June 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 4
A number of people who attended the opening of Mamzelle Champagne at the roof theatre of Madison Square Garden noted the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Kendall Thaw and their two male guests. Young Mrs. Thaw, the former show girl Evelyn Nesbit, was well known as one of the beauties of New York, and her husband, the thirty-five-year-old heir to a Pittsburgh rail and coke fortune, had achieved notoriety as an irresponsible playboy who was continually in the news: he once drove an automobile through a display window; he tried to ride a horse into an exclusive club that had blackballed him from membership; he reportedly gave an elaborate dinner in Paris at which the only guests were women of questionable reputation and the favors were pieces of jewelry; at another of his parties music had been provided by John Philip Sousa’s entire band.
On that opening night—June 25, 1906— Mamzelle Champagne dragged badly (Mrs. Thaw described it as “putrid”), but no one seems to have observed Thaw leaving his table. When a member of the cast began singing “I Could Love a Million Girls,” three pistol shots suddenly cracked, and the audience whirled around to see a man slump in his chair and slide to the floor, silver and glassware crashing about him. Standing beside him, Harry Thaw held a pistol in the air as if to signal the end of the deadly business; then he walked back and joined his wife and friends.
“Good God, Harry!” she cried, “What have you done?”
“It’s all right, dear,” he replied, kissing her. “I have probably saved your life.”
At that, a fireman on duty at the Garden disarmed Thaw and a policeman led him to the elevator. Behind them the panicky crowd and the girls from the chorus clustered around the fallen man. Lying dead in a pool of blood, his face blackened beyond recognition by powder burns, was Stanford White, fifty-two-year-old man about town (a “voluptuary,” some called him) and America’s most famous architect, whose proudest achievement was Madison Square Garden.
Six months later the most sensational trial in the country’s history began, a trial that revealed to plain people everywhere the hypocrisy of Victorian morality. Although Thaw was on trial for his life, the high moment of drama came when Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was called to testify. Ten thousand jammed the streets to see her—a twenty-two-yearold girl who looked sixteen (“the most exquisitely lovely human being I ever looked at,” wrote Irvin S. Cobb)—and a shocked nation began to witness what one commentator called “the vivisection of a woman’s soul.”
Evelyn, it was clear, had come a long way from Tarentum, Pennsylvania, where she was born. Detail by lurid detail, the prosecution took her through the story of how she had hecome an artist’s model at fourteen, then a show girl with the hit musical Florodora . Along with other prominent New York men, Stanford White had arranged to meet her, and in his apartment one night, she said, he gave her drugged champagne and ravished her. After she became his mistress, White delighted in setting her naked on a red velvet swing and pushing her so high her feet touched a Japanese parasol that hung from the ceiling. In 1903 she left White for Thaw and went on the first of two premarital trips to Europe with him. She returned home alone, took up with White again, and revealed to him the sadistic brutality she had suffered at Thaw’s hands after he learned of her relationship with White. Then—despite all she had discovered about the unbalanced Thaw—she left for Europe with him again. As most reporters perceived, it was Evelyn, not her husband, who was on trial: the prosecutor stated in his summation that she was a “tigress between two men, egging them on. To Thaw she said White had wronged her. To White she said Thaw had beaten her with a whip.” Since White was married and could not give her respectability, she had decided in 1905 to marry Thaw. A year later her husband, who went into paroxysms of rage at the mention of White’s name, could stand his jealous doubts no longer and killed the architect.
Three and a half months after the trial began it ended with a hung jury; so nine months later the whole sordid tale was recited before another jury, which concluded that the defendant was not guilty, on grounds of insanity. But the judge, declaring Thaw a manic-depressive and dangerous to the public safety, committed him to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminal Insane. Much of the next fifteen years he spent in asylums; in 1924 he was released and lived in semiseclusion, except for occasional colorful encounters with police and press, until his death in 1947.
For Evelyn, the years that followed the trial were all downhill: squabbles with Thaw and his family over money, affairs with other men, divorce, suicide attempts, night-club acts that took her into ever tawdrier cabarets, run-ins with the curious and the police. Through it all she made a living recalling her vicissitudes and the sensational trial in different versions of her “own true story.” In 1934 she told it again in a book, Prodigal Days , and in 1955 she was hired as “technical consultant” for a motion picture, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing , which purported to be her life story. Finally, at eighty-two, she died in a convalescent home, all too aware that for the lovely young girl life had ended that night sixty years ago at the roof garden. “Stanny White was killed,” she said, “but my fate was worse. I lived.”