Stanford White & Evelyn Nesbit
02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
There wasn't a chance they wouldn't collide. He was New York's greatest architect, a fast-living genius with "a voracious appetite for beautiful young girls," in the words of his great-granddaughter Suzannah Lessard. She was New York's latest dazzler—a ruby-lipped innocent who, at 16, had graced enough magazine covers to earn her the sobriquet Girl Model of Gotham. Stanford White invited Evelyn Nesbit to lunch in 1901. Before the decade was out, their affair had mesmerized the world—and cost White his life.
For Nesbit, an association with White seemed promising. The auburn-haired, ethereally lovely daughter of a poor, widowed seamstress, she had come to New York City from Pittsburgh with her mother, Evelyn Florence Nesbit, hoping to capitalize on her angelic face and slim figure. Instantly popular as an artist's model, Evelyn won a role in the Broadway musical Floradora in 1901 and was soon besieged by stage-door Johnnies. White, 48, was the most dashing of the bunch. The designer of the 1891 Madison Square Garden, he introduced Evelyn to Manhattan's haute society, brought her books, paid for her singing lessons and eventually established her and her mother in a plush hotel, where he designed a bedroom for Evelyn that featured red carpeting, white-satin walls and a canopy bed festooned with ostrich plumes.
In one of his many Manhattan apartments, White had a red-velvet swing, and he encouraged Evelyn to make use of it—preferably naked. ("Don't forget, I was only 16 and I enjoyed swinging," she told a reporter years later.) In her memoirs, Evelyn wrote, "I fell head over heels in love with him."
Like most wealthy roués of that opulent era, White was married—a detail that apparently disturbed neither Evelyn nor her mother. But a poor girl had to consider her future, and after a year with White—who did not confine his dallying to Evelyn—she began accepting other offers. "I think her mother realized that she had a beautiful daughter," says Paula Uruburu, a Hofstra University professor who is writing a biography of Nesbit, "and was just dangling her out there hoping to attract the man with the most money."
"Mad Harry" Thaw qualified. The heir to a $40 million Pittsburgh railroad fortune, Thaw was known for antics like trying to ride his horse into the lobby of the elegant Union Club. He piqued Evelyn's interest by sending her red roses wrapped in $50 bills, and though she later described him as "a mighty peculiar person," she was won over by his sweet nothings (he called her Boofuls) and his vast means. "I was so sorry for him," she said. "And...we'd been so terribly poor."
Before marrying Thaw, Evelyn made a revelation that she ultimately realized was "the costliest mistake of my life." She told him the exact nature of her relationship with White. One evening when her mother was away, she reported, White had plied her with champagne until she passed out. When she awoke, she was naked in his bed and no longer a virgin.
What she didn't know was that Thaw already held a grudge against White, who had blackballed him from some exclusive clubs years earlier. Thaw flew into a rage. Shortly thereafter, in a bedroom of the Austrian castle where he and Evelyn were staying during a tour of Europe, Thaw beat Evelyn with a cowhide whip until her body was covered with welts. Shaken but undeterred, Evelyn married him six months later because, she reasoned, he was the only rich man offering her matrimony.
On June 25, 1906, Thaw's violent nature reached its apogee. As Stanford White sat watching a musical at Madison Square Garden's rooftop cabaret theater, Harry Thaw approached his table, fired three times and killed him. "I did it," Thaw later said, "because he ruined my wife."
The murder dominated the city's newspapers for weeks, and the three-month trial that followed transfixed the nation as thoroughly as would the O.J. affair nearly a century later. To save "a husband I didn't love from going to the chair," as she wrote later, Evelyn told the court how White had robbed her of her maidenhood that champagne-filled night. After an initial hung jury, Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity (a diagnosis corroborated by his mother, who testified that the entire Thaw clan was crazy). He spent eight years in an asylum for the criminally insane and upon his release filed immediately for divorce.
For Evelyn, the period following the murder was agonizing. She struggled to get by as a vaudeville dancer and chanteuse and bore a son, Russell, who she swore was Thaw's (though Thaw denied it). A second marriage fizzled, and she twice attempted suicide. "Stanny White was killed," Nesbit once said, "but my fate was worse. I lived."
Yet she spent her last years in seeming contentment, teaching sculpture in California. She had three grandchildren, who remember careening down hills with her in a bright red wagon. And she looked back only fondly at her first love. "Stanford White," Nesbit said before she died in 1967 at 82, "was the most wonderful man I ever knew."