Evelyn Nesbit (December 25, 1884 – January 17, 1967) was an American artists' model and chorus girl, noted for her entanglement in the murder of her ex-lover, architect Stanford White, by her first husband, Harry Kendall Thaw.
The Nesbit family moved to Pittsburgh around 1893, when Evelyn was still a schoolgirl. Her father, a struggling lawyer named Winfield Scott Nesbit, died that year, leaving behind substantial debts; his wife and two children were nearly destitute. For years Evelyn and her mother and younger brother lived in near-poverty, but by the time she reached adolescence her startling beauty came to the attention of several local artists, including John Storm, and she was able to find employment as an artists' model.
In 1901, when Nesbit was sixteen, she and her mother moved into a tiny room at 249 W. 22nd Street in New York City. Her mother had difficulty in finding work and after several weeks, Evelyn persuaded her to let her model again. Using a letter of introduction from a Philadelphia artist, Evelyn met and posed for James Carroll Beckwith, who introduced her to other New York artists. Soon she began modeling for artists Frederick S. Church, Herbert Morgan, Gertrude Käsebier, Carl Blenner and photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr.
Eventually, Evelyn became one of the most in-demand artists' models in New York. Charles Dana Gibson, one of the most popular artists in the country at the time, rendered a pen-and-ink profile of Evelyn with her red hair arranged in the form of a question mark. The work, titled "The Eternal Question", remains one of Gibson's best known works and Evelyn entered the ranks of the famous turn-of-the-century "Gibson Girls."
Photographic fashion modeling, which was becoming more popular in daily newspapers, proved to be even more lucrative for Evelyn. Photographer Joel Feder would pay her $5 for a half-day shoot or $10 for a full day shoot (about $260 per day in 2010 dollars). Evelyn soon made more than enough money to support her family.
As a chorus girl on Broadway in 1901, Nesbit was introduced to acclaimed architect Stanford White by Edna Goodrich, who was a member along with Nesbit in the company performing Florodora at the Casino Theatre. While nothing untoward occurred on that first visit, the swing would later become notorious as accounts of its use were aired in the course of a murder trial, and some sources incorrectly state the activities that formed the basis for the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing took place at the "Tower Room" at the old Madison Square Garden, where White kept an office. Nesbit states specifically that the swing and its related activities took place at the apartment on West Twenty-fourth Street. Although White reportedly derived sexual pleasure by pushing young women in the swing, naked or nearly so, as Nesbit later testified in court, she claimed her own later nude escapades with White were simply for his "aesthetic" delight.
Nesbit was courted by the young John Barrymore, beginning in 1901. The two met when Barrymore caught a performance of The Florodora Girls and sent flowers backstage. Barrymore, who was from a well known theatrical family, was then 19 and seeking a career in cartooning. He was considered too poor by her mother to be a suitable match for the 17-year-old Nesbit. Her mother and White were enraged when they found out about the relationship. However, Nesbit was finally smitten with someone her own age and often returned to Barrymore's apartment after hours. White, still a strong influence in her life, arranged to send her away to a boarding school in Wayne, New Jersey (run by the mother of film director Cecil B. DeMille) in part to extricate her from John Barrymore. Barrymore in the meantime proposed marriage to Nesbit, in the presence of Mrs Nesbit and White, but Evelyn turned down his offer.
Stanford White and John Barrymore were subsequently supplanted in Nesbit's life by Harry Kendall Thaw (1871–1947) of Pittsburgh, the son of a coal and railroad baron. Prior to her relationship with Thaw, Nesbit dated a well known polo player named James "Monty" Waterbury (1875–1920) and the young magazine publisher Robert J. Collier. They were wed on April 4, 1905, when Nesbit was twenty.
Nesbit had one child, Russell William Thaw, who was born in Berlin on October 25, 1910 (he died in 1984 at Santa Barbara, California). A noted aircraft pilot in World War II, as a child he appeared in Hollywood films with his mother.
On June 25, 1906, Nesbit and Thaw saw White at the restaurant Café Martin and ran into him again later that night in the audience of the Madison Square Garden's roof theatre at a performance of Mam'zelle Champagne, written by Edgar Allan Woolf. During the song "I Could Love A Million Girls", Thaw fired three shots at close range into White's face, killing him instantly and reportedly exclaiming, "You'll never go out with that woman again. In his book The Murder of Stanford White, Gerald Langford quoted Thaw as saying "You ruined my life," or "You ruined my wife," and the New York Times account the following day stated "Another witness said the word was "wife" instead of "life"" in response to the arresting officer's report otherwise.
Harry Thaw was tried twice for the murder of Stanford White. At the first, the jury was deadlocked; at the second (in which Nesbit testified in his behalf), Thaw pleaded temporary insanity. Thaw's mother (usually referred to as "Mother Thaw") promised Nesbit that if she would testify that White had raped her and that Thaw had only tried to avenge her honor, she would receive a quiet divorce and a one million dollar divorce settlement. Nesbit got the divorce, but never saw a cent of the million. Immediately following Thaw's acquittal, she was cut off financially by Thaw's mother.
Thaw was incarcerated at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York, but enjoyed almost total freedom. Still, he tried to escape a couple of times to Canada. In 1913, he strolled out of the asylum and was driven over the Canadian border into Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was extradited back to the U.S., but in 1915 was released from custody after being judged sane.
In the years following the second trial, Nesbit's careers as a vaudeville performer, silent film actress and cafe manager were only modestly successful, her life marred by suicide attempts. In 1914, she appeared in Threads of Destiny produced at the Betzwood studios of film producer Siegmund Lubin. In 1916, after her divorce from Thaw, she married her dancing partner, Jack Clifford (1880–1956, born Virgil James Montani). He left her in 1918, and she divorced him in 1933.
In 1926 Nesbit gave an interview to the New York Times, stating that she and Thaw had reconciled, but nothing came of the renewed relationship. Nesbit published two memoirs, The Story Of My Life (1914), and Prodigal Days (1934).
She lived quietly for several years in Northfield, New Jersey. She overcame suicide attempts, alcoholism, and an addiction to morphine, and in her later years taught classes in ceramics. She was a technical adviser on the 1955 movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.