Do we ever think about the lives of the beautiful creatures that live on through works of art? What were their lives like? Were they famous or infamous after they appeared on those masterpieces? Most of the time we’re driven to mystify these characters and create stories about them. Some even become books or films. It’s when we create this kind of folklore that we refuse to consider the harsh reality they might have actually experienced.
Evelyn Nesbit was the face of the American twentieth century. Or at least the start of it. In a way, her story reverberates that of many women of her time. She was used, abused, and discarded, then blamed for the fall or misfortune of the men who only saw her as an artifact. During a time when wealthy industrialists decorated their mansions and mock castles with the finest art and materials they could acquire, these women were not unlike the decadent chandeliers and marble staircases filling these homes. However, there was a slight difference. The ethereal nymphs who’d skip from room to room where only meant to be temporary fixtures. They would be abandoned in order to make room for the next one.
Having modeled in her native Philadelphia since she was 14, Nesbit found success after moving to New York City in 1900. Her first contact with the art world was the painter James Carroll Beckwith, who helped start her career in the city. But it was later on, after she was on the cover of magazines like Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar that her life took a turn. She became the muse of photographer Rudolph Eickemeyer, which eventually led her to meet famous architect Stanford White.
White was a known philanderer who appeared to collect beautiful young women in the same way he would scour Europe for the most breathtaking pieces to decorate the buildings he designed. When he met Nesbit he was 47. She was barely 16, and some believe she might have been younger. To her struggling family’s delight, he became her patron and even provided an apartment for them in one of the buildings he’d made. He would often invite her to his lavish place, not his actual home, and ask her to take a ride on the red velvet swing he had installed there.
It’s not hard to imagine how soon after the almost paternal relationship escalated to a more sexual one. The affair lasted about a year, until White was no longer interested in Evelyn. She had plenty of other wealthy suitors, but instead she found herself in the midst of a power battle of obsession and madness. Unbeknownst to her, Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire from Pittsburgh, despised White with a passion because he felt that the rejection he had received from New York’s society was entirely White’s fault. Thaw saw in Nesbit the opportunity to get back at the architect. If he could possess one of White’s treasures he could finally beat him in some way.
Evelyn eventually told Thaw the details of what had transpired with White. If anything, it appears as if she was naïve or unaware of how volatile and unhinged this man was. Thaw was more obsessed with her former benefactor than with her, and it seemed that this constant retelling of information, which he probably had guessed by then, only drew him more to the edge. Nesbit and Thaw were married in 1905. Evelyn’s life might not had been a fairytale until then, but the manic nature and religious zeal of her new husband proved that she had left one prison for another.
Thaw might have believed he was in possession of White’s prized toy, yet his obsession with the architect only grew wilder. It all came to a head on June 25, 1906, when Harry K. Thaw went to Madison Square Garden’s roof terrace, a complex designed by his archenemy, and shot Stanford White.
What happened after that was referred to the crime and trial of the century? The press and attorneys were quick to point Evelyn as the source of the problem, saying she had ruined both men’s lives. Her morality and character was questioned and destroyed. In the end, Thaw was imprisoned, and Evelyn never performed again.
It would be many years before Nesbit would tell her side of the story in her memoir, which would also become a Hollywood film. When people remember Evelyn, they refer to her as some femme fatale who drove two men to madness. In truth, it seems that the only victim of this whole case was this young woman who constantly found herself powerless and surrounded by predators. Her only crime was her beauty and what it inspired in those around her. Yet her greatest mistake was to find herself in the middle of a power struggle between two figures engulfed in greed.
Paula Uruburu, American Eve.
Sussanah Lessard, The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family.
You might be interested in these:
The Burglar Who Became Francis Bacon’s Lover and Muse
The Story Of The Beautiful Sad Girl Who Tragically Became A Mass Murderer