Thursday 10 December 2020

Mistaken Identity

Many years ago I reviewed a new biography of the incomparable children's author E(dith) Nesbit for a national newspaper. When the review was printed, I discovered that it bore a picture of a very different E. Nesbit – the once notorious Evelyn Nesbit (happily it was not this precise picture). Described by Wikipedia as an 'American artists' model, chorus girl and actress', Evelyn Nesbit was also a pin-up girl, dancer, fashion model and silent film starlet – and, most famously, she was involved in the 'trial of the century' after her husband, a mentally unstable multi-millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, shot dead the architect Stanford White at Madison Square Garden. Both men were obsessed with Nesbit, and Thaw believed, probably rightly, that White, who was nearly three times her age, had raped the young Evelyn while she was unconscious. There were two trials, both conducted against a background of press-driven hysteria (to counter this, the jury was sequestered for the second trial – the first time that had been done in America). Endless legal manoeuvrings followed, with Thaw claiming insanity, then sanity, making a break from a lunatic asylum, getting charged with another violent crime, etc. Thaw was even seen by some as a chivalrous hero figure defending womanly innocence. However, no one came out of this at all well – least of all Evelyn, who never managed to outlive her reputation as the 'lethal beauty' in the 'trial of the century', and whose career fizzled out in obscurity. How very different from the life of our own E. Nesbit.  


  1. I don't have the source here, but somebody, probably the American critic Alvin Kernan, quoted Nesbit to the effect that she had libeled a man she loved to save a man she hated from the courts.

  2. I'm sure you're right, George – a complicated case. To judge by his picture, Stanford White certainly looks the part of the villainous seducer, but that's no proof of anything.