By Sabina Mollot
Evelyn Nesbit (1884-1967) was a highly sought after artists’ and photographers’ model at a time when fashion photography was in its infancy, and was also an actress who lived in Flatiron, after she and her family came to New York in the year 1900.
However, what Nesbit ended up becoming the most famous for was not her talent or beauty but for being the face of the “trial of the century” as it was called at the time in 1906, when her unhinged millionaire husband, Harry Thaw, fatally shot Stanford White, a well-known architect. White had seduced and, Nesbit stated in court, sexually assaulted her when she was only 16 and unconscious, after drinking champagne, at his home. Still, the two ended up having a year-long relationship.
White was a well-known playboy, and Thaw, who had a reputation for violence, never went to prison for killing him. Instead he was sent to an institution after being found insane in his second trial after the jury was deadlocked in the first. Nesbit would then become known in headlines as a lethal beauty, “the girl on the red velvet swing,” because of a swing that she would play on in a mirrored room at White’s apartment on 24th Street.
Born Florence Evelyn Nesbit, her rise to stardom began at the age of 14. Her family had become destitute after her father, Winfield, an attorney, died when she was eight, and she and her younger brother Howard would sometimes help their mother, who was also named Evelyn, work. The family moved from Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania and eventually New York City. Prior to the move to the city, at 14, Nesbit had already begun modeling and though the pay was hardly generous, Nesbit was eventually able to support her family that way, catching the eye of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and then becoming known as a “Gibson girl.” Demand for her face in magazines and on products like postcards and playing cards grew and she became known for theatrical-looking shoots. She also joined the chorus line in a successful Broadway show called “Floradora,” possibly getting the role because of her growing fame as a Gibson girl.
There are many conflicting stories regarding the details of Nesbit’s life, in particular the murder of White and whether Nesbit was just trying to protect her husband and her own reputation in court, and these topics are discussed during walking tours led by Manhattan historian Alfred Pommer.
“Here was this multimillionaire, a very influential man and (Nesbit) had a mind of her own,” said Pommer. “He seduced her (and she became known as) the girl on the velvet swing. He put her in finishing school and supported her and put her and her mother in a mansion in Stuyvesant Square.”
That home is still standing across from the park at 17th Street and Rutherford Place on the south side of the street.
“In her last interview,” added Pommer, “she said the only man she ever loved was Stanford White, which is surprising because he was a dirty old man.”
Due to Nesbit’s young age when she started working, Nesbit’s mother was always with her, a vigilant chaperone, “to make sure there was no hanky panky. She got her the job as a Floradora girl.”
It was while she was on stage for this show when Nesbit attracted the interest of White, who somehow managed to convince her mother that his interest in her daughter was patronly and paternal. Eventually White, who was married, managed to get Nesbit alone, telling her mother he’d keep an eye on the girl while she left town to visit relatives.
There is speculation White may have drugged Nesbit before having sex with her while she was unconscious, but Pommer believes this was a story spread by Thaw.
“He didn’t drug her,” said Pommer, while adding that Mrs. Nesbit had hoped her daughter would marry a millionaire, which may have clouded her judgment about White.
“He had a lot of money and he spent money hand over fist.”
White was the designer of, among other properties, the second Madison Square Garden, the Washington Square Arch, a number of banks and churches and several buildings housing social clubs, including The Players, The Lambs and Metropolitan.
Eventually, he and Nesbit ended their relationship, with Nesbit only revealing the details of their first night together in the courtroom, and prior to her marriage to Thaw, to him.
At one point, the in-demand model was linked with John Barrymore (then pursuing an illustration career before finding success as an actor), and a couple of other high-profile men. But she ended up marrying Thaw, a persistent suitor and the son of a coal and railroad baron.
Unfortunately, “Harry was a sick individual,” said Pommer. “He would torture prostitutes and the houses of ill repute wouldn’t do business with him. His reputation in Manhattan was really terrible. If prostitutes don’t want to do business with a multimillionaire there’s got to be something (wrong).”
After revealing the nature of her relationship with White to Thaw, he became enraged, and during a trip in Europe, beat her brutally and may have sexually assaulted her, according to more than one published report. Later, in 1906, when White was seeing a show at Madison Square garden that he and Nesbit were also attending, Thaw shot him with a pistol in the head. News reports at the time were conflicted on whether or not the killer shouted, “You ruined my life!” or “You ruined my wife!” Nesbit may have later been promised financial stability by Thaw’s family if she testified in his favor, by indicating that he was only acting in her honor.
Nesbit eventually gave birth to a son, Russell, who she said was conceived during a conjugal visit to her husband when he was institutionalized. There were however rumors the boy was Barrymore’s.
Thaw wasn’t supposed to get out of being committed, but his money gave him special privileges.
“He walked off the grounds and went straight to Canada,” said Pommer. Meanwhile at that time Nesbit was up on the stage in a show that reenacted the dramatic shooting as Thaw was escaping. Somehow a story got out that Thaw made a phone call threatening to come to the show and if he didn’t like what he saw, “He was going to do something about it,” said Pommer. However, he never actually made this call; Nesbit’s agent did. Still, the publicity surrounding the call made it nearly impossible to get a ticket to the show.
“Everyone wanted a ticket,” said Pommer. “There was word Harry would bring a gun and shoot up his wife.”
Fortunately for Nesbit, there was some profit in the audience members’ blood lust, and she saw her wages spike in response to the demand.
After her run in “Floradora” ended, she was in a Broadway show called “The Wild Rose” and another show called “Tommy Rot.” Nesbit also appeared in a total 12 films from 1904 to 1922, six of them with her son Russell, according to Nesbit’s Wikipedia profile, and Russell went on to become a respected pilot. While working on “Ragtime,” Nesbit married her dancing partner, Jack Clifford, though he eventually left her.
She later went on to open a number of nightclubs, including a speakeasy, in the 1920s, although none lasted long. During this time she also struggled with drug addiction.
But, noted Pommer, “She just went on to the next project. She never gave up.”
As for Thaw, he over the years still gave Nesbit some financial support, according to Wikipedia. At one point she headed out to California, an excursion likely funded from $10,000 that was willed to her from Thaw and she ended up staying there. However, they never saw each other after he left prison.
“Some speculated that they were on the same boat once but there’s no indication they knew they were on the same boat at the same time,” said Pommer.
A lot of the time she spent in California, she painted seascapes. “She was maybe one step above a street artist because of her name,” said Pommer. She wasn’t a well-known artist, but she got by, he said, adding that it was a low point in her life before she moved to California.
According to Wikipedia, at this time Nesbit taught ceramics and sculpting and the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts. She also wrote two memoirs, The Story of My Life (1914) and Prodigal Days (1934) and was an advisor on the 1955 film, “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” which was only loosely based on her life.