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The family of Mick Jones, English rocker of Foreigner fame, now lives in the New York City townhouse that Gilded Age architect Stanford White is rumored to have built for his teenage paramour Evelyn Nesbit. The well-cared for structure sports much of its original woodwork and interior components, possessing the same lasting quality held by the story of Stannie’s affair with Evelyn, a story that has become woven into the fabric of American culture.

Guests at the Jones’s townhouse will sometimes regale each other with tales based on the tragic love affair. Someone, for example, might mention the rumor circulating during the White murder trial that in the master bedroom White had included a wall-size, two-way mirror facing opposite the bed and that, behind that mirror, Evelyn’s mother would watch the proceedings and later instruct and advise her daughter about the correct practice of love. This, of course, is purely scurrilous rumor, compounded from the known facts of the Stannie-Evelyn affair, the architect’s control over construction of the townhouse in question, and the classic “stage mother” persona of Evelyn’s mother.

In the early twentieth century, when Stannie, nearly fifty years old, swung sweet Evelyn, sixteen or seventeen years old, back and forth on a special velvet swing, either nude or barely dressed, depending on the storyteller’s preference, there was no such thing as rock star fame. The idea of celebrity, however, was well-established and both Stannie White, a major force in the world of architecture and design, and Evelyn Nesbit, one of the first chorus girls of the time, were celebrities.

Five years after Evelyn first met Stannie, the man Evelyn later married, Harry Thaw, dispatched Stannie with three pistol shots in the face, catapulting all three to a fame and celebrity that transcended anything yet known on the American continent and perhaps anywhere else in the world as well.

New York in the Gilded Age
After the Civil War, America entered upon an era of industrialization and modernization. Ambitious, driven industrialists and financiers battled each other, union organizers, and the government to build the railroads, mines, and factories that turned America into a world power. From cultural and financial backwater, America was transformed into international prominence. New York City became the focus of all this new business, finance, and society. Between the older echelon of high society, ruled over by the Astors, and the newer, nouveau riche component symbolized by the Vanderbilts, New York was a vibrant, even frantic, arena of social competition and ostentation. Bigger and more beautiful mansions went up on a yearly basis, elaborate and sumptuous pleasure palaces that began to line the streets and avenues of New York, announcing the wealth and grandness of the families within, many of whom hired Stannie White to design and build their temples to self. Comparably grand clubhouses for the men of high society were also needed, and Stannie had his hand in many of those. Where Stannie’s role was on the building and design end, Evelyn fitted in on the amusement and entertainment side, her time in show business witnessing the birth of Broadway as the national theatrical center.

The fin de siecle was nearly the high point of modernism, when talented, driven individuals, starting from virtually nothing, could rise to the top of the economic order with hard work, sharp wits, and a flexible moral code. Individual rights, self-expression, a secular and open tolerance, disregard for traditional ways of doing business, all of these were inherent in the Gilded Age. Strict materialism prevailed, with all judged by the extent of their wealth, or the absence of it. It was, indeed, democratic capitalism run amuck. Later, some of the era’s excesses would be trimmed by trustbusters, muckrakers, labor leaders, and temperance ladies, but, in the 1890s and early 1900s, when Stannie and Evelyn reached their pinnacles of fame, it was a no-holds barred time of getting and spending. The distribution of wealth was hideous, as it would take time for the new wealth at the top to trickle down, or be taxed-and-redistributed down. The vigorous labor movement of the 1870s and 1880s lay in ruins by the 1890s, the victim of successful union-busting by the magnates and of violence and excess by the workers.

Depend on the French for a cynical quote with a dig at America – from George Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, after visiting Gilded Age America: “America has gone from a state of barbarism to one of decadence without achieving any civilization in between.”


Evelyn was born into middle-class circumstances outside of Pittsburgh in 1884. The father, an attorney, died young, leaving Evelyn, her mother, and a younger brother to fend for themselves. With no male breadwinner, the Nesbit family’s circumstances continually eroded over the years, descending at one point to full-fledged begging status, only to be restored gradually as Evelyn matured into an outstanding beauty in her early youth and began earning modeling fees, first in Pittsburgh, then in Philadelphia, and eventually in New York City.

Her mother’s ambitions for Evelyn drove this process of promoting and marketing. By the time Evelyn was fifteen, she was her family’s sole support and had established herself as one of the top artist’s models in America. At the turn of the century, modeling as a profession possessed considerably less cachet than it does now and, despite resounding success in this field, Evelyn and her mother could not have viewed themselves as being at or near the top of society. Thus, much remained to be done. In that Gilded Age, they could anticipate a possible rise to the top with not much interference from the stuffy social gatekeepers of yesteryear.

Mother Nesbit instilled an ambition in Evelyn to be on stage. And, once the noted artist Charles Dana Gibson had captured Evelyn’s allure and style in the famous Question Mark portrait, which became iconic material, creating the “Gibson Girl” style, Broadway producers could be persuaded that hiring Evelyn would contribute to the marketability of their shows. The British musical Floradora was coming to Broadway after a long, successful run in London. One of the innovative elements of Floradora was a set of saucy song-and-dance numbers involving six females (the “Floradora sextette”), numbers that were acclaimed by audiences and critics alike at the time. So popular were these routines that the sextette idea contributed to the use of full-scale chorus lines like the Ziegfield Girls and the dancers in Busby Berkeley musicals of the 20s and 30s.

Evelyn, though already famous for her beauty, was not known as a singer or dancer, and the producers of Floradora hired her for a smallish part. Gradually, she assumed larger roles, finally attaining full status as one of the six leading showgirls on Broadway. The common talk of the time was that, once a young lady became a Floradora girl and began to receive all the associated flattery and attention, marriage to a rich husband was only a matter of time. During the run of the play, some seventy young women came and went from the famous sextette, though no records exist as to the exact fate, marital or otherwise, of any of these ladies other than Evelyn.

So-called “stage-door johnnies” crowded around the stage entrance to the theater where Floradora played. At the tender age of sixteen or seventeen, Evelyn could not, under the standards of conduct existing at the time, freely socialize with this importunate cadre of johnnies mesmerized by her beauty and talent. To Mrs. Nesbit, this school of fish must have seemed a very fine crowd of possible suitors for her daughter, and she and Evelyn managed to work out methods by which Evelyn could be pursued by various of these prospective marks without running too publicly afoul of Gilded Age moral niceties. One device was to restrict socializing to small, private parties to which Evelyn was accompanied, not by her mother, which presumably would have cast a pall of excessive propriety, but rather by a young female “friend” of Evelyn’s. Thus circumscribed, Evelyn ventured out into the exciting world of men and society in the great city of New York. Before long, it was Stannie White, older and white-haired but sweet, accommodating, and astonishingly accomplished and generous, who managed to recommend and ingratiate himself above all others in the Nesbit ladies’ hearts. Plying Evelyn with gallantry and gifts, and her mother with cash, Stannie succeeded where others had stumbled.


Stanford White probably gave off an aura of Old World wealth as he navigated the theaters, restaurants, and clubs of Broadway. This public image would have been perfectly consistent with his times, since all the large number of nouveau riche in post Civil War America yearned to exude Old World charm however much this may have conflicted with their true origins. But Stannie had actually risen from very modest circumstances. His father had led a largely unprofitable life as a noted Anglophile author, critic, and scholar. The White family wealth, such as it was, sank when the grandfather’s shipping firm went bankrupt. Instead of titan of industry, Stannie started out professional life as a clerk.

At the age of sixteen, instead of attending college, which Stannie’s father could not afford, Stannie began a long though productive apprenticeship with the renowned architect Henry H. Richardson. White’s great talents showed immediately, and Richardson assigned increasingly important projects to him as time wore on, Stannie’s path being not unlike Evelyn Nesbit’s path on her way from Pittsburgh mendicant to Broadway bombshell, with stops in between. The family history carried a parallel as well: Stannie’s grandfather’s shipping company had gone bust and left the family without wealth, just as, when Evelyn’s lawyer father died, the Nesbits lost their family resources.

When Stannie was twenty-five, in 1878, he and another Richardson apprentice toured Europe to educate themselves directly in Old World architecture. On returning to America in 1879, they organized the new architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, a partnership destined to change the American cityscape. Among White’s achievements: the Washington Square Arch, St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue, the uptown campus of New York University and his masterpiece, the original Madison Square Garden. He and his partners became prominent and wealthy, servicing the needs of nouveau America, dotting the urban landscape with impressive new office buildings and designing posh showcase homes for the newly rich. But Stannie’s successful professional life paled in comparison to his over-the-top social career, involving acquaintanceship, if not outright friendship, with virtually all the significant figures of the time; his social life and business career were tied up together since wealthy, connected friends and acquaintances controlled all the important architectural commissions of the time. In the end, it was a losing proposition for Stannie, as he went into increasing debt to finance his social adventures. When he died, he was in debt for nearly $1 million and, instead of being a partner in McKim, Mead, he had been reduced to employee status in order to disentangle the firm from his personal debts. His family was saved from ruin only because his wife Bessie had inherited, and kept separate, her own fortune.

Stannie had an aesthete’s love of beauty and continually cultivated his taste for paintings and sculpture; he favored the neoclassical and Renaissance styles and helped popularize these tastes throughout the elite layer of society whose members retained him to design their homes and decorate their interiors with objets d’art that Stannie would tour Europe to find. Perhaps foreshadowing Stannie’s louche fate was his admiration for the nude sculptures of classical times. As early as 1885, when he and his wife were renting a Long Island farm, he found himself unfavorably mentioned in the local newspaper in a letter to the editor written by the Reverend Timothy O’Slap and reporting, in exasperated and indignant tones, how shocked the Reverend and his party had been when passing by the White’s rented farm and viewing, at a site nearby the road, statues in the classical style, statues absolutely naked and shamefully conspicuous among the surrounding trees.

Again, in 1895, though succeeding wildly with his Boston Public Library, scandal erupted on account of the nude statue White had placed in the Library courtyard. The nude had to be removed, only to be successfully relocated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a smaller mold of the naked bacchante sent to Stannie’s hideaway apartment in the tower above Madison Square Garden, an intimate little space where, no doubt, the classic nude felt at home and well appreciated. Even the barely clothed classical Diana placed above the tower of Madison Square Garden drew morally based criticism, though New York apparently could not raise the same level of community outrage as Boston, permitting the statue to survive.

On the one hand, Stannie led the life of a respectable Gilded Age gentleman, well-bred wife and child nicely ensconced in a beautiful rural home on Long Island, all well cared for and evidently happy. Stannie’s wife, a scion of one of the established families in New York, was well-off on her own, inheriting millions in 1890.

On the other hand, he had his other life, as notorious Broadway roué, often staying overnight in the city at one or more of his hideaway apartments, entertaining himself and his associates with the fast crowd of ladies who worked on Broadway and its environs. One especially noteworthy banquet, held in 1895 and hosted by Stannie, featured a Susie Johnson, who, just barely dressed, emerged from a large pie to the delight of the assembled revelers. Thus, the story goes, was born the bachelor party custom of females emerging from cakes and the like. Of course, in our own unceremonious times, bachelor party entertainers no longer bother to conceal themselves in cakes or pies prior to coming out.

By the time Stannie made Evelyn Nesbit’s acquaintance in 1901, he was no stranger to showgirls and the Broadway demimonde. The ethos of the time allowed a certain latitude even to married men that was denied to women. As an ambitious professional, Stannie used his night time revels to solidify his position in society and business; when it came to entertaining clients and general socializing, his partners at McKim, Mead & White were of little use, leaving these functions to Stannie.

At his peak, he belonged to over fifty clubs, some of whose buildings he had designed himself. Over time, indulging his love of beauty in all things, including women, and exercising his natural sociability and love of high living, Stannie became a notorious player in this milieu. It is said that he had to pay the gossip sheets regularly in order to keep his name out of the tabloids, especially after the notorious “pie lady” affair had become public knowledge. In addition to such payments, it is also said that he kept a rough law firm, Howe & Hummel, on retainer against those rare cases in which ungrateful ladies went to law against him. The firm’s primary practice was criminal law, its offices being directly across from the main prison in Manhattan. This law office was open twenty-four hours a day to accommodate the odd hours observed by felons on their way in and out of the prison.

On first becoming interested in Evelyn, it must have come as something of a shock to Stannie, as well as serving to enhance Evelyn’s already transcendent charms, that she resisted his most artful advances and importunings. Evelyn and her formidable mother played coy, the fiction being that Evelyn, a putatively proper young lady, was under her mother’s strictest supervision and not so freely available as the other showgirls whom Stannie was accustomed to playing with. No doubt, the pair, or at least Mother Nesbit, were aware that playing the game in this way was likely to drive someone like Stannie beside himself with desire, and they were right. He raised the stakes and went all out to persuade the Nesbit ladies of the advantages of allowing Evelyn to become better acquainted with him.

At first, the young ingénue would attend Stannie’s small, private parties with an escort (no naked ladies popping out of pies in these soirees!) and gradually became more intimate with Stannie. The official story, as purveyed in later court proceedings, was that, after too much alcohol, Evelyn was deflowered by Stannie on a weekend when her mother was away, and Stannie was supposed to have been “babysitting” her. There have always been imputations not only of excess champagne but also of drugged champagne, the Gilded Age equivalent of today’s date rape drug. With Stannie dead and unable to answer such imputations and the demimonde acquaintances who survived him more or less committed to sullying his memory, there is no judging the evidence on this point.

Given Evelyn’s character, formed under the influence of her mother, who was eager to restore the Nesbits to at least middle-class respectability if not better, and going through an impoverished adolescence in the disreputable subculture of modeling and show business, credulity is strained at portraits of her as a kind of sacrificial virgin raped and ruined by Stannie White, evil consort of the wicked robber barons of the time. This was the convenient tale spun by Harry Thaw’s defense lawyers and mouthed by the ever-venal, well-paid Evelyn, but it continues to ring hollow down the corridors of time. Though literally besieged by men who wished to marry her, many of whom were far more compatible and appropriate in terms of age and background than the men she actually chose for herself, or whom her mother chose for her, Evelyn granted her favors only to the wealthy and never unless mother also received a nice cut.

Another less than endearing aspect of Evelyn’s character was her confessed habit of titillating the gentleman she happened to be with by constantly bringing up the names of different gentlemen with whom she used to spend time, in order to provoke jealousy. She did this with Stannie and later with Thaw, the latter of whom took it especially hard. In all, it seems that mother and daughter together were a potent man-trapping machine and that seduction and pillage was a two-way proposition when a man entangled himself with these ladies.

Stannie and Evelyn and Harry and Barrymore

Well before becoming involved with Evelyn, Stannie had earned a devoted enemy in the person of Harry K. Thaw, the spoiled and worthless heir to a Pittsburgh mining fortune. At birth, Harry was worth some $40 million. That was his money value, and, in the course of his life, he achieved absolutely no other value. From earliest youth, he was extremely ill-tempered and abusive. The family’s fantastic wealth allowed Harry to rage through life with few consequences, paying off those he injured or the police who pursued him. He even attended Harvard where, according to Harry himself, he studied poker.

With a generous allowance from his widowed mother, though without ready money of his own, Harry arrived on the New York scene in 1901 at the age of thirty. During his lengthy “stage-door Johnny” period on Broadway, he quickly acquired a bad reputation among even the hardened ladies of the chorus lines, who learned that he was malevolent and frightening to be with. His thuggish behavior caused him to be barred from parties that Stannie hosted in his Madison Square Garden tower apartment, where the social elite gathered for amusement. To Harry, with no other virtue but his birth, exclusion of this kind was infuriating. Stannie also blackballed him from one of the New York clubs that Harry wished to join, the Knickerbocker.

Later on, and to top things off between the antagonists, a showgirl whom Thaw had humiliated got wind of an after-theater party Thaw was sponsoring and to which he had invited girls from Floradora. The injured and vengeful showgirl persuaded Stannie, who was unaware of the situation, to invite all the same girls to come to Stannie’s tower apartment after work that night. Stood up by his prize invitees, Thaw blamed White for this outrage to his dignity and from then on, Thaw was unbalanced, paranoid and obsessed where Stannie White was concerned, never missing an opportunity to cause him harm, and leading ultimately to Thaw’s public execution of White atop Madison Square Garden in 1906.

Stannie’s affair with Evelyn was in full swing, so to speak, by the fall of 1901, the courtship and seduction having begun in summer. Despite her involvement with Stannie, however, Evelyn, as eligible showgirl, continued to entertain offers and proposals from stage-door johnnies and others. In December of 1901, after a long siege of flowers and other gifts for Evelyn from Thaw, who used a pseudonym lest his real name and already established bad reputation scare her off, Evelyn and Thaw met for a dinner. Thaw, filled with hatred of Stannie White, annoyed Evelyn by criticizing her mother’s decision to let Evelyn see White. Nothing much came of this unsatisfying first meeting between Evelyn and “Mad Harry,” as Thaw was referred to behind his back.

Indirect evidence exists suggesting that Stannie very much doubted Evelyn’s fidelity as their affair played out. Between his absences for professional and family duties and her raucous life as a showgirl, such suspicions would have been natural, even if unsupported by the facts. However, as the Barrymore episode shows, evidence of Evelyn’s lack of loyalty was abundant.

In the summer of 1902, Stannie, who was well-acquainted not only with the lions of capitalist society but also with leading lights of the art and theater worlds, introduced Evelyn to John Barrymore, then a young newspaperman but later a legendary actor and alcoholic. Evelyn and John struck sparks, and, as soon as White went off on a lengthy fishing trip with clients, they began spending time together. At twenty-two, handsome and dashing, he was by far a more natural match for Evelyn than any of the rich, older men countenanced by her mother.

The entire affair came to a crashing end, however, when Evelyn got drunk and slept in Barrymore’s rooms. A huge contretemps among Barrymore, who wished to marry Evelyn and had already proposed to her like countless other men, Mrs. Nesbit, White, and Evelyn followed, concluding in a visit to Stannie’s doctor for Evelyn, who was to be examined for something the historical record does not reveal. It is within reason to think that Evelyn was asked whether the obvious sexual connection with Barrymore involved unprotected relations, and that she may have admitted that to be true or at least denied it unconvincingly enough to call for a doctor’s visit.

Her subsequent six-month banishment to a girls’ school in New Jersey and the mysterious operation performed on her there about five months after her arrival, with everything financed by Stannie, strongly suggest that she had become pregnant, probably by Barrymore, and withdrew from the social and theatrical scene to avoid scandal. No participant in this aspect of the affair ever confessed to such a sordid state of affairs, but it is hard to come to any other conclusion under the facts that are undisputed. The ostensible reason given out to the public at the time for Evelyn’s sudden disappearance from the stage was that Mrs. Nesbit had decided she was “too young” for Broadway. Ever so true as this was, it was by then a bit late in the Nesbit ladies’ career to make such a determination. It was also offered as a possible reason that Stannie wished to separate Evelyn from young Barrymore, of whom he was jealous, but the traditional separation strategy of the time for people in Stannie’s set was a sudden trip to Europe for the protectee rather than to coup her up in a dreary girls’ school out in the country.

Another episode in Evelyn’s life suggests she was chronically unfaithful during this period. She got a role in one of George Lederer’s musicals. Lederer was a notable producer of the time, and, when divorce proceedings between him and his wife commenced, his wife alleged that after he hired Evelyn to star in his Broadway show, more than professional relations were afoot between the two.

This view is very possibly true since Evelyn was now going through her most confusing romantic period, bouncing back and forth among Stannie White, Harry Thaw, and John Barrymore. What difference would it have made to throw a powerful Broadway producer into the mix? In fact, anything that might have helped Evelyn secure her career, such as making whoopee with a producer like Lederer, might also make it possible for her to get off her dependency on rich men’s largesse.

It would only have been natural for a woman of nineteen, as Evelyn was, to prefer the attentions of young, albeit relatively poor, suitors, especially when her life circumstances were corralling her into meretricious relations with rich, old capitalists. Left to their own devices, women of such ambitious make-up might not, in fact, have spent much time at all in romance. However, locked into relations with older men, the simple prospect or fantasy of relationships with same-age males would have been appealing. The classic, often irresistible, ploy used by older men in these circumstances was career assistance. Reduced to essentials, in exchange for the woman’s companionship, the rich man agrees to sponsor, support, and advance the young lady’s career. For many ambitious young women, willing to sacrifice relations with young men that in any event would have been complicated or even made impossible by their personal ambitions, these deals were appealing.

Evelyn and Harry

During the winter and spring of 1903, as Evelyn recuperated from her Barrymore adventure, Harry Thaw resumed his attentions, lavishing flowers, gifts, and notes upon her and visiting when Stannie was not there. Barrymore also tried to continue their relationship, but he had become persona non grata, especially since Mrs. Nesbit despised him. His lack of funds no doubt played a large part in the mother’s judgment, as she herself was then living off Stannie, and possibly off Thaw as well, neither of whom would have continued such funding with Barrymore in the picture.

Thaw, ever eager to score against White, played his trump card with the Nesbits: his enormous wealth. At the time, Stannie was beginning to go deeply into debt and was being pestered by creditors of all stripes. Thaw offered to send Evelyn and her mother on a grand tour of Europe, all expenses paid. From his point of view, this would get them away from the baleful influence of “that Beast,” as he called Stannie, as well as give Thaw the chance to complete his seduction of Evelyn, totally away from all the other schemers and johnnies besieging her on Broadway. By this time, after the debacle with Barrymore, for which she blamed Stannie, Evelyn’s affections were wavering, and she agreed to Thaw’s plan. Mother and daughter departed for Europe in May of 1903, with Stannie’s blessing, given in ignorance of who was financing the trip, and accompanied by an employee of Thaw who was their “chaperone.” Thaw followed in a separate ship and the three met up in Paris, where Thaw rented an apartment.

Of course, Thaw being Thaw, he behaved abominably and brutishly the whole time in Europe, deeply offending and frightening Mrs. Nesbit, for whom not even Thaw’s great wealth could compensate for his character flaws. The mother left Europe in the middle of the trip, unable to tolerate Thaw any longer, but Evelyn stayed behind and toured with Thaw, virtually as man and wife, until October of 1903, when, completely unnerved by Thaw’s psychotic behavior, she fled France with some friends and returned home. Thaw had beaten her and revealed his drug addictions, to add to his list of repulsive personal characteristics.

It seems that Thaw had begun going into rages, threatening and committing violence against Evelyn, after learning from her in Paris that Stannie had supposedly deflowered her under shameful circumstances. Thaw, already morbidly hating White due to their run-ins on the New York social scene, could now add this alleged dishonoring of the woman he loved to the list of his grievances. Thaw admitted to Evelyn that he knew much of her affair with Stannie already, since he had hired a private detective firm to follow them around in New York. When Evelyn refused to sign legal documents attesting to the alleged rape by White, Thaw went into his final European tantrum.

Given Thaw’s outrageous behavior, Evelyn was glad to get home and did not disclose to him where she was living. Once Thaw returned to New York by himself, it took some time to track her down, but Thaw and his detectives did so; he recommenced his siege of flowers, gifts, notes, and begging. By Christmas of 1903, he had succeeded in getting Evelyn’s attentions. Shortly after that, she broke off relations with Stannie White, quit her engagement in the Broadway show she had been newly hired for, and became Thaw’s full-time companion and mistress.

Stannie and Thaw

Eventually, after much persuading and enormous financial investment and incentives, Thaw was able to win Evelyn’s hand in marriage. Her mother, who by this time had bagged her own husband, never fully approved of the match. At the same time, partly due to Evelyn’s ingrained habit of teasing Thaw by bringing Stannie’s name up, enraging, and further destabilizing him, and partly due, of course, to Thaw’s own mental disease and obsession with White, he continued to hire detectives to follow Stannie’s every move. Expense was no object in Thaw’s quest to destroy Stanford White.

The record suggests that from 1903 at least, up until Stannie’s death in June 1906, numerous detectives followed White twenty-four hours a day. Anthony Comstock, leader of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization principally directed against the huge prostitution trade existent at that time, recounted that Thaw had come to him several times with complaints against White to the effect that he and his colleagues were regularly engaged in the debasement of young virgins and other related acts of vice. The Society investigated these complaints but could never substantiate any of Thaw’s charges. Thaw, at virtually the same time, however, was fighting off charges, with the help of the family fortune, that he regularly whipped prostitutes at a brothel he patronized. One Broadway girl he spent time with sued him for a beating he allegedly gave her, but she died before the suit could be tried.

A mysterious warehouse fire destroyed virtually all of Stannie’s collected art objects, which had just been assembled for auction in order to relieve his debts. The day after the fire, February 14, 1905, a private investigator named Bergoff showed up at Stannie’s office and advised him that he was being followed around New York, the news of which came as a complete surprise to White. The two went downstairs and tested out Bergoff’s disclosure, and indeed, as Stannie could now see, there were a number of unknown persons shadowing him. He immediately retained Bergoff to follow the spies and find out who was behind this outrage.

Historians have not ventured to speculate on the connection between these events. Thaw almost surely realized that Stannie was collecting items to auction off for repayment of his debts – with all the detective manpower he employed, this would have been information routinely appearing in their reports. Causing a fire to destroy most of his remaining assets would have been very desirable from Thaw’s perverted point of view, and perhaps this is one of the jobs his detectives or their associates did for him. That a man unknown to and unbidden by White would the next day show up with information about the detectives following him is too much coincidence to ignore. Bergoff evidently could only have come by his information from someone working for Thaw’s detective agency; acting on this tip from inside Thaw’s camp, Bergoff correctly assumed that he could be commissioned by White to counterspy on Stannie’s followers. And the fact that Bergoff showed up exactly the next day after the fire tends to suggest that the two events were connected. There is an inference to be made that Bergoff was advised by his informant to wait until the day after the fire to show up at Stannie’s office, which would have avoided the complication of Bergoff’s men following Thaw’s and perhaps stumbling across the arson.

After White had spent a large sum, more than he could afford, on Bergoff’s detective services, they were able to confirm that Harry Thaw was behind the shadowing, not only of White, but also of actresses whom Stannie knew. Rather than risk an embarrassing public confrontation with Thaw over the issue of private detectives and harassment, Stannie elected for the time being to do nothing; he believed that Thaw’s intent was to embarrass him, even though he was also warned by people who knew Thaw that he carried a pistol and occasionally brandished it, vowing to kill Stanford White.

On June 25, 1906, the parties’ paths crossed for the last, fateful time. Evelyn and Harry seldom came to New York, Harry presumably not wishing to share her with the social scene where he had so miserably failed and where he was held in general contempt. But they were on their way to Europe again and staying in New York before sailing. By coincidence, the Thaws and Stannie ended up late that evening at the rooftop café of Madison Square Garden, where a show was winding down. Stannie, as usual, was trying to send notes to the girls in the chorus when Evelyn noticed him and passed a note to Thaw to the effect that “the beast is here.” Thaw left Evelyn, strode over to White’s table and shot Stannie dead on the spot, three shots to the face, execution style, with no possibility of self-defense or escape on White’s part. Thaw was captured immediately and taken to jail. Following his heinous act, there erupted in New York perhaps the first modern media frenzy of the type we are now accustomed to.

Trial in the Press and in the Courtroom

The principal feature of the aftermath of Stannie’s murder was the all-out propaganda campaign, with virtually unlimited funding, conducted by the Thaw family to besmirch Stanford White, gain sympathy for Thaw, and retain Evelyn’s services as family supporter. Huge sums were spent to these ends so that Thaw could avoid the fate he had earned with a lifetime of violence and, now, murder. The family financed several plays and a film, exhibited to the public, all thinly disguised attacks on Stanford White and his associates. A publicist was hired to continually salt libelous reports in the papers and periodicals and who ultimately wrote a book advocating the Thaw family views. On the most extreme side of this reporting, the periodical Vanity Fair ran a headline that read, “Stanford White, Voluptuary and Pervert, Dies the Death of a Dog.” The truth was somewhat the opposite: if there was any vile dog in this affair, it was surely Thaw, a wealthy beast but nonetheless a beast.

Many of these initial reports in the press described, in exaggerated terms, lurid details of the private lives that Stannie and some of his well-placed associates led in the Broadway milieu. Naturally, disclosures of this kind, sensational and titillating, drove newspaper and magazine circulation to huge heights. People who had known White well and socialized with him disappeared from view, not wanting to be further tarred by the journalistic brush in full swing in the days after the murder. It was some time before any public defense of Stannie was forthcoming, but eventually a few brave souls did come forward publicly to praise his work and his contributions to art and architecture. The well-regarded journalist Richard Harding Davis, a friend of White, contributed an article to Collier’s in August that reminded readers of Stannie’s enormous achievements and of his many friendships and good works. Davis stated that White was “as incapable of little meannesses as of great crimes.” Other similar accounts of Stannie were forthcoming as his friends and colleagues gathered their courage against the initial public fury fed by the Thaws’ mud-slinging and the tabloids’ frenzy.

The first trial for murder began in January 1907. Thaw resisted his attorneys’ advice that an insanity defense was his best hope, Harry insisting at first that the “unwritten law,” whereby a husband was in some circumstances empowered to defend his wife’s honor with lethal force, should be his defense. In the end, the defense played both these cards, introducing evidence both of Thaw’s extreme mental instability and of White’s allegedly dishonorable behavior towards Evelyn.

The key testimony was Evelyn’s. She was still a financial dependent of the Thaws and behaved accordingly. Dressed in virtual schoolgirl attire, and thus completely at odds with her actual persona of femme fatale chorus girl, she recounted the “drugged” and “raped” tale, portraying herself as embodied innocence put to the sword, so to speak, by Stanford White that night in 1901. An interesting legal point, and one which hindered the State’s case against Thaw, was that Evelyn’s testimony was not admitted to prove whether or not such a rape actually occurred as she described it, but rather was admitted solely to establish what she had told Thaw about her affair with White. The distinction proved significant, since the truth or falsity of the rape story was irrelevant, the only relevant point being whether this is what she told Thaw and hence whether Thaw’s alleged temporary insanity resulted from hearing the story. Since truth or falsity of the tale itself was not relevant, Evelyn could not be cross-examined regarding its truth or falsity, and no evidence that it was false could be admitted. Evelyn and Thaw’s lawyers were free to invent the most outrageous and lurid description of Stannie’s conduct possible without fear of being contradicted by any other evidence or testimony. Within the courtroom, there was no way to defend White’s conduct by demonstrating the improbable nature of Evelyn’s testimony. An interesting sidebar of the first trial was that the prosecuting attorney himself was then engaged in a love affair with a teenager; in prosecuting Thaw, and implicity defending the victim White, the prosecutor must have appreciated the irony of his situation.

Even with the huge defense advantages going in, the first jury hung on the question of Thaw’s guilt, seven of the twelve original jurors holding out for a murder conviction, making another trial necessary. At the second trial, the “unwritten law” defense was abandoned in favor of a full-blown insanity defense offering much more corroboration of Thaw’s incapacity, including inherited insanity in the Thaw family. Evelyn came out and performed as in the first trial. This time, Thaw achieved his insanity acquittal and was ordered confined to Mattewean Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He and his family made repeated attempts for his release, but only succeeded in 1915, some nine years later. One of the damning factors that kept him confined was testimony at his sanity hearings by the madam of the brothel that Thaw had patronized and whose girls he had whipped.

While Thaw was confined, Evelyn gave birth in 1910 to a son who she claimed was Thaw’s, conceived, she said, on one of his supervised releases. Thaw’s mother had received proof that Evelyn had involved herself in a love affair with one of Thaw’s defense attorneys. On release, Thaw refused to recognize the child and divorced Evelyn.


The testimony, especially Evelyn’s lurid account of her affair with Stannie, stunned the nation. A hue and cry went up concerning publication of the trial testimony in newspapers, and both President Roosevelt and Congress took actions to squelch reports of the trial, unsuccessfully, although in Kentucky a Louisville newspaper was indicted by a grand jury for publishing the testimony of Evelyn Nesbit. According to a resolution passed by the Union League Club of New York, publication of the “disgusting testimony” of the Thaw trial constituted a “national calamity.”

The nature of the testimony concerning Evelyn’s stay at the girls’ school in New Jersey, conveying the strong implication that it was a haven for unwed, pregnant teenage girls, caused such an exodus of students from the school, hurriedly withdrawn by their families, that the school went bankrupt and closed permanently.

By 1909, because of her conduct with the defense team, Evelyn was cut off financially by the Thaws. Thaw himself was remitted to an insane asylum for a second stay, 1917 to 1924, this time on account of a kidnapping and beating he administered to a young boy. Even later, similar incidents of violence and litigation marred his life until old age seems to have defused him. He died of a heart attack in Florida in 1947 at the age of seventy-six. Though Thaw lived to be twenty-two years older than Stannie when the latter died, fourteen of those extra years were spent in insane asylums, and all of them were lived under the cloud that followed him around for killing the well-liked, accomplished, and successful Stanford White. The girl for whom he had allegedly done all this damage was never his, making the entire effort a futility and tragic waste of both his life and Stanford White’s. Thaw never achieved anything but infamy and was nothing if not good proof that a very steep inheritance tax is desirable.

From an historical point of view, Thaw’s crime and the revelations that came in its wake were further proof in the public mind that the Gilded Age plutocrats were badly in need of being reined in and disciplined, that, left free to continue their pillaging and plundering, their indecent way of life would ruin America. When the Union League, a plutocratic haven, cried “calamity,” this is what they meant: that the general public would vent their displeasure with Thaw and White by favoring legislation and action directed against the wealthy, the privileged, and their indecent lives.

Living to be eighty-two, Evelyn Nesbit proved to be a survivor, as any true femme fatale should be. She did a turn on the vaudeville circuit, put on display by impresarios who hired notable personalities of the time to appear on stage. Hellen Keller and Carrie Nation were two other ladies of the time who had vaudeville appearances. Evelyn said little during her vaudeville shows, the audiences being happy to view at first hand the beautiful and notorious woman at the center of a sex scandal. She struggled through as a dancer in show business, married and divorced a fellow performer, earned a large fee from the filming of The Girl in The Red Velvet Swing in 1955. In an interview given in the 1950s, she expressed her regrets: “The world didn’t see what I remember best, myself on the stand trying to save a husband I didn’t love from going to the chair for killing the man I did love.”

Stannie himself, exemplar of modernist man, self-made, irreverent, secular, free-thinking, and achievement-oriented, lived this modern life to the maximum limit, only to run up against traditional constraints in the end: the “traditional” moral sensibility, though admittedly wielded by an idiotic and mentally diseased human being, was offended by Stannie’s naïve, exuberant ways and exacted its revenge.

July 2005

From guest contributor Joe Leibowitz

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