Nesbit, Evelyn (1884–1967)
Nesbit, Evelyn (1884–1967)
American model-actress who became part of a sensational scandal when her ex-lover, architect Stanford White, was murdered by her millionaire husband. Name variations: Evelyn Nesbit Thaw; Mrs. Harry Thaw; Florence Evelyn Nesbit. Born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on December 25, 1884, in Tarentum, Pennsylvania; died on January 17, 1967, in Santa Monica, California; only daughter and one of two children of Winfield Scott (a lawyer) and Elizabeth Nesbit; attended elementary school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; did not receive high school diploma; married Harry Kendall Thaw (a millionaire), in 1905 (divorced 1916); married performer Jack Clifford (divorced 1919); children: (first marriage) one son, Russell Thaw.
Although Evelyn Nesbit was a woman of considerable accomplishments (biographer Paula Uruburu calls her America's "first super-model"), she is remembered primarily in association with the revenge murder of nationally renowned architect Stanford White, who was shot to death by Harry K. Thaw, the heir to a Pennsylvania railroad fortune and Nesbit's husband from 1905. The killing, which occurred on the evening of June 25, 1906, at the roof-top theater at Madison Square Garden (ironically, a building designed by White), dominated newspapers for weeks and resulted in two sensational trials at which Nesbit was a star witness. Thaw was eventually incarcerated in a mental institution, where he remained until 1922. Nesbit, her reputation sullied, struggled unsuccessfully to reignite her career and get her life back on track. "Stanny White was killed," she once said, "but my fate was worse. I lived."
Auburn-haired Nesbit was already a beauty at 15, when she arrived in New York from Pittsburgh with her widowed mother. She had no trouble finding work in the city, coming quickly to the attention of such renowned photographers
and artists as Carroll Beckwith, Frederick Church, and Herbert Morgan, and posing for some of the numerous advertisements which had just begun to appear in newspapers at the turn of the century. As her career blossomed, she served as the model for George Grey Bernard's famous sculpture Innocence (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and for the Charles Gibson sketch "The Eternal Question," which first appeared in Collier's magazine. In 1901, Nesbit won a role in the popular British import Floradora, at which time she caught the eye of the dashing and successful architect Stanford White, whose penchant for much younger women was already well established. White pursued Nesbit with abandon, buying her expensive gifts, paying for singing lessons, and establishing her and her mother in an elegant New York apartment hotel. Despite the fact that White was 48 and married, Nesbit, with the blessings of her mother, became his mistress. Stories abound about White's sexual proclivities. In one of his several Manhattan apartments, he had installed a red-velvet swing, which Nesbit made use of while naked. "Don't forget, I was only 16 and I enjoyed swinging," she told a reporter some years later.
After a year, however, with no proposal from White, Nesbit began casting about for a husband, although this may have been at her mother's instigation. "I think her mother realized that she had a beautiful daughter," suggests Uruburu, "and was just dangling her out there hoping to attract the man with the most money." Enter "mad Harry" Thaw, the spoiled heir to a $40 million railroad fortune, who was even more flamboyant and dangerous than White. Known for his outrageous behavior (he once tried to ride his horse in the lobby of the ritzy Union Club), he plied Nesbit with roses wrapped in $50 bills. Despite his reputation, and her own uneasy feeling that he was "a mighty peculiar person," Nesbit was attracted to his money. "I was so sorry for him," she said later. "And…we'd been so terribly poor." While Thaw professed undying love for Nesbit, his jealousy and disdain for White dominated their relationship, and Nesbit frequently fell victim to his emotional and physical abuse.
In the midst of her busy social life, Nesbit continued to pursue the theater, appearing in several ill-fated musicals, including The Wild Rose, Tommy Rot, and The Girl from Dixie. In 1905, however, she abandoned her career and married Thaw, believing it might be her last chance at a rich husband. They settled in the Thaw family estate in Pittsburgh ("Lyndhurst"), but traveled often to various cities in the United States and abroad. Thaw remained obsessed with Nesbit's past affair with White and apparently dreamed of revenge. He got his chance in June 1906, on a visit to New York, when he and Evelyn attended the premiere of the musical Mamzell Champagne, at Madison Square Garden's roof-top theater. Sitting at another table was Stanford White. Toward the end of the show, Thaw approached White's table and pumped three bullets into the architect's head, killing him instantly.
Throughout the media circus that preceded Thaw's first trial, Nesbit remained loyal to her husband. Her sensational testimony, carefully orchestrated by California defense lawyer Delphin Delmas (hired by Thaw's mother), chronicled her youthful seduction by White and was instrumental in deadlocking the jury. At a second trial the following year, however, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity and sent away to the New York Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Matteawan, New York. During the early years of his incarceration, Nesbit's relationship with him and his family deteriorated, and she was left on her own. (Thaw divorced Nesbit in 1916, disavowing paternity of a boy, Russell, whom she had given birth to while he was confined.)
As Nesbit's source of income dried up, she was forced to return to her career. In 1913, she traveled to Europe to appear in the musical Hello Ragtime, with Jack Clifford, whom she married in 1916 after her divorce from Thaw. The marriage floundered, as did Nesbit's career, and she was plagued by drug problems. Some later business ventures, including several speakeasies, never got off the ground, and in 1922 she tried unsuccessfully to end her life by taking poison; a second attempt four years later also failed.
During the 1930s, Nesbit made a bit of a comeback in burlesque and cabaret, but by the end of the decade she was forced to live with her son in Hollywood. Work came her way again in 1955, when she served as a consultant on the film version of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, based on her affair with White, whom she looked back on as "the most wonderful man I ever knew." She found some contentment in her final years, teaching sculpture and painting, and enjoying her three grandchildren. She died in Santa Monica, California, on January 17, 1967. Two autobiographies chronicle Nesbit's life: The Story of My Life (1914) and Prodigal Days (1934).
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 16. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of American Scandal. NY and Oxford: Facts On File, 1989.
"Stanford White & Evelyn Nesbit," in People Weekly. February 12, 1996.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts