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Murder of the Century | Article

Sex, Money, and Murder

Author Brendan Gill describes the love triangle behind Stanford White's murder and explores money, sex, entertainment, and public morals in early 20th century New York City.

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Brendan Gill

Stanford White
In New York at the turn of the century, the city -- the physical appearance of the city -- was changing so radically, and it was being changed largely in part by one extraordinary firm: McKim, Mead and White. So that perhaps that the character of McKim and Mead would not have had any effect on the public, but Stanford White was at every party, he was at all the openings at the theater, at the opera, at everything else. He was well over six feet tall, he had reddish hair, he was extraordinarily handsome and vivid, he moved at top speed so that even in the street, even watching this person, he was like a kind of apparition, passing through the city at all times. And of course, he was also in what amounted to the gossip columns in those days, we tend to think that they didn't have gossip columns, but they had very powerful gossip columns, which were more scandalous than anything we print nowadays. But he was one of the major figures known to exist in New York, and about whom a great mass of people revolved...

Evelyn Nesbit
Evelyn Nesbit — from the moment she arrived in New York — was one of the prettiest people that had ever been New York. She was not only perfect features, but soft, voluptuous smiling, and everybody wanted to take her picture. She was photographed by everybody in kimonos, which were all the rage in those days, Japanese settings with parasols, and everything. And also naked, and also looking into the camera saying "I dare you, I dare you to think the thoughts that you are thinking." 

Harry Thaw
He was a maso-sadist of the first order, and he loved to whip her and beat her and draw blood, even in middle age, when he was older, one of his favorite activities was squeezing small animals to death and then summoning bellboys and bellhops in hotels up to his room, beating them up and then giving them $100 not to say anything. He was a classic evil man, if there is such a thing, in the evil of the world, but Evelyn was determined to marry him, determined to get a lot of money, and to make good through him...

Breaking the Rules
At the turn of the century, the letter of law, and the morality of the society which was setting itself up as the standard for New York City was entirely hypocritical. One married and one pretended to be monogamous — and monogamy was out of the question. And the richer you were, the freer you were to break the rules. Everybody... I can't think of a single exception where somebody or other wasn't having fun on the side. And the wives had no alternative, they were not going to have a career outside of the home. There was nothing to be done about it.

Women as Chattell
At the turn of the century, like at the turn of any century, say for 15,000 years, the source of entertainment, for men, at night, in a big city, have been nightclubs and houses of prostitution. And the use of women without regard to their being anything more than purchasable chattel. This was markedly true of Victorian London and it was markedly true of Victorian New York. So everybody at least led a double life, and some people succeeded in leading a triple life. But there were people who were bisexual who had three lives going on simultaneously and moved in and out of all three from one day to the next very dangerously. There was disease and full of sudden ugly surprises, but the nature of entertainment they saw and achieved hasn't changed very much and it's pretty much the same in the 1920s and 30s, when I first came to New York, and I suppose it's identical to that today, but the standard of hypocrisy has fallen lower than it was, because nobody needed to bother to be hypocritical anymore.

The Story of Lasting Appeal
...the Stanford White case has lasted almost 100 years now, because of the simplicity with which it was reduced by the needs of the press, and to try to speculate on the nature of Evelyn Nesbit's true feelings about Stanford White. Or to speculate on White's own feelings in the last months of his life, when he had private detectives tailing Thaw, Thaw had private detectives trailing White, there was an increased sense of an emergency, something awful was going to happen, something awful was bound to happen, and White was in effect, running faster and faster could not know what the end was going to be, but it couldn't have got any better, it could only have got worse, and meanwhile, he had no money, he was desperately in debt, he owed the firm, his great collection of antiques was used to fob off legitimately on his clients, antiquities of various kinds, had been burned in a warehouse. The one thing he had of any commercial value had been lost to him. Blow after blow had either fallen or was about to fall. And there it all was, and he was only, after all, 53 and he was not altogether form, but he still had a doting mother, he had a family, he had all these other things, and all of it coming to a tremendous climax in his death. This was just bound to be one of the great stories.

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