The pretty showgirl at the center of a murder

Evelyn Nesbit’s ascent to famous model and glamorous chorus girl in the early 1900s follows the usual narrative.

Born poor in Pennsylvania in 1884, Evelyn was an attractive child who helped her family score extra money by working as an artist’s model.

By the time the Nesbits moved to New York City in 1901, she was an astoundingly beautiful 15-year-old who quickly found gigs posing for famous artists—including illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as one of his “Gibson Girls.”

She also raked in a then-high $10 a day as a fashion model in newspaper ads, and she earned a place in the hit musical Floradora.

Through her showgirl connections, she was introduced to architect Stanford White in 1901. White, a womanizer then in his late 40s, was smitten.

One night, according to Evelyn, he showered her with attention, brought her to his apartment on West 24th Street, plied her with alcohol, and took her virginity after she’d passed out.

Though White remained in her life, Evelyn dated John Barrymore, then married Harry Thaw, the playboy son of a coal baron. She confided in Thaw about being “seduced” by White.

Thaw was obsessed with avenging his wife’s honor. On a June night in 1906, while the three were at the same theater performance at the White-designed Madison Square Garden, Thaw shot White in the head.

The slaying of the nation’s foremost architect and the scandal that surrounded it captivated the city. After his first murder trial ended in a hung jury, Thaw pleaded temporary insanity and was sent to a mental institution.

What happened to Evelyn? She testified on Thaw’s behalf, then divorced him in 1916. She tried her hand at vaudeville and in silent movies and wrote a few memoirs.

After slipping out of the limelight, she got married and divorced, taught ceramics, and survived suicide attempts and alcoholism.

She died in a nursing home in California in 1967 at the age of 82. “Stanny White was killed but my fate was worse. I lived,” she reportedly said.

Top: Evelyn at the height of her beauty, by Rudolph Eickemeyer; bottom: Evelyn in 1955 on the set of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a film based on her life starring Joan Collins.

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10 Responses to “The pretty showgirl at the center of a murder”

  1. CN Says:

    “seduced”? By her description, it sounds like she was accusing him of rape. Two very different things.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Yes, I meant to put seduced in quotes—-that’s how it’s described in newspaper articles of the day. Thanks.

  3. Bob_in_MA Says:

    I’ve been researching this era (1900-1914) for a while now, and have seen a lot of photographs of the women they thought beautiful at the time. I’ve concluded they had a very keen sense of beauty. Or perhaps, just one close to my own. ;-)

    I almost never find our models and actresses of our time particularly attractive. I can’t even imagine seeing a contemporary model to compete with that second photo.

  4. Lisa Says:

    I agree that Nesbitt was a real babe (especially in THIS photo –> http://www.flickr.com/photos/15993608@N08/3793010889).

    Unlike Bob, I’m usually disappointed when I see photos of the “great beauties” from the late 19th & early 20th century. Lillian Russell? Clara Bow? Theda Bara? Jean Harlow? Eeek! Strictly from hunger!

    • Bob_in_MA Says:

      Well, Lillian Russell waas really from an earlier time than what I was speaking of, and Theda Bara & Jean Harlow later.

      Also, in those days, there was a distinction between beauties and performers. Some of the the popular Vaudevillians were decidedly plain looking. But when someone is described as a real beauty, she usually is.

      I guess my comment had as much to do with what passes for beauty now. If I flip the the New Yorker, or NYT Magazine, what they obviously see as beauty is completely alien to me. It’s like that Twilight Zone episode, where the handsome guy wakes up in a hospital and all the people have pug noses and weird ears, and find him repulsive looking.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Great photo Lisa. Nesbit at 16 was beautiful, but while researching this post, I read that Stanford White paid for her to see a dentist and get her teeth fixed. That must have been quite a luxury in those days. In a pre-braces era, even beautiful girls probably had terrible teeth!

  6. Thank Furcoat it’s Friday « Fur Coat, No Knickers Says:

    [...] in point – teenage model, murder, Joan Collins… all sorts. First read this feature in my favourite New York blog this week then went on to read about a billion articles and add some books to my mental reading [...]

  7. Perry Says:

    I’ve viewed many photos of Evelyn Nesbit, and in most of them I see a timeless beauty who could step out of today’s glamor magazines.

    She paid a high price for that beauty, and was exploited by White, Thaw and even her mother from a young age. “American Eve” is a rare book that looks at Nesbit’s life from her perspective. It’s a great read.

    Harry Thaw is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. I lived nearby and always stopped to “see” Harry on walks through the cemetery.

  8. The Irving Place “bachelors” host Sunday salons | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the guests were Oscar Wilde, Ethel Barrymore, Stanford White, and Sarah Bernhardt, all sipping tea and mingling with New York’s old money […]

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