Today is the 135th (or 136th) birthday of the Gibson Girl Evenlyn Nesbit. She was also involved in what at that time was called “The Trial of the Century”. We love a true crime tie-in. The world is a better place because she was in it and still feels the loss that she has left.
NAME: Florence Evelyn Nesbit
DATE OF BIRTH: December 25, 1884, or December 25, 1885
PLACE OF BIRTH: Natrona, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH: January 17, 1967
PLACE OF DEATH: Santa Monica, California, U.S.
REMINS: Holy Cross Cemetery – Culver City, Los Angeles County, California, USA
BEST KNOWN FOR: Evelyn Nesbit was an American artists’ model, chorus girl, and actress. She is best known for her years as a young woman in New York City.
She was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on Christmas Day, 1884, in Tarentum, a small Pennsylvania town located on the Allegheny River about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, populated primarily by the men who worked in the big city’s steel mills and coal mines, and their families. Her parents were Winfield Scott Nesbit, a lawyer, and Evelyn Florence Nesbit.
The Nesbits moved to Pittsburgh in 1893. Less than a year later, Winfield Nesbit died at the age of 40, leaving Mrs. Nesbit with two young children – Florence, 10, and her brother, Howard, 8. With no means of support, the Nesbits were evicted from their home and forced to sell most of their possessions. They moved in with relatives for a while, then Mrs. Nesbit set out to find work in Philadelphia.
Mrs. Nesbit eventually found a job as a department store sales clerk, and sent for her children. They arrived in Philadelphia and began attending school, but Mrs. Nesbit quickly realized that her salary wasn’t enough to support the family, so she found jobs at the department store for her two children, who were forced to drop out of school.
Florence was always a beautiful child. By her early teens, she had grown into a beautiful young woman, with large, dark eyes; porcelain skin; and long, thick copper-colored hair. Most striking, however, was her expression, which was described as a combination of youthful innocence and mature worldliness. According to the legend, 13-year-old Florence was standing on the sidewalk on a cold winter day in Philadelphia, admiring the fabric in the window of a dry goods store, when a woman approached her and asked if she would be interested in modeling for a portrait artist. Florence discussed the offer with her mother, and accepted the job, which paid $1 for five hours’ work.
Fairly quickly, Florence’s reputation spread, and she was in high demand as an artist’s model throughout Philadelphia, working at the department store during the week, and posing in artists’ studios nearly every weekend. Among the artists who hired the young girl was Violet Oakley, who specialized in portraits and stained glass, and used Florence as a model for her stained-glass windows in churches throughout Philadelphia and New York City.
Due to Florence’s success and income as a model, Mrs. Nesbit quit her job at the department store to manage her 15-year-old daughter’s career. In June 1900, Mrs. Nesbit decided that Florence would have more work, exposure, success and earnings if the family moved to New York City. Once again, she placed her children in the care of relatives, and headed to New York City to find work for her daughter.
A few months later, she sent for her children, but still had not secured any modeling work for Florence. Shortly after Florence arrived, she found work modeling for James Carroll Beckwith, a well-known and respected painter. Beckwith told Mrs. Nesbit that he also taught “life classes” at the Arts Students League, which meant models posing nude. But he assured Mrs. Nesbit that he would never allow Florence to pose unclothed. (Based on this 1901 painting, however, titled “Miss N,” it seems that Beckwith quickly forgot his promise.)
Florence posed twice a week for Beckwith, who recommended the young model to other artists and photographers in New York City. As she did in Philadelphia, young Florence quickly became the toast of the New York art community, and her portraits and photographs were featured in newspapers, magazines, advertising campaigns, calendars and on sheet music. Florence also modeled for Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his “Gibson Girl” paintings. In the early days of the century, Florence had become the nation’s first official and recognizable pin-up girl.
Florence decided that she would like to become an actress, so she auditioned for a role in the chorus of “Florodora,” a popular Broadway musical. To the 16-year-old Florence, acting wasn’t all that much difference from modeling –- you get to wear a variety of expensive costumes, and you have to pose in a certain way to present a certain emotion. And Florence had a great deal of experience doing that. When she began appearing in “Florodora,” Florence officially changed her name to Evelyn.
While appearing on stage in “Florodora,” even in a small supporting role, Evelyn received the attention of more than her share of interested admirers, though she rejected most of them as being far too old. One, however, presented a more paternal image and became more of a family friend, personal benefactor and father figure –- acclaimed architect Stanford White. At 47, White was nearly three times Evelyn’s age. In fact, he was 10 years older than Evelyn’s mother. He was also married, with a son three years younger than Evelyn.
But Evelyn didn’t see White as a potential suitor. At least, not at first. He bought her expensive gifts and clothing and introduced her to New York’s high society. He also helped her family, giving money to her mother, and paying for her brother’s education at a private school in Pennsylvania. White stressed to Evelyn’s mother that his interest in Evelyn was completely wholesome. He was simply a patron of the arts, and he wanted to help Evelyn with her theatrical career. Mrs. Nesbit called him “Mr. White,” but Evelyn called him “Stanny.”
White financed a trip back to Pittsburgh for Mrs. Nesbit in early 1901, which left him alone with 16-year-old Evelyn in New York City. (Before she left, Mrs. Nesbit put Evelyn in White’s care, telling her daughter to obey him.) White invited the girl to his apartment in the tower at Madison Square Garden, telling her that he was hosting another of his lavish parties. When she arrived, however, there were no other guests. White gave Evelyn several glasses of champagne, which was uncharacteristic of the man who insisted that she never have more than one glass since it would harm her looks and her career. He brought her to a small upstairs bedroom, and gave her another glass of champagne. Evelyn recalled that she started to feel dizzy and sick, and passed out on the bed.
She awoke to find herself in bed next to White, both of them naked. She later described the event as her “unvirgining.”
“Don’t cry, Kittens,” White said to her. “It’s all over. Now you belong to me.”
Though shocked and horrified at White’s behavior, Evelyn took no action against him. In fact, she continued their relationship, which now became a love affair. (Although White apologized, he also told Evelyn that what they had done was no different from what everyone else was doing, and everything would be fine as long as she didn’t tell anyone about it. Above all, White insisted, Evelyn should never tell her mother. And, following her mother’s directions, Evelyn obeyed White’s order.)
After her engagement in “Florodora” ended, Evelyn appeared in a small role in another Broadway play, “The Wild Rose.” Evelyn slowly began to realize that she was not White’s one and only. He continued his practice of lavishing attention and expensive gifts on a seemingly endless string of young models and actresses.
At one of White’s parties, Evelyn met 21-year-old John Barrymore, younger brother of well-known actors Ethel and Lionel Barrymore. At the time, Barrymore hadn’t started his acting career, and was working as a newspaper cartoonist. When White left town for a two-week fishing trip, Evelyn and Barrymore started dating. When White returned, he sent Evelyn to an all-girl private school in New Jersey, to keep her away from Barrymore.
Eventually, White’s interests turned to new conquests, and Evelyn met the extremely wealthy, but mentally unbalanced Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh, heir to a coal and railroad fortune estimated at $40 million. Even before Evelyn moved to New York City, Thaw knew about White -– and hated him. Thaw blamed White for his inability to join the best clubs and be accepted into the top levels of New York society. Thaw was also aware of White’s reputation for luring and seducing young girls.
Thaw aggressively pursued Evelyn, and proposed to her several times. Although Evelyn was strongly opposed to marrying Thaw, her mother insisted that Thaw would be able to provide the family with financial security. Once again, Evelyn obeyed.
In 1903, Thaw took Evelyn and her mother on a lengthy trip to Europe. Several weeks into the trip, an exhausted Mrs. Nesbit asked to be sent back home to America, and Thaw quickly obliged. Now, like White two years earlier, Thaw was alone with Evelyn.
In Paris, Thaw again asked Evelyn to marry him, and again she refused. He insisted that she tell him why, and so she told him the whole story of her relationship with White, and the events that took place in his apartment. Thaw insisted that Evelyn tell him every detail. Later in the trip, Evelyn and Thaw were alone in a rented castle in Germany. While Evelyn was asleep in her room, Thaw burst in, tore off her nightgown, beat her with a leather riding crop, and raped her. For the rest of the trip, Thaw was alternately moody and attentive, affectionate and physically violent toward Evelyn. As happened after the event in White’s apartment, Evelyn didn’t know how to react, so she didn’t.
On April 5, 1905, 21-year-old Evelyn married Thaw in Pittsburgh. The bride wore black, an outfit selected by Thaw, and the couple settled in New York City. Evelyn obeyed.
Thaw was consumed by a jealous rage against White for taking his wife’s virginity. He insisted that Evelyn give him a full report whenever she saw White anywhere in the city — Thaw hired detectives to follow both of them, just in case — and he forbid her from even mentioning his name. (If necessary, he demanded that she refer to him as “the beast.”)
On June 25, 1906, Thaw took Evelyn to the opening performance of “Mamzelle Champagne” at the the rooftop cabaret theater at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Evelyn thought it was an unusual decision by Thaw, since White had designed the building and frequently attended performances there — reportedly checking out the line of chorus girls to select his next conquest — and the theater was literally in the shadow of the tower that housed White’s apartment where Evelyn’s “unvirgining” took place.
Evelyn and Thaw were sitting with friends in the back of the theater when White arrived in the middle of the performance, and sat as his usual table near the stage. Afraid of what Thaw might do with White in the same vicinity, Evelyn suggested to Thaw that they leave. On their way to the elevator, Thaw slipped away. As Evelyn searched for him — and while the performer on stage sang “I Could Love a Million Girls” — she heard three gunshots. Thaw had approached White’s table, pulled out a handgun, and shot the architect three times at point-blank range, twice in the face and once in the shoulder.
Thaw’s three-month trial for murder transfixed the nation in a way unequaled until O.J. Simpson was the focus of the next “Crime of the Century” nearly 100 years later. During the trial, it became public that White often sought the company of young girls, and entertained them in his private apartment in the Madison Square Garden tower, which featured the famous red velvet swing. Nesbit testified that White enjoyed watching her swing nude.
In many ways, White and his wild life and predatory behavior were actually on trial. A New York newspaper described the case as, “not a mere murder. The flash of that pistol lighted up depths of degradation, an abyss of moral turpitude that the people must think of because it reveals some of the hidden features of powerful, reckless, openly flaunted wealth. … It is a case that for intense interest and deep disgrace has not been equaled in the history of this country.”
Thaw was certain that he would never be convicted of murder. In fact, he thought, when the public finds out about White’s personal habits and his seductions of young girls, he would certainly be released, and probably even praised for what he had done. After all, he was acting on behalf of his wife’s honor and reputation, and protecting countless other young girls before they could fall victim to Stanford White, acting under the “unwritten law” which allows a husband to protect his wife’s honor at any cost. Thaw strongly opposed his lawyers’ plan for the only possible plea that could save him from the electric chair — insanity. Eventually, at the urging of his mother, Thaw agreed to a plea of temporary insanity. Thaw’s mother also insisted to Evelyn that she needed to testify about the night in White’s apartment, to show the reason behind Thaw’s temporary insanity. Since Mrs. Thaw controlled the money that Evelyn needed to survive, she obeyed.
To save her husband, Evelyn testified that White had gotten her drunk on champagne and forced himself on her while she was unconscious. After an initial hung jury — seven jurors thought he was guilty of first-degree murder, while five voted for acquittal — Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a second trial. Thaw spent eight years in an asylum for the criminally insane and, upon his release in 1915, he immediately filed for divorce from Evelyn.
During the trial, newspapers were packed with every detail, and every possible story surrounding any of the principals. Since the defense hinged on Thaw’s state of mind at the time of the shooting, and the incident in White’s apartment that caused him to eventually snap, Evelyn was forced to give detailed testimony and face a lengthy and brutal cross-examination regarding that evening. When it became apparent that publishing the details might be too much for public sensibilities, the judge banned women from the courtroom during some of Evelyn’s testimony — with an exception for the women who were working as reporters.
President Theodore Roosevelt received complaints from citizens about the amount of indecent detail published in newspapers about the trial, and refered to Postmaster General George Cortelyou the question as to whether such publications could be banned from the mail. U.S. District Attorney Henry Stimson — who later served as Secretary of War under William Howard Taft and Franklin Roosevelt, and Secretary of State under Herbert Hoover — issued a warning to newspapers in New York City that sending the “lewd, lascivious and obscene matter” from the trial through the mail would be considered a voilation of federal law.
After a discussion of the trial coverage in the Canadian Parliament, Canada’s postmaster-general issued a ruling that newspapers carrying details of the trial would not be allowed to be delivered in the Canadian mail.
A little more than a year after Thaw was released from the asylum, he was arrested and charged with kidnapping and whipping Fred Gump Jr., 19, in New York City. Thaw first met Gump at an ice cream parlor in Long Beach, Calif., shortly after his release, and invited him to come to New York City, where he promised to make arrangements for the recent high school graduate to attend college. While being held for several days in Thaw’s hotel room, Gump — who was said to resemble Evelyn — said he was severely beaten by Thaw on Christmas Day, 1916. Coincidentally — or not — that day was Evelyn’s 32nd birthday.
When Gump escaped the hotel and took a train back to his family in Kansas City, Thaw fled to Philadelphia, where he attempted suicide by slashing his neck and wrist with a razor in a boarding house. He was taken into custody at the hospital, and sent to a mental hospital in Pennsylvania, where he was confined for seven years until his release in 1924, when it was again determined that he was sane. As soon as he was released, Thaw went to New York City to answer the kidnapping and assault charges. By that time, Gump had married and was living in Long Beach. He told authorities in New York that he did not want to return for a trial, and so the charges against Thaw were dropped.
Thaw died of a heart attack in Miami Beach, Fla., in 1947, at the age of 76, and is buried in the family plot in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. At the time of his death, Thaw’s estate was estimated at just over $1 million. In his will, he left $10,000 to Evelyn.
While Thaw was incarcerated, Evelyn returned to the stage and attempted to find work as a dancer in vaudeville, and later owned a tea room in New York City. She made her film debut in “Threads of Destiny” (1914), and starred in a series of semi-autobiographical dramas, including “Redemption” (1917), “The Woman Who Gave” (1918), “I Want to Forget” (1918), “Her Mistake” (1918), “Woman, Woman!” (1919), “Thou Shalt Not” (1919), “A Fallen Idol” (1919), “My Little Sister” (1919) and “The Hidden Woman” (1922). Evelyn also gave birth to a son she said was Thaw’s, but Thaw denied that he was the father. Russell Thaw, born in 1910, appeared in several of his mother’s films.
In her later years, Evelyn turned to drugs and alcohol, and twice attempted suicide. She spent her final years in an apartment on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, teaching sculpture. In an interview shortly before her death in 1967 at the age of 82 at a convalescent home in Santa Monica, she described White as “the most wonderful man I ever knew.” Evelyn’s funeral service was held at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Only about 30 mourners attended the service, including her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City., Calif., identified on her grave marker simply as “Evelyn Florence Nesbit — Mother.”
Russell Thaw died on May 6, 1984, in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the age of 73. Howard Nesbit, Evelyn’s younger brother, was working as a salesman in the Bronx when he hanged himself in 1929. He was 41 years old.
Evelyn Nesbit was portrayed on screen by Joan Collins in “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” (1955), which also starred Farley Granger as Harry Thaw and Ray Milland as Stanford White, and with Evelyn serving as technical advisor. (Although the film is a surprisingly accurate version of the story, perhaps because of Evelyn’s influence, White is portrayed as a relatively innocent victim. According to the film, Evelyn pursued him, over his repeated objections.) A fictionalized version of the story was told in “Ragtime” (1981), based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow, with Elizabeth McGovern as Evelyn, and also starring James Cagney, Pat O’Brien (the final film appearance for each of them) and Donald O’Connor, with Robert Joy as Harry Thaw and author Norman Mailer as Stanford White.
Near the end of her life, Evelyn discussed the events of nearly 50 years ago, and how they shadowed her for the rest of her life. “Stanny White was killed,” she said, “but my fate was worse. I lived.”
The Wild Rose (1902)
Tommy Rot (1902)
Threads of Destiny (1914)
A Lucky Leap (1916)
Her Mistake (1918)
The Woman Who Gave (1918)
I Want to Forget (1918)
Woman, Woman! (1919)
Thou Shalt Not (1919)
A Fallen Idol (1919)
My Little Sister (1919)
The Hidden Woman (1922)
Broadway Gossip No. 2 (1932 short; as herself)