A Turn-of-the-Century “True Hollywood Story”

Evelyn Nesbit. Photo by Otto Sarony. 1901. Prints and Photographs Division.

In the 1890s, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson created the “Gibson Girl,” a vibrant, new feminine ideal—a young woman who pursued higher education, romance, marriage, physical well-being and individuality with unprecedented independence. Until World War I, the Gibson Girl set the standard for beauty, fashion and manners.

The Library’s new exhibition, “The Gibson Girl’s America,” which opened last week, pays homage to the artist, his iconic art and how women’s increasing presence in the public sphere contributed to the social fabric of turn-of-the-20th-century America. The exhibition is on view through Aug. 17 in the Graphic Arts Galleries on the ground level of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building

Charles Gibson used several models as his muses, including his own wife, Irene Langhorne, and Belgian-American actress Camille Clifford. However, it would be model Evelyn Nesbit that would bring scandal to the name. Gibson’s work, formerly titled “Women: The Eternal Question” (1905) –  one of many he drew featuring Nesbit –remains one of his best-known pieces.

Nesbit was discovered at age 14 in Philadelphia, while working at Wanamaker’s department store. Her career as an artist’s model soon took off, and she moved to New York City in December 1900. She became an overnight sensation and the sole breadwinner for her family, first as a model for painters and sculptors, and then in the more lucrative field of posing for photographers, magazine illustrators and advertising. At 16, she took to the stage as a chorus girl in the Broadway musical “Florodora” and later as a featured player in “The Wild Rose.” The media quickly latched on to the young ingénue and the publicity hype soon followed.

Her beauty and talent did not escape the eyes of would-be suitors, including prominent architect Stanford White, who was 31 years her senior. White was very calculated in his pursuit of Nesbit. Ingratiating himself with her mother and friends, White cultivated the notion of himself as a father figure and benefactor. Through this trust, he was able to take advantage of the teenaged girl, seducing her one night while her mother was out of town. Nesbit and White carried on a relationship for nearly a year until she was sent off to a girls’ school in New Jersey at age 17.

“The Queen of Hearts,” possibly featuring Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, by Walter Dean Godlbeck. March 28, 1914. Prints and Photographs Division.

After her relationship with White ended, Nesbit certainly dated other men, but none would capture her until Henry Thaw. Thaw, heir to a $40 million fortune, pursued Nesbit relentlessly after seeing her on the Broadway stage. She resisted his advances and marriage proposals for nearly two years after breaking up with White – even confessing to Thaw what had transpired between her and her much older lover. The confession only enraged Thaw – who was believed to be a drug addict with myriad mental problems – and planted the seed for a fatal vendetta.

Nesbit did finally agree to marry Thaw, possibly because she realized she had few opportunities for a respectable marriage and financial security. On April 4, 1905, the two exchanged vows.  A year later, Thaw and Nesbit ran into Stanford White at a rooftop performance of a new musical at Madison Square Garden. During the finale, Thaw approached White brandishing a pistol and shot him three times in the face. White died instantly.  According to a New York Times account the following day, a witness heard Thaw saying “You ruined my wife” as he shot White.

Dubbed the “trial of the century,” the first trial in 1907 ended with a hung jury. During a second trial a year later, Thaw pleaded temporary insanity and was sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York. Thaw escaped to Canada, briefly, and was finally released from the asylum in 1915, after being judged sane.

The love triangle between White, Nesbit and Thaw and its violent end was fodder for the yellow journalism of the time, as the media sensationalized the story and its characters and dissected every detail. The Library’s Chronicling America site has several headlines from the New York Tribune.

The morning after the murder, headlines screamed of the tragedy.

“Thaw Kills Stanford White” 

“Looks Bad for Thaw,” “White Stories Untrue” said the July 5, 1906, issue.

As the first trial progressed, the paper was with it at every step.

“Thaw Jury Disagrees,” Discharged After Forty-Eight Hours of Wrangling,” “Nearly at Fisticuffs,” “Seven for Death; Five, Acquittal” announces the April 13, 1907, issue.

Harry K. Thaw leaving court. July 1915. Prints and Photographs Division.

Of course, other newspapers reported on the events surrounding the murder and trials

“Great Battle for Thaw’s Life” reads a headline from the Jan. 21, 1908, edition of the Hawaiian Star.

“Second Trial Opens Tomorrow; Prisoner Relies Upon Insanity Plea and His Girl Wife’s Graphic Life Story” said the Jan. 5, 1908 issue of The Washington Times.

“Thaw Found Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity – Sent to the Asylum” shouts a Seattle Star headline from Feb. 1, 1908.

 

These are just a sampling of the stories in Chronicling America. Just search for the key players – Harry K. Thaw, Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White – to pull many more.

Nesbit went on to find moderate success in vaudeville, as a burlesque dancer and as an art teacher in Los Angeles. She died at a nursing home in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1967, at the age of 82.

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