A few months ago I read Paula Uruburu's excellent book, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century, and I've been sitting on my inevitable Evelyn Nesbit post for a while. As its fairly endless subtitle would indicate, Nesbit's life story encompasses many features and touches on many different things, all of which I find interesting: show business, the aesthetics and fashion of female beauty, the problems inherent in being professionally pretty, teen girls, art and crime. This post will not be short. Bear with me.
For a few years at the very dawn of the 20th Century, Evelyn Nesbit was considered the Most Beautiful Girl in the World. Now, as my Darling Inamorato sometimes says, when you hear about a supposedly great beauty from pre-movie days, you oftentimes look at a picture of her and she winds up looking something like Ruth Buzzi. Before Miss Nesbit hit it big, the ne plus ultra in terms of beauty and glamour was singer Lillian Russell. Looking at pictures of her, or some of the earliest Ziegfeld stars, one has to make adjustments and allowances for the aesthetics of the time: the women are far heavier than current taste dictates, the corseting is madness, they have crazy hair dos. It’s clearly a totally different world.
Although she did work as a chorus girl, like Olive Thomas ten years later, Evelyn Nesbit achieved her first and greatest fame as an artist’s and photographer’s model, and looking at her pictures no mental gymnastics of any sort are required: she is unspeakably lovely according to modern sensibilities. What I find so interesting, is with her, the modern aesthetic of female beauty is born. Next to her, the rest of her contemporaries look old fashioned. She’s uncorseted, slender, natural and very, very young. Looking at some of Evelyn Nesbit’s photos, I was reminded of those early pictures Corinne Day took of Kate Moss for The Face, when Moss was 15 or 16. They too signaled a similar sea change in terms of aesthetics, from the very bosomy, made-up, grown-up women of the 80s (or 1890s), to the skinnier, natural looking teen girls of the 90s (or 20th century).
I was struck by certain similarities between Olive Thomas and Evelyn Nesbit. Both hailed from small town Pennsylvania, both were Irish Catholic, both were poor, both began their careers as extremely successful models, segueing into the most popular stage show of the day (Thomas to the Follies, Nesbit to Floradora), both were assisted by older, powerful lovers (Thomas by Flo Ziegfeld – and likely others, Nesbit by Stanford White), both were romanced by the young scions of show business royal families (Thomas by Jack Pickford, Nesbit by John Barrymore). The similarities are striking, but the differences are far more interesting.
Thomas clawed her way out of brutal, coal town poverty using her moxie, beauty and smarts. She died young, but I can’t imagine anyone saying they feel sorry for her. As a small child, Nesbit’s family had been part of the seemingly secure middle class. Her father died when Evelyn was eleven, leaving her mother nothing but a boatload of debt. Mrs. Nesbit seems like she was a deeply stupid woman who was incapable of adjusting to changed circumstances. While trying to cling to Victorian middle class respectability, she seemingly willfully shut her eyes to the reality of what was going on with her daughter, and bestowed her with resentment, guilt and financial responsibility, all the while shamefully mismanaging her daughter’s career. She’s someone who wasn’t capable of being an effective ordinary or stage parent. And Evelyn suffered grievously for it.
Now, this is where we talk about Stanford White. Before I read Uruburu’s book, and subsequently did some other research, all I really knew about Nesbit was from the movie Ragtime, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel. From it, I had a kind of vague perception that the affair between White and Nesbit was the typical chorus girl/rich guy exchange. He got to squire around and sleep with a very pretty girl, and he bought her nice things and they had a decent time together and it was consensual and vaguely glamorous.
There is a lot of ambiguity and confusion about what went on between the two of them, but certain things are clear. First, White saw Nesbit when she was appearing in a musical review with the Floradora Girls, and was instantly smitten with the pretty fifteen year old. White was forty-six. The first time she met him at a luncheon (essentially using another of his teenage girlfriends as a procurer) she was dressed in short skirts and pigtails. This is pretty much where I lost any respect for Mr. White as a person (rather than as an architect, which is a whole other ball of wax). Now think. Let’s take this out of history, out of legend and into the real. A middle aged man, any middle aged man, asks a pretty girl out to lunch. He’s seen her in a circumstance where it might be easy to confuse her age. But when she shows up for the lunch date, she is clearly a child. And he proceeded with a long seduction. Unambiguously appalling, right?
History is rarely fair, and like many women before her, Evelyn Nesbit has been painted as a gold-digger and a whore. What’s ignored, mostly, is that she was a child, and a fairly innocent one. When she moved to New York, Evelyn and her mother had a few letters of introduction from artists she had modeled for in Pennsylvania. Upon meeting an eminent New York illustrator, after seeing how pretty and innocent Evelyn was, and how incapable her mother was of managing her daughter’s life and career, he gave them a warning. Saying that not all artists were as nice as he was, he gave them a list of people he thought would be okay for her to work with: lady artists and men he knew wouldn’t take advantage of her. The way White insinuated himself into the Nesbit household is really distressing. He set the whole family up in an apartment, paid for her brother’s education and gave them an allowance.
The seduction itself has become the stuff of legend. White coerced Mrs. Nesbit into taking a trip to Pennsylvania during which he offered to be responsible for looking after Evelyn, who was sixteen at the time. Up until this point, their relationship consisted of dinners and culture and art. White also arranged for series of photographs to be taken of Evelyn, the one above of her asleep on the white bear skin rug was taken a day or two before Mrs. Nesbit left town. No one knows exactly what happened between them the night of what Evelyn referred to as her “unvirgining”..
Evelyn wrote two autobiographies, one in 1914 and one in 1934, and her accounts differ slightly. Whether he drugged her and raped her, or if she just drank too much champagne, no one knows. What is clear is that from whatever cause, she at some point lost consciousness, and White raped her. She woke up and was terrified. Nesbit never used the word rape, as she lived in a place and time where being alone and drunk in White’s 24th Street studio would have put the onus of blame pretty much entirely on her. But this story isn’t new, and it isn’t over as all the press surrounding the allegations against Terry Richardson attest. White told Evelyn that her life would be ruined if she told anyone. She later referred to him as a “benevolent vampire”. She stayed quiet, and as she said later, numb.
White remained and continued to be the most important person in her life for the next couple of years. Her feelings for him were complicated, to say the least. She said herself that in some ways he destroyed her, but he also educated her and opened up the world for her in ways for which she remained grateful. I think it's also extremely important to point out that Nesbit lived in a time when there were hardly even words for what was going on with her, and that she pretty much had zero recourse or options.
In the days before Ziegfeld glorified the American Girl, the lovely young women of the chorus remained largely anonymous. Which makes Evelyn’s rise to fame even more remarkable. After being cast in her second show, The Wild Rose, in 1901 she received boatloads of unprecedented publicity in the papers and in pages long spreads in prestigious magazines like The Theater. She was seemingly poised for major stardom.
Next up: Part 2: Harry Thaw & Part 3: The Murder