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Evelyn Nesbit, sometimes called the world's first supermodel, was a chorus girl and artist's model in turn-of-the-century New York City who became caught up in one of the era's most infamous murder cases. The crime, in which Nesbit's husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, shot her former lover, millionaire Stanford White, in public, added notoriety to Nesbit's beauty. Evelyn Nesbit starred in a few silent films and was supposedly immortalized in Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl" illustrations, but nothing would ever gain her as much fame as her role in the Stanford White murder case.
Born on Christmas day in 1884, Evelyn Nesbit had a difficult childhood, as her father died when she was eight years old, leaving the family in poverty. When Evelyn Nesbit reached adolescence, she began to support her mother and younger brother by working as an artist's model. She moved to New York City with her mother at the age of 16 and secured more prestigious modeling jobs and work on Broadway as a chorus girl.
Stanford White, local architect and millionaire, noticed Evelyn Nesbit on Broadway and determined to seduce her. He invited her to his Madison Square Garden apartments to pose for photographs and to cavort on his notorious red velvet swing. Such games, imbued with champagne, eventually led to the loss of Evelyn's virginity.
Evelyn Nesbit's relationship with Stanford White was short lived, although they continued to be friendly towards each other. Evelyn moved on to a relationship with actor John Barrymore, but turned down his marriage proposal after she became pregnant and had a stealthy abortion instead. While she was in the hospital, Evelyn Nesbit began receiving visits and gifts from admirer Harry Kendall Thaw.
Thaw was a shady character, a cocaine and morphine addict who had dropped out of school repeatedly, with a dangerous jealous streak to boot. He had become acquainted with Stanford White through their mutual appreciation of chorus girls, but already considered White a rival even before Evelyn Nesbit entered the picture. Though White warned Evelyn Nesbit against becoming involved with Harry Kendall Thaw, she was moved by his generosity towards her and allowed him to court her.
Thaw romanced Evelyn Nesbit by taking her and her mother on a lavish trip to Paris. Evelyn turned down his proposal at first, but he would not take no for an answer. Eventually, she admitted to losing her virginity to Stanford White. Thaw was enraged by this news, and his dark streak appeared for the first time in their relationship. He sent Evelyn's mother home, then raped and beat Evelyn repeatedly. He refused to let her go, and the two married in 1905.
A year later, Harry Thaw and Evelyn Nesbit ran into Stanford White at a rooftop performance of a new musical at Madison Square Garden, and Thaw shot White three times in the face. Thaw was put on trial for the murder, but the jury was deadlocked. In a second trial, in which Evelyn Nesbit testified in his favor, Thaw pled insanity. Evelyn was granted a divorce.
Thaw was placed in an institution for the criminally insane, but under very low security. Thaw escaped from the hospital in 1913 and fled to Canada. He was extradited two years later, but allowed to retain his freedom.
After the Stanford White scandal, Evelyn Nesbit's life was plagued by drug and alcohol abuse and severe depression. Though she gained some work in film, opened a cafe, and had a son in 1910, Evelyn was unable to fully devote herself to life and attempted suicide multiple times. She married again in 1916, to her dance partner Jack Clifford, but he left her two years later.
In her later life, Evelyn Nesbit overcame her addiction problems. She taught ceramics and acted as technical advisor on The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a 1955 film about her love triangle with Thaw and White. Evelyn Nesbit died on 17 January 1967 in Santa Monica. Her son, Russell William Thaw, was a celebrated American pilot in World War II.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was Evelyn Nesbit and why is she a significant figure in American history?
Evelyn Nesbit was a prominent model and actress in the early 20th century, known for her beauty and her involvement in a high-profile scandal. She became a cultural icon, representing the "Gibson Girl" image of an idealized young woman of the era. Her notoriety increased after her husband, Harry Thaw, murdered architect Stanford White, who had previously taken advantage of Nesbit when she was a teenager. The ensuing trial was dubbed "The Trial of the Century" and brought issues of gender, power, and celebrity into the public eye.
What was the nature of Evelyn Nesbit's relationship with Stanford White?
Evelyn Nesbit met Stanford White, a prominent architect, when she was a young model. White was significantly older and became infatuated with her, leading to a manipulative relationship. According to Nesbit's later accounts, White drugged and raped her when she was only 16. This relationship and the subsequent murder of White by Nesbit's husband, Harry Thaw, became central to the scandal that rocked the nation and highlighted the exploitation of young women during that period.
How did Evelyn Nesbit's career impact women's roles in society at the time?
Evelyn Nesbit's career as a model and actress challenged and shaped societal norms regarding women's roles and sexuality. As the quintessential "Gibson Girl," she influenced fashion and beauty standards, embodying a new, more modern type of femininity. Her public image and personal life, especially after the scandal, sparked conversations about women's autonomy, victimhood, and the double standards they faced in society, thus contributing to the early feminist discourse of the 20th century.
What was the outcome of the trial involving Evelyn Nesbit's husband, and how did it affect her life?
The trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White ended with Thaw being found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was committed to a mental institution but later released. The trial was a media sensation, and Nesbit's testimony, which included her account of White's assault, was pivotal. The trial and its aftermath took a toll on Nesbit's life; she struggled with the public scrutiny and her own mental health, eventually fading from the spotlight and facing financial difficulties.
Did Evelyn Nesbit continue her career in entertainment after the trial?
After the trial, Evelyn Nesbit attempted to continue her career in entertainment. She performed in vaudeville and had some roles in silent films. However, her notoriety from the trial overshadowed her career, and she never regained the same level of success she had enjoyed before the scandal. Despite these challenges, Nesbit remained a figure of fascination and was a part of the entertainment industry in various capacities for many years.