Florence Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas Day in either 1884 or 1886 (her mother sometimes concealed her date of birth in order to get around those pesky child labour laws, so her true year of birth has been forgotten), in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During her lifetime, she was said to be the most photographed woman in the world; the first supermodel. Her late Edwardian style was the inspiration for the artist Charles Dana Gibson’s iconic image, the Gibson girl: the personification of American female beauty according to her creator:
I’ll tell you how I got what you have called the ‘Gibson Girl.’ I saw her on the streets, I saw her at the theatres, I saw her in the churches. I saw her everywhere and doing everything. I saw her idling on Fifth Avenue and at work behind the counters of the stores … [T]he nation made the type. What Zangwill calls the ‘Melting Pot of Races’ has resulted in a certain character; why should it not also have turned out a certain type of face?…There isn’t any ‘Gibson Girl,’ but there are many thousands of American girls, and for that let us all thank God.
Trial of the Century
Evelyn is perhaps most famous for being the woman at the centre of ‘The Trial of the Century’, after her millionaire husband (Harry Kendall Thaw) murdered Stanford White, a famous architect, on the rooftop terrace of Madison Square Garden. White, incidentally, was the architect who had designed the original Madison Square Garden where he met his end. The finale to the play (I Could Love a Million Girls) was being performed when Harry Thaw fired three shots into his target and then stood over the body, holding the gun aloft and declaring he had done it because White had ruined either his wife, or his life (it was hard to hear over the song – witness accounts of Harry’s pronouncements vary). It was opening night; the play went on to become something of a hit with a run of 60 performances.
Lunch above the toy store
Evelyn had met Stanford in 1901, when she was working as a chorus girl on Broadway. She was either fourteen or sixteen years old at the time. In her memoir, Prodigal Days, Evelyn writes about her first visit to Stanford White’s apartment, which rose above the famous West Twenty-Fourth street toy store, FAO Schwartz. During this first visit, Evelyn and her companion (Edna Goodrich) were served lunch in a room filled with expensive paintings, antiques, heavily-carved furniture and red velvet drapes, drawn closed to keep out the light. The room was dark and moodily illuminated. Evelyn – just a child – was allowed a single glass of expensive champagne.
After lunch, the luncheon party ascended to one of White’s strangely decorated rooms – a kind of interior folly. The room was decorated in various shades of green. In the centre of the room hung a red velvet swing. Edna was given a Japanese parasol, and Evelyn settled in the swing. Stanford White pushed Evelyn on the swing. Higher and higher. As she swung, she had to hold out her little foot and try to puncture the paper parasol. At the end of the game, the parasol was in shreds.
Many months later, after White had moved Evelyn and her family into a suite at the Wellington Hotel he had had decorated for them; after he had convinced Evelyn’s mother that he was a suitable chaperone for her young daughter while she travelled ‘home’ to Pittsburgh.
The hall of mirrors
While Evelyn’s mother was away, she dined one evening with Stanford in his apartment. She drank champagne – more than a single glass – and was led through the many rooms of the apartment by her grand chaperone. The tour ended in the mirror room: imagine a New York version of the Palace of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. A room whose walls were entirely panelled with mirrors, and in the midst of which was a green velvet sofa. Champagne was poured. Light glimmered in the mirrors. Evelyn put on a yellow satin kimono and, soon after, passed out. In her memoirs, Evelyn wrote that she had ‘entered that room a virgin’, but did not emerge as one.
The Wild Rose
Years later, Evelyn was being courted by the dramatic millionaire, Harry Kendall Thaw. A man who had attended more than forty of her performances in The Wild Rose. He swept her and her mother off on a tour of Europe while Evelyn was still recovering from emergency surgery. The tour took in as many sites celebrating virgin martyrs as Thaw could find. During one night in Paris, Thaw pushed Evelyn to marry him, but she refused. She knew that Thaw was obsessed with marrying a chaste woman. During a long night of tears and insistences, remonstrations and (!) copious amounts of champagne, she told Thaw the story of her night with Stanford White.
When they visited Jeanne d’Arc’s birthplace, Thaw wrote in a visitor’s notebook: she [Joan of Arc] would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around.
Thaw rented a castle in the Austrian Tyrol (the Schloss Katzenstein) where, during a hellish fortnight, Thaw kept Evelyn a prisoner. He sexually assaulted her and lashed her with a whip. Nevertheless, after they returned to America and he promised to change his ways, the two were married on April 4, 1905. Evelyn wore a black travelling suit rather than a white gown, and agreed to give up her career as a model and actress; agreed to never speak about her past as the most-photographed woman in the world.
Evelyn & Anne – bosom buddies
In a somewhat odd but intriguing footnote, Lucy Maud Montgomery clipped the modelling photograph [above] of Evelyn Nesbit from The Metropolitan Magazine and pasted it to the wall in her bedroom. She used the portrait as inspiration for her most enduring fictional character: Anne of Green Gables.
Some folks spell ‘love’ with a capital L, and some with a small letter; it is a question of age. I have reached the period of life where I draw a line underneath—just as you do with any other foreign word. [Evelyn Nesbit]