The Gilded Age Starlet Whose Sexual Assault Prompted the 'Trial of the Century'
Evelyn Nesbit was the toast of New York high society when the famous architect Stanford White attacked her. When White was murdered by Nesbit's husband, it sparked the beginning of America's obsession with celebrity trials.
Evelyn Nesbit photographed around 1900. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Just before she died at the age of 82, Evelyn Nesbit spoke about the infamous trial that had shaped much of her life: "I rocked civilization," she laughed. And she had. One biography, The Trial of the Century, even suggests that "the event was so shocking it actually helped to speed the end of America's 'Gilded Age'."
It also set the tone for trials to come. "The press then was really just a more primitive version of what we see today," explains Paula Uruburu, author of the biography American Eve, "When the OJ Simpson trial was happening in the last decade of the century, the similarities between the coverage of both trials was remarkable. This case was the beginning of all that, really."
Nesbit embodied all of the contradictory impulses of the Gilded Age. She was lauded as a star of New York City, but was expected to conform to the severe expectations placed on women. As Nesbit wrote in her 1914 memoirs: "Women's steps are hell-ward, because men are the road makers."
When she was 11, Nesbit's father died and left Nesbit, her younger brother, and her mother in terrible financial trouble. After a serendipitous encounter with an artist, Nesbit began to support her family by posing as an artists' model. She was soon the most famous face of the early 20th century, becoming a prestigious "Gibson Girl"—a personification of the feminine ideal at the time, as portrayed by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson.
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When Nesbit grew tired of modeling, she took to the stage to be a chorus girl—a job with a somewhat disreputable reputation for risqué costumes and late night parties. Her performances on stage drew many admirers, and she was invited to high society luncheons where she danced and drank champagne. It was at one of these soirees, in 1901, that she met Stanford White, an acclaimed architect and notorious womanizer.
White was a powerful figure in society, and Nesbit was flattered by his attentions. He initially took a fatherly role in her life, sending Nesbit to a dentist and financially supporting her mother. But White was also manipulative and controlling. "He exercised an almost fatherly supervision over what I ate, and was particularly solicitous as to what I drank," Nesbit wrote. "He found girls easy prey."
After some persuasion, White convinced Nesbit's mother to leave her daughter under his supervision in New York while she visited friends back home. One evening, White invited Nesbit to dinner, and it was then that he sexually assaulted her and took her virginity. "He gave me champagne, which was bitter and funny-tasting, and I didn't care for it much," Nesbit explained. "When I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off me."
"It was such a different culture that Nesbit never used the word rape," Uburu says, "even years later."
White continued to be a part of Nesbit's life afterwards, telling her that the worst thing she could do was to tell people what had happened. Continuing her stage career, Nesbit was pursued by many men, including Harry Thaw, a wealthy coal and railroad baron. When Nesbit underwent surgery on her appendix and wasn't able to dance for a year, Thaw paid for her and her mother to go to Europe to convalesce. He then followed them there with the intention of proposing.
Nesbit refused Thaw's proposals several times. "Most women would be viewed as damaged goods at that point," explains Uruburu, and Nesbit did not expect to marry. She had also become privy to reports of Thaw's unstable behavior; Thaw would set traps for hotel servants by leaving money in his room to see if they took any of it. When one boy took a few coins, Thaw jumped from behind a screen and flogged him so badly the police were called.
Eventually, Thaw forced Nesbit to tell him why she would not marry him. She reluctantly explained what had happened with White. "Thaw promised he would take care of her in spite of her past," says Uruburu. This reaction gave Nesbit renewed admiration for Thaw; "you saw all that was best in him then, all the finer sides of him, all the womanliness in him," she wrote. They married in 1906 in Pittsburgh.
But Thaw grew increasingly obsessed with White, waking up at night sobbing to demand more details of the attack. One evening Thaw and Nesbit attended a performance at Madison Square Garden, which White had coincidentally designed. It was here that Thaw spotted White sitting at a table alone, and shot him three times in the head, allegedly shouting, "He ruined my wife!"
The trial became a media sensation. The only way to save Thaw from the electric chair was for Nesbit to testify about her assault, in order to prove that White's actions had driven Thaw temporarily insane. Nesbit's diaries were picked apart; her clothes were examined; her photos judged by the depth of her neckline.
"The subject of my past had been reserved for a crowded court where every other man was a reporter," she wrote. "Every newspaper page I see is filled with accounts of the trial."
Nesbit's performance in court secured Thaw some time in an asylum, but the trial had strained their relationship, and they divorced in 1915, despite Nesbit becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son (Thaw denied paternity).
While this is a tale of toxic masculinity at its worst, the truly impressive part of this story is Nesbit's survival. Hoping to escape the American tabloids, she went to London to perform at the London Hippodrome, where she also wrote her 1914 memoirs. But she soon moved back after being hassled by press, and she realized that she would have to trade on her notoriety in order to earn a living for her and her son.
Nesbit appeared in several silent movies between 1914 and 1922, often playing herself, and she danced in bars in the 1920s. When she lost her job dancing at the Moulin Rouge Café in 1926, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing disinfectant. Hoping for a change, she acquired a speakeasy in Manhattan, but this lead to several years of alcoholism and a morphine addiction that lasted into the 30s.
Seeking distance from her chaotic life on the East Coast, Nesbit finally found happiness when she moved to Los Angeles during WWII. She set up a ceramic studio and became a sculptor, and lived to see herself immortalized by Joan Collins in the 1955 film, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. "I never regret my life," she wrote in her memoirs. "It would mean regretting much happiness."