By: Mary-Alice Farina
Few models have captured the public imagination the way Evelyn Nesbit did in the early part of the 20th century. A face known to millions by the age of 16, her fame would soon become infamy when her jealous husband murdered her former lover in the "Crime of the Century." By age 22, Evelyn Nesbit was America's first pinup and first ruined starlet.
Born on December 25, 1884, near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Evelyn was the daughter of an attorney. He died suddenly when she was only eleven years old, leaving the family in serious debt. Forced to auction off their belongings, the family lived a nomadic existence in a series of boarding houses and eaking out a meager living.
When Evelyn was fourteen years old, she began work at Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia with her mother and twelve-year-old brother. A female artist noticed her youthful beauty and charisma, and asked her to pose for a portrait. Evelyn later said: “When I saw I could earn more money posing as an artist’s model than I could at Wanamaker’s, I gave my mother no peace until she permitted me to pose for a livelihood.”
Evelyn quickly became the favorite area model for a well-respected group of painters, illustrators and even stained glass artists. The Nesbits moved to New York City in 1900 and thanks to the recommendation of Philadelphia artists, Evelyn dove head first into the New York art scene. Artist James Carroll Beckwith quickly became Evelyn's protector and promoter, helping her find work.
Gracing the cover of Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, The Delineator, The Women's Home Companion, Ladies' Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, Evelyn's face was everywhere from face creams to playing cards. She posed for Charles Dana Gibson, one of the most renowned artists of the day, becoming one of his "Gibson Girls." Gibson Girls are thought to be the precursor to pinups, and the first widely accepted commercialized feminine beauty ideal.
Nesbit would go on to have a torrid love affair with the premier architect of his time, Stanford White. When her eventual husband, wealthy coal baron Harry Kendall Thaw, learned of their affair, he murdered White, shooting him on the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906. As he stood over White's body with a smoking gun, he reportedly said “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then abandoned her!” The media frenzy and trial that followed made the murder the story of the year.
Evelyn's commercial success from that point on dwindled, her reputation forever marred. Audiences saw her as “the lethal beauty” associated her with the “playboy killer” and the murder of Stanford White. She became the proprietor of various establishments in New York, though it remains unclear whether they were legal tearooms or illegal speakeasies. It seems her life was unhappy, as scattered reports tell a story of morphine addiction, suicide attempts and alcoholism.
Nonetheless, her legend lives on in the form of countless fictional and non-fictional accounts, her name, face and story appearing in popular culture to this day, over a century after her peak fame. As biographer Paula Uruburu points out, her story was the precursor to a parade of Marilyn Monroes, Britney Spears and who knows how many more. Hers was "a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity, and sex."
American Eve, by Paula Uruburu: The scandalous story of America’s first supermodel, sex goddess, and modern celebrity—Evelyn Nesbit.