A Woman to Know: Evelyn Nesbit

The tragedy wasn't that Stanford White died, but that I lived. — Evelyn

(image via Library of Congress)

The 16-year-old "it girl" took early 20th century chorus lines by storm -- and became forever famous for her dalliance with a red velvet swing.

Let's go back: Early 1900s artists and directors fell in love with teenage Evelyn's "Gibson Girl" looks. She modeled for playing cards, magazine covers, John Singer Sargent portraits and more. Before she even turned 18, she danced in "Floradora," the Broadway hit that made her a star. Soon she was seen about town with Stanford White, the womanizing celebrity architect, notorious for his Chelsea pleasure palace. Soon White was bankrolling his teenage lover's entreé into Manhattan society, but there was a dark side to his obsession with Evelyn. Her diaries later revealed that he assaulted her, drugging her to sleep in a "mirrored room" in his Chelsea apartment and photographed her in his now-infamous "red velvet swing." She was terrified.

So she married a railroad tycoon, Harry K. Thaw, but Thaw didn't end her nightmare. He was obsessed with the ideal Victorian woman, waxing philosophic about women's innate chastity and purity. During their European honeymoon, Evelyn revealed what had happened in White's "mirrored room," and Thaw spun into a jealous rage. He beat his new wife with a whip and trapped her in their castle hotel room, vowing to get revenge on White.

He had his chance in 1906, on the roof of Madison Square Garden. Evelyn and Thaw were exiting a play just as White was walking on the other side of the terrace. Thaw shot him dead, yelling "You ruined my wife!" The ensuing trial -- dubbed "the trial of the century" -- had all the makings for a tabloid smash. Evelyn as the star witness, a jury in disarray (the first-ever sequestered jury in American history!), Thaw's insanity defense (which got him acquitted).

And so Evelyn's career marched on. With her husband imprisoned in an asylum and her newly-born child surrounded by scandal, she turned back to her laurels: her face, the money maker. She picked up modeling and singing, and she even wrote two memoirs about her life in the papers. Silent movie directors loved her, but she couldn't ever escape her lurid past -- her starring role on the silver screen was as her self, of course. Before she died in 1967, she'd see other pop culture versions of her life: "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," "Ragtime." As one biographer wrote, "Tragically, almost as quickly as her star rose, America's first supermodel, sex goddess and bona-fide celebrity fell victim to the very culture that created and consumed her."

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