A Brief History of Evelyn Nesbit
There’s a lot to say about Evelyn Nesbit.
We know. We did a lot of research for VELVET SWING.
Here’s an extremely brief summary of her life to get you up to speed before the show.
At the tail end of the Victorian Era, the most beautiful baby in three counties was born on Christmas day. Her name was Florence Evelyn Nesbit. We'd tell you what year it was, but she lied about her age so often that no one can be sure if it was 1884 or 1885.
Florence was known professionally as Evelyn Nesbit and was an artists’ model, chorus girl and actress. She “set the standard for ideal feminine attractiveness” (eek) according to Charles Dana Gibson, a popular artist at the time who used her face for his famous print “Woman: The Eternal Question.” She was, many say, the prototype for the modern supermodel.
Perhaps the main reason you may have heard of Evelyn over a century later is that she received international attention when her husband, Harry Thaw murdered New York architect and socialite Stanford White on June 25, 1906 leading to what was later called the “Trial of the Century."
Five years before the murder, when she was a stage performer at the age of 15 or 16, Evelyn was groomed by Stanford, then aged 47. He first gained her and her mother's trust, sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious, and then had a subsequent romantic and sexual relationship with her that continued for some period of time. When she became older, and Stanford was less interested in her, she was sent to a boarding school. It has been speculated that she went to have and recover from an abortion, though acute appendicitis was what went on the official record.
Harry Thaw, who had also pursued Evelyn as a chorus girl, turned up at her boarding school offering to take her to Europe for the sake of her health. (Yes, this was an actual thing in Victorian times.) While in Europe, an already contentious mother-daughter dynamic was escalated by the efforts of Harry to get between them. He sent Mrs. Nesbit home early. With her mother out of the way, Harry locked Evelyn in a wing of a castle and tortured her for two weeks until she revealed every detail of her history with Stanford White, who Harry had been obsessed with for years.
During his murder trial, Harry’s lawyers argued that Evelyn’s stories about Stanford had driven Harry temporarily insane, and that the shooting was a single aberrant act. He was not, in fact, guilty of murder - he had only been defending his wife’s innocent womanhood! The Thaw family promised Evelyn money in exchange for telling the court about her relationship with Stanford, which she did, to overwhelming media attention. The press latched onto scandalous details in Evelyn’s testimony like the fact that Stanford would have her swing naked on a red velvet swing in his apartment, or that Stanford had paid to have Evelyn’s front tooth fixed (which Harry later paid to have un-fixed. At a 1900's dentist. Ow).
The press, including "The Sob Sisters," a group of female reporters, took up the cause of swaying popular opinion in favor of Harry. It worked: after two trials spanning several years, Harry was declared to have been insane at the time of the murder, avoided the electric chair, and spent most of the rest of his life in and out of asylums.
Evelyn was pregnant with her son, Russell, at the end of the trial. The Thaws denied that the baby was Harry's, but Evelyn maintained throughout her life that Russell was Harry's son. The Thaws gave Evelyn $25,000 after the trial was over, but to spite Mrs. Thaw, Evelyn donated it to the political anarchist Emma Goldman.
To support herself and her baby, Evelyn worked the Vaudeville circuits and performed in silent films. She had become so famous that she couldn’t go in public without being mobbed and for some time she had to hire body-doubles in order to be able to travel.
In 1915 Evelyn finally divorced Harry and one year later married dancer Jack Clifford, but their marriage was tainted by Evelyn’s notoriety. Jack became known as “Mr. Eveyn Nesbit” and left her in 1918.
In the 1920s Evelyn became the proprietor of a tearoom in the West 50s in Manhattan. During this period she struggled with alcoholism, morphine addiction and attempted suicide. After this attempt, Harry, who had been keeping her under surveillance by private detectives, reached out. The press speculated that they would reunite, but this wasn’t to be. When Harry died, he left Evelyn $10,000 as a “token of pleasant memories of the past when we were happy.”
Evelyn published two memoirs, The Story Of My Life (1914) and Prodigal Days (1934).
During World War II, Evelyn lived in Los Angeles, CA teaching ceramics and sculpting at the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts. She was a technical advisor for the movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing starring Joan Collins in 1955 for which she was paid $10,000.
She died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, CA on January 17, 1967 and is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, CA. In 1981 she appeared again as a character in the film Ragtime based on E.L. Doctorow’s eponymous novel.