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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.

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