Girl in Red Velvet Swing Longed to Flee Her Past

Times Staff Writer

Millions come to Los Angeles to try to turn their names into household words. But Florence "Evelyn" Nesbit Thaw, the most beautiful and notorious woman of her day, eventually hoped to be forgotten.

She was an early 20th century icon, one of artist Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girls," a supermodel before there was such a thing. As a showgirl, fans showered her with $50 bills wrapped around stems of roses tossed at her feet.

Books, newspapers and movies have recounted the escapades of the impoverished girl who came to New York and became the mistress of a famous Gilded Age architect, Stanford White. She cavorted nude for him on a red-velvet swing, but married Harry Kendall Thaw, the unbalanced scion of a wealthy coal-and-railroad family.

Harry Thaw would shoot and kill White in front of hundreds of New York socialites in 1906. After two trials that made them all household names, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent the better part of 20 years in insane asylums.

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw's grandson, a Van Nuys attorney, knew nothing of the scandal until she died.

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Evelyn and her widowed mother came to New York in 1900 from Pittsburgh. Her mother had been a seamstress; she, an artist's model.

Only 15, Evelyn soon attracted the attention of other artists. She was painted by Frederic Church, sculpted by George Grey Barnard and sketched by Gibson, with her hair hanging down her back in the shape of a question mark, in a work called "Eternal Question."

She also sang and danced her way into the hearts of huge audiences and a few accomplished men, including White, 47, who was married with a family. She became his mistress; he became her protector, stashing her and her mother at fancy hotels.

White kept a 5th Avenue love nest, where he pushed her in a red velvet swing as she wore nothing but the jewels he gave her.

All the while, Harry Thaw pursued Evelyn, who snubbed him. But he refused to be deterred. Harry Thaw's chance came in late 1903. White had hidden Evelyn away in an attempt to conceal their affair, sending her first to a boarding school, then to a hospital and sanitarium, supposedly for appendicitis.

"I think she really went away to have an abortion," said Russell Thaw, her grandson, born and raised in Los Angeles.

Until 1967, he knew nothing of his family's sordid past. "She was just my grandmother, a strong-willed woman, passionate about her art and cats," he said in an interview. "She lived a Bohemian life and cared little what society thought."

Russell Thaw, 59, said family lore and trial documents portrayed his grandfather as "a real weirdo, whose needle was not pointing north."

Harry Thaw, who used to light his cigars with $100 bills, persuaded Evelyn's mother that no one would marry Evelyn once she had become, as the phrase went, "soiled goods." No one but him, that is. Perhaps her mother helped sway Evelyn, who left White to wed Thaw.

"I'm convinced my grandmother married him only for money," Russell Thaw said.

The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe, where Thaw rented an isolated castle, lavished his bride with fur coats and jewels and tied her to the bed, whipping her until she bled. (Evelyn testified to this at his sanity hearings. Chorus girls also testified that he beat them with a "pearl-handled dog whip" and that his mother paid them to remain silent.)

"White paid to have her teeth fixed in the beginning, then my grandfather knocked them all out," Russell Thaw said.

Harry Thaw's erratic behavior worsened when they returned to New York. Consumed with jealousy, he waved a gun at his wife and threatened to kill White.

On the night of June 25, 1906, the couple were dining on the roof of Madison Square Garden -- a building designed by White -- when Thaw walked up to White's table in front of about 300 witnesses.

Thaw pulled a gun, said, "You ruined my wife," and shot White three times in the head.

During the first of Thaw's two murder trials, Evelyn told jurors in graphic detail how White had seduced her. She described her nude rides on White's red velvet swing in nothing but a $1,000 pearl-drop necklace.

"Don't forget I was only 15," she said, "and I enjoyed swinging."

But by the time the Thaw family's publicist finished putting his spin on it, newspaper readers across the country believed Thaw had killed White "to save American womanhood." An off-Broadway play, a book, postcards, sheet music -- "For My Wife and Home" -- helped convince folks that Thaw had only been protecting his family.

The first jury failed to reach a verdict. The second found him not guilty by reason of insanity.

As for Evelyn, she capitalized on the notoriety for her show biz career. But she didn't get a bonus she had expected: The Thaw family had promised her $1 million to cooperate with Harry's defense but shorted her, her grandson said. "It was because she let the cat out of the bag with all the testimony" about sex, Russell Thaw said. "I think they only gave her $25,000."

"To get even, my grandmother gave it to [the anarchist] Emma Goldman, who in turn gave it to John Reed, a leader of the American Communist Party." Reed wrote "Ten Days That Shook the World," about the Russian Revolution.

In October 1910, while Harry Thaw was still in an asylum enjoying nearly complete freedom, Evelyn gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw. She claimed he was Thaw's child, although Thaw vehemently denied it.

"He was allowed conjugal visits," Russell Thaw said. "It was a family joke that my father was conceived in jail."

The couple divorced in 1916, and he was released in 1924. When he died in 1947, he left her $10,000.

As Evelyn Nesbit, she arrived in Hollywood in 1913, appearing in nearly a dozen silent films, including 1917's "Redemption" with her own son. She played a mother forced to tell her child of a past indiscretion.

"It was just a chapter in my life," she told the press.

During the 1920s and '30s, she abused morphine and alcohol, and her career slid downhill. She began appearing in burlesque houses around the country.

"I wish I were a strip-teaser," she told a Times reporter in 1939, at age 53. "I wouldn't have to bother with so many clothes. I have a mother to support.... I'd work in a sheep pen in Central Park if I had to."

During World War II, she turned to art. She lived a Bohemian life with her three cats, Weirdie, Alley Kahn and Stumpy, at the Grant Beach School of Arts and Crafts on North Figueroa Street. She taught ceramics and sculpting, which she had studied at an early age when her stage career paid the bills.

Her beauty dimmed with age, helping her remain unnoticed behind thick black glasses.

She was rediscovered by a Times reporter in 1954 at a Long Beach art show, where she displayed a sculpted nude bust of a young girl.

"My mother hated her nude sculptures and never allowed them in our house," Russell Thaw said. He's not sure what happened to them, but his sister has Gibson's "Eternal Question."

In 1955, nearly half a century after the scandal, a fictionalized account of her life came out. "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" starred Joan Collins, Farley Granger and Ray Milland.

As for the big love scene with White, Evelyn said: "It looked like I was seducing him instead of the other way around."

She was paid a reported $10,000 to be a "technical consultant" -- and not to quibble.

But fame faded in her final decade. She died penniless at 81 in 1967 in a Santa Monica convalescent home. Only the family and a handful of mourners came to her funeral.

"My grandmother was a contradiction her whole life," Russell Thaw said. "She lived in a circular mirror and thought she was the cat's meow. Men would always tell her anything she wanted to hear, which led to her illusion of being faultless."

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