Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Evelyn Nesbit: The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing and the Crime of the Century

This poster is adapted from a famous photo of Evelyn Nesbit

American Crime Story’s “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” has just been nominated for a whopping thirteen primetime Emmys. Hardly surprising, given the power of the murder trial we couldn’t stop watching in 1994-1995. The possibility that football-star-turned-actor O.J. Simpson had murdered his ex-wife encompassed so many key American issues: race, sex, celebrity. No wonder it was often labeled the Crime of the Century.

Back on June 25, 1906, another murder equally galvanized the nation. It evoked all the tension surrounding the  shifting social patterns of the brand-new twentieth century. This was a time when old moral and aesthetic codes were breaking down, and new wealth was taking over the social establishment. Somehow the murder of New York architect and bon vivant Stanford White by Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh, prodigal heir to his father’s industrial millions, came to exemplify the obsessions of the new era. Naturally there was a woman at the center of the story.

She was Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful and very young (age 22) photographer’s model and Broadway chorus girl. She was also Harry Thaw’s wife.  As Paula Urburu makes clear in American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century, Evelyn had settled in New York at age fourteen with her widowed mother and troubled brother. Since Mamma had no plan for supporting the family on her own, Evelyn’s precocious beauty became the little family’s meal ticket. At fifteen, appearing on Broadway and living a life that was mostly unsupervised by her feckless mother, Evelyn met the dashing Stanford White. He—a major celebrity responsible for such landmarks as the original Madison Square Garden—quickly took her under his wing. At first he was a welcome father figure. Then he drugged and raped her. With few other options available, she chose to overlook his sinister act and became his willing mistress, though she eventually moved on when he began turning to new young conquests.

Harry Thaw fell hard for Evelyn. Many other stagedoor Johnnies had, but the unstable Harry was obsessed with wreaking vengeance on Stanford White, even before he met her. He wormed out of Evelyn the story of how White had “despoiled” her innocence. Now knowing a truth she had successfully kept hidden, Thaw raped and brutalized her himself. Somehow he eventually got her to marry him in a private ceremony. (The bride wore black.) Then one evening as they attended a rooftop performance at White’s Madison Square Garden, he shot White at close range. Somehow he expected to be acclaimed a hero for defending his wife’s sacred honor.

During several trials, Evelyn was forced to describe aloud the indignities she’d suffered (as well as providing titillating details about cavorting on White’s private red velvet swing). The public couldn’t get enough of it. A film, Rooftop Murder, had been rushed into production by Thomas Edison’s studio a mere week after the tragedy occurred. Later there would be other films and stage productions, some financed by Harry Thaw’s own family, who were bent on selling their version of him as a crusader for American womanhood.

Years later, an impoverished Evelyn herself acted in films that were essentially versions of her eventful life. And in 1954 she actually sold her story to Hollywood. (In The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing she was portrayed by newcomer Joan Collins). Milos Forman’s film of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime raises Evelyn from a cameo role into a major player. As a forerunner of today’s young publicity hounds, she’s a dramatic example of how life in the spotlight can destroy innocence and beauty.

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