Pictures of a Tragedy- page 2 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Pictures of a Tragedy

Pictures of a Tragedy

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(Continued from page 1)

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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