Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Architects: Stanford White, Part 5

Harry Kendall Thaw of Pittsburgh, Pa., killed Stanford White. There was never any doubt about that. He shot White three times in the face in front of a crowd of people during a theater performance atop Madison Square Garden — ironically, a building White had designed. The date was June 25, 1906. It was a crime of passion and opportunity. White, one of the country’s greatest architects, was supposed to be in Philadelphia on business that night, but had stayed in New York because his son, Lawrence, had unexpectedly come into town. For the rest of his life, Lawrence White blamed himself for keeping his father in the city, but it wasn’t his fault. Harry Thaw was obsessed with killing White, and if he hadn’t done it that night, he would have surely found another time and place. White, it turned out, had seduced and deflowered Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry’s wife, when she was only sixteen, and that crime, as far as Harry Thaw was concerned, justified his actions. This “love triangle,” as the tabloids called it, would lead to tragedy, death and ruination.

As a partner in America’s most famous and accomplished architectural firms, Stanford White, of McKim, Mead & White, was a rich and famous man. They designed some of the country’s most impressive public and private buildings, like the Brooklyn Museum, Manhattan’s original Pennsylvania Station, the Farley Post Office, the second Madison Square Garden, and the soaring Municipal Building.

White was an immensely talented and meticulous designer, creating opulent interiors for his clients, and collecting the riches of the world to bring back for his customers and himself. His attention to the smallest detail meant that he would put the same dedication to excellence in a statue base in Prospect Park as he would to the grand salon of a Newport, R.I., estate.

He knew the good stuff when he saw it, and collected it, and enjoyed it, keeping a large set of rooms in the tower of his Madison Square Garden to work and play in. We’ll never know why he started collecting young women the way he collected paintings and rugs, but he soon saw himself as a connoisseur of tender teenage women, fragile young things that he could both seduce and act as father and protector. He was certainly not the first, or the last, middle-aged married rich man to do so. He just got caught.

The early 20th century was very much like today, just with more clothes. New York City was awash in daily tabloid newspapers which carried advertisements for all kinds of products, and the city’s many large department and specialty stores ran ads in those papers, as well as in the many magazines, billboards, flyers and brochures that were everywhere. Models were needed for those ads, and for the illustrations in newspapers, and like today, nothing sells a product, or gets attention, like a pretty girl and sex.

These girls found jobs as artists’ models, and even more lucratively, as photographers’ models. Their faces and bodies sold everything from clothing to cigarettes to furniture, and illustrated the often lurid stories the tabloids lived to tell. It was the age of Yellow Journalism, where no story was too horrible to tell, and the more details and pictures, the better. If the girls were lucky, or well-connected enough, a career as a model could lead to a career in the theater, where they could possibly meet wealthy men who were looking for pretty wives, or at least pretty mistresses, although no one said that out loud.

As told in our last chapter, into this story came young and beautiful Evelyn Nesbitt, who came to New York, and conquered it, rising from model to chorus girl in Florodora, the city’s most popular musical review. There she met Stanford White, who carefully and over time, befriended her, financially backed her, and ultimately seduced her, and made her his mistress. But Stanny White was not the only man who admired Evelyn as she kicked up her heels and showed her legs in Florodora. She also became the obsession of young, rich and handsome Harry Thaw.

Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh was heir to a fortune made in mining and railroads. According to accounts, he was troubled from birth, going from one spoiled tantrum to another from childhood to adulthood. His family’s wealth got him whatever and wherever he wanted — everything except the help he really needed. He was protected throughout his life by a powerful and domineering mother, who indulged his every whim and cleaned up after his messes. And by the time he was an adult, there were lots of messy messes.

He went to many different private schools and major universities, managing to get asked to leave, or kicked out of all of them. Harvard tossed him out, despite his family’s money, after he went on a drunken binge and chased a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun. He would later tell people he studied poker at Harvard, anyway.

After giving up on education, he spent his time living the high life of a rich wastrel. He became infamous for temper fits, and often overturned tables in restaurants. He moved to New York and became a fixture at Broadway shows, always squiring a pretty chorus girl on his arm. Among the chorus girls and in theater society, however, he soon became known for his cruel side, with a penchant for dog whips. His favorite show was Florodora, and like Stanford White, he too was enamored of the beautiful young red-headed chorus girl named Evelyn Nesbitt.

Nesbitt was wooed and taken care of by White, and proposed to by John Barrymore, but she would marry Harry Thaw. She was warned to stay away from him by others, and for a long time she did. But he would send her anonymous gifts and letters, and show up at the stage door. While she was White’s mistress, and dating John Barrymore, she was fending off Harry Thaw. But he wouldn’t give up. Amazingly, he and Stanford White never managed to encounter each other as they both pursued Evelyn. But both knew about the other, and while Stanny never considered Harry a serious threat to his conquest of Evelyn, as he barely noticed him except to ridicule him, Harry hated Stanny with a passion.

Stanny could see that Evelyn was getting away from him, so after Barrymore proposed, he enrolled her in the DeMille School for girls, in New Jersey. Mrs. DeMille was the mother of Cecil B.; a whole ’nother story, there. While she was in the school, she had an “attack of appendicitis,” which was probably a pregnancy and abortion. While she was recovering, Harry came to visit, bringing lavish gifts and kindly attention. Mrs. DeMille was charmed, and so was Mrs. Nesbitt, Evelyn’s mother. Even though Evelyn thought that Harry scared her to death, she began to warm up to him. Stanny had her put up at a private sanatorium in the city to fully recover, and Harry Thaw was her most frequent visitor.

By this time, Evelyn was eighteen, and Stanny, although still fond of her, was casting his eye on younger prey, and was not coming around as much. Harry was there, and he suggested that the Nesbitt ladies accompany him to Europe, in order that Evelyn fully recover in style. Mrs. Nesbitt did not want Evelyn to leave Stanford White, but the trio went to Europe where they were wined, dined and clothed and travelled in luxury and splendor. Harry proposed every day, but Evelyn demurred.

Harry was getting tired of all this, and finally grabbed her one night, and demanded to know if she was “pure,” and why she wouldn’t marry him. She finally and tearfully told him the story of Stanford White, his lavish apartment with its red velvet swing, her seduction, the drugged champagne and probable rape, the shame of it all, and the two-year affair. Harry went thermonuclear with rage.

The trio went on with their European vacation, but every night, as Mrs. Nesbitt slept in the next room, Harry would make Evelyn tell him the story again and again, pressing her for more details, as the story of Stanford White grew more and more torrid with each telling. Evelyn tearfully told him she was unworthy of him, as she was ruined, but that only made Harry want her more, and hate Stanford White with a passion that would result in death.

One day, Mrs. Nesbitt went shopping and came back with some new lingerie for herself and Evelyn. She didn’t have any of her own money, and when questioned, she told Harry that Stanford White had given her a credit line, for her to spend on herself and Evelyn, as she saw fit. It was “just in case” money, and it ended Mrs. Nesbitt’s trip. Harry was livid, and sent her home on the first boat back to New York. Evelyn was stuck in Germany with an increasingly unstable Harry Thaw, with no friends, no money and no way to get away from him. He promised to find a female chaperone, but one never appeared.

Meanwhile, the couple was holed up in a remote castle in Germany, and Harry was showing his true personality. Evelyn found Harry’s stash; needles that he used to shoot up cocaine and morphine, and he was having temper tantrums and fits of rage. Even though the castle was a fairyland with servants and opulence surrounding them, Evelyn was in prison. One night, during a thunderstorm, Harry came into her bedroom, naked and with his dog whip. He beat her viciously, and then fell weeping at her feet. She told him she hated him, but then spent the next month traveling with him, until they came back to America.

Evelyn would run to Stanny and tell him the story. He was furious as well, and arranged to have a lawyer meet her who he said could protect her. But he was not the same Stanny she knew. His attentions were elsewhere, and while he was still kind to her, and paid her bills, he was not the trembling, ardent suitor who had skillfully arranged to make her his only two years ago. He had moved on. There were tales of new girls. That year she didn’t get an invitation to Stanny’s famous Christmas party.

Evelyn moved on too. In spite of the horrors of Harry’s behavior, she went to Europe with him again, as he continued to shower her with money, jewels and expensive clothing. He continued to ask for her hand, but it wasn’t until she had another attack of “appendicitis” that Mrs. Thaw, the domineering mother, came to New York, and insisted that Evelyn, as unworthy as she was, marry Harry.

In 1905, Evelyn moved to Pittsburgh and married Harry Thaw. Everyone there knew who she was and who she had been keeping house with. She had no friends, no social invitations, and Evelyn Thaw was miserable. A year later, after being stuck in the house with her mother-in-law, the Thaws decided to go to New York and take in some shows, perhaps go to Madison Square Garden, and dine at the fabulous outdoor restaurant and theater, on the roof of the Garden. It was a date with destiny. (Photographs: Evelyn Nesbitt and Harry K. Thaw, trutv.com)

I thought I could end this today, but no! The “Trial of the Century” next Tuesday.

Walkabout: Stanford White, Part 1

Walkabout: Stanford White, Part 2
Walkabout: Stanford White, Part 3
Walkabout: Stanford White, Part 4

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