(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR! How long is it going to take? Forever! For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)
The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.
In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City. While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14. One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White. At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City. White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress. He moved her into one of his many apartments. Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth. They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.” As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.
Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him. (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.) Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw. Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune. He also had a long history of mental illness. When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.
(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other. Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted. Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)
In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden. Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.
Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.” Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White. The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood. Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White. The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.
In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.) Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars. Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films. It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time. If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw. It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story. Ray Milland plays Stanford White. Farley Granger is Harry Thaw. Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit. They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger. But the film itself is just so bland. Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with. For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room. This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good. By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty. (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.) And poor Evelyn Nesbit! In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press. In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue. Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.
So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’ It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.