American Experience
Artist's Model In New York



1914


  1934


We had secured a room on Twenty-second Street -- a little back-room on the second floor. Here we lived, and again felt the pinch of poverty. There were days when my sole meal consisted of a biscuit and a cup of coffee.

Try as she would, my mother did not succeed in securing even a minor position with a firm of dress designers. Everywhere the same answer was returned, the same questions asked: "Had she been to Paris recently? Had she similar experiences with other firms?"

It was in desperation that mother remembered the letter of introduction to Mr. Carroll Beckwith. In Philadelphia my artist friends had sent me to a photographer's to secure a number of studies of my head. Armed with one of these, mother called upon Mr. Beckwith. This was in December, 1900.

The artist was pleased with the picture. He told her that she could bring me up to the studio, because he felt pretty sure that he would be able to give me work. A personal inspection satisfied him, and he offered me posing for two mornings every week.

"You are not the sort of girl," he said kindly, "that should go knocking at studio doors. I will give you some letters of introduction to representative artists in New York."

This he did. I remember one was Mr. F. S. Church, and Mr. Church gave me letters to Herbert Morgan, and Mr. and Mrs. Hyneman, and Carl Blenner. For all the artists I posed.

The work was fairly light. The poses were not particularly difficult. In the main they wanted me for my head. I never posed for the figure in the sense that I had posed for the nude. Sometimes I would be painted as a little Eastern girl in a costume of a Turkish woman, all vivid coloring, with ropes and bangles of jade about my neck and arms.

In a sense it was my work as an artist's model that first brought me into the public eye. I do not know that to be brought into the public eye is the happiest of experiences. Wilde has said that a woman, like a country, is happiest when she has no history.

I remember in New York a reporter came down to the house to see me. It was a novel experience, and one which considerably flustered me; it was the first of I do not know how many interviews which were to be my lot. Mother showed him a photograph which had been taken in Philadelphia. It is a curious fact that I have not a single one of these pictures left, though it is not such a long time since they were taken. A photograph of a pose I had made was printed in an evening paper in New York, with a complimentary caption underneath, and from thence onward I saw many reporters, all of whom were anxious to get a photograph for their papers.

Evelyn Nesbit, The Story of My Life, 1914

 

New York! The glittering city lights made it look like a hive of fireflies the evening we crossed the Hudson on the ferry. And how my heart hammered in awe as we rode on the fearsome, roaring elevated train up to Twenty-third Street. We had the address of a modest rooming house at 249 West Twenty-second Street run by a French family named Bourget, who claimed to be distant relatives of the immortal Paul.

Again my mother tried desperately but futilely to obtain work as a designer. Weeks went by in this fashion. I was itching to use the letters of introduction I had from the Philadelphia artists for whom I posed, but first I had to overcome Mamma's objections. I finally prevailed upon her to call on one of the artists to whom I had letters.

When Carroll Beckwith saw me he engaged me on the spot; I settled down to posing for him two afternoons a week. For Frederick S. Church, whose staunchest patron was John Jacob Astor, I posed on Saturdays. These associations assured me entrée into New York's studio world, and soon I had more work than I could handle. Among those for whom I posed were J. Wells Campney, Carl Blenner, Herbert Morgan, George Grey Barnard, the sculptor, who used me for his famous study, "Innocence," now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Charles Dana Gibson, whose chef-d'oeuvre, "The Eternal Question," was a lifelike pen and ink sketch of me, which I own today.

Posing for photographs proved far more lucrative. In those days the Sunday World and the Sunday American had just started to publish fashion pages picturing the latest hats, gowns, shoes, stockings, sports frocks, as worn by living models. These photographs were made by a man named Joel Feder at a photographic studio on West Twenty-third Street. He paid five dollars and sometimes ten for a sitting; five dollars for a morning or an afternoon, and twice that for a whole day's posing. This work became steady, bringing in enough money to support us all -- even my brother who had come back to us.

Evelyn Nesbit, Prodigal Days, 1934


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1 -- Artist's Model In New York 2 -- Meeting Stanford White 3 -- The Red Swing 4 -- Confession To Thaw 5 -- The Murder 6 -- The Call To Testify 7 -- Aftermath