Harry Kendall Thaw shot and killed Stanford White while the famed architect watched a play on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. The year was 1906. The building was one designed by White, who was responsible for the Washington Square Arch, the Metropolitan Club and numerous other landmark buildings. The Astors and Vanderbilts lived in mansions designed by White. He also had a reputation as a seducer of young women.
During the ensuing “Trial of the Century,” details of the sordid lives of White and Evelyn Nesbit, Thaw’s twenty-two year old wife, kept newspaper readers enthralled for months. Nesbit’s testimony scandalized the nation and brought calls that it be censored in the media.
Nesbit had come to New York as a teenager and quickly became famous as a model and a star on Broadway. Harry Thaw, inheritor of millions from coal and railroad and a drunkard and generally licentious, had since childhood been considered mentally ill. Thaw held a grudge against White for his earlier relationship with Nesbit.
Evelyn Nesbit was sixteen when she encountered Stanford White, more than thirty years her senior, and no slouch in the licentious department either. After some time acting as her benefactor, he first assaulted her when she was passed out drunk. They were lovers – if that’s the right word – for a while after that. White had long since moved on when Thaw encountered him in the rooftop theatre.
Which brings us to Mark Twain. At the time of the trial, Twain was dictating his Autobiography. He had this to say about Stanford White:
“New York has known for years that the highly educated and elaborately accomplished Stanford White was a shameless and pitiless wild beast disguised as a human being; and few, if any, have doubted that he ought to have been butchered long ago, by some kindly friend of the human race. Under our infamous laws the seducer is not punished, and is not even disgraced, but his victim and all her family and kindred are smirched with a stain which is permanent—a stain which the years cannot remove, nor even modify. Our laws break the hearts and ruin the lives of the victim and of her people, and let the seducer go free. I am not of a harsh nature—I am the reverse of that—and yet if I could have my way the seducer should be flayed alive in the middle of the public plaza, with all the world to look on.”
Postscript: A century later, White and Nesbit live on, featured in the book and movie and stage musical “Ragtime.” White, Nesbit and Thaw were depicted by Ray Milland, Joan Collins and Farley Granger in the 1955 movie “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.” (The title is reference to White’s bedroom furnishings.)