Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Old Postcard Wednesday (on Tuesday): Evelyn Nesbit

Hello, my friends! Today I am participating in a new feature! It is called Old Postcard Wednesday and is the brainchild of my friend Lydia. If you haven't been to visit Lydia's blog, Writerquake, then I'd like to know why ever not? Well? I'm waiting. God, I love me when I'm bitchy! Anyways, Old Postcard Wednesday consists of Lydia, and me, and...Lydia...and...me...well, you get the idea. It's always a good thing to get in on the ground floor of these things. Okay okay...thanks to Lydia for letting me horn in. You're a sweetheart. Now stop twisting my ear.

Now, on to the star of the show, the Old Postcard! This postcard is from someone named Elise, who is promising her friend Frieda (in Newark NJ) that she will be home on Saturday. I wonder if she made it? I wonder who these two ladies were? I have loved old post cards nearly all of my life, and I always wonder who the people were who chose them, wrote their little messages and mailed them to someone, so long ago. The truth is, I am drawn to anything from the 1890s through the 1920's. Silent stars, gangsters, gilded age financiers, all of it. It tugs at me. Part of me has its heart there, and I can't explain it.

This postcard is of Evelyn Nesbit, and her story is absolutely fascinating. She would be on my short list of famous people I would love to meet somehow. If I could do lunch with Evelyn and Marlene Dietrich, that would be it. I could just keel over after dessert with a huge smile on my face.

When I was a library rat wayyyy back in high school, I discovered a series of coffee table books put out by Time-Life, about each decade of the 20th century. (thanks, Daddy, for making me love history) In one of them, as I leafed through, I saw such a remarkable face staring back at me through the years. I thought, "who IS this?" There was such a soulful, beautiful, heartbroken quality to her. I became fascinated with her, and fascinated I have stayed. That incredible face belonged to Evelyn Nesbit.

She was just a girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Pittsburgh, when she was noticed by an artist, who paid her to pose for him. She was only fourteen. Soon, she was in demand as an artist's model, though she hated having to stay still for long periods. It brought in money, and a little bit of independence from her mother, and so she posed away.

In time, she found herself in New York, and in less than a year, at the age of sixteen, she was essentially America's first supermodel. You can see her face in hundreds of vintage advertisements, for everything from soap to magazines. She was, in fact, the inspiration for Dana's famous "Gibson Girl." She was supporting her mother and brother and working non-stop. (I have found that many famous women of the era were the breadwinners for their families at a very young age, Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand among them). 

Evelyn's mother wanted to marry her off to a millionaire. Any millionaire. And indeed, she did marry an unstable millionaire named Harry K. Thaw. But the most important man in her life was the celebrated architect Stanford White, designer of Madison Square Garden and numerous other New York landmarks of the day. Before she married Thaw, the much older White had a secret hideaway just for Evelyn and him to meet. (White was a married man). It was in this apartment that White had a giant swing suspended from the ceiling for Evelyn to swing on, nude. Yes, she was the famous "girl on a swing." But despite all of her bewitching beauty, and success as a model, when White found her she was still a virgin, just a teenage girl from Pittsburgh. That all ended the night he spiked her drink and, as Evelyn lay groggy and helpless, had his way with her. Why he did this, who knows? It broke my heart for her when I read about it. In any case, in that era, Evelyn considered herself damaged goods after that and so began a long affair with White. 

One of the things that endears Evelyn to me, is that she loved to eat good food. She was so different from today's starvled stars, and White had the means and the inclination to provide spreads of things that she not only loved, but had never even tasted before. Also, Evelyn took a childish delight in any kind of mechanical toy, and any time White spotted one, he would buy it for her. I share that with her, too, I adore the old toys from that time. 

In time, as she got older, she grew restless, and made demands of White that he would never satisfy. And so she married Harry Thaw. She told Harry about the way Stanford White had raped her, and he became obsessed with it. In the end, in a public place in front of dozens of witnesses, Thaw fatally shot the great architect. So ensued the first "trial of the century" at which Evelyn had to endure days of painful and embarrassing testimony. She handled it with grace, for which I admire her tremendously.

Harry went to prison and Evelyn divorced him, but her life was never the same. She was forever the "girl in the swing", the temptress who had driven one wealthy man to murder another in spectacular fashion.

Evelyn for many years became an out of control drunk, getting into physical fights in saloons and getting arrested. But she pulled herself up from that, and died, decades later, a sober woman.

Her story tugs at my heart. She had singular beauty and allure, and yet, men much older than herself, and her parasitic mother, controlled her life all through her young womanhood. Her beauty was her blessing and her curse. I don't think that anyone really could see past it, and see her. One of the most poignant stories from her life, to me, is this one: Stanford White arranged a photo shoot in the apartment they used, with a well-known photographer White had engaged for the day. Many of her most famous photographs were taken that day. Evelyn grew tired and wanted to stop, but the session went on and on. Finally, the shoot seemed to be over, and Evelyn put on a kimono. White and the photographer found her so beautiful in it, that they had her pose for a few more shots on a bearskin rug that had been used as a prop that day. Evelyn, exhausted, fell asleep on it. The photographer took one more shot. 

Evelyn Nesbit never did find genuine love in her life, except from the pet dogs she adored. Now she is gone but her photographs survive, looking out hauntingly across a century. They still fascinate me today.

_________

21 comments:

willow said...

I've always been fascinated by the beautiful, scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. Wonderful post and images!! What a fun new venue. Right up my alley, since I've got tons of old postcards. Fun!

Eric Alder said...

These pictures of Evelyn Nesbit remind me of an old photograph that was on the wall in a restaurant where I used to work.

(It was one of those kitchy 'theme' restaurants that's adorned with all sorts of miscellaneous debris on the walls and such)

Anyway, the woman in this photo looked similar to Evelyn Nesbit and was definitely from the same era, She was quite pale and lovely and, even though she was smiling, there was a sadness to her face that only made her more appealing.

When they closed down that restaurant years ago, people took home many of the doo-dads and knick-nacks. I've always wondered who took that woman's picture.

Lynn said...

I have never heard of her, but the story is fascinating. I wonder what her life would have been like if that photographer hadn't discovered her.

I love old photographs and postcards, too. I've collected a cache of old photos that my grandparents had that I'm slowly framing for a black and white photo wall in my living room.

Mojo said...

Wow. She is a hottie, no doubt about it. A real pioneer too. Very cool stuff!

Brian Miller said...

fascinating...i consider myself enlightened now as i did not know her tale...hmm...will look into this one further...

Gabriella Moonlight said...

As usual Shay you do NOT disappoint, amazing actually...the tale of ms. Nesbitt is truly interesting indeed, and your share on it makes it even more so...funny how life changes and yet it doesn't really, we still have scandal and reality issues...

xoxo Gabi

Eric Alder said...

By the way, Shay, I’ve tagged you for a short meme: Tagged!

TALON said...

Thank you, Shay. I enjoyed reading about Evelyn. I knew her face looked familiar, but I hadn't heard her story and I found it fascinating and incredbily sad. Beauty extracts a huge price...

Sara said...

I absolutely love old postcards. I used to visit this vintage store and everyone else would look at the clothes, the furniture, but I looked for else.

Tucked away in a box, the owner had old postcards and letters. I would beg him to bring them out. Then I would sit and read them for ages and imagine the lives of the people who wrote them. I still pick up old postcards occasionally.

I really enjoyed your account of Evelyn Nesbit. It was so difficult to be a woman in the 1800's and even the early 1900's...men basically controlled everything and beauty was easily bought and sold. At least, Evelyn was able to make her own money!

Reading this account made think of a book I believe you'd really enjoy. It's called Courtesans by Katie Hickman. You should look it up sometime.The stories are very interesting.

Great post, Shay:~)

Mama Zen said...

What a tragic and fascinating life!

Scarlet Ily said...

Wow, I had no idea and now I want to get my hands on a book about her. Any recommendations?

Fireblossom said...

Yes, Ily. Try "American Eve" by paula Uruburu. :-)

Riot Kitty said...

Really neat post, Shay.

mac said...

I can see why you are fascinated by her. She is beautiful.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

I love this fascinating and sad story. She was a beauty, and did not get back what she deserved. Thanks for telling her story and keeping her light shining in a few more hearts:)

Cloudia said...

I resonate to her and to those times too. Well written!




Perhaps we knew each other back then?



Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Jannie Funster said...

She, Evelyn reminds me of Patti Smith somehow. Wild. Sweet. Romantic. Poetess.

xo

Great idea on the old postcards. We have one I'll show you some time.

xo

Lydia said...

What a beautiful beautiful postcard to feature for your first Old Postcard Wednesday. I loved learning more about Evelyn Nesbit and now she has a new fan. Speaking of fans, you already have more comments before mine in your first OPW post than I usually have on any given OPW! What a great job and thanks so much for the shout out, too.

Joanna Jenkins said...

Okay, that is just too cool. This is a great idea for a feature and I'm glad you kicked it off with a bang. I learned something new. Thanks.
xo jj

ellen abbott said...

Enjoyed this.

Jinksy said...

I can see how a camera lens loved this lady - my drawing board, paper and pencil would have, too.