Wednesday, April 22, 2009

though she was born a long, long time ago

Evelyn Nesbit (born December 25, 1884 - died January 17, 1967) was a famous model, chorus girl, and silent film actress. The inspiration for Anne in "Anne of Green Gables," the life of Evelyn Nesbit was far less innocent. Sometimes referred to as " the girl on the red velvet swing," Evelyn will be remembered for her involvement in one of the most famous murder trials of the early 20th century.
Born and raised in Pennsylvania, this beautiful but shy girl attracted the attention of many local artists and photographers who begged her to pose for them. After her father died at an early age, leaving Evelyn and her family in near poverty, Nesbit convinced her mother to allow her to model. After moving into a tiny one-room apartment with her mother in 1901, Evelyn soon modeled for James Carroll Beckwith, an influential photographer who soon introduced her to many of his contemporaries, including Gertrude Kasebier, George Grey Barnard, and Frederick S. Church.
Evelyn was an extremely popular model, her look was the ideal for beauty during the turn of the century. Charles Dana Gibson even used Evelyn as a model for one of his infamous "Gibson Girls" portraits. At charging $10 a day for posing (approx. $30/hr today), Evelyn also was one of the wealthiest young women around at only sixteen years old. Nesbit baegan booking jobs in Broadway shows as a chorus girl.
Evelyn soon took up with famous architect Stanford White, who she met after a performance as Florodora girl. White, then 47 years old and married, became infatuated with the 16-year-old beauty. He was a notorious womanizer, his particular interest was in 'befriending' young teenage girls. Nesbit's mother encouraged the budding relationship, seeing as White was very in New York, and allowed Evelyn to pose for White under any terms (even though he often photographed her in suggestive clothing and poses). After one such session, White reportedly took Evelyn's virginity after getting her drunk on champagne. This would only spur on their relationship. White's notorious apartment -- installed with strategically-placed mirrors and a velvet red swing -- was a place Nesbit frequented.
After a few months, White sought younger, more 'innocent' girls and in the beginning of 1901 Evelyn began a relationship with 19-year-old John Barrymore. Like White, Barrymore met Evelyn after one of her Floradora shows. The now 17-year-old Nesbit became infatuated with Barrymore, often spending the hours she wasn't working at his Manhattan apartment. In 1902 and 1903 Evelyn even became pregnant twice by Barrymore -- the first she was forced to abort, the second, though most likely aborted, has long been rumored to have been carried to term where afterwards the child was given up for adoption). But Nesbit's mother and her former lover Stanford White strongly opposed to the young couple's romance, and worked hard to keep them apart until the relationship slowly died out.
Evelyn then moved on to Harry Kendall Thaw, an heir to a coal and railroad fortune. He came from Pittsburgh, Evelyn's home town, and quickly fell for her. Thaw was incredibly possessive of Evelyn, forcing her to reveal every detail of her past relationships (especially Stanford White, who Evelyn told Thaw he had raped her when she was 16), and carried a pistol with him whenever they went out together. A man fond of cocaine and whipping women and young boys, Thaw repeatedly proposed marriage to Nesbit, who for whatever reason agreed in 1905, marrying him that April when she was 20. In June of 1906, Nesbit and Thaw went to the restaurant the Cafe Martin and bumbed into Stanford White. They met again at Madison Square Garden when the three of them were attending Mam'zelle Champagne. During the performance of "I Could Love a Million Girls," Thaw shot White three times at close range in the face with his pistol, reportedly screaming "You ruined my life/wife!" and "You will never see that woman again!" At first the crowd thought the shooting was all part of the show, assuming it was a gag joke that was popular at the time, but soon it was discovered that White was really dead. Still holding the gun, Thaw walked back through the shocked crowd over to Evelyn. When she asked him what he had just done, Thaw said that he had "probably saved your life."
Though the exact reason for what triggered White's murder never came to light, not even during the case's two criminal trials, many have theorized. Nesbit testified on Thaw's behalf, claiming that he was avenging her honor after White had 'raped' her many years before. This has mostly been discredited because Nesbit testified only during the second trial after Thaw's mother promised Evelyn a quick divorce and tidy monetary settlement if she were to agree Thaw was temporarily insane. After Thaw was jailed (very laxly, though) Evelyn was cut off entirely by the Thaw family, never receiving a divorce settlement. After a modest career as a silent film actress and vaudeville performer, Evelyn found she couldn't escape her reputation as 'Harry K. Thaw's wife." She was plagued by depression in her later years, attempting suicide several times and develpoing addictions to alcohol and morphine. She married dancer Jack Clifford in 1916, only to be left by him less than two years later. They divorced in 1933. She spent her remaining time in New Jersey, doing ceramics and publishing several memoirs of her younger years.
Nesbit had one child, Russell William Thaw, who was born in Berlin in 1910 while Thaw was in jail. Though it seems impossible for Russell to have been the biological son of Harry Kendall Thaw, Evelyn insisted until her death that Harry was the father. Even after her claims at his murder trial, Evelyn would believe in her later years that 'Stanny' was the one man she had ever really loved.

images courtesy of flickr, corbis, and google images

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