This week’s entry: Evelyn Nesbit
What it’s about: The best-known face of the 20th century’s first decade. Nesbit was famous as a ubiquitous model-turned-actress, and then infamous as the central figure in a sensational murder case, as her millionaire husband shot her wealthy benefactor, who had sexually assaulted her as a teenager. Nesbit never fully escaped the shadow of the first of many trials of the century, and her personal and professional life remained turbulent well after its close.
Strangest fact: During her heyday as a model, Nesbit was everywhere, including classic children’s literature. She was strikingly beautiful from an early age, and when her doting father died suddenly when she was 11, her modeling career saved her family from poverty. That came after a few years of struggle; her mother tried and failed to run a boarding house, and lived on donations from friends and relatives until securing work in a department store for herself and her two young children. An artist passing through the store asked to paint her picture; she introduced Nesbit to other artists, and she soon became a favorite artists’ model.
So it happened that 14-year-old Evelyn was determined to pursue modeling as a career, as it was easier than working in the store and the pay was better. Her mother disapproved at first, but unable to find work herself after a move to New York, she relented, and her daughter became the toast of the town. Her face graced magazine covers, was used in countless advertisements, and helped jump-start the nascent medium of fashion photography. In 1908, author Lucy Maud Montgomery cut out a photo of Nesbit from a magazine and used her as a model for Anne Of Green Gables, not realizing that, at that moment, she was in the midst of the most sensational murder trial the country had ever seen.
Biggest controversy: Stanford White was well-known as both an architect and a womanizer when the 47-year-old met 16-year-old Nesbit. (She may have been as young as 14; her mother often lied about her age to circumvent child labor laws, so her real age is uncertain.) By this point (1901), Nesbit had moved on from modeling and become a Broadway chorus girl (she would eventually star in a few productions before becoming a silent film star). White’s interest at first seemed strictly paternal, as he impressed Evelyn, her mother, and brother Howard with his wealth (he owned an opulent apartment directly above FAO Schwarz). He paid for Howard to attend a military academy. But he also convinced Mrs. Nesbit to visit friends out of town while leaving her daughter in his care.
He raped her. Wikipedia doesn’t elaborate on the immediate aftermath, but it seems she kept the incident a secret, as the fucked-up mores of the time would have prioritized keeping Nesbit’s “virtue intact” over punishing a rapist. White remained a presence in her life for some time, often interfering in her romantic relationships, though he doesn’t seem to have assaulted her again.
Nesbit was pursued by a string of wealthy men, which included Harry Kendall Thaw, the son of a coal and railroad baron. Thaw was the heir to a $40 million fortune, but he also had “a history of pronounced mental instability since childhood.” He became obsessed with Nesbit, seeing her perform onstage in The Wild Rose 40 times in a year. He drove a wedge between Nesbit and her mother, and having isolated her, badgered her into recounting the details of her assault at the hands of White.
Thaw proposed marriage again and again, and Nesbit finally accepted in 1905. She was 21. The following year, the couple took in a show on the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden (the 1890-1925 edition, actually on Madison Avenue, not to be confused with the current Madison Square Garden, which is neither on Madison Avenue, nor square, nor a garden). The theater traditionally had a table reserved for the architect who had designed the building: Stanford White. Thaw fumed at his proximity to the man who had assaulted his wife, and during the finale of the show, he pulled a gun from his coat and shot White three times in the back of the head, shouting to the crowd, “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him.”
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: As outraged as Thaw was at White’s treatment of Nesbit, he himself was no better. In the media frenzy that followed the murder, the press built up Thaw to be the avenging hero, while alternately portraying Nesbit as an innocent whose “beauty was her undoing” and a schemer passing herself around from one rich man to another. But their fawning portrait of Thaw covered up some ugly reality.
Like White, Thaw schemed to get Nesbit’s mother out of the way. While pursuing Evelyn, he took the two on a trip to Europe, which he arranged to make as stressful as possible, to escalate tensions between the two women. Eventually things came to a head, and Mrs. Nesbit was left behind in London as her daughter continued on with Thaw. They stayed in an Austrian castle, where Thaw’s dark side came out. He locked Evelyn in her room, whipped her, and “sexually assaulted her over a two-week period.”
At the end of two weeks, Thaw acted remorseful, and spent some time afterward apologizing and promising to change his ways, while still pursuing Nesbit’s hand in marriage. Nesbit, now estranged from her mother, isolated and vulnerable, consented to marry Thaw.
Life as a millionaire’s wife was not what Nesbit imagined, as the couple moved in with Thaw’s tyrannical, strictly religious mother, who demanded Nesbit’s career as a model and actress never be mentioned again. A few years later, Mrs. Thaw also demanded that her son’s murder trial not acknowledge his history of mental instability and paid a small fortune to have doctors insist his murderous outburst was merely “temporary insanity.” She also reportedly bribed Nesbit for favorable testimony.
It didn’t work. After a heavily sensationalized trial (it necessitated the first sequestered jury in American history) resulted in a hung jury, a retrial saw Thaw sentenced to life at the Matteawan Hospital For The Criminally Insane. After five years, he escaped custody and fled to Canada, although he was extradited back to the U.S. two years after that. In 1915 he was declared sane and released, but Nesbit divorced him immediately. She married Jack Clifford, a dancer she shared a stage act with, but he left her after only two years, as he grew tired of being overshadowed by his wife’s infamy.
Also noteworthy: While Thaw was incarcerated, Nesbit gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw. She claimed he was conceived during a conjugal visit, which Thaw consistently denied. There’s no clear case to be made for any other potential father; Wikipedia blindly speculates an earlier suitor might have returned into Nesbit’s life. Whatever the case, Russell also made a name for himself. As a child, he appeared in six silent films alongside his mother, and as an adult, he became a renowned pilot. He worked as a private pilot to the Guggenheim family, was “one of the most noted American pilots” in WWII, and competed in the 1935 Bendix Trophy race, finishing ahead of Amelia Earhart.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: So sensational was the newspaper coverage of the White murder that church groups lobbied the government to censor salacious reports of both White’s death and behavior while alive. Even President Theodore Roosevelt scolded the papers for printing the “full disgusting particulars.” Roosevelt went so far as to threaten censorship but didn’t follow through. One of our most beloved presidents, Roosevelt was an asthmatic child turned Harvard-educated historian turned rugged outdoorsman and icon of American masculinity. He was an avid hunter but a champion of conservation. He was pushed into the vice presidency because the Republican Party wanted to sideline a popular figure they considered unpredictable. But the plan backfired almost immediately when William McKinley was assassinated. He belonged to the party of big business, but was best known for breaking up monopolies and pushing a progressive agenda. And he was an enthusiastic warmonger who didn’t take the country to war, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and never recovered from the death of his son Quentin in WWI.
Further down the Wormhole: O.J. was far from the first famous murderer to have his trial dramatized. After Stanford White’s murder, Thomas Edison himself rushed Rooftop Murder into production, and it was playing in the nickelodeons a week after the murder. (Remember that the next time the Avatar sequels are pushed back a few years.) Nickelodeons were America’s first movie theaters, so named because films cost a nickel. Movies had previously been screened in between other acts in a vaudeville show or displayed on “peep show” devices like the Kinetoscope. In fact, the first commercial movie theater, opened in 1894, was simply a row of Kinetoscopes in a New York City storefront. We’ll take a look at the device that birthed the motion picture industry next week.