Don’t you just love floozies? I do.
That’s probably one reason that I can’t get enough of stories about Courtney Stodden, and why I used to love, love, love watching The Girls Next Door. It’s pretty rare that you can find people who seem to be having the kind of fun that makes you want to live vicariously through them who, at the same time, you can feel completely superior to.
A lot of people feel the same way about Evelyn Nesbit.
She’s often regarded as something of the Courtney Stodden of the Victorian age, and she’s best remembered for posing sexily on a bear skin rug (Courtney is approximately five days away from doing this if she hasn’t already) and being seduced by the famous architect Stanford White when she was 16 (he was 30 years her senior). That seduction so enraged her husband that he later shot Stanford White in what the papers dubbed the “Crime of the Century.”
But unlike, say, Courtney Stodden, Evelyn never really seemed like she was having all that much fun. Or, any fun. Well presumably she had a bit of fun when going to dinner parties and eating oysters but then, she got raped. Sure, she married a millionaire, but he turned out to be completely insane.
She was the kind of girl things just seemed to keep happening to. She ushered in a century of tabloid scandals before she was 20 and her legacy seems to live on in every “it girl.” But how, exactly, did that work for Evelyn herself?
Evelyn Nesbit, who came to be so closely associated with New York society, was actually born in a tiny cottage in Pennsylvnia, which was valued around $2,000. I know it’s impossible to convert money to different time periods, but even at the time, this wasn’t much. Her family was poor is what I’m getting at, here. Her father rendered them nearly insolvent, but it helped that, from a very early age, Evelyn was super charismatic. In 1907, when the trial was running, The Valley Daily News (of Pennsylvania) recalled a church concert she sang at, stating:
The occasion was a memorial service which was held in the Methodist Episcopal church, of which her father and mother were members. The service was held in honor of the members, who had died during the year. The church was beautifully decorated for the occasion, an immense bank of evergreens completely covering the pulpit. In the midsts of the solemn hush of the service came the sweet voice of a child singing. It was little Florence Evelyn hidden behind the evergreens and in a voice which will never be forgotten and which could be distictly heard over the large auditorium, came the words, “We Are Going Down the Valley One by One.” Before the song was half finished nearly the entire audience was moved to tears. Softly, sweetly, but still distinctly, came the words of the song. It was a splendid triumph for a little child, and the memory of it still lingers in the hearts of the people here and to those who remember it so well, it helps them in the midsts of her present troubles to sympathize with and pity her.
The present troubles they’re referring to was the fact that her husband had just shot her former lover. But it’s cool because she sang once, in a church, as a child. Don’t let anyone tell you that Victorian Newspapers didn’t know how to traffic-bait.
When her father died when Evelyn was 11, and her mother tried to run a boarding house to support the family. However, she was too timid to collect rent, and turned the task over to Evelyn. Evelyn later recalled “Mamma was always worried about the rent…it was too hard a thing for her to actually ask for every week, and it never went smoothly.” So, at the age of 11, Evelyn was essentially in charge of running a boarding house, which, dude, when I was 11, all I did was play Crash Bandicoot.
The boarding house was not a success.
But Evelyn was soon to become her family’s breadwinner.
When her mother was working as a sales-clerk at Wanamaker’s department store following the boardinghouse debacle, Evelyn encountered an artist who asked her to pose for him. She posed for hours for around $1. This was still considerably more than her mother was making, in part because, at the time, being an artist’s model was pretty scandalous stuff (check out this portrait of Evelyn by James Carroll Beckwith) and she was only 14.
Still, Evelyn was determined. She said, “when I saw I could earn more money posing as an artist’s model than I could at Wanamaker’s, I gave my mother no peace until she permitted me to pose for a livelihood.” Evelyn’s mother vowed to watch over her closely and claimed “I never allowed Evelyn to pose in the all together [nude]”. Again, see above.
Evelyn’s mother continually proved herself to be pretty inept. While you hear a lot about constantly hovering chaperones at the turn of the century, you hear less about parents who completely left their daughters to do as they liked. Maybe because the results were so disastrous that novelists at the time were reluctant to write about them.
Fortunately, we’re past that “not writing about them” phase.
When her mother moved to New York, having heard it offered her greater opportunities for work (she planned to find employment as a seamstress), Evelyn made use of the names offered to her by Philadelphia artists she’d posed for. She soon became successful in a way her mother couldn’t have dreamed of.
In New York, Evelyn made a living posing for various postcards, like this one below:
People sometimes mistakenly refer to these as french postcards. They weren’t. French postcards involved nudity, while these, called mignon, were supposed to be wholesome yet sensual depictions of young women. It was a bit like the difference between posing for Maxim and Playboy.
She became wildly successful. She appeared on the cover of many women’s magazines that still exist today, including Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, the Women’s Home Companion, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan. She became one of the first true covergirls, and her image was soon being used to sell everything from Coca-Cola to life insurance.
She also posed for very notable artists, like Charles Gibson, as the quintessential “Gibson Girl.” (Gibson Girls were considered the great beauties of the period). His most famous work, “The Eternal Question” – in which a woman’s hairstyle is fashioned into the shape of a question mark – features Evelyn.
One day, when modeling for Gibson she met a man who exclaimed, “”By Jove, Gibson! Who is this little vision of the empyrean blue? Tell me; I must know the little sprite, whether she is of this earth or just a fairy from out of Wonderland.”
He really said that. At least, that is what is recorded about their introduction. Never mind that no one else at the time talked that way, and it sounds like a bad Lifetime movie take on how people at the turn of the century talked.
That man was Stanford White.
He was, almost certainly, the most famous architect of the period, just as Evelyn was one of its great beauties.
More than that, though, Stanford White was a man with a silly mustache. Are you ready for his silly mustache?
Boom! Oh, God, it looks like someone photoshopped that on to make fun of him in some sort of hipster meme.
Enjoy this moment of whimsy, because things are about to get dark.
White began squiring Evelyn around. He was 46, and at the time, known for constructing marvels like the Washington Square Arch. He began taking her out to dinner parties, and introduced her to the social luminaries around town. People didn’t exactly respect her – she was 16 – and Evelyn claimed that she didn’t say much at any of these parties, but everyone seemed to agree that she was probably the prettiest girl in New York.
Stanford also encouraged her to ride his red velvet swing – he had a bizarrely specific fetish where he liked to watch women kick at paper parasols. And he took her to dentist appointments, because he believed that good teeth were important (this sounds really paternal until you remember that he was a man in his 40’s, she was 16, and he was very open about the fact that he was attracted to her, and he really just thought good teeth were hot).
He also liked to pinch her shoulders in public, claiming that he was “feeling for her wings.”
Question: if a 46 year old man kept speaking in this Shakespeare-meets-lunatic fashion to you, do you think you’d be into that? Flash back to your 16 year old self and remember this guy is famous.
Evelyn’s mother found nothing unusual about this, and went out of town, leaving Stanford White a key to their home and instructions to take care of Evelyn.
Standford White invited her over for one of his parties – nothing unusual, he’d done that a lot in the past – but when she arrived, she found no one else was there. Stanford said that the other couple had to cancel at the last minute, but it was fine, they would dine by themselves. He gave Evelyn champagne. Normally he limited her to one glass, so Evelyn was surprised when he let her drink as many as she wanted. She then tried on a yellow kimono, imitating one of her famous “kimono poses” (kimonos, and any kind of Asian artifact, were absurdly popular around the turn of the century. There was one in particular where she simply fell asleep on a bearskin rug which had become very well known, and which you can see above).
Then she found the room was spinning. Later, at the trial, Evelyn said that Stanford had drugged her. However, later still in life, she claimed that it was simply the effect of too much champagne.
She woke up “practically naked” in Stanford’s bed next to him and immediately rushed home. Evelyn claimed in her memoir only that she “entered that room a virgin.”
Stanford was deeply apologetic, and more horrified when he found her at home the next day staring forlornly out the window. He said she’d prefer it if she would scream. He then tried to mollify her, assuring that everyone did this, it was just that no one talked about it, in a speech that will always, always, always make me think that Standford White is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in Cruel Intentions. Specifically, Evelyn claimed he said that “everybody was bad … [and] evil was the basis of life.” He also promised Evelyn that he’d always take care of her, which, he seemed to try to do.
Later in life, Evelyn would say he was a “benevolent vampire” though she also remarked that he was the only true love of her life. She claimed she regarded him as “Father. Lover. Protector. Seducer.”
This always strikes me as sounding much like the conflicted series of emotions many women experience after sexual assault, but, again, the situation has been portrayed by many different people in many different ways.
However she felt about him, she seemed to take him at his word that everyone was debauched.
Soon afterwards she began seeing John Barrymore. She was introduced to him by Stanford White, and John was known for being something of a playboy. Funny story about John Barrymore – he used to stumble hungover into the bar at the Hotel Algonquin for breakfast, and ask if they could dim all the lights to a soothing blue shade. That’s why it’s called “The Blue Bar.” They have now made all the lights neon blue so it looks like someone should be up doing karaoke, and I doubt that’s what Barrymore intended, but, no matter.
John Barrymore seemed like fun, basically.
And in seemingly her first maternal moment, ever, Evelyn’s mother was really worried about Evelyn seeing him. The couple was almost definitely sleeping together – Evelyn was seen leaving his room in the morning on numerous occasions – and they were planning to marry, though at that point, Barrymore’s financial prospects did not look good.
So Stanford White arranged to have her sent away to boarding school. It’s easy to forget that she was only 17. She was boarding school age. However, perhaps in light of their objections (Stanford’s more than her mother’s) Evelyn ultimately turned down Barrymore’s proposal and went back to her social life in New York.
Which was where she met Harry Thaw, heir to a 40 million dollar fortune in Pittsburgh.
Or rather, she met someone named “Mr. Munroe.” Harry introduced himself to Evelyn incognito, and sent her a lot of anonymous gifts. That was because he wanted her to love himself. That is how you make people love you for yourself. You make up a fake name and send a lot of gifts.
This would have been more effective if Evelyn had any idea who the Thaws were. She was 17. She wasn’t a debutante. She was from a tiny town in Pennsylvania. She had no idea who was famous and who wasn’t outside of the New York society that Stanford White introduced her to.
And Stanford White really didn’t like Harry Thaw. Harry was constantly ranting about how Stanford had him barred from all the best clubs in New York, though the extent to which this was just Harry’s paranoia at work is impossible to determine. I mean, not at the Union League Club, though. He was barred from the Union League Club because he rode a horse into its lobby. It is possible that Stanford asked that he not be admitted to other clubs, but that one, he just wrecked their lobby.
So when Harry finally exclaimed “I am not Mr. Munroe, I am Henry Thaw, of Pittsburgh!” which he meant to be a grand reveal, Evelyn was kind of like “whatever.” She later wrote, “A disguised Napoleon revealing himself to a near-sighted veteran on Elba could not have made the revelation with greater aplomb.”
Harry took that as proof that she loved him for himself alone.
At that point, Evelyn was dating a pretty nifty polo player named James Montgomery Waterbury (he was a member of the “big four” polo team at the time, and he was one of the big four. It would have been like Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio or Gisele Bundchen and Tom Brady. Oh my God, she should have married James Montgomery Waterbury.)
But Harry offered her and her mother a trip to Europe, so, Evelyn decided to go on that.
Why? I don’t know why. She had just had her appendix out and she was promised it would be a good way to recuperate. Frankly, I wonder if she might have gone because she knew how much Stanford disliked Harry.
But before we talk about the trip, let’s talk a little bit more about Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh.
I think Stanford was very weird and kind of awful, although, by the standards of the time, maybe he was not the worst person ever.
Harry Thaw was the worst person ever.
No, really, I’m not saying that because he seemed dedicated to squandering his family fortune. I’m not saying that because he was a morphine and cocaine addict (he liked to do them both at once, creating a speedball). I’m not saying that because his hobby was attending cockfights. I’m not even saying that because he was kicked out of Harvard for chasing a cab driver down the street brandishing a shot-gun claiming he’d been cheated out of ten cents change.
I am saying that because he told chorus girls he was a producer, lured them back to his apartment, tied them up and beat them for hours with buggy whips.
After one incident, his family had to pay a bellboy at a hotel $5,000 to stop him from telling the press that Harry had tied him up in a bathtub and beat him.
Harry Thaw was, legitimately, a very bad guy, and is generally thought to be a sociopath by modern psychologists.
Evelyn is going off to Europe with him!
Evelyn and her mother had a hard time keeping up with Thaw’s exhausting pace. Fairly soon, Evelyn’s mother wanted to go home, and Evelyn and Thaw continued on together.
Shortly after, Thaw demanded Evelyn marry him. Evelyn, not really wanting to be forced into marriage by a man she was alone on holiday with, and realizing that Thaw was obsessed with female purity, mentioned that she had an affair with Stanford, so it would be impossible. This turned into a much, much bigger deal than Evelyn probably expected it to be.
Thaw proceeded to devise a travel schedule built around sites of Virgin Martyrdom, and, at one honoring Joan of Arc left a note in the guestbook saying “she would not have been a Virgin had Stanford White been around.”
When they arrived in Germany, they rented a castle. One night, Evelyn awoke to find a “bug eyed” Harry naked, and standing over her, clutching a riding crop. He began lashing her legs and then, as she bled, tore off her nightgown and raped her, all the time shouting about Stanford White. He kept her locked in her room for two weeks, beating her intermittently.
Afterwards, he cheerfully told her that he’d forgiven her, and all his scorn was now reserved for Stanford White who he called “the beast.”
Evelyn returned home and was furious at Stanford for not revealing the depths of Harry’s bad character.
And then she decided to marry Harry.
PLEASE DO NOT ASK ME THE LOGIC BEHIND THIS FOR I DO NOT KNOW.
She was angry at Stanford? She was experiencing Stockholm Syndrome? She was in it for the money? Was it because her mother really liked Harry? I truly do not know.
If it was the money, she was sorely disappointed. The Thaw family had millions, but, following their marriage, Thaw was determined to live like a stoic. He also became increasingly paranoid, saying that Stanford had men following him around trying to kill him.
This is almost certainly not true. Stanford had resumed his life as usual, and was doing fun things like going out to musicals held on rooftops.
Bad idea, Stanford.
Harry Thaw and Evelyn attended the opening of Mazelle Champagne, a musical at which Stanford White was also present. Harry refused to remove his coat, despite it being a hot evening in June. That’s because he had a gun underneath it. Around 11:00, Harry walked over to where Stanford was sitting and shot him three times in the face.
And so, to the strains of a song called “I Could Love A Million Girls” Harry Thaw killed Stanford White.
And people laughed. Everyone assumed it was a practical joke. The rivalry between Harry and Stanford was well known, and, considering the song, that actually would have been a hilarious practical joke. I mean, a really dark, inside kind of joke, but still.
Well, it wasn’t a practical joke. As soon as that became apparent, someone tried to throw a tablecloth over White’s body. The blood seeped through almost immediately. Someone tossed on a second tablecloth. Everyone in attendance soon realized what had transpired and fled, horrified. Harry stood there screaming, “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him! He took advantage of the girl and then deserted her!”
As the police arrived, Evelyn said to her husband, “Look at the fix you are in.” “It’s all right dear,” Harry replied, “I have probably saved your life.”
Harry, oddly, was completely fine afterwards. He was absolutely convinced that the people would regard him as a good family man defending his wife.
And the craziest thing is, he was kind of right.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about this case is that, at the period, Harry’s actions were not seen as particularly bad behavior. People regarded Harry Thaw as a man who was defending his wife’s honor.
The phrase “brainstorm” originated in the papers around this time in reference to Harry’s presumably stormy state of mind which inspired him to kill Stanford White.
Stanford White on the other hand, became a laughingstock. You may have heard the joke “come up and see my etchings” – it applies to Stanford’s seduction/rape of Evelyn Nesbit. And it’s still used now to describe men trying to lure women into their apartments under false pretenses. In cartoons sometimes! Here’s a cartoon by James Thurber about it which ran in the New Yorker. I figured after the shooting you might need a giggle:
I think this is always particularly interesting. Look, it’s impossible to say you’re “Team Stanford” or “Team Harry.” Both are terrible teams to be on. Both are loser teams. But if I had to choose, I’d say it really comes down to whether or not Stanford actually drugged Evelyn that night. If they had a drunken, ill advised romp because some other guests cancelled on their party and Stanford felt promptly awful and guilty about, that’s one thing. Planning to drug and rape a teenage girl seems like quite another, and it seems monstrous in a way that maybe, almost makes Harry’s actions seem less monstrous in comparison.
But remember when Harry lured all those showgirls back to his room and beat them with buggy whips? Right. That.
Poor Evelyn was promised a comfortable financial future by the Thaw family provided she testified at her trial. Thaw’s mother, in particular, was adamant that her son be portrayed as a “white knight” and that Evelyn express her gratitude on the stand for avenging her honor. Which Evelyn did.
Many people did sympathize with Thaw – they didn’t know about the chorus girls! – he was declared insane, and committed to a mental asylum.
He was released in 1913, whereupon he divorced Evelyn. He then kidnapped and beat of a 19 year old man named Fred Gump. He was promptly committed again.
Evelyn, meanwhile, struggled immensely following the divorce. BUT. Unlike almost all of these stories, this one has something of a happy ending. Evelyn attempted suicide a few times, and struggled with morphine and alcohol abuse. She was largely forgotten about, until, in 1955, a movie was made about her life entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Evelyn served as a technical adviser. There’s a picture of Evelyn here with Joan Collins, who starred in the film:
She overcame most of her addictions, and began teaching classes in ceramics.
Okay, I know, this does not seem like the happiest ending. I know that her later years are not filled with high adventure, but perhaps that’s because she had all of that between the ages of 14 and 21. And, I imagine, while it’s fun to read about, it was not actually that much fun to have happen. Things, largely, seem to be working out better for Courtney Stodden, though let’s hope her husband stays stable. Maybe when you live that hard that young, when you’re famous for your sex appeal at 16, the best you can hope for is that your story will be remembered, and that you’ll end your days making some nice clay pots.