Day 255 of Colourisation Project – January 17
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
It was hailed as “The Murder of the Century.” Somewhat premature considering the century was only 6 years old, however it had everything; an archetypal tragedy of sex, lust, lost innocence, high society, power, money, revenge and murder. The lurid details of the 1906 murder of leading New York architect, Stanford White by rail and coal tycoon, Harry Kendall Thaw, at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater, (designed by White), gripped the nation.
It generated increased newspaper sales for the press, which was saturated by this real life drama. Americans watched it play out like a Puccini melodrama. Because of the huge amount of publicity the case attracted, the jury had to be sequestered for the first time ever thereby setting a precedence in American legal history.
And at the center of this media frenzy was today’s colourisation subject, the copper haired beauty, Evelyn Nesbit, the most sought-after artists’ and fashion model in America’s Gilded Age, and the popular cover face on women’s magazine of the period, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, The Delineator, Women’s Home Companion, Ladies’ Home Journal and Cosmopolitan.
Nesbit’s liaison with renowned architect Stanford White, 31 years her senior, immortalized her as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” in reference to a red velvet swing suspended from the ceiling of White’s luxurious, multi-storey apartment, by ropes entwined with ivy-like vines.
As Paula Uruburu, author of a biography of Nesbit, American Eve, puts it, “Tragically, almost as quickly as her star rose, America’s first supermodel, sex goddess and bona-fide celebrity fell victim to the very culture that created and consumed her.”
Nesbit was just 21 years old when she became embroiled in the scandal surrounding the murder of White, her former benefactor, rapist and ex-lover, and Thaw, her demented and abusive husband.
She was the star witness in the trial where the shocking details about her relationships with both men had religious groups calling for a ban on media coverage. Nesbit’s mother was accused of prostituting her daughter to White and White’s lascivious lifestyle was exposed.
The once esteemed architect who designed the triumphal arch at Washington Square became in death a laughing stock and the butt of commonly repeated jokes about his come-hither invitation to Nesbit to “come up and see my etchings.”
Thaw was found insane and sentenced to life in a hospital for the criminally insane in upstate New York, from which he once escaped. He was later released in 1915 with his reputation untarnished — a “homicidal hero.” In the eyes of some quarters of the public it was seen as a case of the triumph of good over evil.
Interestingly, the word brainstorm originated as a description of Thaw’s “wild state of mind” at the time of the murder (he was a cocaine addict) and was used frequently as a defense throughout the trial. Although a negative term denoting a form of mental instability, by the 1930s it evolved into the more positive reference to a sudden and generally creative and enlightening thought.
Though Nesbit’s entire life was defined by this tragic episode, she weathered the storm, showing great resilience and went on to make a life for herself as a mother, a silent-screen actress, a vaudeville performer and author of two memoirs, The Story of My Life (1914), and Prodigal Days (1934).
Nesbit passed away this day, January 17, 1967, in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California, at the age of 82.