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.