Madison Square Garden is one of New York’s most well known landmarks. It is arguably one of the most famous arenas in the world. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least appealing, but it was not always so. For there have been four incarnations of Madison Square Garden, located throughout the city since 1879. But by far the most beautiful and breathtaking was the second, which was also the scene of one of Manhattan’s more infamous murders, that involved a love triangle between the most celebrated ‘It’ girl of her day, Evelyn Nesbit, her deranged husband, Harry Thaw, and the architect of the Madison Square Garden itself, Stanford White.
The murder gripped New York, and became known as the ‘trial of the century’. Its more salacious aspects, including a red velvet swing, were pored over in the Press. And we’re going in search of the few physical remnants that still exist from this notorious tale of murder from the Gilded Age…
The second Madison Square Garden was designed and built by New York’s most prestigious architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White. The architects were the golden lights of the Gilded Age. What Hausmann was to Paris, so McKim, Mead & White were to New York, and at the company’s centre, was Stanford White. Tall, charming, and with vibrant red hair and large mustache, White was a permanent fixture in the high society of the Gilded Age.
His masterpiece was undoubtedly the second Madison Square Garden. Archival photos show a glittering, huge pleasure palace, topped with a minaret based on the bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville. The Garden was the second tallest building in the city, and boasted the largest concert hall in the world. It was home to a sporting arena, ground floor boutiques and bars, a separate roof-top theatre, and the biggest restaurant in Manhattan.
Stanford White actually lived in the Garden, in a lavish apartment he built for himself secreted away in the tower, just below a controversial statue of a naked woman, Diana the goddess of the hunt, which quickly became known as the ‘Statue that Offended New York’. It was on its rooftop theatre, that Stanford White would be murdered in 1906, gunned down by the husband of one of his lovers.
For if White’s first passion was creating beautiful buildings, his second, was in seducing beautiful women. And at the turn of the 20th century, there was none so beautiful, or as famous as Evelyn Nesbit.
Evelyn Nesbit rose rapidly from obscurity in Pennsylvania, to become the most celebrated, sought after woman in New York. Fatherless, she helped support her mother by posing as an artist’s model. Her striking looks soon saw her become one of the most photographed women of the era.
She was one of Charles Dana Gibson’s original ‘Gibson Girls’, and she would advertise everything from chocolate, to clothes, to perfume. She could be found on the covers of Vanity Fair and Ladies Home Journal, and posed for endless works of art.
As Paula Uruburu wrote in her book ‘American Eve’, Evelyn Nesbit was, “an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty”. In stark contrast to other Edwardian portraits, if you look at period photographs of Nesbit, such was her natural, fresh faced beauty, that the pictures could have been taken yesterday, rather than over 100 years ago.
As Lindsay Baker writes, she was the first supermodel; “Nesbit’s soft-featured, youthful face soon became ubiquitous, to be seen on postcards, tobacco cards, calendars and chromolithographs. She often posed for illustrators in costume – a wood nymph, a gypsy, a Grecian goddess, a geisha girl – she was always clothed and the resulting images were not overtly sexual, though there was a pin-up suggestiveness about them that no doubt contributed to their popularity – and Nesbit’s celebrity.”
Following a role in Broadway’s ‘Florodora’, Nesbit soon fell under the attentions of White. A serial spoiler of young women, White kept an apartment not far from Madison Square Garden. Today, 22 West 24th Street is a nondescript parking lot, but in 1900, it was Stanford White’s seducing lair. A modest town house, the street level featured a window display for the toy shop FAO Schwarz. But the door could open electrically, to allow White’s invited female guests to enter.
The first floor was decorated in sumptuous red silk, and was used as a dining room, where White would order in food from Delmonico’s restaurant; on her first visit, Nesbit would recall a lavish luncheon of Lobster Newburgh (a dish invented at Delmonico’s), deviled eggs, chilled oysters on ice and champagne. But it was the floor above, that would become notorious.
For here, White kept a red velvet swing hanging from the ceiling, in a room painted a deep, forest green. Uruburu tells of how, “without hesitation, Evelyn jumped onto the swing. White grabbed the velvet ropes and Evelyn’s small hands…..a second and third push sent her soaring into the air in the direction of a large, multi-coloured paper Japanese parasol”. Next door was White’s bedroom, which he decorated with blinking electric lights, and had the walls and ceiling covered with mirrors.
On one of her next visits to the red velvet swing, it appeared that White drugged Nesbit’s champagne and assaulted her. Despite this, a subsequent, unlikely romance blossomed between the most sought after model in New York, and its principal architect, some thirty years her elder.
Decades later, this notorious address would become a low rent boarding house, until it was finally condemned and knocked down in the late 1990s. Today however, one can still see a remnant of White’s seducing apartment…
Looking at the buildings either side of the modern carpark, one can still see the outline of White’s apartment, as a ‘ghost building’ on the adjacent brickwork. The distinct imprint of the floors can be seen, including the one where he kept the red, velvet swing.
White would continue however, to pursue other Broadway chorus girls, and Nesbit, perhaps seeing no future with the much older architect, had further romances herself; first with the celebrated actor John Barrymore, and then Harry Kendall Thaw, heir to a multi-million dollar railroad fortune, whom she married. But throughout all her romances, White would remain a constant presence, a friend and benefactor.
Thaw was a somewhat unstable character, with a history of mental instability dating back to his childhood. He would recklessly squander his inherited fortune, and relentlessly pursue Nesbit.
Thaw persuaded Nesbit to tour Europe with him, but his behaviour would become increasingly erratic, his jealous obsession with Stanford White becoming all consuming. In Austria, Thaw imprisoned Nesbit in her room, regularly assaulting her. In France, visiting the birth place of Joan of Arc, Thaw would signed the guest book, “[Joan of Arc] would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around”.
But despite Thaw’s shocking behaviour, Evelyn Nesbit relented, and married the deranged millionaire in 1905. Thaw’s obsession with White however, grew unabated.
In the summer of 1906, White was sitting at his private table on the roof top of Madison Square Garden, where he would often drop in, en route to his tower apartment above the stage. The show that evening was the premiere of Edgar Allan Woolf’s musical Mam’zelle Champagne. Sitting nearby was Thaw. As the performance drew to a close, Thaw approached White from behind, and when he was a few feet away, fired three pistol shots into White’s head.
According to Uruburu, “part of White’s face and skull was torn away and the rest of his features were unrecognizable, blackened by gunpowder.” Witnesses said that Thaw shouted, “I did it because he ruined my wife.” Others claimed that Thaw had said ‘life’ not ‘wife’.
The subsequent trial gripped New York. A forerunner of such cases as the O.J.Simpson trial, it became known as the ‘trial of the century’. The salacious details of the red, velvet swing, and the love triangle sold endless newspapers, and was the subject of gossip from high society to the saloons of Lower Broadway.
Thaw would be sent to a hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York.
Evelyn Nesbit would lead a somewhat listless life, cut off from the millions of her husband’s fortune. Her attempts to return to the stage were hindered by audiences who simply wanted to see the woman at the centre of the infamous love triangle. She would open a saloon in Hells Kitchen, and struggle with morphine addiction, before dying in relative anonymity at the age of 82.
Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was torn down in 1925. Today it is hardly known by the people walking in Madison Park and visiting the neighbouring Flatiron Building, that there was once a vast, ornate pleasure palace here. Or that it’s architect was murdered on it’s roof. There is one small detail of the old Garden that still survives however, and it can be found in Philadelphia.
If you were to visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, walking up the ‘Rocky Steps’, at the far end of the main entrance in an alcove, where you will find a large, golden statue of a naked woman. It is the same one that once adorned the tower of Madison Square Garden and caused such scandal. It is all that remains of one of Manhattan’s lost, beautiful buildings; a remnant of the doomed romance between Stanford White and the Girl on the red, velvet swing.