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The fatal attraction of Evelyn Nesbit

The Baltimore Sun

According to Paula Uruburu, author of the recently published American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century, the dark-eyed beauty was "America's first supermodel, sex goddess and modern celebrity."

Nesbit had posed for such artists as Charles Dana Gibson and had been a chorine on the New York stage. She then became the lover of society architect Stanford White and later the wife of Harry K. Thaw, heir to a Pittsburgh coal and railroad fortune.

Known as "the girl in the red velvet swing," Nesbit's Gilded Age society love story has been kept alive largely through the years because of a sappy 1955 Hollywood film that starred Joan Collins as Nesbit, Ray Milland as White, and Farley Granger as Harry Kendall Thaw.

Born on Christmas Day in 1885 in Tarentum, Pa., Nesbit, whose real name was Florence Mary, moved to Philadelphia with her widowed mother when she was 10.

Artist's model

By the time she was in her early teens, the fetching Nesbit was earning as much as $17 a week posing for artists and photographers, writes Uruburu, an associate professor of English at Hofstra University.

"Vixen. Victim. The ur-Lolita. The very first 'It' girl before anyone knew what 'It' was. She could be what anyone wanted her to be. And inevitably was, even if it wasn't what she wanted," the author wrote.

Nesbit was 15 when she arrived in New York City in 1900, continuing what she had done in Philadelphia, sitting for artists and photographers and dancing.

Over a century later, her photographs still exude a strong hypnotic sexual power - a girlish purity which she combined with a Mona Lisa smile, seductive red lips, and huge "dark, sultry eyes set in an angelic face, all framed by a 'profusion of burnished copper curls,'" writes Uruburu.

"As with Eve before the Fall, Eveyln's natural charms and air of innocence created an overwhelming and immediate impression of incorruptibility in certain poses.

Yet the deceptive maturity of her heavy-lidded gaze and ever so slightly open-mouthed expression of apparent self-satisfaction in photo after photo suggested an Eve who had already tasted forbidden fruit," she wrote.

The architect

It was such charms that seduced Stanford White, a married playboy in his 50s, noted architect, partner in the celebrated architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White.

He may have been a wealthy man about town, but there was also a dark side to White.

White, whose Baltimore commissions included Lovely Lane Methodist Church, the Barton Jacobs home on Mount Vernon Place, the Winans and Goucher houses, first caught as glimpse of 15-year-old Nesbit when she was dancing with the Florodora Sextette.

He wasn't the only stage door johnny to become infatuated with Nesbit - her charms were greedily and jealously taken up by Thaw.

White's normal routine was to take Nesbit either to his tower studio in Madison Square Garden, which he had designed, or to his studio on 24th Street, where he enjoyed pushing her in the famed red velvet swing that was suspended from the studio's ceiling.

"Don't forget, I was only 15 and I enjoyed the swinging," Nesbit told the Associated Press in an interview years later.

Eventually White's visits with Nesbit grew more complicated and after plying her with champagne one evening, raped her.

She awoke to find herself dressed in "an abbreviated pink undergarment," lying on top of silken sheets in the canopied bed.

White was next to her.

In 1914 Nesbit recalled, "I could not realize what had happened. All that I knew was that something terrible had come to me and I screamed. With terror in his face, he tried to stop me. 'For God's sake don't!' he pleaded. It was horrible - horrible. I knew without understanding. What happened after I cannot tell."

After White dropped her, Thaw moved into fill the vacuum of his absence.

The husband

Nesbit and Thaw toured Europe together, and were eventually married in a secret service in Pittsburgh in 1905.

Nesbit, who had confessed what had happened to Thaw prior to their marriage, had unwittingly set into motion the finale to the awkward love triangle.

The husband

The mentally unstable Thaw brooded about his wife's humiliation and planned to do something about it.

The setting for one of the most public murders in the country took place on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden on a warm evening.

It was June 26, 1905.

While Thaw and Nesbit were enjoying a performance of Mamzelle Champagne, a musical comedy, at their table, White, sitting some distance away, got up and walked to another where he sat alone.

The murder

As a performer was singing "I Could Love a Million Girls," Thaw left his seat, approached White, and pulled a pistol from beneath his black dinner jacket.

He fired three times into the head of the architect, who slumped in his chair and then fell to the floor accompanied by the sound smashing crystal glassware.

It was 11:05 p.m.

The elegantly dressed crowd broke into a panic while the orchestra continued playing, trying to instill a sense of calm. Eventually, they put down their instruments.

As Nesbit passed White's motionless body, she said, "My God, Harry, you've killed him."

Thaw replied, "Kiss me, dear, before I go downstairs."

An eyewitness told The New York Times, "I never saw a face more full of agony as she turned around."

Thaw, who lifted the pistol over his head with the barrel down to show he would harm no one else, and told an arresting police officer:

"He deserved it. I can prove it. He ruined my life and then deserted the girl."

The New York Times reported that the officer was later uncertain whether Thaw had said "life" or "wife."

The first of Thaw's sensational trials ended in a hung jury, and at the second, he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity in 1908. He was sentenced to New York's Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he remained until 1915.

A defense attorney later remarked that "without Evelyn Nesbit Thaw as the witness she was, all the millions Thaw's mother had couldn't have saved him from electrocution."

In 1917, after horsewhipping a young high school student with whom he had a relationship, Thaw was again judged insane and confined to an asylum, where he resided until 1924.

Nesbit gave birth to a son -Russell Thaw in 1912 - whose paternity Thaw denied.

The couple were divorced in 1916.

Twenty years later, Thaw was still unrepentant and said: "Under the same circumstances I'd kill him tomorrow."

Thaw was 76 when he died in Miami Beach, Fla., in 1947.

He left an estate of $1,211,094, including a bequest of $10,000 to Nesbit.

Another legatee was Mrs. Bell Emery of Baltimore, who received $20,000 in trust.

The aftermath

Nesbit later wed her dancing partner, Virgil Montani, whom she divorced in 1931. The years that followed were unkind, and she attempted suicide twice.

During the 1930s, she tried to resurrect her career while reprising her role as "the girl in the red velvet swing" at faded night clubs and Jersey Shore boardwalk resorts.

Nesbit, who said that White was the only man she ever loved, eventually moved to Santa Monica, Calif., where she died in a convalescent home in 1967.

A believer in the occult and karma, she told a reporter, "Stanny White was killed, but my fate was worse. I lived."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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