By the time of her 16th birthday in 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was known to millions as the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty, and whose innocent sexuality was used to sell everything from chocolates to perfume. Soon after arriving in New York, Nesbit had become the mistress of millionaire architect Stanford White.
Stanford White (1853 – 1906) was considered the most distinguished architect of his day. He had designed more than fifty of New York’s most admired buildings, including the Madison Square Gardens and the Washington Square Arch. He was also a spectacular ladies-man, who kept several different mistresses at once, secreted in a number of love nests throughout the city. In one of his apartments, White kept Evelyn Nesbit, who he had despoiled upon her arrival in New York. He had fallen madly in love with her, despite the fact that at 47, White was nearly three times her age. Evelyn remained with White until she was 19 and at that point she left him and became involved with Harry Thaw.
Harry Kendall Thaw (1871 – 1947) was the son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw, Sr. Heir to a multimillion-dollar mine and railroad fortune, Harry Thaw had a history of severe mental instability and led a profligate life.
In 1905, Nesbit, following her mother’s advice, she married him.
At the age of 34, Harry Thaw was slowly going insane. He persecuted Evelyn about her former relationship with White. Once, he beat her with a belt for hours and made her confess every sexual act in which she had engaged with Stanford White.
A year later, on June 25, 1906, Thaw and Evelyn, accompanied by two friends, attended the opening of a play at the dining theater on the roof of Madison Square Gardens. The theater was a frequent gathering place for New York society. Soon after taking their seats, Thaw noticed Stanford White being ushered to a table in the privileged section near the footlights. He approached his wife’s ex-lover, and shot him three times at point-blank range, twice in the face and once in the shoulder.
Nesbit became the star witness in a three-month trial (as the press call it “The Trial of the Century”) full of shocking details about her relationships with the two men. She claimed that as a stage performer, and while still a 14-year-old, she attracted the attention of Stanford White, who first gained the family’s trust and then sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious. Evelyn was cast in the press as ‘the girl in the red velvet swing’ in reference to a swing that White had installed in his luxurious, multi-storey apartment. Evelyn’s mother was accused of prostituting her daughter to White. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a second trial, and spent eight years in an asylum for the criminally insane. Nesbit divorced Thaw in 1915.
In the 1920s, Nesbit became the proprietor of either a tearoom or speakeasy located in the West Fifties in Manhattan. 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.
She published two memoirs, The Story of My Life (1914), and Prodigal Days (1934). During the years of World War II, Nesbit lived in Los Angeles, teaching ceramics and sculpting at the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts.
Nesbit died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 82.
Gertrude Käsebier (1852–1934) was one of the most influential American photographers of the early 20th century. She was known for her evocative images of motherhood, her powerful portraits of Native Americans and her promotion of photography as a career for women. A major collection of her work is held by the University of Delaware.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: Evelyn Nesbit
Wikipedia: Stanford White
Wikipedia: Harry Kendall Thaw
Wikipedia: Gertrude Käsebier
“American Eve” by Paula Uruburu
BBC: The World’s First Supermodel
Dailymail: America’s supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit…
Affictor.com: Nesbit, in 1952 – “I’ve Discovered An Exciting New Career In Art”
Dead men do tell tales: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
Buy a Print:
Red Bubble Treasures of New York: Stanford White