Evelyn Nesbit, aka “The Most Beautiful Woman in America”, aka “The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing.”

This is a bit of a weird one because I don't really have much to cite. I've been obsessed by Evelyn Nesbit for YEARS and have picked up bits and pieces of her story from all over–some of it probably less true than others–so this is more going to be a post about the legend of Evelyn Nesbit, rather than her "100% true omg official biography".

I first discovered her when my college roommate had me listen to Ragtime: The Musical (that roommate is probably shocked it took me this long to blog about her). I'm not sure what drew me to Evelyn, apart from the fact that I thought she'd be a fun character to play. Obviously I was not the only person to be swept up by the glamor surrounding "The Most Beautiful Woman in America"/"The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing", nor the scandal of her love affairs or the excitement around "The Trial of the Century", of which she played a crucial part. Perhaps the reason why I keep coming back to her story is because I view her as ultimately a deeply tragic figure. For me, she is right up there with Hamlet, Anna Karenina, John Proctor, Antigone, and all the other greats.

Okay, let's get to the fun stuff. God, I am using the word "fun" so, so loosely.

She was born in Pittsburgh in 1885–on Christmas Day, to be exact–and, boy, was she ever a Christmas present for journalists. Her parents were respectable middle class people who educated Evelyn decently. She grew up smart, talented and BEAUTIFUL.
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My twitter people will recognize the first photo as my avatar. I can't claim to be as pretty, but I hope I can one day master as sly an expression.

Her father died when she was 11, leaving the family in genteel poverty. A few years of total misery coincided with Evelyn reaching puberty, and by that point her mother had had enough. Her daughter had been given natural gifts, and she was going to be a STAAAAAAAAR. I don't want to sell her mother too much as the Gypsy type, because, frankly, she worked her butt off trying to support her children, but her options were very limited.

Evelyn fell into modeling by complete chance. A local artist was struck by her beauty and begged her to pose for him. *Sigh* Haven't we all been there?
Her name quickly spread around art circles and she became the muse for a large group of respectable artists.
Beckwith_James_Carroll_Portrait_of_Evelyn_Nesbitt
One might ask oneself how respectable this portrait is.

Her mother was concerned with Evelyn's reputation remaining unsullied, so she was initially against modeling. However, when she learned that Evelyn was earning far more money for a couple of hours of work than she could have earned in her child-labor-law-violating job as a fabric clerk, her mother eventually consented.

They moved to New York City. A friend put them in contact with respected artist James Carroll Beckwith who, despite his whole 'stachatory rapist facial hair, was actually very protective of Evelyn. It didn't hurt that his patron was J.J. Astor, of THE New York Astors, possibly the richest man in the world at the time, who opened a whoooooooooole lot of doors for a fourteen-year-old. For the first time in years, the family could pay rent. Evelyn became a commercial model, appearing in advertisements, on playing cards, and on "pin-up" style merchandise.

She became a sex symbol over night. You know she's a sex symbol, because her saloon-girl choker tells you so:
images1images3Evelyn_Nesbit_'kiss'_1
That last photo was one of her pin-up cards, which said at the bottom "I should like to kiss you." I'm not positive when all of these photos were taken, but the point still stands. She must have been one hot fourteen-year-old.

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Apropos of nothing–"Hair: I've got oodles."

It's one thing to be thought of as hot. It's another thing to be thought of as beautiful. A lot of that comes down to the type of work you do and who you are affiliated with. Once she got hooked up with the artist Charles Dana Gibson, all bets were off, because, you see, Gibson had created The Gibson Girl. He had seen the direction fashion was taking (fashion not only in dress and hairstyle, but in body type and face shape), and combined them all into his illustrations that were published in many high-ranking publications, typifying the beauty ideal of the generation. When he met Evelyn, she was like his illustrations come to life. She was the beauty ideal. He drew this picture of her:
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and people went BUCK WILD. 1980s bangs: not just for the 1980s. She was proclaimed "The Most Beautiful Woman in America", which is quite the thing to put on your resume before you're half-way through your teens. Then, as so many models do, she turned to acting. It was still slightly dubious to be an actress, but it was a change of pace from lying immoble for hours every day while idolaters sketched you.

Around fifteen, she met — dun Duh DAAAAAAAAAAAH — Stanford White, the world-famous architect. He was forty-seven and had such an astoshing moustache that Evelyn was stunned and fell into bed with him.

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Harlot's handles, wench ravishers, trollop ticklers, call 'em what you want. They clearly get results.

Okay, it didn't start out quite as suddenly as all that, but just about. He was a notorious womanizer and when you put "The Most Coveted Beautiful Naive Child Woman in America" in front of him, he went, "Targeted and locked. Prepare the missiles." She actually spurned his first advances because she found him to be too old OMG, YES, EVELYN, RUN AWAY and his overwhelming attention alarmed her.

He invited her and a mutual female friend over for lunch at his swinging (literally) bachelor pad which was covered in red velvet and foreshadowing. He and the friend allowed Evelyn one glass of champage and then they went upstairs into his private lair where he had the soon-to-be infamous red velvet swing hanging from the ceiling. Evelyn swung on it for a while, but with her friend there, nothing improper happened and she had a simply marvelous time. It was almost definitely Stanford White's way of getting her comfortable with booze and his kinks in a "safe" environment so when he sprung his eventual trap, she wouldn't see what was coming. That's the version they tend to tell, anyway, and it's hard to refute, though one does not want to judge a pedophilic book by its cover. I have no idea how much the friend was in on his dastardly plan.

He bribed himself into Evelyn's mother's good graces by buying the family an opulent apartment. I don't know if her mother had started to turn a blind eye, or thought it was a declaration of marriage, or if she herself was just naive, but when an older man buys your teenage daughter an apartment and makes sure to install a super-fun-sexy-time-swing to her bedroom ceiling, I think his intentions are pretty clear. That's when you pull the plug and SHUT IT DOWN.

Not long after, when her mother was out of town, he twirled his magnificent moustache like Snidely Whiplash, invited Evelyn over to his place for dinner, and roofied her champagne. I'm not kidding. She had a couple of drinks, blacked out from what she strongly suspected was drug-induced unconsciousness, and discovered upon awaking that he had had The Sex with her. (*hands up, walking away*)

Instead of being horrified, Evelyn kind of went with it. They were together until she was about seventeen. Her mother surely must have known, but he was supporting them and furthering her career, and was single, so perhaps she held out hope that he'd make a decent woman of her daughter. I'm not positive how their relationship ended–some people say that he grew tired of her and went after further young prey, some say that they naturally drifted apart, some say that she left him, and others say that she was stepping out on him with John Barrymore (aka, Drew Barrymore's grandpappy). Whatever happened, Stanford White remained a close friend and, creepily, a father figure to Evelyn for the next several years, though they weren't together anymore.

She did hook up with John Barrymore, which seriously ticked off her mother because he wasn't rich enough to keep them in the style to which her daughter's rapist had let them become accustomed. Evelyn may have born Barrymore an illegitimate child, which may have died or been given up for adoption. Their whole relationship was really shady, and eventually they parted ways, largely goaded by her mother and Stanford White.

Evelyn didn't want for admirers, but the most ardent of these was Harry K. Thaw, of the "Railroad Fortune, Richer Than God" Thaws. He took one look at her and said, "Hmmm. You are large of bosom and svelte of fetlock. *turns to mother* Mummy? Oh, Mummy? This is the best one. May I have this one to be my bride? *turns to Evelyn* I own you, now."

His fortune was only outmatched by his crazy, which is not a great combination. When you have someone who suffers from paranoia, bouts of violence and strong obsessions, the last thing you want is for them to have the resources to get whatever results they want. Unfortunately, what he wanted was Evelyn. He courted her for a while, but kept his real name a secret, lest she only marry him for his money. Yet, with IMPECCABLE LOGIC, he showered her with more expensive gifts than she knew what to do with, kinda hinting that he might have millions squirreled away.

He was a severely unstable and unthinkably jealous man, who alternated between throwing dazzling wealth at Evelyn and exhausting her with non-stop travel and relentless insistence that she marry him.
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Look at that florid sour puss. He's got a face like a slapped ass.

(Actually, he was called "The Pennsylvania Pug" by some.)

Finally, after FOUR YEARS of harrassment, Evelyn broke down and agreed to be his wife, but only after she revealed to him the nature of her relationship with Stanford White. Thaw was very vocal about his belief in female chastity before marriage, and Evelyn didn't think she could go through with it, in good conscience, unless he knew she wasn't a virgin. Given his status and background, I am positive he had already looked into all of Evelyn's escapades but Thaw liked to play a lot of mental games with Evelyn to see if she would willingly confess things to him. He was constantly testing her, acting almost as if he wanted her to be untrustworthy.

They got married and, according to Wikipedia (I hadn't heard this detail before, so who knows how true it is), "Thaw, as guide, chose a bizarre agenda, a tour of sites devoted to the cult of virgin martyrdom. In Domrémy, France, the birthplace of Joan of Arc, Thaw left a telling inscription in the visitor’s book: “she would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around.”

DUDE. GET OVER IT ALREADY.

When they went to Austria, he either bought or hired out a castle. What happened next was straight out of gothic fiction. He locked her in her room for the last few weeks of their honeymoon, keeping her a prisoner in total isolation. He beat her repeatedly with a riding crop, sexually assaulted her, and emotionally tortured her. She thought she was never going to be let out, or that he might murder her. After a while, his mood swung again and he apologized, seemed quite chipper, and brought her back home to America. (Some say this episode happened before they were married; I don't know enough about the timing, either way. I'm just reporting it as I had heard it originally.)

Before marriage, Evelyn had been of bohemian society. Harry Thaw was of society society, and Evelyn had no idea the prim, repressed, mannered life in store for her. Her mother-in-law's set were very religious, non-intellectual, and pedantic about the most minute of social codes and taboos. In short, everything that was opposite to Evelyn's nature. She could do nothing but sit back in quiet desperation for several years and do her best to be as inoffensive as possible while her husband continued to rampage and abuse her.

His new life goal was to promote moral order in high society and to bring down Stanford White. Thaw sure put the "psychotic" in "psychotic freaking vendetta". He was going to expose White as the lecherous, sinful man he was, and hang anyone who tried to stop him! Unfortunately, this is when a severe bout of paranoia set in. Harry Thaw was convinced, for absolutely no reason, that Stanford White had hired gang members to assassinate him. Thaw started carrying a gun. NO NO NO, BETTER BACKGROUND CHECKS GAAAAAAAAH, THIS IS NOT GOING TO END WELL.

Meanwhile, Stanford White was off doing his thang, with no idea that he was in some sort of blood feud with Thaw. While in New York, Harry Thaw decided to take Evelyn to Madison Square Gardens for dinner and a show. Whether Thaw knew that Stanford White was going to be there, or whether it was just an unfortunate coincidence, I don't know. But Stanford White showed up late in the evening at a table close to where the Thaws were sitting. Harry Thaw marched over to White's table and shot him in the face.

People thought it was a joke at first and started to applaud, because apparently the upper class pretended to kill each other all the time in Edwardian New York. It wasn't until someone noticed that Stanford White's FACE WAS GONE that everyone realized that this was really happening, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, and mayhem ensued, as it tends to do when your fabulously expensive meal is ruined by an ill-timed murder.

Y'all know what happened when this hit the papers:

ABJECT SCANDALAMITY

It aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall came out–Evelyn's affair, Stanford White's kinks, Harry Thaw's mental illness and violence. It became known as "The Crime of the Century" (shush about the fact that it was only 1906, so there was a lot of "century" left), and the trial was a circus. The defense went with temporary insanity, but it meant that Evelyn was going to have to testify, which is where the public first heard about her relationship with Stanford White. Her reputation was ruined, but it was actually her mother's reputation that suffered the most. A lot of people though she had "sold" her daughter to both men. This is when Evelyn, however, went from being "The Most Beautiful Woman in America" to "The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing." She got Angelina Jolie'd–public opinion had gone from viewing her as "random hot chick" to "great beauty setting the standard for America" to "dangerous femme fatale: do not trust EVER".

It was harrowing for her, and it was rumored that the Thaws were on the brink of a divorce–she would receive a large financial settlement so long as she testified well for him and he received a positive result; if she did not do so, she would get nothing. He was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity (*scoff* temporary???) and sentenced to life in a mental hospital. Evelyn stayed married to him because, hell, what else was she going to do? She would continue to be supported as long as she remained his wife, and with her reputation in tatters it's not like she could have done much else.

She gave birth to a son, which she maintained was Thaw's (conceived during a conjugal visit to the hospital), though Thaw denied it. He eventually escaped the mental hospital and ran away to Canada. They divorced and she became a vaudevillian and silent film star. She married again, but since her notoriety followed her, her new husband found he couldn't deal with the negative press and eventually they split, too.

There were rumors that she was an alcoholic or a drug addict, but she managed at least to keep financially afloat, living out the remainder of her days quietly, which was probably a huge relief. She died in 1967. For a while, after some book and film deals, her reputation started to swing around. While to a certain degree people still think of her as a sexually-free bimbo, the stronger and more truthful version is gaining prominence. As a people, we are starting to remember her as she really was: a great, tragic beauty with a lot of soul and a lot of bravery.
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Here. Have a song sung by Evelyn's character in Ragtime.

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3 Responses to Evelyn Nesbit, aka “The Most Beautiful Woman in America”, aka “The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing.”

  1. blue_jaypeg says:

    so excellent and witty

    I love the way you told this story. This is the summary that I paraphrased from TruTV– Stanford White offered to fix Evelyn’s crooked teeth.

    Like

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  3. Pingback: Bad “Anne of Green Gables” Covers | BizarreVictoria

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