The Girl on the Vel­vet Swing by Si­mon Baatz

Montreal Times - - News -

Dur­ing the Gilded Age in Amer­ica, circa the late 19th cen­tury to the early 20th cen­tury, things weren’t al­ways so prim and proper. In fact, that age, which sig­nalled a great deal of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and geo­graph­i­cal ex­pan­sion, was also filled with plenty of cor­rup­tion, ex­ploita­tion, un­rest, scan­dal and crime.

In fact, the lat­ter two re­ally came into play in 1906, when a so-called love tri­an­gle ended up be­ing a tale of mur­der, for­bid­den sex and in­san­ity. It took place in New York City, at a time when it had a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing one of the great cities of the world. The drama­tis per­sonae were Stan­ford White, a prom­i­nent New York ar­chi­tect whose Re­nais­sance and Euro­pean-style de­signed build­ings graced the land­scape of New York City dur­ing that pe­riod and made him an in­stant celebrity; Harry K.Thaw, a spoiled rich kid from a wealthy Pitts­burgh fam­ily who lived a playboy type of ex­is­tence (which was high­lighted ev­ery sum­mer with a con­ti­nent-wide trip to Europe); and the ob­ject of both White’s and Thaw’s af­fec­tions: Eve­lyn Nes­bit, a rather naïve 16year-old waif who in 1901 was appearing in the cho­rus of the hit Broad­way mu­si­cal “Flo­radora”, and whose se­ries of sa­lon pho­to­graphs that were taken while wear­ing a Ja­panese ki­mono were a rather early pin-up sen­sa­tion.

Thaw mar­ried Nes­bit in 1903. With a mar­riage that was rocked with Thaw’s bouts of heavy drink­ing and vi­o­lent flashes of anger, Nes­bit con­fessed to him that she had an af­fair with White (who was 30 years older than her) two years ear­lier and that he had got­ten her in­tox­i­cated with al­co­hol and raped her while she was in that state of in­tox­i­ca­tion. Thaw, who was prone to vi­o­lent, an­gry out­bursts, an­grily felt that White vi­o­lated his wife’s hon­our, and he had to do some­thing about it.

And on June 25, 1906, Thaw did that some­thing to de­fend the hon­our of his vi­o­lated wife. On the rooftop theatre of Madi­son Square Gar­den (which was de­signed by White), dur­ing the per­for­mance of a rather me­diocre mu­si­cal com­edy called “Mamzelle Cham­pagne”, Thaw ap­proached Stan­ford White at his ta­ble, pulled out a re­volver and shot him three times, killing him in­stantly. And within the im­me­di­ate pan­de­mo­nium that was caused as a re­sult of the shoot­ing, Thaw stood there at the scene of the crime and peace­fully sur­ren­dered to the author­i­ties, as he qui­etly handed over the pis­tol he used to gun down Stan­ford White in cold blood.

This vi­o­lent crime of pas­sion that in­volved this love tri­an­gle cre­ated head­lines across the U.S., and the im­pend­ing tri­als – which re­vealed a lot of lurid de­tails, es­pe­cially about White’s shock­ing pri­vate life thanks to Nes­bit’s tes­ti­mony – caused a scan­dal the likes that the news­pa­per-read­ing pub­lic has never seen be­fore. And through all of that scan­dal, the main is­sue of the two tri­als was to prove if Harry K. Thaw was in­sane when he killed Stan­ford White, and if that would be proof enough to save him from the elec­tric chair?

Au­thor Si­mon Baatz re­calls the story of the 20th cen­tury’s first “trial of the cen­tury” – with the same amount of lurid de­tails – in his lat­est book The Girl on the Vel­vet Swing. By the way, the book’s ti­tle came from the la­bel re­porters who were cov­er­ing the trial gave to Nes­bit, which in turn was based on one of the ac­tiv­i­ties she did as a guest at White’s apart­ment, which was to sit on his red vel­vet swing and swing high enough to break a strip of pa­per that was af­fixed close to the ceil­ing; it was also the ti­tle of a film about the crime, which was re­leased in 1955 and starred Joan Collins.

The book is well-struc­tured, as Baatz first tack­les the in­di­vid­ual back­ground sto­ries of White,Thaw and Nes­bit, and the cir­cum­stances that brought them to­gether on that fate­ful June evening on the Madi­son Square Gar­den roof. Next, with a great eye for de­tail, he recre­ates the ac­tual mur­der as if you were just inches away from the crime scene (es­pe­cially the graphic de­tails of the im­pact the three shots had on White’s body). For the two tri­als in 1907 and 1908, Baatz uses the ac­tual tran­scripts to deftly recre­ate the sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic at­mos­phere that pre­vailed in the court­room, es­pe­cially when Nes­bit re­vealed the scan­dalous de­tails of her af­fair with White.

But per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing part of the book – which takes up most of the cen­tral part of the text – in­volves Thaw’s in­car­cer­a­tion after he was found not guilty by rea­son of in­san­ity. He was held at the Mat­teawan State Hos­pi­tal for the Crim­i­nal In­sane in Up­state New York for five years, at a time when in­sane asy­lums were rife with deplorable con­di­tions, were sub­ject to over­crowd­ing and its pa­tients/in­mates were cru­elly and bru­tally mis­treated by the un­der­staffed per­son­nel. Thaw hoped to get a writ of habeas cor­pus, which in turn would have the war­den sign a cer­tifi­cate of re­cov­ery that would ex­pe­dite his re­lease from Mat­teawan after only a few months in­side. How­ever, the war­den re­peat­edly re­fused the re­quest, which prompted Thaw to qui­etly es­cape from the in­sti­tu­tion in the sum­mer of 1913.

Thaw man­aged to flee to Canada (in par­tic­u­lar, a small Que­bec town near the Maine bor­der), where his ex­tra­di­tion case made him a cause cele­bre. Ba­si­cally, it was ar­gued that there was a dif­fer­ence be­tween es­cap­ing from an in­sane asy­lum than from a prison, and that he served his time and didn’t de­serve to be sent back to the hor­rors of the Mat­teawan asy­lum. In fact, he prac­ti­cally be­came a lo­cal hero and overnight celebrity un­til he was of­fi­cially re­leased in 1915.

Both Thaw and Nes­bit en­joyed brief flir­ta­tions with celebrity as a re­sult of the Stan­ford White mur­der case. Thaw was tried for bru­tally as­sault­ing a young man in 1917, and was sent to a more hu­mane psy­chi­atric in­sti­tute for a lengthy pe­riod of time be­fore he was re­leased and moved to Mi­ami Beach , where he lived com­fort­ably un­til his death in 1947. Nes­bit en­joyed a brief ca­reer in show busi­ness, first as a dancer on the vaude­ville cir­cuit, and then in silent pic­tures. After some un­suc­cess­ful busi­ness ven­tures and a bat­tle with drug ad­dic­tion that she con­quered, Nes­bit moved to live with her son and daugh­ter-in-law in Cal­i­for­nia, where she taught art classes, un­til she died in 1967.

Well-re­searched with a tabloid-style nar­ra­tive that could sat­isfy any true crime buff,The Girl on the Vel­vet Swing is an ab­sorb­ing book that gives a rather seedy side to the lace-laden era of progress and in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion that was the Gilded Age. It’s a story filled with so much jeal­ousy, lust, mur­der and sen­sa­tion­al­ism, it makes you be­lieve that this par­tic­u­lar pe­riod of Amer­i­can his­tory was hardly “the age of in­no­cence”.

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