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Murder of the Century | Article

The Love Triangle

In this interview, Paula Uruburu, associate professor and chair of the English department at Hofstra University, describes Nesbit, White, Thaw, and the murder of the century. Her research into the depiction of women in literature, art, music at the turn of the century led her to Nesbit, the most fascinating woman of her day. Professor Uruburu is currently writing a biography of Nesbit called American Eve .

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Paula Uruburu

Who was Evelyn Nesbit?
In December 1900 she came to New York City at the tender age of 15 as an artist's model, with nothing but her looks, and became an overnight sensation. To the reporters who followed her mercurial rise as a celebrity -- before there was any visible evidence of a singular talent to justify it, at first -- hers seemed a fairy-tale existence. Nesbit generated more newspaper sales and publicity than William Randolph Hearst himself could have imagined. She was a modern-day Cinderella who overnight became the glittering girl model of Gotham. She was Gibson Girl turned "Florodora" Girl as she made the natural leap from studio to stage.

Herself a product of the Victorian past but with an approach to life that was unconsciously modern, she embodied the nation's paradoxes. At times she seemed the picture of nineteenth-century sentimentality and purity, but her bewitching smile promised something new and forbidden. Two years after her arrival in New York, Stanford White, New York's premier architect and arbiter of taste, would kneel, hands trembling, to kiss the hem of the $3000 kimono he bought for her.

How did Nesbit become a celebrity?
Starting in Philadelphia, where she was discovered at the age of 14, and then in New York City, Nesbit was the sole bread-winner for her family as an artist's model. Her mother gave up any notion of securing a job for herself as a seamstress, as she had originally intended, and instead lived off the earnings Evelyn made, first as a model for painters and sculptors, and then in the more lucrative field of posing for photographers, magazine illustrators, and advertising. Evelyn's younger brother, Howard, was initially sent to live with various family members back in Pennsylvania. Evelyn increased her earnings by the age of 16 by becoming a chorus girl in the hit musical "Florodora." She still modeled in the daytime and performed at night, and was able to earn enough to pay for room and board and life's necessities for herself and her family.

How famous was she?
Much like Marilyn Monroe later in the century, Evelyn Nesbit was an icon of her age, created and consumed by the public's insatiable appetite for private sin and public scandal. She was America's first bona-fide sex-goddess.

As model and actress she played at numerous parts, but her starring role came in 1906 with the real-life sensational murder in Madison Square Garden's rooftop theater of Stanford White, her former benefactor and ex-lover, by her demented husband, Harry Thaw, in defense of her honor -- albeit more than three years after the fact. The subsequent trial cast her forever in the popular mind as "the girl in the red velvet swing".

Yet even as her startling testimony on the witness stand helped push America into the modern era, almost as quickly as her star rose, it fell victim to the very culture that created and consumed her. The scandal, media fire storm, and first "trial of the century" in which she was the central figure, inflamed the nation -- and continues to reverberate throughout American popular culture.

Whowas Stanford White?
White was the dynamic, personable fifty-two-year-old architect of the firm McKim, Mead and White, which had transformed New York City with elegant public buildings, structures and private homes of the rich. His projects included Madison Square Garden, Tiffany's, the Washington Square Arch, and Cornelius Vanderbilt's mansion.

The impressive buildings, structures, and homes designed and built by McKim, Mead and White which still exist in Manhattan, on Long Island, in Westchester, and in Newport, Rhode Island, are a testament to his skill and artistry as an architect.

A perpetual and influential patron of the arts — both highbrow and low — who orbited freely in all social circles, White was an extravagant spender and bon vivant. His appetite for all things beautiful and pleasurable was well known to Mrs. Astor's 400, the Bohemian artists of lower Manhattan, and countless denizens of Broadway, where a word from White could give a girl the coveted chance to emerge from the back row of the chorus.

What was Nesbit and White's relationship?
At first it was avuncular. Having seen her perform in a musical called "Florodora," White became Evelyn's (and her mother and brother's) benefactor. He provided her with a kind of allowance, a beautifully decorated apartment, and extravagant gifts. Then, after convincing Evelyn's mother to visit friends and relatives back in Pittsburgh, one night White seduced Evelyn. Depending on which account you believe, he drugged and raped her, or got her drunk and took advantage of the 16 year old, whereupon she became his mistress for nearly a year until their relationship ended and she was sent off to a girl's school in New Jersey at age 17.

Who was Harry Thaw?
He was the son of a Pittsburgh millionaire who stood to inherit part of a $40 million fortune until his obsession with a man he considered his social and romantic rival, Stanford White, prompted him to shoot White on June 25, 1906, in Madison Square Garden's rooftop theater, in front of hundreds of horrified patrons. Thaw believed White had ruined his wife, Evelyn Nesbit. By most accounts, Thaw was a cocaine addict, or at least showed signs of drug abuse which caused him to have a wild-eyed stare most of the time. His drug abuse also seems to have fueled in him a kind of sadism that he took out mostly on women -- beating them with dog whips (as he did to Evelyn) and scalding them with boiling water in hotel bathtubs.

How did Thaw enter the picture?
Thaw, who was jealous of Stanford White's social position in New York, began pursuing Evelyn, first anonymously with gifts that ranged from flowers and silk stockings to a piano, then more openly. But Evelyn refused his advances. Then came Thaw's golden opportunity to insinuate himself into Evelyn's life when he sent a doctor to the girl's school in New Jersey to perform an emergency appendectomy on her. Later Thaw took Evelyn and her mother on a recuperative trip to Europe.

Why did Nesbit marry Thaw?
I think she realized her opportunities for a respectable marriage were severely limited, given her lack of social position --and recent past as White's mistress. Thaw's relentess pursuit of her, combined with his wealth and seemingly real affection for her welfare, eventually persuaded her to marry him in April 1905. Those who want to paint her as simply a gold digger should realize she resisted Thaw's proposals for nearly two years after breaking up with White.

How did people react to news of the love triangle and murder?
The reaction was initially a combination of shock and Victorian moral outrage at the scandal of a married man having seduced and then carried on an affair with an under-age chorus girl. White was painted as the lecherous villain of the stage melodramas, Evelyn as a poor girl from the country defiled by his venery, and Harry as the knight in shining armor defending his wife's honor.

What happened at the trial?
The first trial in 1907 ended with a hung jury. A second trial a year later ended with Thaw being found insane, and sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York. Thaw escaped to Canada, briefly, and was finally released from the asylum in 1915.

The public viewed him as a hero. In great part this was because his mother put the Thaw family fortune to use by defending her son at every turn and portraying him sympathetically. A film paid for by the Thaw family showed a biased view of Harry's heroic defense of American womanhood. As more and more facts emerged about the number of girls White had probably seduced in his lifetime, Harry's act did seem like a heroic one to the public. The press became increasingly dominated by this real life drama, and Americans watched it play out like a Victorian melodrama, with good triumphing over evil.

Why do you think people are still fascinated with the story?
It has all the elements -- sex and violence, love and betrayal, a teen-aged girl involved with a married man, an insanely jealous husband driven to murder. Moreover, it involves a supremely beautiful girl who was an icon of her age, the fall of the rich and powerful, the cult of celebrity that is now so familiar, but which at the time was brand new.

Have you met descendents of Nesbit, Thaw or White?
I met Evelyn's daughter-in-law, her grandson, Russell, who is a lawyer in California, and have spoken with her granddaughter, Terry, who lives in Haifa. I have spoken with other Nesbit relatives as well, and the oldest generation all tell the same story — that is, they want to be as far removed from the scandal as possible. That has been made difficult by the story's endurance in popular culture and its periodic emergence in various forms (the 1955 film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, E. L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, in the 1970s, the film version of the novel in the 1980s, and the stage musical, "Ragtime," in the 1990s).

The younger generation (grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are less worried about being associated with scandal and are eager to know as much as they can about their family history. In the case of the Nesbit and Thaw relatives I've spoken to or corresponded with, they know very little of the facts of the case since their parents' generation tried to keep a lid on a family scandal that they wanted to forget.

I've met Stanford White's granddaughter, the writer Suzannah Lessard. She wrote a book titled Architect of Desire which chronicles her own reaction to her family's history and the role her grandfather's appetites and murder played in creating a pattern of behavior that affected subsequent generations.

Is it true that some have claimed to see Evelyn Nesbit's ghost?
Yes. The owners of one of the Thaw family summer homes in Cresson, Pennsylvania, which has been turned into a hotel, claim that patrons have seen a beautiful young woman, looking very much like a Gibson girl, walking its halls, which they believe to be Evelyn.

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