Who was Evelyn Nesbit? If you lived at the turn of the century you wouldn't have asked that question. Everyone knew who she was! Some call her the world's first supermodel. She was a chorus girl and artist's model in New York City who was swept up in one of the era's most infamous murder cases.
Evelyn was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on Christmas day in 1884 in a small village near Pittsburgh. Her father was a struggling lawyer who died when Evelyn was just 8 years old. He left behind substantial debts and a widow with two children who were nearly destitute. By the time Evelyn reached puberty she was noted to be a breathtaking beauty which was not lost on a number of local artists. She soon found employment as an artist's model. When she was sixteen, she and her mother moved to New York City where Evelyn was introduced to several New York artists and was soon a sought after model and also worked on Broadway as a chorus girl.
Evelyn, at the age of 16, was quickly noticed on Broadway by New York architect and millionaire, Stanford White who, even though he was married, was determined to seduce her. White was 47 years old at the time and seducing young girls was not unfamiliar to him. He invited Evelyn to his luxurious apartment located above FAO Schwarz toy store under the guise of wanting to photograph her. After a few visits Evelyn was no longer a virgin and Stanford White was no longer interested.
Soon Evelyn became involved with Harry Kendall Thaw, the Pittsburgh son of a coal and railroad baron. He became increasingly possessive of her. Thaw was jealous of her previous affairs with John Barrymore the actor, Robert J. Collier a young magazine publisher, and James Waterbury a well known polo player; but mostly Thaw was incensed by Stanford White who he said ruined Evelyn. Thaw was reportedly a cocaine addict who liked to sadistically whip women, including Evelyn, and occasionally young boys. But in-spite of that, Evelyn married Thaw in 1905 when she was twenty years old.
On the evening of June 25, 1906, Nesbit and Thaw ran into Stanford White in the audience of the Madison Square Garden's rooftop theatre. During the song "I Could Love a Million Girls", Thaw shot White three times at close range in the face. Needless to say, White died. Harry Thaw was tried twice for the murder of Stanford White. The first trial ended in a deadlock, and with the second trial Thaw pleaded temporary insanity. Harry Thaw's mother purportedly promised Nesbit a quiet divorce and one million dollars if she would testify in her son's behalf telling the jury that Stanford White had raped her (Evelyn) and that Thaw was just avenging her honor. Evelyn testified, got the divorce but never saw a penny, in fact, she was immediately cut off financially by Thaw's mother. Thaw was found insane and was incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane where he enjoyed almost total freedom. Nevertheless, he did escape several times but was caught, and in 1915 he was released after being judged sane.
After the second trial, Evelyn had modest success in vaudeville and silent movies. There was one more short marriage, alcoholism and cocaine addiction and multiple suicide attempts before her life turned around. She published two memoirs, and in her later years taught classes in ceramics. She died in 1967 at the age of 82.
She was reportedly the inspiration for Charles Dana Gibson's many illustrations of the "Gibson Girl" (see top of story - the Question Mark Girl) and also the inspiration for the model for the heroine in Anne of Green Gables by author Lucy Maud Montgomery. She was technical advisor and inspiration for the 1955 movie, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. There were ten non-fiction accounts of her life and five fictional accounts based on her life.
Evelyn Nesbit is probably the most infamous artist's model of le Belle Epoque and certainly stunningly beautiful, but in coming weeks I will be introducing you to a few more of her contemporaries who although not as infamous, personally, I find them to be even more beautiful!
© Maureen Kavaney Tillman 2010 from
Sanctuaries, Dreams and Shadows