Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Poor Evelyn Nesbit: Wicked Harry Thaw Part 2

To read the previous installment of this series, click here.

Part 2.

Inevitably, as Evelyn Nesbit’s fame grew, she met more people and more young men, something both Stanford White and Mrs. Nesbit, who was concerned with keeping the family’s meal ticket happy, did not approve. But White, with his bevy of teenage girlfriends, mostly laughed it off.

Then Evelyn started a romance with a young John Barrymore (Drew's grandfather - pictured below). They were young, beautiful, and in love, and the press followed their every move. They drank too much, and ran around New York running up bills neither could pay. After drinking way too much cheap wine and accidentally falling asleep in Barrymore’s apartment and not returning home until late the next morning, they came home to the Nesbit apartment to find White in an indignant fury. He warned Barrymore off, and manipulated Nesbit into ending the affair.

This was around the time Harry Thaw began stalking Evelyn. He began focusing on her through a weird obsession he had developed with Stanford White. He had somehow come to believe that White was evil incarnate, and that Evelyn needed to be rescued from this monster. A word on Thaw: he was a crazy person. Batshit, barking, mad. He was the heir to forty million dollars, was addicted to drugs, was notorious among the prostitutes of all the world's capitals for his seriously disturbing and violent sado-masochistic practices (I mean, not consensual fun, but causing real harm), was paranoid, stupid and delusional. And very, very rich.

What’s so interesting to me, is that the story is usually couched in terms of Thaw being obsessed with Nesbit, which wasn’t quite the case. He was obsessed with White at least a year before Evelyn moved to New York. Evelyn was hardly the point. White was. Make of that what you will.

Post-Barrymore, White sent Evelyn off to an exclusive girl’s school, where after a couple of months, she needed an appendectomy. Back in the first years of the 20th Century, this was a very big deal and extremely serious and dangerous. There are the inevitable rumors floating in the aether, both then and now, that this was no appendectomy, but an abortion. But there doesn't seem to be much evidence to bolster this theory, so it's likely just scandal (sneer quotes being used around the word "appendectomy" to the contrary). What's not in question is that Evelyn was very ill. This is when Thaw stepped in.

Back in New York, he had began courting Evelyn. He started off pretending he was a certain "Mr. Munroe". At first she wasn't very impressed with him, but she began to soften towards him as he seemed kind of sweet and hapless to her. He finally revealed his true identity to her: "I am Harry Kendall Thaw of Pittsburgh!", he declared with all the drama and import of, say, Batman revealing his secret identity. The fact that he was a lofty Thaw from Evelyn's home town likely had something to do with her attraction: she'd been hearing his name her entire life.

He now offered to take Evelyn and her mother on a trip to Europe so she could convalesce. While there, Thaw manages to alienate Mrs. Nesbit who goes home early, leaving Evelyn alone with Thaw. Throughout what turned out to be an exhausting and frenetic trip, Thaw moving them from hotel to hotel almost nightly, Evelyn also had to contend with Thaw's constant marriage proposals. She was alone, penniless, sick, seventeen years old, and dependent on a madman.

Now, let's look at this dispassionately. I took a pretty long look at what the world still has to say about Evelyn, and I just don't get it. She's generally painted so negatively: as a greedy, worthless, gold-digger. One can't help but wonder how the tone would change regarding the exact same circumstances if Harry had, say, flipped out and killed her. He was certainly capable of it. Would she then be seen as blighted American innocence, like Natalee Holloway? Must girls die to be spoken well of? Because those that live, and are tainted by scandal, even if it is not of their own making, rarely fare very well.

Mrs. Nesbit, stuck in London, wired Stanford White to rescue her and bring her home. Which he did. She wanted to charge Thaw with the corruption of a minor, something White didn't want her to do as it would likely open a can of worms her really didn't want opened. Evelyn was stuck n Europe with Thaw, who finally wore Evelyn down and got her to "confess" to everything that went on between she and White. At first Harry seemed sympathetic, but kept Evelyn up all night, asking question after question, pacing the floor and muttering to himself. As they continued to travel, he went berserk. Obsessed with virginity and White's wickedness, Thaw started behaving increasingly erratically.

One night, Thaw rented a Tyrollean castle and, ominously, gave the servants the night off. That evening after dinner, Evelyn went off to bed, fell asleep, and was awoken by a riding crop wielding Thaw. He beat her and he raped her. Let me repeat. She was a destitute seventeen year old in a country in which she didn't speak the language, at the mercy of a man who had access to forty million dollars (about half a billion in today's currency), who was both obsessed and insane. She said she felt like "a firefly caught in a mason jar by a cruel and wicked schoolboy". The story is something out of a gothic melodrama.

Evelyn continued to travel with Thaw for a few more weeks, and it just beggars the comprehension. She insisted at one point on seeing a doctor, but she said it was clear to her that he was in Harry's pay. Luckily, they wound up staying in the same hotel in Paris as famed decorator, Elsie de Wolfe, who Evelyn had met through White in New York. She told de Wolfe what was going on and she thankfully agreed to return to New York and to take Evelyn with her. Harry did not seem able to comprehend that he had done anything wrong.

So many questions remain: the largest is how Evelyn wound up married to a walking nightmare like Harry Thaw after all this. It's not much of a mystery, really, I think, and I'll delve into it further in part three. Women far less vulnerable and more experienced than Evelyn have believed promises given by men about things never happening again. One of the most unanswerable is the one I alluded to above - why has Evelyn been more an object of scorn than pity? She never deviated from her story. She told de Wolfe what she repeated under oath several years later which agrees with what she wrote in her two autobiographies.

Still people seem to willfully repeat misinformation. Saying their lovemaking during their marriage was violent, or that Evelyn was surprised by Harry's proclivities on an ocean liner during their honeymoon, and its all sort of jokey. Like she was convinced to be with him by the promise of all those millions and whatever she got was more or less deserved and he was mad and she was a whore and that's all there is to say. Many seem to be confused about the fact that all of this happened long before she was married. I think a lot of the misinformation comes from the (greatly fictionalized) movie Ragtime, which is sort of infuriating. Most importantly, she was still only seventeen, and she had no responsible and disinterested adult looking after her well-being.

Part 3: The Murder, will debut next week.

1 comment:

Timothy Nolan said...

Jees. You'd think having to deal with the creepy old guy who raped you at 15 would be the worst thing you'd have to deal with.

Nice article. Liked the Natalee Holloway reference.