Evelyn Nesbit

Florence Evelyn Nesbit (December 25, 1884 – January 17, 1967), known professionally as Evelyn Nesbit, was a popular American chorus girl, an artists' model, and an actress.

 

In the early part of the 20th century, the figure and face of Evelyn Nesbit were everywhere, appearing in mass circulation newspaper and magazine advertisements, on souvenir items and calendars, making her a cultural celebrity. Her career began in her early teens in Philadelphia and continued in New York, where she posed for a cadre of respected artists of the era, James Carroll Beckwith, Frederick S. Church, and notably Charles Dana Gibson, who idealized her as a "Gibson Girl". She had the distinction of being an early "live model", in an era when fashion photography as an advertising medium was just beginning its ascendancy.

 

Nesbit claimed that as a stage performer, and while still a 14-year-old, she attracted the attention of the then 47-year-old architect and New York socialite Stanford White, who first gained the family's trust then sexually assaulted Evelyn while she was unconscious.   Nesbit achieved world-wide notoriety when her husband, multi-millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, shot and murdered Stanford White on the rooftop theatre of Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, leading to what the press would call "The Trial of the Century".

Throughout the prolonged court proceedings, Nesbit had received financial support from the Thaws. These payments, made to her through the Thaw attorneys, had been inconsistent and far from generous. After the close of the second trial, the Thaws virtually abandoned her, cutting off all funds. Purportedly, Nesbit received the amount of $25,000 from the Thaw family after the culmination of the trials. To spite the Thaws, Nesbit then donated the money to political anarchist Emma Goldman who subsequently turned it over to investigative journalist and political activist John Reed.

 

Nesbit was left to her own resources to provide for herself.   She found modest success working in vaudeville, and on the silent screen. In 1914, she appeared in Threads of Destiny produced at the Betzwood studios of film producer Siegmund Lubin.   Nesbit divorced Thaw in 1915.  In 1916 she married dancer Jack Clifford; the two had worked up a stage act together. Their marriage was not a success. Nesbit seemed unable to start a new life as the public refused to let her relinquish her past. Audiences came to see “the lethal beauty” associated with the “playboy killer,” and the murder of Stanford White. Clifford came to feel his wife’s notoriety an insurmountable issue, his own identity being subsumed into that of “Mr. Evelyn Nesbit.” He left her in 1918, and she divorced him in 1933.

 

In the 1920s, Nesbit became the proprietor of either a tearoom or speakeasy located in the West Fifties in Manhattan. The actual libation served remains obscured in history. She may have run more than one establishment during this decade.   It was during this period and well into the 1930s that Nesbit struggled with alcoholism and morphine addiction. During the 1930s she worked on burlesque stages throughout the country, though not as a stripper. 

 

Harry Kendall Thaw, who as late as 1926 was still keeping his ex-wife under surveillance by private detectives, went to Chicago where Nesbit was hospitalized. He learned his ex-wife, despondent after losing her job dancing at the Moulin Rouge Café, had swallowed a disinfectant in a suicide attempt. The reunion generated speculation on the status of their relationship. One newspaper reported on January 8, 1926: “Thaw to Visit Chicago: Reconciliation Rumor.” In an interview with the press, Thaw revealed he had for some time been giving Nesbit ten dollars a day through an attorney as a “token of pleasant memories of the past when we were happy.” They were photographed together in June 1926 and Nesbit gave an interview to The New York Times, stating that she and Thaw had reconciled, but nothing came of the renewed relationship. Harry Kendall Thaw died in 1947; in his will he left Nesbit a $10,000 bequest from an estate valued at over one million dollars.

 

Nesbit published two memoirs, "The Story of My Life" (1914), and "Prodigal Days" (1934).  During the years of World War II, Nesbit lived in Los Angeles, teaching ceramics and sculpting at the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts.

 

She was a technical adviser on the 1955 movie "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" for which she was paid $10,000. The movie ultimately proved to be a highly fictionalized account of events in Nesbit's life.

 

Nesbit died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California, on January 17, 1967, at the age of 82.

With son, Russell William
Thaw, 1913
With Joan Collins on the set of "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing"
Evelyn Nesbit singing, early 1930s
Footage of Thaw and Nesbit
American Eve:  Nesbit Biographer Presentation
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing - full movie