Vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas Day, 1884 in the village of Tarentum, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. Evelyn had one brother, Howard born several years later. Unfortunately, when Evelyn was just eight years old, her father passed away. His death left the family in financial ruin, and Evelyn’s mother took her children to Pittsburgh in an attempt to find a job to support the family. She frequently moved from place to place to avoid paying rent.
Evelyn was a remarkably beautiful little girl. Even at thirteen a portrait painter from Philadelphia used her as a model. He was struck by her dark hair, dark eyes, and beautifully structured face. Her remarkable beauty helped Evelyn to establish a prospective career as a model. A photographer saw her painting, and took a series of pictures of her. This led to other modeling offers coming from artists and photographers. This money coming in helped the family and Evelyn’s mother moved the family to New York to further expose Evelyn to modeling opportunities. The move worked out well and even led to theatrical managers knocking on her door, hoping to sign her for their shows.
Evelyn’s show business debut came on November 12, 1900 at 15 years of age at the Casino Theater in a famous show called Floradora, in which she was a part of the singing chorus; she took lessons in singing and dancing for the purposes of obtaining chorus work and furthering her career ambitions. The show initially floundered but was extensively revised and soon became one of the most famous early Broadway shows. In fact, Floradora was the second musical to have passed the 500 mark in the amount of performances given.
While in the chorus for this show, Evelyn aroused the attention of Stanford White, the nationally renowned architect of the firm McKim, Meade and White, one of the wealthiest and most prestigious designing houses in New York. White was wealthy and married, but he had a reputation for being a philanderer and a seeker of especially young and beautiful girls like Evelyn. And Evelyn, like other women before her, succumbed to White’s charms, gifts and promises and became his mistress. Evelyn would later become known as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a reference to how White would dress and position her in one of his skyscrapers. A Hollywood film could only portray the less seamy side of the scandal and was called by that title, starring beautiful Joan Collins, a good choice for the title role. This time at the beginning of the twentieth century was the period which would eventually both enhance and stain Evelyn’s personal life.
Floradora girls were chosen for their loveliness and a date with one of them was considered a trophy accomplishment for a gay young blade on the make and so it is not surprising that in addition to Stanford white, Evelyn also attracted numerous other men, among them another child of wealth: Henry K. Thaw, a man who appeared somewhat unhinged and who was possessive and jealous of his conquests. In 1902, Evelyn began to receive gifts from an anonymous party; Thaw later confirmed he was the gift-giver while at a party and initiated attempts to court her. This set off a conflict between Thaw and White.
During this period Evelyn also became good friends with John Barrymore, the famous actor known as “The Great Profile” and someone with a decided inclination for extremely young and beautiful girls. White, seeking to keep Evelyn away from Barrymore and Thaw, sent her to the DeMille School for girls in New Jersey. Evelyn was hospitalized some months later with appendicitis, and Thaw visited her often, presenting her with gifts, and Thaw’s interest in Evelyn intensified as White’s interest in her subsided.
Thaw was furious to learn that, while on a European vacation with Evelyn and her mother, Evelyn had had relations with White. Nonetheless, he and Evelyn married on April 4, 1905, in a ceremony only attended by family members. Later in 1906, while on holiday in New York and attending a musical at which White was in attendance, Thaw produced a gun and shot White three times at close range . White was killed, and “The Trial of the Century”, as the newspapers at the time called it, began.
Naturally, the trial made Evelyn a household word, and theater managers were eager to get Evelyn to appear on their stages. She refused initially, but consented when money became tight. Evelyn’s act consisted of dancing and singing hits of the day; from 1910 to 1912, Evelyn was a headliner on the Keith vaudeville circuit not for her talent but because of her beauty and notoriety. This led to her dancing with Jack Clifford in 1913 after they were signed by Willie Hammerstein, following the birth of her son Russell in 1912, whose paternity has never been determined and may not have even been known to her. Her dancing act with Clifford in vaudeville significantly heightened in popularity following the escape of Thaw from the insane asylum in which he’d been placed following his conviction, and Evelyn and Clifford had full houses, making a significant amount of money (Fields, pg. 255). Evelyn’s behavior was considered scandalous and she was said to be sleeping with every male around. And men did impressions of Stanford White inviting unaware young ladies to “come up and see my etchings.”
Evelyn eventually did obtain a divorce from the unstable Thaw in 1916 who managed to evade major prison time with an insanity defense and a great deal of money put into hiring top defense attorneys. Meanwhile Evelyn married her dancing partner Clifford shortly afterwards. Her second marriage was also short-lived, however, and ended in divorce in 1918. Evelyn found a new dancing partner in Bobby O’Neill, hoping to pick up where she and Clifford had left off, but audiences had tired of her story and she had become yesterday’s news. Evelyn had been appearing in films since 1909, most of them meeting middling success, but from 1919, Evelyn’s career in film and vaudeville significantly diminished and she was approaching middle age.
She tried a new business avenue by opening a tearoom in 1921, but it closed after only a few months. In the 1920s, Evelyn twice tried to commit suicide due to personal failures and money problems. In 1937, she attempted to make a comeback and published the first of her
memoirs for a New York newspaper, but over the years her stories proved inconsistent and were deemed either pathetic or sensational by critics. She attempted another act involving torch songs and swing numbers in various second-rate cabarets in New York and New Jersey, but was swiftly becoming a forgotten footnote of the entertainment industry. In 1955, she was hired by Hollywood as a consultant for “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing”, which was supposedly a film based on her life; she received $30,000 for permission to tell the latest version of her story.
For the last twenty years of her life, Evelyn lived quietly in a downtown Los Angeles hotel and then in a recovery home in Santa Monica, where she passed away on January 17, 1967, at the age of eighty-two. She is buried at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Inglewood, and only a few people attended her funeral, sadly, as the rest of the world had forgotten about her.
Evelyn was primarily famous for her involvement in the “Trial of the Century” in which her husband shot and killed her ex-lover. This led to her involvement in vaudeville acts and acting in film, the general public no longer remembers her, or if they do, it is because of the trial. And yet she was once considered the most beautiful woman in the world and her image sprawled across a bearskin rug was posted in male college dorm rooms across the country. Evelyn was once quoted as saying the following: “‘Stanny White was killed but my fate was worse. I lived.” Even at the end of her life, Evelyn’s reputation remained damaged from the trial, and she had to live with the consequences of her actions and the actions of others.
For more information on Evelyn Nesbit, see
Armond Fields. Women Vaudeville Stars: Eighty Biographical Profiles. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.
For a look at the Harry Thaw murder and a view of Evelyn Nesbit’s attempt at a comeback see:
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection has the following Evelyn Nesbit sheet music:
NESBIT WALTZ 1907 – by Vincenzo Spadea. Self published at 2210 Second Ave. in New York City by the composer.
WHY DON’T THEY SET HIM FREE? 1913 – by Thomas J. Blue, Harry C. Loll. “The Great HARRY K. THAW song”. Cover photo of Thaw pouring through actual letters sympathizing with his murdering of the depraved architect Stanford White for having an affair with his wife Evelyn. With the help of his mother, Thaw escaped from a mental institution where he had been ordered confined due to insanity and she got him into Canada where he fought extradition, boosted by the public support shown on the cover here. This is a remarkable and rare sheet music dealing with Nesbit, Thaw and the so-called Trial of the Century.
ON THE ROAD TO DUBLIN TOWN 1914 – by Jack Yellen, George L. Cobb. “As originally sung by MISS EVELYN NESBIT”
SPRINKLE ME WITH KISSES IF YOU WANT MY LOVE TO GROW 1915 – by Earl Carroll, Ernest R. Ball. Inset photo of EVELYN NESBIT. Cover shows man kissing woman on cheek as she holds flowers. This was a very minor hit song.
WHEN YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU 1915 – by Grant Clarke, Al Piantadosi. “Successfully introduced by EVELYN NESBITT”. Uses the double t for the last name here.
WHEN YOU’RE IN LOVE WITH SOMEONE WHO IS NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU 1915 – Grant Clarke, Al Piantadosi. Large cover photo is believed to be Evelyn Nesbit wearing the same dress as shown on preceding entry. Inset photo Dorothy Meuther, popular comedienne of the time.
THERE’S A LIGHT THAT’S BURNING IN THE WINDOW OF THE LITTLE HOUSE UPON THE HILL 1915 – by Ballard Macdonald, Joe Goodwin, Harry Puck. Old lady with cane and old dog sits outside white picket fence alongside path to old country house. Inset photo EVELYN NESBIT with her hair let down.
HOW COULD WASHINGTON BE A MARRIED MAN (AND NEVER, NEVER TELL A LIE?) 1916 – by Joe Goodwin, Ballard MacDonald, Al Piantadosi. “As introduced by Evelyn Nesbit. Cover art by Dunk N.Y. This song was a minor hit for Nesbit and we have both the light purple and light blue cover versions.
IF YOU’LL COME BACK TO MY GARDEN OF LOVE 1917 – by Stanley Murphy, Albert Gumble. “As sung by EVELYN NESBIT”.
FALLEN IDOLS 1919 – by Alfred Bryan, John William Kellette, Richard A. Whiting. “Suggested by A FALLEN IDOL, a screen production of the Fox Film Corporation starring EVELYN NESBIT”. Cover photo of EVELYN NESBIT flanked by Egyptian statues.
FALLEN IDOLS 1919 – Miniature version of the preceding put out by the Detroit Free Press Sunday Newspaper. A new song appeared every Sunday.
DO A LITTLE THIS, DO A LITTLE THAT 1920 – Lee David. Cover art by Paderewski has high society dame unmasking Evelyn. “Introduced and featured by MISS EVELYN NESBIT in her new vaudeville offering.” So far as we can determine this was her last appearance on sheet music and the beginning of her slide away from fame.
Fields, Armond. Women Vaudeville Stars: Eighty Biographical Profiles. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. Print.