Tuesday, April 16, 2019
FORGOTTEN ONES: EVELYN NESBIT
Her life was considered typical of the excesses of the Gilded Age before World War I. Born Florence Evelyn Nesbit, in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, she was the daughter and oldest child of a moderately wealthy and influential lawyer, Winfield Scott Nesbit. When her father died in 1893, leaving large debts, the family suddenly became destitute, and for years, the family lived in poverty. In 1900, when Evelyn turned 16, her copper colored hair and adolescent beauty became noticed by local artists, and she earned money for the family by posing as a model, soon becoming the family's sole breadwinner. To earn more money, in 1901 the family moved to New York City, where she would pose for noted artists of the time, including painters Charles Dana Gibson and Frederick Church, and photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer.
Gibson supposedly used her to illustrate his famous Gibson Girl paintings. That same year, she caught the attention of acclaimed architect Stanford White, who although married, was a notorious womanizer who had numerous affairs. In 1901, White was America's leading architect, considered the principle designer and arbiter of what was taste in architecture. He had founded several elite clubs, made large donations to charity and promoted several New York civic institutions.
White also had a dark side, specializing in sex with young teenaged girls, and despite his sexual appetite, he would also take care of them financially while he was courting them. In his private penthouse apartment at Madison Square Gardens which he had furnished with wall and ceiling mirrors, and a red velvet swing for his young girls to ride in, he would seduce the young girls. He supposedly took Evelyn's virginity and had a short affair with her, before moving on to other lovers. A few months later, when she became pregnant by young actor John Barrymore, White arranged for her to be sent away to a New Jersey boarding school, where she had an abortion disguised as an operation for appendicitis. Returning to New York City, Evelyn became lovers with Harry Thaw, lazy and wealthy son of a coal and railroad baron. Thaw was spoiled, living off his parents largesse at the tune of $80,000 a year, had a hot temper, and was considered a sexual sadist among the showgirls he courted; despite these less than desirable qualities, she eventually married him on April 4, 1905, at the age of 20. They would have one child, a son, Russell William Thaw (1910-1984). Harry Thaw was extremely jealous of her previous lovers, and when they ran into Stanford White twice on the evening of June 25, 1906, once at a dinner restaurant and later at the performance of the play "Mam'zelle Champagne" at the Madison Square Garden Theater, Thaw suddenly produced a pistol and shot White three times in the face, killing him instantly, while shouting "You'll never see that woman again."
Thaw was tried twice for murder, the first trial was deadlocked, and the second trial found him guilty of temporary insanity after Evelyn testified that White had raped her (while White had seduced her, there is some question about whether it was rape; different stories exist). Thaw spent several years in the Mattawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and in 1915 was declared legally sane and released. Following his release, Thaw divorced Nesbit, and she returned to vaudeville to earn a living, later becoming a silent film actress and dancer. In 1916, she briefly married her dancing partner, Jack Clifford, who abandoned her two years later, and she spent much of the remainder of her life living quietly with her son in Northfield, NJ. She would struggle with alcoholism, drug addiction, and move around a lot, struggling to make ends meet. Occasionally, her ex-husband Thaw would help her with some money, but never for very long. When Thaw died in 1947, he remembered Evelyn with $10,000 in his will (his estate was worth over $1 million). In her later years, she would teach ceramics to earn money, and died at the age of 82 in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California..