Evelyn Nesbit- Model, Muse, Witness, Victim
She was born December 25 as Florence Evelyn Nesbit in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, a small village outside Pittsburgh. No one is exactly sure of the year as her mother added years to circumvent child labor laws. It is recorded as 1884, but may have been as late as 1886. Little Evelyn was so beautiful, that stories abound that neighbors came to simply gaze on the newborn. Evelyn grew into a thoughtful child, especially close to her father, who encouraged her in her love of reading. The family moved to Pittsburgh in 1893 and Evelyn’s father died soon after at the age of 40 leaving Evelyn and her mother and younger brother to make their own way in the world. Evelyn’s mother was a traditional Victorian housewife, who did not work outside the home. Mrs. Nesbit’s attempts to make a living through dressmaking and running a boarding house both failed. Eventually they lost their home and most of their possessions to debt, and were relying on the charity of friends to survive. It fell on Evelyn’s slim shoulders to support the family.
The family moved to Philadelphia and Mrs. Nesbit found a job as a store clerk at Wanamaker’s Department Store. She quickly got both of her children jobs there as well, working six days a week twelve hours a day. A young artist saw Evelyn and was struck by her beauty and requested she posed for him. After much begging, she persuaded her mother to agree and she sat for him for five hours and earned a dollar. This was the beginning of Evelyn’s modeling career. In 1900, the family moved to New York City, and the Philadelphia artists sent letters of introduction to other artists there and Evelyn was on her way. She soon became a favorite model of Frederick S. Church, Carl Blenner and Herbert Morgan as well as other members of the Art Students League. Mrs. Nesbit was supposedly Evelyn’s manager, but she was ill suited for the job. She was very unsophisticated and naive, and was ill equipped to guard her daughter’s interest. She swore she never let Evelyn pose in the “altogether” or nude, however, there are at least two paintings showing her nude or in very skimpy clothing. Evelyn’s face also became ubiquitous in magazines and on advertisements. Charles Dana Gibson added her to his collection of Gibson Girls, the ideal of what American women should look like. His picture of her featured her lustrous hair with a lock forming a question mark. The title of the piece “Woman, the Eternal Question”, became one of his most famous pieces. Evelyn was arguably the first pin up girl as she was featured prominently on calendars for Coca Cola, Prudential Life Insurance and Swift.
She had admirers, but one of her first famous admirers noticed her when she was a Gibson girl. A story says she first met Stanford K. White leaving Charles Gibson’s studio. He supposedly exclaimed “By Jove, Gibson! Who is this little vision of the empyrean blue? Tell me; I must know the little sprite, whether she is of this earth or just a fairy from out of Wonderland.” Whether or not he waxed that poetic, White was smitten with young Evelyn. Stanford K. White was one of America’s most renowned architects having designed the Washington Square Arch, Brooklyn Museum, Morgan Library and Madison Square Garden. The 49 year old White began courting the 16 year old Evelyn with a vengeance, bringing her gifts, wining and dining her with the best food. He often had her to his luxurious apartment with other friends. One thing he did was introduce her to a room with a red velvet swing. Evelyn often swung on it, which captured the imagination of the public when it came out. It inspired a later movie about her life called “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing”. Mrs Nesbit was charmed by White and thought his interest in Evelyn was purely paternal. Under this assumption, she left to visit friends in Pittsburgh leaving Evelyn in White’s care. It was like leaving a fox in the hen house.
While Mrs. Nesbit was gone, Evelyn stayed with White in his apartment. During this visit, he introduced her to the mirror room. The room had a couch and all the walls were mirrors. Evelyn testified later that she remembered putting on a yellow silk kimono and drinking a glass of champagne. The next thing she knew, she was naked in a bed with White. She said, “entered that room a virgin, but did not come out as one”. Evelyn was White’s mistress or appeared to be for little over a year.
Despite this incident or perhaps because of it, White pursued career opportunities for Evelyn harder than ever. She had grown bored of sitting for hours for painters and photographers and moved into the world of the theater. She was a chorus girl in the popular play Florodora, and then through White’s influence got a speaking part in the play The Wild Rose. She was in the play with John “Jack” Barrymore, with whom she had a relationship. Both Mrs. Newbit and White disliked him and shooed him away from Evelyn despite their genuine feelings for each other. Evelyn was whisked away to a girl’s school in New Jersey to keep him away.
The play also brought her into the orbit of Harry Thaw, the son of a Pittsburgh millionaire. He was enraptured with Evelyn and considered White his romantic rival. He insinuated himself into every aspect of Evelyn’s life. She had a health failing, appendicitis or an abortion depending on who you ask, and Thaw sent her a private doctor to take care of her. Then he insisted on taking Evelyn and her mother to Europe to recuperate. Mrs. Nesbit and Evelyn argued, and eventually Thaw and Evelyn left her in London and traveled to Paris alone. There Thaw asked Evelyn to marry her, and knowing Thaw’s obsession with chastity, she confessed to him what happened with White. To say Thaw did not take it well was an understatement. They continued their trip and he took Evelyn on a bizarre tour of sites dedicated to chastity and virginity. They visited the birthplace of Joan of Arc, and Thaw signed the church’s guestbook, “She would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around.”
Finally, Thaw took Evelyn to Schloss Katzenstein in Austria, and there in a drug fueled two week long nightmare, he beat Evelyn with whips and sexually assaulted her. When they returned to New York, Thaw promised he would never do anything like that again and again asked Evelyn to marry him. Unbelievably, she agreed. The affair with White had damaged her reputation, and society at that time were not kind to “fallen women”. I imagine she thought she had no choice. The two were married April 4, 1905. Evelyn was put under the instruction of Thaw’s disapproving mother and life must have been excruciating.
Thaw’s mental health continued to deteriorate. He was convinced he was being followed by members of the Monk Eastman Gang hired by White, and carried a firearm wherever he went. He was obsessed with anger at Stanford White for despoiling Evelyn. He felt it was his duty to unmask this monster. This obsession came to head June 26, 1906. They were dining out in New York, and ran into Standford White. Thaw was incensed, but they continued on to the theater at the top of the Madison Square Garden to see the new musical “Mam’zelle Champaigne”. White arrived there as well, and Thaw could not take it any more. He marched up to White, and said “You ruined my life,” or “You ruined my wife”. No one is quite sure. Thaw put his pistol inches away from his head and pulled the trigger. White died instantly. Thaw surrendered to police and thus began the media circus.
The trial was called the Trial of the Century. It was the first time in American history a jury had to be sequestered. Yellow journalists featured the trial and all its sordid details in every issue of the paper. They spent time trying to scoop one another for anything that may pertain to anything about the case. Thaw was heralded as the protector of female virtue, a hero who married Evelyn despite her sordid past. Evelyn was the defenses’ star witness and forced to testify and give every detail to a courtroom full of strangers about her sexual assault by White. The public could not get enough of the story. A week after the murder, a movie was rushed into production by Thomas Edison for wide viewing in nickelodeons. The first trial was a hung jury and the second found Thaw not guilty by reason of insanity. Soon after he escaped to Canada, but he was out and free in the US by 1915.
Evelyn was never free. She had a son in 1910, which she claimed was conceived on a conjugal visit to Thaw in the asylum, but no one knows for sure. She and Thaw were divorced in 1915. She remarried and found modest success on vaudeville. For a while she ran a speakeasy in Manhattan. Eventually she settled down and lived modestly until her death in 1962.
Family lore from her grandson, said that Evelyn received payment from the Thaw’s for her testimony, which she turned around and donated to Emma Goldman, the famous anarchist. That is hearsay, but it would be poetic justice. The sad end to the first It Girl.