On June 25, 1906, during a performance at the roof garden of Madison Square Garden, Harry K. Thaw shot and killed Stanford White. Locale, motive, and the characters involved made the murder one of the great sensations of the early century. White was among the leading architects of the time, a prominent figure in the arts and in society; Thaw was a widely known, though eccentric, figure, with Pittsburgh millions. The woman in the case, Thaw’s wife and White’s former mistress, had been a stage personality (there is no claim she was an actress). Headline material in its own day, the story retains its fascination; newspapers and magazines regularly revive it, and at least one recent book and motion picture have retold it.
Michael Macdonald Mooney has retold the story once again. But his is more than a new account of a cause celébre. He has tried to use the Nesbit-Thaw-White affair as a hook on which to hang a view of New York City and of the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
“Hook” may be the proper metaphor. As Mooney tells it, the story is not so much a result, or symbol, or sign, of the society, as something attached, but distinct. In places, the two themes—crime story and social history—seem to come compartmentalized in alternating chapters.
The story itself loses none of its lurid fascination in Mooney’s retelling. Evelyn Nesbit came from Pittsburgh to New York to make her fortune at fifteen, accompanied by her mother. She found success as an artist’s and photographer’s model, and then went on the stage in Floradora—as a Spanish dancer, not as one of the Sextette. Despite her mother’s protective efforts, she was the object of the advances of both young and old men, but apparently Stanford White was the first to break through the barriers. Mooney here notes that Evelyn told the story differently at different times to different audiences—one version was that he drugged her. At any rate, he became her protector, and provided for her and her mother.
Mooney’s White is an almost heroic figure: architect and artist, leader of style, but also bon vivant, full of gusto and love of life. His firm, McKim, Mead & White, was for decades the Establishment architect: they designed mansions on Fifth Avenue and in Newport, Rhode Island; churches; exhibits in the Chicago World’s Fair; and many new business buildings rising in New York. This activity meant ties both to the world of wealth and power that sponsored the building, and to the beaux arts world of men like his friend Saint-Gaudens, as well as to the theater. Mooney suggests White as a catalyst bringing the worlds together. Even his parties, which became notorious, helped in this function. Mooney offers a description of one affair whose vulgarity and elaborateness are reminiscent of Roman decline; even here, however, there were opportunities for the young artist to meet potential clients.
Harry Thaw, Mooney points out, was from Pittsburgh as was Evelyn, but a different Pittsburgh. Evelyn’s was a boardinghouse in a working-class neighborhood; Harry’s was a mansion supported by a fortune founded on Pennsylvania Railroad bonds. His father, by the terms of his will, refused to make Harry an heir, but Harry’s mother saw to it that he did not lack. So far as Mooney’s account reveals, the son did little but spend the money: “madness” and “lunacy” were the words used by some contemporaries to describe his habits. Modern psychiatrists might be more careful and more precise, but they, too, would have to admit that his behavior patterns were unusual—turning over tables in restaurants when displeased, and alternating between beating Evelyn and begging for her affection.
Thaw took Evelyn and her mother to Europe, and later took Evelyn alone, and in 1905 they were married. Thaw was jealous (the standard “insanely” may here apply) of White, and there was a period of mutual avoidance, threats, and rumors of detectives and gangsters hired by one or the other in the months preceding the crisis.
Roof gardens and roof garden theaters were an important item in New York’s summer social life, and one of the most noted was on the roof of Stanford White’s Madison...
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