The Girl on the Swing 

 

At the turn of the century New York City had grown to be a major world metropolis. A person at the age of fifty could remember at their youth a city skyline dominated by church steeples, not only an architectural symbol but a moral statement about societal values as well. Now, however, the urban scape was dominated by office and business buildings dwarfing and delegating forever the church to its appropriate place in an increasing secular society. By 1900, at considerable expense, the city was out fitted with electrical lights thus ending the "gas light era," that flickering shadowing time of the last fifth of the nineteenth century. Now The Great White Way became the sobriquet of the city. Just as the rise of skyscrapers erased the natural light and threatened to pitch the city into perpetual gloom, the electric light instead illuminated it artificially into eternal light. Night life became an important period in the life style of the urban dweller.

 

The Great White Way

Entertainment had always been an important feature of New York City life but by the turn of the century performers truly achieved star status. The "naughty nineties" simply accelerated into the new century. A street called Broadway came to mean more than a road, it was synonymous with entertainment. Songs and jokes heard all over the country emanated from Broadway. "Ta-ra-ra Boom De-ay," "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight," "The Sidewalks of New York," "The Bowery," "and "A Bird in a Gilded Cage," became instant hits across the country and resonated for generations. Theatrical stars like young Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Russell captivated audiences.

But it was the musical that fascinated most. And the musical of the period was Floradora, the great success starting at 1901 and going on for years. Everyone had seen it, everyone talked about it, and everyone followed the beauties in the Floradora Sextette. When the men chorus members got on their knees and sang to the beauties in the sextette: "Tell me, pretty maiden, are there any more at home like you?" the house came down in cheers and tears. After each performance crowds of "stage-door johnnies" hung around the exit with offers of presents, parties and proposals. Every Floradora girl had hundreds of admirers but only one reign supreme not only in New York but across the world. She was Evelyn Nesbit.

Evelyn was born on Christmas day, 1884, in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, a short distance from Pittsburgh. Her father died when she was young and the widowed mother had two children--Evelyn and a younger brother--to care for. For the rest of her life she missed her father longing for the strong older male figure who would take her on his lap, caress her, and sing soothing songs. They slipped down out of the middle class to a life of near poverty, moving from one accommodation to increasingly worse ones. As Evelyn grew to be a teenager the family discovered that they had one important asset; Evelyn was extraordinarily beautiful. Now she fanaticized about the circus, vaudeville and the theater. Early she was recognized for her beauty and in Pittsburgh she supplement family income with modelling, a new and somewhat disreputable occupation. The mother, seeing that her daughter might be a meal-ticket, moved the family first to Philadelphia then to New York City. Evelyn posed for a variety of artists and photographers. Her reputation as a beauty spread throughout the artistic community. Charles Dana Gibson sketched her profile with her lustrous hair curled down around her neck and over her shoulders to form the figure of a question mark. Gibson said his sketch of Nesbit represented woman as the "Eternal Question." Other drawings of Evelyn became so popular setting modes of hairstyle that became famous as the "Gibson Girl." She became known as the most beautiful artist model in America. The producers of Floradora saw the importance of Evelyn's beauty and asked her to take minor roles in their Broadway production. Soon those small roles grew and she became a member and then a feature of the famed Sexttete. By 1901, "stage-door johnnies" soon came a-calling and she was overwhelmed with the nightlife of the Great White Way. But there was only one "gentleman" who captured her heart (and virtue) and he was Stanford White.

 

Stanford White Way

The roughness of the previous era of New York City carried over in to the new century but there was an attempt to plaster over some of the crassness so characteristic of a society "on the make." The new wealth of the industrial and commercial classes had increased at terrific rates in the generation after the Civil War. These newly rich people tried to find their place in society by creating buildings and residences worthy of their standing. Thorsen Veblen would recognize and label their efforts as prime examples of "conspicuous consumption." People with vast fortunes who did not have accompanying taste looked for clues on how to dress and deport themselves. These hints and habits came from high society, or those old scions that had had wealth for generations. Another arbiter of style was the famed architects of McKim, Mead and White. Especially important was the talent and energy of Stanford White.

White had been born in New York City on November 9th, 1853. So when he met the seventeen year old Evelyn he was into his fifties. White came from the old rich families of New York City, especially those around Washington Square. His father had scorned business life and became an art critic. So the taste and insight to wealth were greater than its real presence. Stanford wanted to study art in Paris but had to settle as an apprentice to an architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. White quickly impressed his mentor and the number of projects he was allowed to command grew rapidly. In 1878 White and a friend and fellow apprentice, Charles McKim, toured Europe and absorbed the classical and gothic architectures there. When they returned they set up their own firm in 1879 and began to revolutionize the urban landscape of America and at the same time accumulate a considerable fortune. White began to design and build some outstanding features. There was the famous Washington Arch which still stands in what is called Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Numerous palatial houses for the rich set the standards for appropriate living for the new rich. His prize was the Madison Square Garden, atop of which he maintained a penthouse for one of his other passions.

Like all successful businessmen Stanford White had married and sired a family. They were safely put away in the Long Island suburbs in a house he designed. But he stayed in the city to attend to business and resided in his apartments. He hosted numerous parties in which the Floradora girls came. At one banquet in 1895 a scantily clad girl, Susie Johnson, emerged from a huge pie, and thus set a model of rich male party goers for generations to come. At first, Evelyn under the strict supervision of her mother, refused the invitations to the White parties. But Stanford White was smitten and began to pursue Evelyn romantically and Mrs. Nesbit financially. They both succumbed and Evelyn with a single friend began to attend intimate small discreet parties. Finally one night, after too much alcohol and food, Evelyn was deflowered. After that she and White became constant companions and a loving bond was built that lasted the rest of their lives. One favorite playtime was to have Evelyn perched nude on a swing in White's penthouse being swung back and forth by Stanford. When news leaked out of such shenanigans Evelyn became known forever as The Girl on the Swing.

But Stanford White had other things to balance and swing than Evelyn. He had a lucrative and demanding career to maintain. And jobs from all over the country came to his desk. This was the most productive time of his life and wealth and reputation increased. In addition, he had a family and the semblance of respectability had to be maintained. There was a double standard of sorts that assumed and allowed for males to have sexual experiences outside of marriage. That is why, in spite of the rantings and ravings of outraged puritans, there was such a widespread prostitution industry everywhere in America. On the other hand, there was the ghost of the "unwritten law" still haunting society. This morè sought to defend outraged husbands and family members over the sexual compromising of their loved ones. In the past, cuckolds and rape victims could kill those who violated them and be exonerated. That was a chilling notion. By the early twentieth century there needed to be seen if such an unwritten doctrine had undergone any thaw. No better person to test it than Harry Thaw.

 

The Dark Way

Harry Thaw was born February 12th, 1871, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born into fabulous wealth obtained from father and grandfather's exploits in railroads and mining. He was worth over 40 million dollars at birth. Somehow, however, the creative energies that had given rise to such wealth had missed Harry. Instead, his only gift was how to spend but not make money. He attended the finest schools of the area eventually going to Harvard where he said he studied "poker." Countless trips to Europe occurred which might have been instructive if he had not been so self indulgent. He had a sister in England. In April, 1903 she had married the Earl of Yarmouth and became English royalty. In true Edith Wharton style, as recorded in her classic The Buccaneers, it was learned later that she had been sold to the Earl for one million dollars, cash in advance. Such was the character of the Thaw family.

Thaw returned to America and settled in New York City where he became a notorious "stage door johnnie." The Floradora girls flocked to him because of his money and then began to abandon him because of his demands. Stanford White was an elderly sweet pussy cat; Harry White was a vicious tiger. It would take a special girl to make a life with Harry Thaw. That girl was Evelyn Nesbit.

The Girl on the Swing began to swing away from Stanford White. His family and career interfered too much. The money he gave to her and her mother was good but he seemed more and more a distant father than a lover. Her feelings remained deep for him but she craved something else. And at the stage door Harry Thaw became obsessed with Evelyn. He courted her as no one had ever done. Presents and dinners developed to full subsidies for the Nesbit rooms. Soon there were chaperoned, and later unchaperoned, trips to Europe. Of course, Harry Thaw was interested in sex but it was of a different kind. Evelyn expected the sweet romance shown to her by Stanford White. Instead, Harry Thaw showed her violent fury. Bondage and beating were quite common. At first frightened and repulsed, Evelyn became fascinated with the mercurial outbursts of Thaw. She began to play upon them, molding Thaw to her desires. Her favorite tactic was to drop hints and reminders of Stanford White. Thaw was always being compared to the older man and it drove him crazy. A code developed between them in which they never mentioned White's name but always referred to him as "that B'." Evelyn loved to recount how she lost her virginity to White and it always came out as if she had been drugged with alcohol and compromised. In self righteous indignation Thaw would rant and rave promising revenge to her honor. Presents and privileges usually showered down upon Evelyn after such sessions. Also, private detectives were hired to follow Evelyn, for her own protection claimed Harry Thaw.

Any relationship Nesbit and White became increasingly fatherly. Of course, any reports by the private detectives were not detailed enough to show this. Any contact between the two enraged Thaw and threats and beatings increased. Evelyn reciprocated by lured and detailed reminders of the sexual prowess of the older lover. On the other hand, Thaw continued to pressure Evelyn towards marriage. She finally relented and in an elaborate ceremony in Pittsburgh they began a marriage characterized by mutual physical and emotional abuse. It bordered on being sick. White's name was always lurking in the background. Although there was considerable travel in Europe only rare visits to New York City occurred.

But there was one more fateful trip to New York City in 1906. It was June and one of the city's more outrageous hot times. The Thaws were in the city for business and entertainment. They were to go to Cafè Martin, one of the most fashionable restaurants in the city. The Thaw's were seated with friends when Stanford White came in. Evelyn saw him but he did not acknowledge her. Harry had not seen White but Evelyn leaned over and said "That B's here." Almost on cue Harry Thaw stood up threaded his way through the tables reaching into his pocket. Of late he had taken to carrying a revolver with him. He felt that since his marriage Stanford White had hired someone to kill him. As chorus girls sang and danced on the stage Thaw worked his way along the aisle to within three feet of White. From beneath his coat he pulled his gun, held it arm's length, and as White felt his presence and turned toward him, Thaw aimed for the eyes, then fired three shots. White half rose then pitched forward across the table dead. Thaw stood over the body with the smoking gun. Approximately thirty people saw the actual shooting and 150 more witnessed the triumphant posturing. Evelyn Thaw screamed while her husband let out an insane laugh.

Then began the trial of the century.

 

Questions to Ponder

1. What should happen to Thaw?

2. What did happen to Thaw?

3. Was Thaw a "bad man?"

4. What will happen to Nesbit?

5. Was Shaw a "bad man?"

 

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Suggested Further Reading

Michael MacDonald Mooney. Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age (1976)