It was the first great celebrity trial in USA history.
The nation’s most brilliant architect was murdered at a society gathering by the insane multimillionaire son of a huge fortune over the honor of America’s first supermodel.
Even today, this would be a huge news story!
We live in an era of 24 hour cable channels, innumerable celebrity websites, and entire cable networks devoted to celebrities, crime, murder, and trials. We’ve seen a Heisman award winner (wrongfully) acquitted of murdering his wife, America’s greatest pop star (questionably) acquitted of child molestation, and the USA’s most influential record producer (rightfully) convicted of murdering an actress. Throw into the mix the seemingly endless court appearances of people like Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and dozens of reality TV stars, and it can be hard to understand why the murder of Stanford White was the first great crime of the century.
Evelyn Nesbit was the first “supermodel” in American history. She was a teenager of mesmerizing beauty from an impoverished background. Her mother brought her to New York where Evelyn’s beauty and talent made her the model for the “Gibson Girl,” a Broadway performer, and the most in demand model in America. Her suitors included the publisher of Colliers magazine, Jack Barrymore, and an insane millionaire named Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh.
Don’t remember her name? Think Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Raquel Welch, Farrah Fawcett or Kate Upton to get a sense of her allure and fame.
Stanford White was the most prominent architect of his era. In addition to designing the old Madison Square Garden, he designed building after building noted for their beauty and importance. A few years back, Chelsea Clinton actually got married in a Stanford White designed building. Although White was married, he was a reckless womanizer who fell hard for Evelyn. She was 30 years his junior. He won over her mother with lavish gifts and eventually took Evelyn’s virginity under circumstances that remain controversial.
Harry Thaw, despite his great wealth, had suffered from mental illness all his life. His use of drugs and alcohol only made his mental illness worse. He carried an unrelenting hatred for Stanford White for reasons both real and imaginary. Winning against Stanford White became all-important to him. With a fanatical single-mindedness, Harry pursued Evelyn Nesbit until she finally relented. He sometimes treated her with great love. Then he subjected Evelyn to brutal beatings and unrelenting psychological abuse in his determination to get revenge against Stanford White. He twisted Evelyn’s words and became convinced that White had drugged and raped the teenage Evelyn.
On a warm night, on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden, Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh shot and killed Stanford White at a society gathering watching a musical performance.
The trials were a national sensation. Newspapers sold out, songs were written, everybody had an opinion. Thaw’s lawyer cleverly argued that his client was merely defending the honor of his beautiful wife. The prosecutor saw it as a clear-cut case of cold-blooded murder. Eventually a jury declared Thaw insane and he spent the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions. Evelyn Nesbit, the Marilyn Monroe of her era, faded from view, increasingly forgotten and forlorn. Much later, a movie “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing,”
would remind later generations of the fate of the 1st American supermodel.
We live in a celebrity obsessed era. No longer is talent required for fame. The only thing required for celebrity in America today is being on television, or the Internet. Do you remember the names of Jessica Hahn, Rita Jenrette, Donna Rice, Gennifer Flowers, or Paula Jones? They were all sex sirens in the news at one time. They went from being big news to a punchline on the Tonight Show in a matter of weeks. Evelyn Nesbit, in her day, was the most famous model in America. Today she is all but forgotten. I wonder if Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, and Snooki have ever heard of her.