Who Was Evelyn Nesbit?

Niki Foster

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.

Evelyn Nesbit's life was plagued by alcohol abuse following the Stanford White scandal.
Evelyn Nesbit's life was plagued by alcohol abuse following the Stanford White scandal.

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.

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