Monday, August 18, 2014
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“EVELYN NESBIT AND STANFORD WHITE (Love and Death in the Gilded Age)” by Michael Macdonald Mooney (first published 1976)
Yes, I have refined literary tastes and often take up these “Something Old” spots with erudite comments on English and French literary classics. But the fact is that my mind does sometimes take a holiday, and then I am inclined to read detective novels or books of popular history or (if I can find suitable ones) factual reconstructions of real murder cases.
Fossicking through a second-hand bookshop some years ago, I came across this good example of the latter category.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White became fodder for reams of sensational reports in American newspapers a little over one hundred years ago. White’s murder was dubbed “The Crime of the Century” by people who didn’t seem to notice that the century had barely begun when the murder took place. It was dramatized and turned into movies a number of times. In the 1950s, Hollywood produced a heavily bowdlerised version of the story under the title The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (it really is a dire and boring film – I saw it on late night television many years ago). Later the story became part of E. L. Doctorow’s bestselling panoramic novel Ragtime (published in 1975). Doctorow’s novel renewed interest in the case, which was probably what cued the New York journalist Michael Macdonald Mooney to write this factual reconstruction the following year.
Basically, it goes as follows:
In 1901 and 1902, the 16-year-old model and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit had an affair with the 48-year-old architect Stanford White, one of New York’s most esteemed citizens. Evelyn seems to have entered into the affair willingly although later – to pacify the husband she had married – she claimed to have been coerced. Stanford White, a wealthy man, paid all her bills and showed her a good time. Mind you, Evelyn Nesbit concurrently had an affair with the young actor John Barrymore, and she appears to have had a couple of abortions as a result of these dalliances. (Michael Macdonald Mooney speaks ironically of Evelyn “having her appendix out” twice.)
After the affair was over, Evelyn latched on to the millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw and went to Europe with him. Thaw was mentally unbalanced, a sadist, pervert and sometime drug-addict. He (literally) whipped Evelyn a number of times and she considered getting police protection from him. But he was rich, the lure of his money was strong, and she married him.
After they were married, Harry Thaw became obsessed with Evelyn’s former relationship with Stanford White. Already unbalanced, he was driven to frenzy by rumours of orgies in which she had participated. Evelyn and Harry made a pact that they would refer to Stanford White in conversation only as “the Beast”. Eventually, in June 1906, Thaw walked up to White’s table, during the performance of a musical comedy on the roof of Madison Square Garden (which White had designed), and shot White dead. At the time of the murder, Evelyn was 21, Thaw 35 and White 53.
Because White was such a prominent citizen, the press had a field day with the trials that followed (in 1907 and 1908). The defence counsel, in an effort to prove that Thaw had been provoked into temporary insanity, managed to have read into the record accounts of White’s orgies and frequent affairs with young actresses – not because White was on trial, but in order to “prove” that Thaw would easily have become deranged hearing these stories from his young wife.
After two trials, Thaw was acquitted on the grounds of insanity, and ordered to be confined to a lunatic asylum. But with the power of his family’s money behind him, he was able to evade permanent incarceration, and went on to a life of spending the family fortune while travelling to and from Europe and indulging his own sadistic sexual kinks. In the 1920s he was arrested again and incarcerated for hiring and whipping a young man. Thaw died in 1947.
Evelyn Nesbit calculated that by standing by her husband during his trial for murder, and giving evidence in support of his testimony, she would get a big payout from Thaw’s mother – especially as she was able to produce a young son whom she said was Thaw’s. In court, she played most fetchingly the role of the innocent and violated young wife. But Thaw’s mother had no sympathy for her and the big payout never came. Reduced once again to being a jobbing showgirl, Evelyn hit the road for a number of years having moderate success in revues and as a vaudeville dancer, with her notoriety helping to sell tickets. For a short time, she acted in (silent) films. But by the 1920s her looks were going, the case was forgotten and she went through a period of heroin addiction. She ran speakeasies. She managed tatty burlesque clubs. In the 1950s she received a small payment for being “technical advisor” on the heavily fictionalised film version of the case The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. She died in 1967, aged 81.
As told by Mooney, Thaw was a certifiable lunatic and Evelyn a totally venal little trollop who knew how to arouse men’s jealousy when it suited her. Everything she did was for money (including marrying a rich man whom she already knew to be sadistic and unhinged), though she did know how to play the injured innocent for courtroom consumption. And she did look beautiful (“the face of an angel and the soul of a snake” according to one contemporary).
Male ideas of feminine beauty do change (the very idea of males speculating about feminine beauty still arouses the wrath of some feminists, who raise cries about the “male gaze”). As a purely subjective and totally chauvinistic comment, however, I would say that surviving photographs of young Evelyn Nesbit show a woman whom most men would still regard as very attractive. Her looks are not “period” looks. Coming from an impoverished background, with her mother often encouraging her to seek wealthy men as sugar daddies, her face and body were her chief assets and she can be forgiven for exploiting them – but then the same can be said of many prostitutes.
As the subtitle of this book - Love and Death in the Gilded Age - makes plain, Michael Macdonald Mooney wants to invest this murder case with heavy historical and sociological significance. This, I have often noted, is the way juicy murder cases are often treated in up-market publications. (You may verify this by looking at the glossy pages of the New Yorker every so often when it does a feature on some celebrity murder – or for that matter the glossy pages of New Zealand’s own Metro when it chooses to comment on humbler murders.) Up-market magazines don’t want to admit, as the more honest tabloids do, that the chief reason for dishing up intimate details of a murder case is sheer prurience.
Anyway, in his quest for sociological significance, Mooney intersperses the narrative of the three central participants in the case with long accounts of Stanford White’s illustrious career as an architect, the careers of his illustrious friends and colleagues (especially the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens) and the changing social patterns of the city of New York in the very early 20th century. Mooney wants us to see White as a great genius with boundless energies, but frankly White’s enthusiasms in this book often come across as undiscriminating and naïve.
As Mooney interprets it, the story of Nesbit, White and Thaw is a paradigm of the shifts in tastes and values in New York. White, with his jewel-like “classical’ architecture is seen as allied to the city’s “old” wealth, with its Episcopalian and Abolitionist sense of social responsibility – the 5th Avenue world of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. By contrast the Thaws, industrial Pennsylvanian millionaires, and the showgirls of Broadway represent the new money-oriented razzmatazz, with mass-circulation newspapers fuelling the idea of achieving fame without either social responsibility or tasteful poise. “New” money, in Mooney’s view, was what won out. Nearly all of the buildings White designed have long since been demolished by developers to make way for skyscrapers.
However, the dichotomy which Mooney draws between “old” and “new” money strikes me as altogether too neat, and it does lead him into some awful overwriting. For myself, I wish he had stuck with more honest prurience.
First twerpish footnote: A quick check shows me that many other authors have had a crack at writing about the case. The most recent substantial effort is Paula Uruburu’s American Eve, published in 2008. Relying solely on what the reviews have told me, it would appear that this version sees things almost entirely from Evelyn’s point of view, characterising her first encounter with White as “rape”. But it also does what Mooney does and attempts to interpret the case in terms of its impact on culture. I watched an hour-long lecture by Uruburu on Youtube, in which the author paints Nesbit as a poor little exploited thing.
Second twerpish footnote: I’m always amazed by what you can find on Youtube. Type “Evelyn Nesbit” into the system and among other things you will find (a.) an amusing clip of a girl on a swing singing the song “Crime of the Century” from the 1990s Broadway musical version of Ragtime; (b.) a 12-minute silent film called The Unwritten Law, made in 1907 (when the case was being tried!), acted against painted backdrops and telling the story as that of an aggrieved husband who was justifiably driven to murder – not surprisingly the film was financed by Thaw’s family; (c.) most intriguing of all, a short talkie film made in the early 1930s showing the real Evelyn Nesbit, then in her mid-40s, singing in a Panama nightclub a self-referencing song called “No Man’s Woman Now”. It seems that even at that age she was still trading on her earlier notoriety.