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Evelyn Nesbit: The Tragic Story of America's Earliest Supermodel and Celebrity

By Edited Jan 10, 2015 2 3

Evelyn Nesbit Circa 1901
Credit: Public Comain

Evelyn Nesbit was a chorus girl and one of the most in demand models in the early 20th century.  Her childhood was marked by extreme poverty.  Her rags to riches story captivated people at the time.  

Evelyn's successful career would not last long.  While in her early 20s, she became a central figure in a murder that the press would call "The Trial of the Century", even though the year was 1905.  

The story was a media sensation.  She endured a life of abuse and tragedy.  People took advantage of Evelyn from the time she was a teenager.  Here is her story.

Evelyn Nesbit's Early Years

Evelyn was born on Christmas Day in Pennsylvania.  Her actual birth year is not certain, but is believed to be either 1884  or 1886.  Her first name was Florence, but from early childhood she was known as Evelyn. 

She had a younger brother named Howard.  The Nesbit home was a happy one with two healthy, active children.   Mr Nesbit was a lawyer.  He was not very motivated to make a lot of money.  He was devoted to his children, and Evelyn adored him.  Mr Nesbit encouraged his daughter's creativity.  He thought of women as being equal with men and that they should pursue their dreams.  This was quite different from the attitudes most people had at that time.

Evelyn at age 16

Evelyn was a beautiful child.  She took music and dance lessons, and demonstrated talent from a very early age.  Her mother was skilled at dressmaking, but she did not work outside the home when she married.  She was very content to be a homemaker and to raise her children.

The happy domestic life came to a sudden end when Evelyn's beloved father died unexpectedly at the young age of 40.   Evelyn's mother suddenly had to cope with the loss of her husband, and find a way to support her family.  The death of Mr Nesbit left the family destitute.  

The Nesbit Family

The family had moved to Pittsburgh shortly before Mr Nesbit passed away.  He was in debt at the time of  his death.  Mrs Nesbit lost their home and the future appeared to be very grim.  If it was not for the kindness of others, Mrs Nesbit and her children would have been homeless.  She was having trouble even providing food for her children.  The three  moved from home to home while Mrs Nesbit desperately tried to find work as a seamstress.  

All efforts to find work were fruitless.  Finally someone suggested that Mrs Nesbit run a boarding house.  There were many travelling salesmen in those days, and it was believed that she could live comfortably by renting rooms to out-of-town guests.

Her relatives provided her with the funds to rent a large home.   This venture was doomed to fail, because Mrs Nesbit was not a good business woman.   She was an introvert, and  too timid to collect funds that were due.   Evelyn had inherited her father's charm and easy-going nature, so Mrs Nesbit asked the girl to collect the rent money.   This was a lot to ask of someone who was not  even a teenager.  Things did not work out, and eventually Mrs Nesbit decided to seek a job in Philadelphia.  The children stayed with a relative until their mother started working in a department store.  She was hired to work at the fabric counter, a job that was suited to her abilities.

Evelyn and Howard were reunited with their mother.  Mrs Nesbit soon had her son and daughter working at the department store.  All three of them worked very long days, and only had one day a week off.   It may have been dreary work, but they finally had enough money to meet their needs.


Evelyn Nesbit's Modelling Career

Evelyn's very successful career as a model began by chance shortly after they relocated to Philadelphia.  She happened to meet a well-respected artist, who wanted Evelyn to pose for a portrait.  The 14-year-old obtained her mother's consent.  Evelyn left a positive impression with the artist.  She introduced the teenager to others who were interested in hiring her.  

Evelyn in 1901

Evelyn quickly figured out she could earn a lot more money posing for portraits than working twelve-hour days at a department store.  All the artists had good reputations, and they were able to offer her plenty of work.  Evelyn convinced her mother to let her pursue this as a career.

A few months later her mother headed to New York city to find work as a clothing designer.  Philadelphia artists had provided Mrs Nesbit with references for Evelyn to get work in the lucrative New York scene.  Months later, she still had not found a job and had made no attempt to contact local artists on behalf of her daughter.

Nevertheless, in the fall of 1900 her children joined her in Manhattan.  Evelyn insisted she could make good money modelling.  She was headstrong and determined to get what she wanted.

Once again the family's financial situation was dire.  Mrs Nesbit finally  contacted a successful painter on behalf of her daughter.  Mr Beckwith was very influential and was able to provide her with many new contacts.  He took Evelyn under his wing and was instrumental in jump starting her career in the big city.  

Evelyn became a huge success in a very short time.  She posed for portraits, and was one of the first models to be photographed for popular magazines from that era.  Evelyn became the pin-up girl for calendars for Coca Cola and other well-known brands.   Her image appeared on playing cards, postcards, face cream, and many other items.  

Evelyn's picture in a postcard

Evelyn was no older than 16 when she became the breadwinner of the family.  Initially, her mother was given the task of managing her daughter's career.  Once again, Mrs Nesbit was ill-suited to be a business woman.  However, Evelyn still became one of the most sought after models in New York.

The family continued to struggle financially even though Evelyn was getting plenty of work.  Manhattan was a very expensive place to live, even at the beginning of the 20th century.  

Stanford White and Harry Thaw

Evelyn wasn't satisfied just being a model. Posing for portraits all day may have paid well, but she was bored.  She  had bigger ambitions, which included working on Broadway.  She started as a chorus girl.  Evelyn was noticed by a  producer who believed she would become a star as a leading player.

He signed her to a contract and she got a leading role in a production that became a big hit.  Evelyn was the subject of many press articles and gossip columns.  The public couldn't get enough of her stories.   This led to a fateful introduction to the powerful and wealthy Stanford White. 

Stanford was a very successful New York architect who designed the Washington Square Arch, the original Tiffany's store, and mansions for the Astors and other wealthy people.  He was a married man and a father, but that did not stop him from pursuing young women.  He was captivated by Evelyn, and invited her and another chorus girl to lunch.

Evelyn was amazed when she saw his apartment, for she  had not been in  such lavish surroundings.  They dined on exotic food, and she was introduced to an entirely new and exciting world.  Although he was more than 30 years older than Evelyn, Mrs Nesbit was not concerned about the attention he gave her daughter, as she thought his intentions were good.  

He set up the family in a luxury hotel and paid all the bills.  Evelyn's brother Howard attended military academy which Stanford also paid.  Finally the family was living the good life that Evelyn had dreamed about.  

Some time later Stanford persuaded Mrs Nesbit to visit family and friends in Pennsylvania.  While she was away, he invited Evelyn to dinner.   She drank enough alcohol to pass out, and then he assaulted her.  

Evelyn may have wanted nothing more to do with Stanford after that incident.  However, she ended up being his mistress for the next few years.  It's possible that Evelyn felt she didn't have much choice.  

Evelyn in 1905

Evelyn attracted  other men besides Stanford.  There were many potential suitors who wanted to date her.  One that caught her attention was John Barrymore.  He was close to her age, and the two became smitten with each other.  Mrs Nesbit strongly disapproved of the relationship, because John was young and not earning much money.  He wanted to marry Evelyn, but she declined, believing she was not ready to settle down.  

Unbeknownst to Evelyn, Harry Thaw had attended dozens of her performances on Broadway and was obsessed with her.  He finally arranged to meet her through a mutual friend.  Evelyn was not attracted to him and had no interest in dating him.   Harry was heir to a multi million dollar fortune, but he kept this a secret from her.  He did provide her with many gifts and pursued her relentlessly.  

Eventually he admitted his true identity.  Harry would not take no for an answer from Evelyn, and eventually she began to relent.  He offered to take Evelyn and her mother on a tour of Europe.   This would be a new adventure for the women, as neither of them had been able to afford to go anywhere.   The three of them set sail for England.  At some point there was a falling out between mother and daughter, and Mrs Nesbit returned to the United States.  

Evelyn was left alone with Harry.  He kept asking her to marry him, and she kept refusing.  Finally, she told Harry about Stanford White assaulting her.  Harry was outraged to learn this.

What happened next was truly terrifying for Evelyn.  He took her to France and held her hostage.  Evelyn was regularly abused by Harry during this time.  After about two weeks, Harry suddenly stopped the abuse, and was very remorseful about his behavior.

Evelyn returned to New York and spent time with friends.  By this time, she was completely estranged from her mother.  She told her friends about being held against her will and the abuse she endured.  She also discovered that Harry had a history of mental illness and abusive behavior.  Harry had often exploded in rage in public, and many people had witnessed bizarre behavior.  Harry's mother had gone to great lengths to protect her son.  His deceased father had left Harry with only a small supplement, because he knew his son would be reckless with the money.  Mrs Thaw was desperate to protect her son.  

Harry still wanted to marry Evelyn.  He continued to apologize for how he treated her in Europe, blaming his behavior on rage against what Stanford had done to her.  He promised to change his ways and claimed her would never do that to her again.  Evelyn didn't think she would be good enough for any other man, so eventually she gave in and agreed to marry him.  It had taken Harry several years to convince her, but she became his wife in 1905.  Harry's mother agreed to the wedding provided that Evelyn give up her career.  Evelyn agreed to this, as she believed she would be well provided for.  The Thaws were very wealthy.  


The Trial of the Century

Evelyn and Harry moved into the family estate after their marriage.  They  lived with Harry's mother in the Thaw mansion in Pittsburgh.  Evelyn was very unhappy and bored.  She had few friends and did not get along well with Mrs Thaw, who was a controlling woman.  

Harry was on a crusade to expose Stanford White as an immoral man who abused Evelyn.  His mental state deteriorated, and he began to think people were stalking him.  

The year after they married Harry made arrangements for a European holiday.  The day before they were due to set sail, Harry informed Evelyn that he had purchased tickets to the theater for their last evening in New York.  He had invited two friends to join them.  

It was a very hot day in June of 1906 when the couple headed out for the evening.  Harry was wearing a long coat over his suit even though it remained hot and humid outside.  After dinner they went to the theater for the late performance.  Stanford appeared some time later and sat at his usual table.  His companions noticed that Harry had been agitated all evening.  

Near the end of the program, Harry walked up to Stanford and shot him three times.  At first the audience thought this was part of the show.  However, once it was clear that Stanford was dead, people began to panic.  

Harry held the gun above his head, as if to show he had no intentions of harming anyone else.  He calmly walked toward an elevator, where Evelyn was.  He was arrested at the scene without a struggle.  

Evelyn managed to escape unnoticed due to the chaos at the theater.  She went to a friend's home and stayed with her for several days.  Later she was put up in a hotel with Mrs Thaw.  Evelyn spent a lot of time in seclusion due to the media frenzy.  Evelyn was a huge celebrity at that time, and the story had plenty of scandal to keep the tabloids busy.  

Evelyn after the trial

Mrs Thaw was determined to keep Harry's mental illness a secret.  She also offered Evelyn money on the condition that her testimony helped Harry avoid a first degree murder conviction.  The lawyers entered a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.   They presented Harry as someone who only  wanted to protect his wife and make Stanford pay for what he had done to her.

Evelyn had no family members to support her emotionally or financially.  She was still estranged from her mother, who was  cooperating with prosecutors.  Her brother, who had been supported financially by Stanford for years and maintained a close friendship with him, blamed his sister for the crime.

The case was sensationally  called "the trial of the century".  Evelyn's testimony included the sordid details of Stanford forcing himself on her, followed by her becoming his mistress for a few years.  

The press published every detail of the trial.  Life was very stressful and difficult for Evelyn, who had to depend on the Thaw family for financial assistance.  The Thaws were not generous with her, even though they had a fortune.  

The first trial of Harry Thaw resulted in a hung jury.  He was tried again, and was sentenced to a hospital for the criminally insane.  Although given a life sentence, Harry would be released in 1915.  

Evelyn received no further financial assistance from the Thaws following Harry's sentencing.  She was left to provide for herself. 

The Aftermath

Evelyn gave birth to her son, Russell Thaw, in 1910.  She said that Harry was the father, but he strongly denied it.  For the rest of his life, Harry refused to acknowledge his son.  

Evelyn was left on her own to raise her son, and the Thaw family refused to provide for her.  She reunited with her mother and obtained work in vaudeville shows and silent movies.  Her son even appeared with her in several films.  

By the 1930s, Evelyn was in despair.  She became dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs.  Her son was the one bright spot in her life.  Russell would become a successful pilot.  He married and had a family.  

Evelyn and Russell Thaw in 1913

Evelyn lived in California and New Jersey in her later years.  She became successful at sculpting and even taught classes.  Her last years were lived very quietly.  

She died in 1967.  Her grandchildren had distanced themselves from the scandal and wanted to forget about the past.  Later generations did not feel the same way due to the passage of time.  

  Her story became the subject of a movie called The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, which starred Joan Collins in the role of Evelyn.  It was released in the 1950s.  



Apr 11, 2014 1:01pm
Good job on the research. Sad story.
Jun 14, 2014 12:42am
Nice capsulized version of the Nesbit-White-Thaw story. Yes, it was a sad story. Unfortunately not an uncommon scenario in life through out history and today. There are some lessons to be learn there. Most will never heed them. Thanks for your story. It was a great reminder.
Jan 10, 2015 4:01pm
Great story but there's a typo in paragraph four - 1984 should be 1884, surely.
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  1. "Crime Library." Stanford White Murder. 29/03/2014 <Web >

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