Monday, August 31, 2015

Evelyn Nesbit: The Tragedy of the Turn-of-the-Century Supermodel

Sometimes you run across the most interesting stories when you are doing research. I have been working on a new Darlene Higginbottom story. Darlene being the main character in “Laid to Rest” and a Marilyn Monroe wannabe. Several readers have asked for a new Darlene story so I decided to write one where Darlene ends up in a haunted hotel. The ghost who confronts Darlene is from the turn-of-the-century. During my research, I ran across an interesting and tragic story about a young girl who became the Marilyn Monroe of her era.

Evelyn Nesbit was only 15 years old when she left Philadelphia for New York to work as an artist’s model. She had nothing but her looks and she was the sole provider for her mother and her brother. She was an overnight success, becoming the most sought-after model in the city.
Her looks were a combination of Victorian purity, yet with a hint of sensuality. She became an icon, posing for the covers of such magazines as Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Charles Gibson chose her to be one of his famous Gibson’s Girls.

By age 16, she was working as a chorus girl at night while modeling during the day. It was during a production where she was in a hit musical that she attracted the attention of 47-year-old Stanford White, a successful architect and man-about-town. He became obsessed with her and showered her with gifts. An extravagant man, White provided her and her family with a lavishly furnished apartment.

White convinced Evelyn’s mother that his attentions were paternal. Her mother made a trip out of town and during this time, White took Evelyn to his home where in a room paneled with mirrors, he had sex with her. She had been giving champagne prior to the rape and she had no memory of the incident, waking in the morning in his bed. For the next year, White continued to have sex with her. She met a young man who was close to her age and he asked her to marry him. When White found out, he had Evelyn shipped off to a girl’s school in New Jersey.

Henry Thaw was the son of a Pittsburg millionaire who was jealous of Stanford White. He arranged to meet Evelyn, who was not interested in him. Although he was mentally unstable, Thaw was the heir to his father’s fortune. When Evelyn became ill and had to have emergency surgery while in school, Thaw sent his personal physician to attend her. Afterward, he convinced her and her mother to travel to Europe with him for recuperation.

The trip was hectic and 17-year-old Evelyn was in a weakened state due to her physical condition. Thaw managed to estrange Evelyn from her mother, who stayed behind in London. Thaw proposed to Evelyn, who knew of his obsession with female chastity. She told him what Stanford White had done to her. This was beginning of Thaw’s hatred for White. Thaw took Evelyn to a castle in Austria where he had a manic episode and held her prisoner. For 2 weeks, he beat her with a whip and sexually assaulted her. Afterward, he was contrite and begged for her forgiveness.

Once she was back in the US, Evelyn realized she had no future with Stanford White and her relationship with him had ruined her chances of making a suitable match. Her mother remarried and started a new life without her. Thaw had pursued her for four years and fearing she would fall into financial ruin, she became his wife in 1905. They moved in Lyndhurst, the family mansion with Thaw’s mother.

A year later, in New York, Thaw and Evelyn attended a stage show at Madison Square Garden. Stanford White was also in attendance. Thaw pulled a gun and shot Stanford White three times in the head for ruining his wife. At first, the guests thought the murder was part of the show.

The scandal filled the newspapers and the trial became known as the “Trial of the Century.”
Religious groups lobbied to have media coverage censored and President Theodore Roosevelt fumed at newspapers printing the disgusting particulars of the trial.

Two trials were held and Thaw was declared insane. He was sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane where he escaped to Canada. He was finally released in 1915. He died in Florida at age 72.

Evelyn gave birth to a son in 1910, who Thaw never acknowledged as his child. She and her son appeared in several movies together. In 1915, she divorced Thaw. She did remarry once, but the notoriety of her past followed her and overwhelmed her husband who left her in 1918.

By the late 20’s, Evelyn struggled with alcoholism and morphine addiction. She did appear in stage shows and she ran a tea room. Thaw had kept her under surveillance by private detectives during this time. He provided no financial support and at the time of his death in 1947, he left her 10,000 dollars out of his estate.

In Los Angeles, she taught a ceramic class and was a technical advisor on a movie about her life, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Her son became a well-known pilot and served during WWII.

Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Evelyn did grow old and she died in a nursing home in 1967.

The movie, Ragtime, is based on her love triangle and White’s murder.


Vivien Jackson said...

How tragic! Thanks for posting this. And hooray for more Darlene!

Patricia Preston said...

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I am finally doing another Darlene story. This time for Halloween.