Jan 9, 2015 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve talked a lot about beauty standards on Cause A Frockus and how styles change over the years. Many realms influence society on this front: art, advertising, and fashion (to name a few). But perhaps some of our greatest influencers are the models themselves. Evelyn Nesbit is credited by many as the original supermodel, in an era when fashion photography was still in its infancy. I wanted to discover more about the lady behind the beautiful face and it turns out she led quite the life.
Born in the late 1800s to an attorney father and homemaker mother, young Evelyn’s stunning features were noticed early on. Rumor has it that after she was born, neighbors would call on the family just to take a peek at young Evelyn. She grew up in Pennsylvania and the Nesbit’s Scotch-Irish household was fairly traditional. Her mother’s sole aim was to raise her children (Evelyn and a brother Howard) and tend to the house. Her father wasn’t exactly an overachiever when it came to his career, but he was unique in the sense that he saw his daughter as an equal. In an age when women’s right to learn and advance academically was limited, Evelyn’s dad created a small library for her and encouraged her development. Sadly, her father died young and left the family with a heap of debt. The house that her mother adored so much was soon gone and the trio became nomadic.
Her mother often sent the children away to stay with relatives as she struggled to carve out a future as a seamstress. This effort proved fruitless and eventually the family began working at a department store to make ends meet. It was here that Evelyn was noticed by a female artist and she got her first modeling job – posing for a portrait. She was only fourteen years old, but her soft features and gentle expressions captivated artists in the Philadelphia area. The Nesbit family arrived in New York in 1900 and Evelyn’s journey to fame began.
Thanks to her artistic friends from Philadelphia, she soon was allied with artist James Carroll Beckwith. He was incredibly influential as both an instructor at the Art Students League and the recipient of John Jacob Astor’s patronage. Soon her face and figure could be seen everywhere. Like every great supermodel after her, her very presence defined an era. Evelyn’s influence was almost boundless: art (particularly Charles Dana Gibson), magazine covers (like Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair), and advertisements. She even has the title of original pin-up girl as she posed for calendars for a variety of companies, like Coca Cola. The time for fashion photography was here and Evelyn Nesbit was standing tall at center stage.
But like other famous models, Evelyn wasn’t content to just be a silent muse. In 1901 she joined the chorus line for a Broadway play called Florodora and went on to have a speaking role in the production of The Wild Rose. It was then, just as her star was shining at its brightest, that tragedy struck. America’s Dream Girl fell for New York architect Stanford White. He not only was her benefactor, supporting her family financially, and spoiling her with treasures – he was also her lover. Love never strayed far from Evelyn’s grasp at this time as she was also wooed by fellow thespian John Barrymore (even turning down a marriage proposal).
The man she did decide to marry proved to be far less romantic and far more dangerous. Enter Harry K. Thaw, millionaire and ardent supporter of female purity. We’ll just say that instead of embracing the liberated jazz age, he much preferred the stoic Victorian ideals. His zest for chastity proved deadly when, in a jealous fit, he shot Stanford White at close range, killing him brutally. The subsequent trial, dubbed “the trial of the century”, proved to damage Evelyn’s reputation. Instead of being recognized for her appealing beauty, she was branded “the girl in the red velvet swing.”
Despite this emotionally difficult loss and career setback, Evelyn regrouped and proved her resilience. Think of how often celebrities re-brand themselves in the wake of scandal. It may seem easy now, but consider that the stars of today have an army of PR people behind them. Evelyn accomplished this in a time before all this and she made herself a new life. Part of this new life included acting, writing, and even motherhood. But a big part of this new life, I imagine, was her reminding herself of her internal beauty. For so long society admired her outer beauty, then they invaded her personal love affairs, but throughout all that she still persevered. Legend has it her ghost walks the halls of the Thaw family summer home in Pennsylvania – maybe I need to plan a road trip and ask her how she managed to rise above. Models are judged for their appearance – that’s part of the job description after all – but Evelyn’s grace under pressure is what deems her super in my opinion.
For our readers: What do you think of Evelyn Nesbit’s story? Do you agree that she could be dubbed the first supermodel?