Evelyn Nesbit, The Dark History of America’s First Supermodel

For this week’s Femme Fatale Friday, I have decided to cover the story of Evelyn Nesbit.   She is often called America’s First Supermodel.   She rose to fame and stardom in the Edwardian Era for modeling for famous figures such as Gibson Girl drawings and paintings.   She also would be one of the early models for photographs.   The reason why I referred to her history as dark is the fact that she is connected to a famous murder case, in fact, she is believed to have been the reason why the murder took place!

Evelyn Nesbit was born as Florence Evelyn Nesbit on December 25, 1884 (or 1885), in Pennsylvania to a poor family.   She would leave school as a young teenager in order to get a job as a shopgirl in order to help her family support themselves.   This is a common occurrence for children in this era, as it was a really rough time for families to get by with the high poverty rates.   In time Evelyn got noticed by the fact that she was so beautiful, being offered a chance to model for photographers and painters.   Now, at this time models were considered to be not far off from being prostitutes.   Obviously, in the modern era, we know that models are not sex workers, however, it was the perception of the day.

Evelyn Nesbit’s appearance is still well known to this day, as her photos often can be seen when one looks up Gibson Girl looks and Edwardian historical photographs.   She had a lovely and timeless appearance that really was accentuated by the photos that were taken of her.   I want to mention a brief side note that L.M. Montgomery was inspired by Gibson Girl images of Evelyn when she developed her iconic character and book Anne of Green Gables!

The notorious nature of her memory comes from the fact that she garnered the attention of many powerful and wealthy men.   The most important of those in her history was Stanford White.    It was Stanford White’s murder at the hands of Evelyn Nesbit’s husband Harry Thaw in 1906 that would result in what would be called the “Trial of the Century.”   According to Harry Thaw, he shot Stanford White dead because White had ruined his wife’s purity before they were ever married!  

That is right, he killed another man because he believed that this man had deflowered his wife (before he ever met her).   It sounds ludicrous for many modern people, but purity and virginity were still very important to people in the Edwardian Era.   This trial is so infamous because it had to be tried twice, as the jury was unable to reach a verdict the first time.   The second time Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity!

The history of Stanford White and his attraction to Evelyn goes back to when she was only a teenager who was modeling and acting on the stage (which as a side note actresses were also viewed as prostitutes in this era).   He loved watching her on stage and lavished his attention on her when she would visit him in her free time.

Many people do believe that Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbit had a sexual affair.   It would make perfect sense that he would keep giving her attention and even help her and her family financially if they were having a sexual affair.   Even in the Edwardian Era, it was a bit of a shock to have a middle-aged man of great wealth having sex with a teenage girl, especially one who was a model and actress!   This isn’t for the pre-marital sex alone, as most men took mistresses on the side who were unmarried if they were wealthy and powerful enough.   The reason for the scandal was how young she was, the fact that she was from a poor background, and she was a model and actress!

It is famously believed that Stanford White saw Evelyn as the answer to many of his sexual fantasies.   This is the story of the Red Velvet Swing!   He apparently had a thing for watching Evelyn swing on this swing that was located within his office and home.   It can also be thought that the swing had more utility than simply being for him to watch.   However, the swing is a famous symbol of the relationship between the two.   In fact, the film based on this story was entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.   It is a very good Old Hollywood film from 1955 that starred Joan Collins, who would go on to be the original Alexis Carrington in the original version of Dynasty.   This is a great dramatized version of the tale!   Although it is far from historically accurate it is a fun way to begin to learn more about her story!

After the trial of her husband for Stanford White’s death, she would go on to begin working in early films.   She did not find a whole lot of success there though, as her history of having her husband shoot her ex-lover cast a pall over the rest of her life!   She would also try her hand at owning businesses, going on to live relatively quietly until her death at the age of 82.   I hope that you have enjoyed learning a little bit about this truly fatal femme this week.   Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is a lovely photo of Evelyn.  I found the image on https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0626336/.

Further Reading/Watching

  • American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu
  • The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955)