jersey, where she taught ceramics, after overcoming an addiction to morphine (an addiction she was introduced to by Thaw), and alcoholism.

When the film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing was in production starring Farley Granger, Joan Collins and Ray Milland, Evelyn acted as a technical advisor. She also published two memoirs, The Story of My Life and Prodigal Days. In recent years, her story has entered the national consciousness through E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and the movie and musical based on the book. Evelyn died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California at the age of 82 in 1967.

The real victim in all this is Stanford White. Not only was his life tragically cut short, but his reputation blackened to such a degree that his name was spoken in hushed whispers after his death, to the point that even his own family were ashamed to be related to him. The unholy trinity of scandal, violence and sexual impropriety still haunt the memory of a brilliant architect who should be remembered for the brilliant buildings he gave the world, not his sex life.

These three people from disparate backgrounds are now intertwined in the history of New York’s Gilded Age, as symbols of the decadence that symbolized the city. Could White’s death have been prevented if Evelyn had never married Thaw? No one will ever know for sure. Thaw clearly had it in for the man he called “The Beast” but his relationship with Evelyn spurred his obsession to unnatural heights. Evelyn, for her part, never seems to have gotten over her relationship with White. Having lost her father at such a young age, White was both lover and father substitute. Her relationship with Thaw in some way kept her connected to Stanford White, and even in death, her name will always be coupled with his as part of the “Murder of the Century.”

For further reading:

The Architect of Desire by Suzannah Lessard (White’s great-great grand daughter)
Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age - Michael Mooney

American Experience – The Murder of the Century
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing


wutthi said...

Nice blog. I will keep reading. Please take the time to visit my blog about Levitz Furniture

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for the comment. And what an interesting blog about Levitz. I used to hear that commercial all the time, "You'll love it at Levitz" growing up here in New York.

70steen said...

Great story I knew some of it but you certainly plugged some of the gaps I didn't know about

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed it. I've long been fascinated by the story even though its so tragic. It's amazing how bad the tabloids were in the early part of the 20th century.

Dr. Paula said...

This is my first attempt at blogging so I apologize in advance if I'm doing something wrong. I've written a biography of Evelyn Nesbit called American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century. It coms out May 1st from Riverhead Press and has 50 photos of the "lethal beauty."
I think your profile of her is well done indeed.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Dr. Paula, welcome to the blog. I'm looking foward to reading your biography of Evelyn. I have it bookmarked on my Amazon wish list at the moment. I think that Evelyn is a fascinating subject. I've loved reading about her ever since I saw the movie Ragtime.

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