The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing

She had deep copper colored hair that flowed down her back like a burnished froth.  She was slim – slimmer than was fashionable, but it somehow suited her youth and ethereal beauty.  Her eyes were dreamy, drawn into the narrow submission which inspired Charles Dana Gibson to create the Girls who dangled their men like puppets from their graceful fingers.  Which was sadly ironic because all through her life it was the men who controlled, then betrayed, her.

Evelyn Nesbit was a beauty by the time she was 15, in 1900.  Her striking looks and coloring were starting to attract attention, and the mistake began then:  the mistake of treating a girl like a woman.  When she was 16 she was a chorus girl in New York City – one of the Florodora girls, who, when asked,

"Tell me, pretty maiden,
Are there any more at home like you?"

would reply in pretty unison:

"There are few, kind sir,
But simple girls and proper, too."

And then she met up with disaster.

Stanford White was three times her age.  Married, a brillianat architect – the designer, in fact, of Madison Square Garden – he was also a collector of Broadway's freshest and youngest showgirls.  His apartments were literally a garden of New York's untouched flowers – whom would be thrown out as soon as the petals betan to lose their color.

Inside his private apartment, or 'den' as the papers called them,  there was a red velvet swing.  The rumor was that he encouraged his girls to frolic on the swing.  Strategically placed mirrors gave him the opportunity to enjoy every angle, as the youthful figures swung higher and higher, as lace and taffeta – if any were worn at all –  flew apart, revealing stockings and garters, until innocence was turned into something else.

Shortly after meeting her, he took Evelyn to his rooms.  She played on the swing.  She posed for photographs wearing only an antique kimono of patterned silk, curled up on a bear-skin rug with maddening coyness.

And then there followed every Victorian mother's warning to her daughters, brought to life: he plied her with champagne, and when Evelyn woke up she was hungover, bruised and violated.  It is said that he then told her, in triumph, "Now you belong to me!"

She did belong to him, for a while, until her maturing body began to bore him.  Around this time she begain to receive roses from Harry Thaw:  enormously wealthy, possessive and completely unbalanced.  This was a time when cocaine was easily obtained, and he had quickly become an addict.  He bragged that he had studied poker at Harvard.  He flogged his women.  On a trip to Europe, she admitted the details of her relationship with Stanford White.  Throughout the hellish trip, he repeatedly whipped Evelyn, who by this time must have wondered if abuse was the only currency received in exchange for giving away her beauty.

But he was generous.  He told her that she would always be his 'angel'.  And she was young, and the rich gifts of jewels and clothes could easily turn her head from the weals on her back to the young man kneeling in front of her and proposing marriage.  They were wed in 1905.  She wore black.

The next year, at the premiere of 'Mam'zelle Champagne' at Madison Square Garden, Thaw drew from his dress jacket the pistol he always carried and fired three shots into White's face.  Through the acrid smoke, through the terrified screams of the people close enough to realize what had just happened, he was heard to say, "You will never see that woman again."

From one of the beautifully matched (each 5'4" tall, 130 pounds) Florodora girls to a key player in 'The Crime of the Century', Evelyn's progress was a grand tour through the greatest debaucheries of a great city – not as a spectator, but as a victim.  Her prettiness, her natural charms, did not open the door to an easy life; rather, these qualities only made it easier for her admirers to possess her, to exploit her, and yet at the same to ignore her.

Years later, after a suicide attempt, after defeating both alcoholism and morphine addiction, she said that 'Stanny' was the lucky one for having died young.

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18 responses to “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing

  1. There are many photographs of girls like this one at the Museum of Sex in New York. It's hard not to imagine all the dark and sad tales to go along with many of them, though the poses attempted to convey only the light and frothy side of Being a Girl, so titillating to men who grew up seeing women pile on more and more layers as they matured. I also noted how much heavier the girls were at first, and as the photos progressed through time, they looked thinner and thinner. Somewhere in the middle, they moved swiftly past my personal ideal and into an area where angles and curves no longer balanced each other out.

  2. I'm thankful to be alive in an era when women have more to look forward to than securing a wealthy suitor and going through life as a man's possession.

  3. I think I saw an episode of "American Experience" about this sordid tale – it was The Crime of The Century!

  4. This is so sad. She was so beautiful.

  5. I remember reading E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime when I was fairly young & precocious. Their story is part of the bigger plot, but I'd never seen pictures of her before. Really lovely, and so sad.

  6. It's such a tragedy to see that light dim from her face.

  7. She's beautiful. It's a tragedy that the world feels such compulsion to manipulate and destroy beauty and innocence.On the other hand, back then you had to do what you could to survive… very sad story, Aubrey.

  8. SMisery – and such a waste; but for that time, not at all surprising
    emily – have you ever heard of a model called 'Fernande'? Her postcards were very popular, but never sold on the open market. The backdrops were supposed to look lush and feminine, but there were a series of photos where it looked like she was posing in an undrained shower. What kind of life could she have led?
    Red Pen – the problem, I think, was that women then confused being a man's possession with being under his protection.
    michelemybelle – I was reading the transcripts from the program!
    YGRS/bookishbiker – I get teased sometimes about sinking so far into old stories and personalities. But it would be awful to forget them.
    lostdwarf – so it wasn't just me seeing the difference, then?
    jaypo – she was seen as a pretty toy, who should be grateful for any attention, no matter what direction it took.

  9. Beauty draws misery like the earth draws the moon. I'm grateful to have been born smart instead of pretty.

  10. lovely writing aubrey. i love the tone you set immediately. i don't know why but my favortie line – "She wore black."
    It's simple, but holds so much emotion in so few words.

  11. I always learn something from you. This is fascinating.

  12. so it wasn't just me seeing the difference, then?
    No. She's incandescent in the first picture, just glowing from the inside out. Then in the last photo, it's like looking at a woman who's in her own silken prison. She's smiling but she's not that girl anymore and she's not what that girl should have become. It's so sad.

  13. have you ever heard of a model called 'Fernande'? Ah, so hard to stay caught up right now. I have not heard of her. They all seem so sad, and most, I guess, are just lost to their time, like most of us, yet–these glimpses make us wonder about them more than most. Something like that. I have this strange idea of Laura Ingalls, husband dead after an illness instead of just weakened, doing whatever she can to survive in the big city. I'll go away now.

  14. I read this last night and have been thinking about it since. We still have not reached a point where women are not seeking a man with money, and men haven't given up chasing the young and beautiful to suit their egos. It happens all over this world and it's still not a happy tale.
    When I was working in high-end fundraising, so many people said in all seriousness, "Now you can find a rich old man to take care of you."
    To me that's just long-term legal prostitution. And icky.

  15. what a tragic life, she hardly had a chance…and wearing black at her own wedding, what appropriate symbolism.

  16. I have better than reasonable information that Evelyn Nesbit had a daughter in July 1904 (likely instead of the doubted second abortion from John Barrymore) and given to her midwife as an undeclared adopted daughter.

  17. I have better than reasonable information that Evelyn Nesbit had a daughter in July 1904 (likely instead of the doubted second abortion from John Barrymore) and given to her midwife as an undeclared adopted daughter. That daughter, my Grandmother, is still alive and very well at 103 years old.
    Evelyn’s midwife kept the secret to death, only telling my Grandmother that her mother was very famous. The midwife, my Grandmother's stepmother, kept scores of articles on Evelyn Nesbit and my Grandmother's stepsisters told her that Evelyn was indeed her mother. However, a falling out with her stepmother at 14 caused her not to seek out her parent's identities.
    It is not absolutely certain the story since my Grandmother's stepmother, Evelyn’s midwife, refused to tell her directly. My Grandmother has lived a long and healthy life without knowing her parent's. Her only marriage was to an actor in Connellsville, PA who passed away in 1954. She now lives with my Aunt, her daughter, in Nutley, New Jersey.
    I am interested in anyone that is also interested in her story and filling in the final blanks about Evelyn. I want my Grandmother to know the truth about her real parents before she passes away. She has the story to tell and, at 103, gets around better than all of us. She looks more like 80 than over 100.
    Not to worry, this is not about money. It is about trying to tell my Grandmother whom her real parents were before she passes. If anyone is interested, I can put you in touch with her and let her tell the story.
    Thank you,

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