Pictures of a Tragedy | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Pictures of a Tragedy

Pictures of a Tragedy

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A beautiful girl is our object — not in person (regretfully), but in 31 remarkable photographs taken at the very beginning of this soon-to-pass century by celebrated portrait photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. Appropriately, she is a model and what used to be called a showgirl. Appropriately, too, though she deserves to be famous for her beauty, like Helen of Troy she is famous for a scandal, and ensuing tragedy. The scandal rocked old New York society to its foundations, and like all such scandals, even today, its story is a morality tale.

The year was 1901. Lovely Evelyn Nesbit, a Pittsburgh lass of 16, along with her widowed mother and younger brother, had come to New York to seek her fortune. With her beauty, the best way to start was by getting a job as an artist's model. Soon she was posing for Frederick S. Church, a prominent magazine illustrator. She found him to be a dear, fatherly old man who used red wine instead of vinegar to prepare the luncheon salad he served her â deux in his studio. Next, Charles Dana Gibson, famed for his "Gibson Girl," sketched Evelyn with her hair streaming down to form a question mark. He called it The Eternal Question.

And so success found Evelyn Nesbit. She opened on Broadway as one of the "Florodora" girls. The eponymous musical was famous for a sextet of beautiful women, serenaded by frock-coated choristers: "Prithee tell me pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?" There followed a properly coquettish reply from the maidens: "There are a few, kind sir, but simple girls and proper, too." Top-hatted stage-door Johnnies took note of the new girl, who was picked up by her mother every evening after the show. The stage-door Johnny who got to see more and more of her was Stanford "Stanny" White, architect not only of many important New York buildings but also of the city's attitude toward unabashed free-living for those who were rich enough to afford it. White, a tall man with short red hair and wide red mustache, was as much a New York landmark as the splendid sports garden he designed at Madison Square. His reputation as a charming rou was equally a city fixture. One of Miss Nesbit's elderly and wealthy admirers was shocked by her interest in White. "A voluptuary!" he snorted. Nevertheless, the innocent Evelyn went along with Stanny to one of his convenient hideaways, where champagne flowed and the curtains were always drawn. She rode high in a red velvet swing he had installed. He plied her with drink, and she passed out. After Evelyn came to, White is supposed to have gloated, "Now you belong to me!"

Being the girlfriend of Stanford White lifted Evelyn from modest fame to rib-nudging notoriety, from barely genteel poverty to spendthrift affluence. And the Nesbits suddenly moved to a plush hotel. Brother Howard was bustled off to a military academy. But White, who had an insatiable yen for adolescent girls, also had a limited attention span. When he left on a trip, stage-door Johnnies jostled for the chance to escort Evelyn home. For a time, the lucky guy was a young man named John Barrymore.

But (hiss, groan) enter Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh. That's how this mad millionaire always introduced himself to the New York showgirls whom he relentlessly pursued. Harry K.'s Pittsburgh had little in common with the Nesbits'. Harry's father was a coal and railroad baron and dwelt in a hillside castle far from the hellish clamor of the great mills that had been neighbors to the Nesbits. As a child, Evelyn was doubtless hustled out of the way of a gleaming coach with matched horses, whispering wheels, dim figures behind drawn curtains — "Look out, dear! Here come the Thaws!" And now she found herself going out with one of them.

An odd one he was, too. Harry K. was known for wide swings of personality, from kind and gentle to beastly cruel. Showgirls whispered about colleagues whom he was supposed to have lashed with a dog whip. But he was rich beyond imagining, and he kept begging Evelyn ("The Kid" to fellow chorus girls) to give up her faltering liaison with Stanford White, who had a wife, for heaven's sake, and marry a man who had nothing but millions of dollars.

For a while Evelyn held Harry at bay. White, meanwhile, arranged her entré into a New Jersey boarding school, where she studied music and literature. The school was run by Mrs. Mathilda De Mille, whose own son, 20-odd-year-old Cecil B., was off to try his hand in motion pictures. But Thaw deluged her with flowers, gifts and marriage proposals. After only eight months at the school, Evelyn had to undergo an operation for "appendicitis." Both White and Thaw visited her every day of her recuperation but, despising each other, managed not to meet.

Afterward it was Thaw who took Evelyn and her mother abroad, where he spent a great deal of money on Evelyn. Alas, she soon found that the nasty rumors about him were all too true. He was very sweet a lot of the time, but suddenly would grow tense, with his prominent eyes blazing wildly. If a restaurant waiter displeased him, he sometimes snatched off the tablecloth, sending everything on it crashing to the floor, or even turned the table upside down. Mrs. Nesbit, feeling that even the Thaw millions didn't excuse such behavior, headed home, leaving Evelyn to cope with Harry K. He was an ardent lover. After fits of rage he would coo extravagant apologies to "her boofuls," but if she became "impudent," she later said, he whipped her, impervious to her screams and sobs.

Finally Thaw got out of Evelyn the full story of her affair with White. He raged, pacing and fuming as he made her repeat again and again the details of her "seduction" by "that beast." When they returned to America he approached the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and persuaded its president, the celebrated moralist Anthony Comstock, to put a tail on White.

In June 1904, Evelyn, now 19, went off to Europe again, again with Harry K. Thaw. In early 1905, after their return, she was smitten by a medical anomaly — a second attack of appendicitis. After six weeks in the hospital, where Harry smothered her with attention, she felt well enough to marry him. This astonishing decision seems to have been mostly the work of Harry's mother, who had decided that his settling down with Evelyn was the only way to keep him out of trouble. They married on April 4, 1905. Mrs. Nesbit got a wedding gift of $100,000. On pain of being cut off without a penny by his mother, Harry behaved himself for a while.

Thaw, whose outrage at White grew constantly, had begun carrying a pistol. On the evening of June 25, 1906, Evelyn and Harry spotted him in a restaurant, and Harry's fury broke out anew. Later that evening, he and Evelyn went to Madison Square Garden's roof theater to see Mamzelle Champagne, and by mischance White was also in the audience. Despite the warm June night, Thaw had on a black overcoat. As he was leaving the show, and while the chorus girls were in their finale — a burlesqued dueling number — he suddenly turned back, approached White's table, drew the pistol from under his coat and, at a range of about a yard, aimed between White's eyes. While the music played on, and the girls pranced about with fake pes, and the smiling crowd was about to applaud, Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh fired three times. Thinking it all part of the show, someone laughed. Then the screams started, among them Evelyn's: "My God! He's shot him!"

Trial of the century? Well, one of them, anyway. Two trials, really; the first ended in a deadlocked jury. At the end of the second, Harry K. went off to the Asylum for the Criminal Insane at Matteawan, not far from Poughkeepsie, where, according to Evelyn, "he enjoyed virtual freedom." His lawyers battled for new hearings, gaining little but huge fees from Harry's mother. In 1913 he simply walked out of the asylum gates, climbed into a waiting car and was driven over the border to Sherbrooke, Quebec, where crowds lined the streets to cheer him. Extradited, he got similar adulation as he passed through Concord, New Hampshire. Two years later, another trial found him sane.

Instantly, he divorced Evelyn and moved back to Pittsburgh. He continued his wastrel life — a series of nightclub brawls, outrageous affairs, lawsuits and expensive settlements — until his death in 1947 from a heart attack.

Thaw's mother had promised Evelyn a million dollars if she would divorce Harry after beefing up his initial defense by adding testimony about his irrational behavior. Evelyn complied. Whenever she entered the courthouse, adoring crowds gathered to see her. Irvin S. Cobb, whose writings remained popular through the 1930s, covered the New York trials for his paper and described her as "the most exquisitely lovely human being I ever looked at." But she never got that million-dollar payoff.

The photographs that let us see what Thaw and White were fighting over are among the best known ever made by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr., who as a photographer was remarkable at landscapes as well as portraits. He took these in 1901-02 at the behest of Stanford White. At one point in a long photo session, Evelyn wearily flung herself onto a polar bear rug. "Hold that!" cried Eickemeyer — and he made his most famous picture, Tired Butterfly.

After the Thaw scandal, the tired butterfly had to live by her wits again, taking stage and film parts, struggling out of a maze of drugs and alcohol. She died in 1967 in a Hollywood nursing home, having lived long enough to see the film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), starring Joan Collins as Evelyn, Ray Miland as Stanford White, and Farley Granger in the role of madly jealous Harry K. Thaw. In his will, Eickemeyer left many of his pictures to the Smithsonian. They are on display from time to time and are kept in the Photographic History Collection of the National Museum of American History. Using a number of different processes in the printing of his film, he noted that the pictures should "be of real educational value." They certainly are, but not entirely in the way Eickemeyer intended.

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