Evelyn Nesbit — America's First Supermodel

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Evelyn Nesbit (1884 – 1967) is a woman whose beauty still manages to look contemporary, even though the height of her style peaked over one hundred years ago. She was not just beautiful, but her "look" captured the spirit and imagination of her age. Charles Dana Gibson, the popular illustrator's pen-and-ink drawing of Evelyn, "The Eternal Question," is not only one of his most recognizable works, but helped create the "Gibson Girl."

"The Eternal Question," by Charles Dana Gibson


Nesbit was not just a fashion icon at the turn of the century, she was also one of its first celebrities. She found herself at the center of a love triangle, murder, and scandal in 1906 when her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, shot and murdered her former lover, architect Stanford White.

But before scandal touched her life, Nesbit posed for photographers and artists and became one of the age's first fashion models. Her image appeared on numerous magazine covers, including Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, and Ladies’ Home Journal. But she may never have gotten her start in modeling if it wasn't for the unexpected death of her father, when Evelyn was just 11 years old. The family was left destitute, and lived on charity and odd jobs for quite a few years until Evelyn was asked one day to pose for an artist. She earned one dollar. This led to other modeling assignments and she was soon helping to support her mother and younger brother.

The Nesbits moved to New York and modeling soon led to the world of the theater, where she appeared on Broadway as a Floradora Girl. She soon attracted the notice of the married millionaire Stanford White, who she met in 1901. She was 16 and he was 47. White invited her over to his opulent apartment, which he had tricked out with all manner of "extras," including a room with mirrors on the ceiling and the infamous red velvet swing, which he had installed in an upper floor room. White moved Evelyn and her mother and brother into fancier digs, and showered presents upon them, endearing himself to the whole family. When Evelyn's mother had to go out of town, White wasted no time in becoming the young girl's lover.

Evelyn may have been pushed into a sexual relationship with White (technically raped), but she did seem fond of him, referring to him as "Stanny." As much as White had become a patron-of-sorts of Evelyn and her career, she did not remain exclusive. She also had a romance with the young actor John Barrymore. White, with the help of Evelyn's mother, soon put an end to that young romance. Evelyn had other flirtations — with James Montgomery Waterbury, a polo player, Robert J. Collier, the magazine publisher, and fatefully, the millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw.

Evelyn's relationship with Thaw was strange and dangerous from the start. He was clearly unstable, but it is undeniable that he offered the prospect of a rich marriage, where Stanford White could only give her a damaged reputation if she continued to be his mistress. Thaw was violent, and beat Evelyn while they vacationed in Europe. He pursued her relentlessly for four years until she finally consented to marry him. But she had made the mistake of telling Thaw, who seemed obsessed with (her) moral purity, of telling him the story of her deflowering. Thaw acquired a new obsession — the hatred and obliteration of Stanford White.

Evelyn Nesbit, 1900, photographed by Gertrude Käsebier
"Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit," 1901, by James Carroll Beckwith


Thaw may have been a madman, but he seems to have carefully planned and arranged his attack on White, which took place on June 25, 1906. On a stopover with Evelyn in New York on the way to Europe Thaw bought tickets for the show Mam'zelle Champagne, which was premiering in the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden. Also in attendance at the opening was Stanford White, and during the final musical number Thaw produced a pistol, which he had been concealing in his long overcoat, and shot White three times, killing him on the spot. Thaw was variously quoted by bystanders as saying, “I did it because he ruined my wife!" or "You ruined my life," or "You ruined my wife."

The trial(s) of the century began — there were two trials to determine whether Thaw could be held responsible — and Evelyn had to testify at both of them, disclosing intimate details of her loss of innocence and relationship to White.

When the trial of Harry K. Thaw began, Evelyn was photographed arriving at the courthouse ... Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American history ... [the business community] ... saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of a newspaper sold out an edition. ... [They] wondered if they could create such individuals not from the accidents of news events but from the deliberate manufacture of their own medium. If they could, more people would pay money for the picture shows. Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. — from E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime

The first trial resulted in a deadlock. In the second trial Thaw pleaded temporary insanity and was sentenced to life imprisonment in New York's Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. His family and his fortune worked overtime to overturn his sentence and declare him sane. After five years of confinement he escaped — by strolling off the grounds where a waiting car whisked him off to Canada. He was finally judged sane in 1915 and returned to the U.S. Evelyn divorced him that same year. She had given birth to a son, Russell William Thaw, in 1910, but Thaw always denied paternity.

Evelyn was never really able to shake herself free of her associations with the crime of the century. She remarried, but it didn't last. She tried vaudeville, acting in silent films, running a speakeasy, a tea room, struggled with alcohol and morphine addiction, and reportedly tried to commit suicide. She was actually a technical adviser on the 1955 Hollywood-ized "story of her life," The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which starred Joan Collins as Evelyn, Ray Milland as Stanford White, and Farley Granger as Harry K. Thaw. Evelyn eventually died in a nursing home in California, at the age of 82. Her son Russell starred with her in a series of films when he was a child, but he grew up to become a pilot, participating in flying races, as a member of 103rd Air Squadron during World War 2, and later as a private pilot for the Guggenheim family.

Evelyn Nesbit was a beauty, and the face of the early 20th century. She was also buffeted, sometimes cruelly, by both men and financial circumstances. Celebrity in America has always been a tricky business. Being noteworthy and notorious are not so far from each other as some might hope.

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