Why you should care
Because this was a 20th century example of a celebrity love triangle.
As Evelyn Nesbit’s eyes adjusted to the light, her head was pounding so hard she had to fight the urge to throw up. Reaching for a blanket, her hand slid over an empty Champagne flute, and she slowly realized she was naked. Her heart began to race when she noticed there was a man hovering over her … and that there was blood on her thighs.
Five years later, that man would be dead, and Nesbit, the world’s first supermodel, would be thrust into the trial of the century. The life of the copper-haired beauty from Philadelphia, who had become one of the most sought-after models during the Gilded Age, would unravel before an insatiable audience sucked in by celebrity scandal, leading to depression, a methadone addiction and attempted suicide.
Her face was her fortune, she was in demand everywhere.
Paula Uruburu, author
Nesbit was barely 5 feet tall and resembled a schoolgirl, even as an adult. She had gained fame after a serendipitous encounter with an artist who asked her to pose for a portrait at age 14. Driven by financial necessity — her widowed mother was unemployed — Nesbit began modeling for magazines, commercials and all manner of sundries, becoming the banner child for the first heady decade of the 20th century. “Her face was her fortune, she was in demand everywhere,” says Paula Uruburu, author of American Eve, a biographical account of Nesbit. “She was the precursor of the Miley Cyruses of today, and the young women who become the breadwinners for their families.”
But Nesbit’s allure also had a downside: She soon caught the attention of Stanford White, a burly 47-year-old architect with a penchant for rocking girls on red velvet swings. Seducing Nesbit and her mother with an opulently decorated hotel room and free accommodation, White earned the family’s confidence — until one night, when it all went awry. While alone with him in his Manhattan apartment on 24th Street, Nesbit was introduced to the “mirror room,” a room paneled entirely in mirrors, where she was offered a glass of Champagne. “He asked me why I was not drinking my Champagne, and I said I did not like it; it tasted bitter,” Nesbit would later tell the court. “But he persuaded me to drink it, and I did.” After changing into a yellow satin kimono, Nesbit remembered nothing else. “There began a pounding and thumping in my ears, and the room got all black,” she recalled. When she came to, she realized she’d been sexually penetrated and began to scream. She said she had “entered that room a virgin,” but did not leave as one.
For years, Nesbit kept the rape a closely guarded secret, but memories of that night haunted her. She eventually married Harry Thaw, an eccentric heir to a multimillion-dollar mine and railroad fortune who had pursued her relentlessly for four years. Fixated on female chastity, Thaw extracted every detail about that night from a hysterical Nesbit. From that moment on, according to Nesbit, Thaw became obsessed with White and began carrying a handgun. Thaw also began a zealous campaign to expose White — until, that is, he took matters into his own hands. On the evening of June 25, 1906, Thaw wore a long, black overcoat to the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden, where he shot White three times in the back of the head and torso, killing him. Nesbit would later recall that Thaw, who was still brandishing the gun high above his head in full view of other theatergoers, “leaned over and kissed me and said: ‘I have probably saved your life.’ ”
Nesbit testified at not one but two of Thaw’s trials — the first resulting in a hung jury, the second in him being found guilty by reason of insanity. Nesbit’s testimony, in which she was forced to describe the sexual assault — few family or friends came forward to renounce the claim against White — proved an emotionally torturous ordeal. Though Nesbit was never a suspect, “she was essentially the reason White was killed,” Uruburu says. “The only thing people accused her of was pitting one man against another.” A media frenzy ensued, and the triangle was exposed in headlines and candid photographs emblazoned across the front pages of the national press.
Thaw served eight years at a hospital for the criminally insane, and the couple divorced in 1915. By the 1920s, a destitute and desperate Nesbit was struggling with addiction. She opened a tearoom to pull herself out of poverty but fell almost immediately into debt. Facing eviction, and with a city marshal at her door, she ran upstairs to call the police, telling them she had taken a morphine overdose and needed medical attention. Nesbit, who would prove resilient and live to the age of 82, then reportedly hung up “with a defiant bang.”