Tuesday, January 22, 2008

American Jennie - Portrait of Jennie Jerome Churchill

On January 9, 1854, a baby was born who would one day grow up to be the mother of one of the man some people consider to be the greatest statesman England has ever known. Her name was Jennie Jerome. She was born in Brooklyn at 197 Amity Street, when Brooklyn was still a separate city. So not only was she a New Yorker but a Brooklyn baby, the greatest export before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.

She was the second of four daughters born to Leonard Jerome, and his wife Clarissa. Leonard Jerome was a financier, sportsman and speculator. He founded the American Jockey Club and created Jerome Avenue and Jerome Park in the Bronx (which still exist) as well as elevating the idea of horse racing in the United States. He was part owner of The New York Times and his mansion on Madison Avenue had its own theater. Clarissa, his wife, was a dark beauty who family legend says had Iroquois blood.

Another legend is that Leonard Jerome named his second daughter after the Swedish soprano Jennie Lind, who he supposedly had an affair with. While Jerome was a 'special friend' of singers like Minnie Hauck and Fannie Ronalds, there is no evidence that he and Lind ever knew each other.

New York society up until after the Civil War when a wave of new money came to town, was a pretty closed shop made up of various Knickerbocker families who had been in the city since the days of Peter Stuyvesant. While Leonard Jerome was accepted everywhere, his wife was not. Finally she took herself and her three daughters off to Paris, where society was much more fluid. The Empress Eugenie, who had an American grandfather, welcomed American girls particularly pretty ones who had a great deal of money. Leonard stayed in New York, making the money that supported his wife and daughters in the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. This idyll lasted until the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870's, when the family fled to England.

It was at Cowes in 1873 that Jennie met the man who would change her life, Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. Randolph was 24 at the time, slender, pop-eyed, with a bushy mustache but charismatic. Three days after they met, they were engaged which was a scandal not only for the short amount of time they had known each other but because Randolph had asked Jennie before talking it over with his parents or asking her mother.

The marriage almost didn't take place. After discreet inquiries about Leonard Jerome, the Duke concluded that he was a bad sort and not exactly his ideal of an in-law. The family tried to put a road block in their way by insisting that Randolph couldn't marry until he had won a seat in parliament. Fate intervened when Randolph won a seat from his home seat of Woodstock. However, Jennie had also made the acquaintance of the Prince of Wales, who adored American women, in particular Jennie. He liked their freshness, their wit, and their irreverance. Unlike most aristocratic English girls who led incredibly sheltered lives until their debuts, wealthy American girls were out and about. They'd traveled to Europe, spoke several languages and had that brashness that comes from believing that America was the greatest country in the world. And they were well dressed to boot, sporting the latest couture from Charles Worth, the Englishman whose dresses were de rigeur for the American heiress. From the time of his visit to the United States in 1860, the first heir to the throne to set foot on American soil, the Prince had a soft spot for American women.

As he later told Winston Churchill at a dinner, "If it weren't for me, you wouldn't be here." The approval of the Prince of Wales paved the way for their eventual marriage at the British Embassy in Paris in April of 1874, but again the marriage was almost derailed by Leonard Jerome's insistence that Jennie have money of her own apart from the marriage settlement, an unusual arrangement at the time.

Jennie was in the forerunner of the Buccaneers, those American women who came to England and married titles. Around the time of her marriage, two other American women had made grand matches, including Consuelo Ynaga (who Edith Wharton immortalized as Conchita Closson in The Buccaneers) and Minne Stevens, who married a good friend of the prince's, Arthur Paget. Even Randolph's brother wasn't immune, after his divorce, he later married the rich American widow, Lily Hammersly, and his son, Sunny, in 1895 married Consuelo Vanderbilt, bringing much needed money to Blenheim which ate money on an increasing basis.

The future Prime Minister of England arrived on November 30, 1874, at Blenheim Palace, seven months after his parent's wedding. There was speculation that Winston was premature, but Anne Sebba in her new biography of Jennie, American Jennie, contends that Winston was actually full-term, that his parents had anticipated the marriage vows. Legend has it that he was born after Jennie had been dancing all night at a party, but the truth is that Jennie had probably gone riding or walking that day which led to his arrival. A brother for Winston arrived 6 years later when John Strange Spencer-Churchill was born while the family was in exile in Ireland where Randolph was secretary to his father who had been appointed Viceroy of Ireland in 1876.

Randolph's brother Lord Blandford had caused a scandal by attempting to blackmail the Prince of Wales. Lord Blandford had an affair with with Edith, the wife of the Earl of Aylesford, whose wanted to sue for divorce, after discovering that she planned to elope with Blandford. The Prince of Wales attempted to intervene, chastising Blanford for using the Earl's trip to India as an excuse to woo his wife. He asked him to give up the foolish notion of eloping. Blandford didn't take the Prince's interference too kindly, responding by brandishing letters that the Prince had indiscreetly sent to Edith Aylesford himself. The Prince was furious at being put in an awkward position and made it known that he would not set foot in a house where the Churchills were invited.

Living in Ireland however was the making of Randolph's political career. Seeing the country and their struggles with the British, Randolph became a proponent of Home Rule for the Irish. After their return from exile, Jennie threw herself into the role of political hostess. However, money was extremely tight. Leonard Jerome had suffered a financial reversal and was not able to help out as much as he had previously. And there were still doweries to be given for his other two daughters, Clara the eldest who finally married Moreton Frewen and the youngest Leonie who married Sir John Leslie, an Irish aristrocrat (Paul McCartney was married at Leslie Castle which is still owned by the family). Jennie also had the Jerome characteristic of being optimistic that money will come when it was needed.

Like most Victorian mothers of the aristocracy, Jennie left the raising of her sons mainly to nannies and governesses. Winston absolutely adored his beautiful, glamorous mother, writing her a steady stream of letters from boarding school at Harrow, where he was absolutely miserable, begging her to visit him, which she rarely did. Jennie seems to have been one of those mothers who were uninterested in children until they were old enough to hold a conversation. After Winston became an adult, he and Jennie became great friends and allies. She championed him not so much as a mother, but as a political mentor. Some people speculate that her affection for him as an adult was calculated once she saw his potential. Whatever the reason, his adoration of his mother never wavered, and he was just as proud of being half American as he was from being a member of the Marlborough family.

Jennie was known for having a strong personality, she was well-respected and influential in British society as a member of the first wave of 'Dollar Princesses' who swept across the Atlantic at the end of the 19th Century to make advantageous matches with the British aristocracy, bringing their American verve and liveliness along with their doweries. She was also incredibly beautiful, her portrait was sold along with a number of other 'professional beauties' in shops across London. A number of legends sprung up about her including one that she had a snake tattooed on her wrist. She had numerous affairs through her marriage to Lord Randolph including Count Charles Andreas Kinsky, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Britain and the Prince of Wales himself.

Although her marriage to Randolph was a love match, over the years they grew apart. Randolph spent increasingly more time on his political career and traveling with his cronies, than he did with his wife. He died young, at the age of 45 in 1895, suffering from what appears to have been syphillis. Despite her infidelities, Jennie was a devoted political wife, she supported his causes, and even helped to write several of his speeches.

She kept occupied after Randolph's death by founding the Anglo-Saxon Review, a short-lived magazine that came out quarterly from 1899 to 1901. Each issue was individually decorated which led to production costs being incredibly high. Five years after his death, Jennie caused a scandal by marrying George Cornwallis-West who was the same age as her son Winston. However, even after her marriage, she continued to be known by the name Lady Randolph Churchill.

Jennie kept busy helping Winston with his career, and chartering a hospital ship to care for those wounded in the Boer War. In 1908, she wrote her memoirs, The Reminiscences of Lady Randolph Churchill. However, her marriage to George Cornwallis-West didn't last, they were divorced in 1912 after he left her for the actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell (famous for creating the role of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion).

She married for the last time at the age of 64 to Montague Phippen Porch who was 3 years younger than Winston, and a member of the British Civil Service in Nigeria. However, Jennie never showed the devotion to her second and third husbands that she had shown for Randolph.

In 1921, three years after her marriage to Porch, Jennie fell down the stairs while visiting friends. Gangrene set in, and her left leg had to be amputated. Jennie Jerome Churchill died at her home in London on June 9, 1921 from complications from the amputation. She was buried next to Randolph in the Churchill family plot in St. Martin's Church, Bladon in Oxfordshire.

Jennie Jerome Churchill is unique for being not only one of the first American women to be accepted by English high society but for having given birth to Winston Churchill. Her American joie de vivre, and ambition manifested themselves in her son, combining with the inherent privilege of being a Duke's grandson.

For more reading:

Anne Sebba - American Jennie: The Remarkable Life of Lady Randolph Churchill (W.W. Norton 2007).

Ralph G. Martin - Jennie: The Life of Lady Randolph Churchill, Volumes I & II.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Wild Ride of Lady Godiva - Fact or Fiction?

"Lady Godiva was a freedom rider, She was a sister who really could!"

Remember those lines from the theme song from the 1970's sitcom Maude? I do and I remember wondering who was Lady Godiva and what did she do that was so great that she was mentioned in a song? Was she even real?

Well, yes Virginia, Lady Godiva (1040-1080 or thereabouts, no one is actually sure of her date of birth or death) was real but as for her 'freedom ride' that appears just to be the stuff of legend. The story goes that Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry in England in order to get her husband to repeal an oppressive tax that he had levied on his tenants. After Godiva's ride through the town, her husband kept his word and abolished the taxes. The origin of the phrase "Peeping Tom," also comes from later versions of the legend. All the villagers were ordered to shut their blinds so as not to see Lady Godiva in the altogether while she rode through the streets. The legend has it that one guy named appropriately enough Tom couldn't resist taking a peek and was struck down blind for being a voyeur. Thus the phrase "Peeping Tom."

What we do know about Lady Godiva was that she lived with her husband in Coventry in England during the reigns of Canute, Harold Harefoot, Hardacanute, and his successor, Edward the Confessor. And her name wasn't actually Godiva. It was Godgifu or Godgyfu which is Anglo-Saxon for 'Gift of God.' Godiva is the latinized version of her name and not just the name of a popular brand of chocolates! Apparently Godgifu was very popular at the time, sort like the way Elizabeth was popular in the sixties. She was married to Leofric, who was the Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful nobleman at that time. He was one of only two Anglo-Saxons to still hold power during the reign of Canute, who made Leofric, Earl of Mercia. At the time, Mercia was a large and important land holding consisting of the counties of Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.

Godgifu was a high born Anglo-Saxon woman who was probably wealthy in her own right. There is some conjecture that her father may have been Sheriff of Lincoln, or it may have been her brother. We do know that Leofric and Godgifu married in 1016, when he was 48 and she was probably in her mid-thirties in Norfolk. They had two children, Aelfgar, who succeeded as Earl, and a daughter, whose name remains unknown. Aelfgar's daughter, Ealdgyth was wed briefly to the Welsh King, and then after his death to Harold Godwineson, who was defeated by William the Conqueror making Godgifu briefly the grandmother of a Queen of England.

She's first mentioned in the chronicles of Ely, Liber Elensis, who writes that she was a widow when Leofric married her. Both Godgifu and her husband were generous patrons of the convents and churches of the time. In 1043, Leofric founded and endowed a Benedictine monastery in Coventry. He had been given by the future Archbishop of Canterbury the arm of St. Augustine of Hippo, a relic that needed a home. Another chronicler, Roger of Wendover, claims that Godgifu was instrumental in getting her husband to take this step, because there were no educational facilities for the clergy. They also granted land to a monastery of St. Mary, Worcester and also at Stow St. Mary, Lincolnshire. Leofric died in 1057, and Godgifu inherited his estates, meriting a mention in the Domesday book of 1086.

The legend first appeared in around 1236 again told by Roger of Wendover. In this version, Godiva rode through Coventry market, accompanied only by two knights, as the townspeople assembled to watch. There are some theories that if Godiva did ride through Coventry, she did so wearing the shift of a penitant which was a long white garment, similar to a chemise. However, there is no mention in contemporary chronicles of any woman named Godgifu riding through Coventry naked or otherwise. And Roger of Wednover was known for his exaggeration and biased embellishment. Apparently he was more a collector of stories than an actual historian. Other chroniclers simply mention her as a pious woman of some beauty.

Also, Coventry wasn't even founded until 1043, so it wouldn't have been big enough at the time to warrant such a noble gesture, and the biggest tax at the time would have been on horses. As the town grew, Leofric began taking on a greater role in the affairs, handling the financial matters and he initiated grand public works. Godgifu appears to have become a patron of the arts in the town.

So why has the legend persisted? Maybe because the story of Lady Godiva is one of the power of a woman to effect change. Godiva's husband challenges her to ride naked through Coventry in order to have the taxes lowered, probably figuring that she wouldn't dare to do so. Well, she did dare. A little nakedness was not going to deter the fictional Lady Godiva from helping the tenants who were suffering. Godiva was being tested and she came through.

The Norman invasion of 1066, upended Anglo-Saxon England. The story probably was based on a folktale or earlier pagan fertility rites associated with the May Queen. Coventry is located near the Forest of Arden, made famous by Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Put it in a blender and hit the button and pour out the cocktail of Lady Godiva, a tale guaranteed to attract pilgrims and of course revenue to the city of Coventry.

Despite the fact that legend of Lady Godiva is just that, the ride is commorated in Coventry every year on May 31st. She's also become something of a mascot to engineers, called the Patron Saint of Engineers or the Goddess of Engineering. I'm not quite sure what that's all about.

From the evidence, it's clear that Godgifu was a pious and generous woman, whose name was appropriated to create a romantic and enduring myth of virtue and innocence triumphing over cruelty and tyranny.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Royal Princess, Royal Scandal - the sad life of Princess Margaret

It'll be six years next month that HRH Princess Margaret passed away at the age of 71. Apparently her ex-husband, Lord Snowdon has decided to share intimate details of his marriage to the late Princess in a new biography.

According to Hello Magazine: "News of the book, which is set to hit UK stores in the summer, may come as a surprise to many royal watchers.

"There has always been an understanding that no biography would be published during his lifetime," says royal author Tim Heald - who wrote a biography of the Queen's late sister. "He has never spoken a word in public about Margaret," he continues, "He has remained very loyal to her and to her memory."

"However, the royal snapper, who married the beautiful, blue-eyed royal at Westminster Abbey in 1960, has given his "full agreement" to the new biography by well-known journalist Anne de Courcy. "I am now happy for people to know about my life and I want to put the record straight on some things," says the 77-year-old, whose famously turbulent union ended in divorce in 1978. Snowdon: The Biography will be published in June."

Before Princess Diana became the most written about and hunted royal in modern history, and pictures of Fergie getting her toes sucked were splashed around the world, Princess Margaret captured the imagination and the paparazzi's interest from the 1950's right up to her divorce from Lord Snowden in 1978. She was noted as one of the most glamorous, well-dressed women in the world. In the post war gloom of Britain, Princess Margaret could be seen out every night in glamorous night clubs with her society friends, cigarette in hand. A rather far cry from the rather forlorn figure in her last years who had a reputation for being rude and pompous.

Her Royal Highness, Princess Margaret Rose was born at Glamis Castle in Scotland on the night of a tremendous storm on August 21st 1930. In a sense it was an omen of what her life would become. At the time of her birth, her father, the Duke of York, was second in line to throne after his brother the future Duke of Windsor. Margaret was brought up with her older sister Elizabeth in a townhouse on Piccadilly. If things had been different, Margaret would have passed into history as a very minor member of the Royal Family, probably living her life out in the country as a member of the aristocracy, with their dogs, and hunting.

Instead, Margaret found herself thrust on the world stage when her Uncle David abdicated the throne in December of 1936. All of a sudden, her father was King and her sister was the heir apparent. They moved from their cozy little townhouse to the great behemoth that is Buckingham Palace. From childhood, Margaret was indulged. Although Elizabeth was the future Queen of England, Margaret was clearly her father’s favorite. She was naughty, with a wicked sense of humor and the ability to mimic anyone. When she was caught, she managed to diffuse the situation by making everyone laugh until they forgot why she was being punished. Margaret was also more affectionate and effusive than her older sister.

Although they fought like cats and dogs at times, the two sisters were almost like twins, until their father’s coronation when Elizabeth had a train on her gown but Margaret did not. From then on Margaret was aware of her status as the ‘spare.’ When her sister was being given lessons in history twice a week from the Provost at Eton, Margaret wanted lessons too. No one seems to have known what to do with Margaret. In the old days of Princesses, she would have been packed off as soon as possible to some foreign court to become the consort of a reigning Prince. But the First World War had taken care of most of the monarchies of Europe, and the ones that were left were holding on by a string.

Royal sons could go into the Navy or the Army, or be packed of to be Governor General of one of the colonies like Australia or New Zealand. There was no thought to the possibility of Margaret attending University the way Prince Charles and Prince Edward did, or even attending Art College the way her own children were able to. What ever talents she possessed were never developed beyond that of an amateur.

By the time she was 18, Princess Margaret was sexy, beautiful, and self-assured with a drop dead gorgeous figure that was turned out to perfection in the waspwaisted fashions of the post-War era. While Princess Diana had cultivated the image of ‘Shy Di,’ awkward and unsure of her role as the Princess of Wales, Margaret was the personification of the world’s idea of a Princess.

The press in the post war world was remarkably different from the diffidence shown the royal family previously. The culture of the paparazzi was in its infancy, and Princess Margaret was their first and most famous subject. When she wore a two piece bathing suit while on a royal tour of Italy, photographs appeared around the world. Nowadays when tons of photos appeared in the press of Princess Diana cavorting in a bikini while pregnant, nobody batted an eye but back then things were different. No royal had ever been photographed wearing a bathing suit before.

Princess Elizabeth had married Prince Philip in November of 1947, and by the next November she’d had her first child. She was a settled matron, living the life as a naval officer’s wife. Margaret took up her role as the royal with a vengeance. She had no job and not many friends her own age, apart from a few selected children who had been brought into the royal nursery when she and her sister were growing up. With no real role, Margaret threw herself into becoming the life of every party that was going on.

Her name was regularly in the gossip columns as she partied with the so-called Princess Margaret Set - Old Etonian Billy Wallace, Dominic Elliot (son of the Earl of Minto), the Earl of Dalkeith, Mark Bonham Carter, the Marquess of Blandford and many now-forgotten Guardsmen. And she loved to sing at the piano in nightclubs, surrounded by laughing friends.
She still had her duties to fulfill, which she apparently did well. Margaret’s generation took the idea of ‘duty’ seriously, even though what she was often called on to do wasn’t exciting or glamorous. Opening hospitals, petrol stations, christening ships, visiting schools were all a part of the daily round of royal duties that Margaret was expected to fulfill. She had more fun in her role as patron of the Royal Ballet.

Margaret’s world changed abruptly when her father, George VI died in February of 1952 at the age of 56. He’d not been well, worn down by the war years and the burden of being King. Margaret, being the quintessential Daddy’s girl, was devastated. She told a biographer that “there was an awful sense of being in a black hole. I remember being tunnel-visioned and didn’t really notice things.”

While everyone was catering to her sister in her new role as Queen Elizabeth II, Margaret was pushed aside, with no thought by anyone of what she might be going through having lost her father. From living at Buckingham Palace, she was now relegated to Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s new home. She was now marginalized for the new royal family consisting of the Queen, Prince Philip and Charles and Anne. Her role was now to be on the sidelines.

But Margaret wouldn’t stay there. The first and most famous incident in Princess Margaret’s life was her love affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend. Townsend had been her father’s equerry for years; he was a war hero, sixteen years her senior and married, although he was soon to be divorced. In her grief over her father’s death, Margaret turned more and more to Townsend for consolation. He too had suffered a loss when the King died.

The relationship had apparently started long before the King’s death and would probably have stayed under the radar, if Princess Margaret hadn’t been caught out brushing a piece of fluff off Townsend’s lapel during the coronation.

Princess Margaret desperately wanted to marry Townsend, but there were several obstacles, the most pressing being that he was divorced. Despite the fact that he was the injured part, divorce in aristocratic and royal circles was still a big taboo in the fifties. As the Queen was the Defender of the Faith and the Head of the Church of England, having her sister marry a divorced man was unthinkable.

When Prince Michael of Kent married the former Marie Christine Reibnitz in 1978, he still had to renounce his right to the throne because she was not only divorced but Catholic. 40 years after Princess Margaret gave up the man she loved, Princess Anne became the first divorced royal to remarry and that wedding had to take place in Scotland as Mark Philips is still alive.

Margaret was told, erroneously it turns out, that not only would she have to renounce her place in the succession, but that she would be stripped of her royal title, her civil list allowance and forced to live abroad in exile for the rest of her life like her Uncle. In 2004, it was revealed that Margaret and the Queen were deliberately given misinformation by the government. While Margaret would undoubtedly have had to renounce her place in the succession, she could have kept her royal title and the money. The reason for the subterfuge was that even though the abdication was almost twenty years prior, the wounds were still open. As the Queen had just ascended the throne, it wouldn’t do for her younger sister to be seen marrying a divorcé, no matter how well-connected.

After a two year separation, Townsend had been posted abroad to Belgium as an air attaché and only sporadic meetings, Princess Margaret agreed to give up any thought of marrying him. Despite their love for each other, Margaret had no concept of what it would be like to be anything but a member of the Royal family. The idea of living in exile, on his salary, was too much to be borne. Margaret simply wasn’t the type to have to do her own washing up, and cooking. It was one thing to play at it, knowing that you could also call the servants if something went wrong, another to have that be your way of life.

Margaret plunged back into the world of café society, partying harder than ever. As the years went by, more of her social circle married, leaving her in danger of becoming an old maid. She was also smoking and drinking a great deal. Her reputation also began to suffer as she began to appear aloof and difficult in public while performing her royal duties.

The public at large rejoiced, when the Palace announced her engagement at the age of 29, to the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. The princess had found happiness after all. But the truth was that the announcement came shortly after Margaret learned that Peter Townsend had married a Belgian woman, Marie-Luce Jamagne. Princess Margaret was distraught, apparently the two of them had made a promise that neither of them would marry.

Whatever the reasons, Princess Margaret became a royal bride when she married Antony Armstrong-Jones at Westminister Abbey on May 6, 1960. At first it appeared that the newly married couple had a great deal in common, both sharing a love of the arts and a strong streak of irreverence. But the problem however was that while Princess Margaret may have been cheeky, she never forgot that she was the daughter and granddaughter of a King, and the sister of the Queen of England.

That wasn’t the only problem. Her staff treated him like an interloper, not like the husband of the Princess. Even the courtiers surrounding the Royal Family considered him not one of their “kind” despite the fact that his father was a wealthy QC and his mother came from a well known artistic family, her brother was the noted theatrical set designer Oliver Messel, and she herself had remarried the Earl of Rosse. Because he wasn’t born with a title, he was regarded with suspicion, treated like Princess Margaret was marrying down. Another problem was what to do with him. Previous husbands of royal Princesses had been princes or Dukes in their own right. For a proud man like Armstrong-Jones it was must have come as a shock that he was expected to walk several paces behind his wife.

The marriage floundered as the Swinging Sixties took hold of Britain. They were moments of joy in the birth of their two children, Viscount Linley in 1961 and his sister Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones in 1964, but also periodic bouts of infidelity on both sides, massive fights, and rampant drunkenness. According to biographer Sarah Bradford, Snowdon once left a note for Princess Margaret that read, "You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you". Armstrong-Jones began to spend more time abroad on working assignments, while Princess Margaret retreated to the Caribbean, most often to Mustique, where she had her own villa on land given to her by her good friend Lord Glenconner.

In 1973, Princess Margaret was introduced to Roddy Llewellyn, who at 26 was 17 years younger. They frequently spent time together on Mustique, where they became quite close. Her marriage to Snowdon came to an end when pictures of her and Roddy were splashed in the tabloids. A formal separation wasn’t announced until 1976, and the couple were divorced in 1978. Snowdon remarried immediately to Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, the television producer he was having an affair with. Her relationship with Roddy ended soon after when he informed that he was getting married.

In her later years, she was plagued by constant ill-health. In 1984, she’d an operation on her lungs, and in 1998, she suffered a mild stroke. Later that year, the Princess severely scalded her feet in a bathroom accident. The accident severely restricted her mobility, forcing her to use a wheelchair on occasion. Although she eventually quit smoking, the damage to her health was already done. In 2000, and 2001 she suffered another series of strokes.

Princess Margaret passed away on February 9, 2002 at the age of 71, after suffering a massive stroke. Ironically her funeral was held on the 50th anniversary of her father’s funeral. Unlike most royals, Princess Margaret requested that she be cremated; her ashes placed in the tomb of her parents King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who only survived a few months after the death of her daughter.

Her good friend Gore Vidal wrote of her, "She was far too intelligent for her station in life." He recalled a conversation he had with the Princess, in which she discussed her public notoriety, saying, "It was inevitable: when there are two sisters and one is the Queen, who must be the source of honor and all that is good, while the other must be the focus of the most creative malice, the evil sister.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Evelyn Nesbit and the Murder of the Century

It was called the Murder of the Century. Eighty years before the trial of OJ Simpson captured the attention of the nation and the world, there was the murder of architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw at the entertainment complex that he created Madison Square Garden. The story had everything, society -- money, rage, lust, envy. Within a week of the murder, the Biograph Company had produced a motion picture dramatization.

And at the center of this love triangle gone wrong was a young copper haired beauty named Evelyn Nesbit.

She was born Florence Evelyn Nesbit on Christmas Day in 1884 in Tarentum, a small town near Pittsburgh, PA, the same city that her future husband, Harry K. Thaw hailed from. But while Harry grew up in the lap of luxury living on the big hill, Evelyn and her family were barely scraping above the poverty line after the untimely death of her father when she was 8. Her mother tried to turn their home into a boarding house with minimal success. They often had so little money that they were reduced to eating mustard sandwiches. A dreamy child, Evelyn spend her time imaginging an existence where she was a princess in a castle, or rescued by a handsome prince from the poverty of her existence. But the reality was that there was only one person who could save the family and that was Evelyn.

From the time she was born it was clear that Evelyn was going to turn into a great beauty. When she was fourteen, her mother moved the family to Philadelphia, where Evelyn and her mother soon took jobs at Wanamaker’s department store. However, Evelyn was soon discovered by a local artist, Mrs. Darragh who was taken by her beauty. While she didn’t have the voluptuous figure that was popular during the Gilded Age, Evelyn was willowy, with the type of figure and face that artists adored sketching. Soon Evelyn found she was being sought out by artists such as Carl Blender and F.S. Church.

Modeling in the 19th century was not the career aspiration that it is today. It was considered, like acting, one step above prostitution. Well brought up young ladies didn’t model. In Evelyn’s case, despite her mother’s misgivings, she was able to earn enough to keep the family intact, fed and clothed. Soon Evelyn decided that the family should move to New York, where she could make even more money as an artist’s model. They took rooms in a boarding house on 22nd Street, and Evelyn using a letter of recommendation from an artist in Philadelphia, began making the rounds of the studios of famous artists.

Soon Evelyn had met and posed for Carroll Beckwith, who introduced her to other New York artists, among them Charles Dana Gibson, Frederick S. Church and photographer Rudolf Eickemeyer. Before she knew it, she was one of the most sought after artist models in the city. Sculptor George Grey Barnard used her for his famous piece “Innocence” which is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photographic fashion modeling, while in its infancy, was becoming more and more popular in the fifteen daily newspapers, and paid more as well. Evelyn learned that she could make up to $5 for a half-day shot or $10 for a full day shoot (that’s about $40 per hour in 2008 dollars). With this kind of money, she was able to bring her younger brother Howard to New York to live with them.

The minute her pictures began to appear in the paper, Evelyn was famous, and theatrical producers began to come around wanting to feature her, not caring whether or not she had any actual talent. Evelyn was cast as one of the Spanish dancers in the hit musical Floradora, but what she really wanted to be was part of the Floradora Sextette, 6 girls who were the show piece the show. Stage Door Johnnies flocked to escort the Floradora girls out to parties and to dinner at restaurants like Delmonico’s and Rectors. Often they send around flowers backstage with money attached. One of these Stage Door Johnnies was Stanford White, the most famous architect in New York if not the entire country. At the time that they met, Evelyn was 16 years old and ‘Stanny’ as he was known was 47, and married with a wife and son conveniently spending most of their time out on Long Island.

Stanford stood over 6 feet tall, with red hair and a moustache. He had incredible energy, often working on 40 and 50 projects at the same time. The architectural firm which he helped to co-found, McKim, Mead & White was responsible for the Arch in Washington Square Park, The Players Club, the Metropolitan Club and various other landmarks around New York City, including the magnificent Madison Square Garden (the second building on the spot and the last to actually be on Madison Square). He also spent more than he earned, entertaining lavishly. He was not only the architect but he also furnished the houses that he built, taking buying trips to Europe where he would return laden down with furniture and art work.

He also had a reputation for ‘befriending’ teenage girls, luring them to his lavish private tower apartment at Madison Square Garden, or to a little studio hideway on West 24th Street (now sadly demolished) that came complete with a red velvet swing. Stanford would push his darlings on the swing, sometimes while they were naked, Evelyn later wrote how he would push her higher while she kicked a hole in the Japanese parasols that were hung from the ceiling. Evelyn’s mother however chose to overlook his dubious reputation for his patronage. White had Evelyn’s teeth fixed, and took her and her mother out shopping. Eventually, money was found to send her brother to military school, and to move her and her mother to a better apartment in the city.

When Evelyn’s mother had to go out of town, Stanford promised to look after her daughter. He looked after her alright. According to the story she told Thaw and then later on in court, White brought her back to his private apartment, plied her with champagne that was drugged, and then took her virginity. However, at the end of her life, Evelyn claimed that Stanford White was the only man she had ever loved. Despite the dubious beginnings of their relationship, Evelyn was White’s mistress for about a year. She soon learned that she wasn’t the only one enjoying the attentions of Stanford White.

Evelyn was soon being courted by other men, including the young and extremely gorgeous John Barrymore who was 22 at the time. However, at the time that they were together, Barrymore was not the matinee idol and movie star that he became later on. He was broke and dabbling as an artist and photographer. Still he was madly in love with her and proposed to her at least twice. She also became pregnant with his child. White swooped in to fix the situation, sending Evelyn off to a boarding school run by Cecil B. DeMille’s mother in New Jersey, where she was treated for ‘appendicitis’ for the first time (apparently she later on had a second attack of ‘appendicitis.’ Who knew you could have more than one?)

Her fortunes took a turn for the better or worse, depending on how one looks at it, when she made the acquaintance of Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh as he was fond of introducing himself. Harry Kendall Thaw was the heir to a multi-million dollar mining and railroad fortune. While Evelyn and her family moved from place to place, trying to stay one step of ahead of abject poverty, Harry’s life was one of privilege with mansions, servants, ponies, luxurious coaches and private schools. He also, from birth, was subject to temper tantrums, fits, and violent outbursts. Still he managed to somehow get into Harvard, where he spent his time playing poker. When Harry’s father passed away, his will left him a trust that would allow him a measly $200 per month. Harry’s indulgent mother, known to everyone as Mother Thaw, immediately raised his yearly allowance to $80,000 a year.

Thaw was obsessed with the theater, and he was a regular attendee at Broadway shows. He squired chorus girls around town, but there were darker rumors that Thaw had a penchant for dog whips. Harry was a huge fan of the show Floradora, and a particular fan of a certain copper-haired beauty named Evelyn Nesbit. He first approached Evelyn under an assumed name, “Mr. Monroe,” before finally revealing himself. Evelyn, at first, wanted nothing to do with him, but Thaw was persistent. He even managed to find out where she was in New Jersey, pursuing her with a vengeance. Finally Evelyn agreed to go out with him.

Harry worked his charm on her mother as well, persuading her mother that a trip to Europe was just what Evelyn needed to recover from her ‘appendicitis.’ They spend several weeks traveling around France, but before they left Stanford White gave Evelyn a line of credit for $500 just in case. It was while in Europe that Thaw first revealed his true colors. He would fly into rages on the slightest provocation, or disappear for a day or two, finally returning with a manic gleam in his eye. Finally, Evelyn learned that Thaw was addicted to cocaine and morphine. After her mother had had enough of Thaw’s behavior, she returned to the States. Thaw had promised to hire a chaperone to watch over Evelyn but that somehow never materialized.

Having finally gotten the object of his desire alone, Thaw pressed Evelyn about her relationship with Stanford White, who he hated with a passion bordering on obsession. There are various theories for Thaw’s unwavering animosity for White. One story has it that Thaw had invited a show girl Frances Belmont and her friends to huge party with all his male cronies. On the night before the party, Frances walked in to Sherry’s restaurant with her beau, Frank Crowninshield, the future editor of Vanity Fair. Thaw was there also and snubbed her. Furious, Frances decided to take all her friends to a party at White’s tower instead, leaving Thaw waiting without entertainment for his male friends. Thaw blamed his humiliation on White.

Thaw pressed Evelyn for details of her ‘seduction’ by Stanford White. When he discovered what White had supposedly done to her, he flew into a rage, beating Evelyn with a whip until she begged for mercy. When Evelyn returned to New York, she went straight to Stanford and told him what Thaw had done. White had Evelyn give her statement to his lawyer, and Thaw was forbidden to see Evelyn until she came of age, even though she’d already turned 18. If Evelyn had hoped that telling White about Thaw would rekindle his feelings for her, she was sadly mistaken. White had moved onto to another pretty young thing. He would always have a fondness for Evelyn but their relationship as lovers was now over.

Although she had previously told Harry that she could never marry him because she planned on devoting her life to the stage, Evelyn now changed her mind. Her mother had remarried a Mr. Holman, Stanny was no longer available to her, and perhaps after seeing what a life of luxury could be like, decided to make the best of it and marry Thaw. She’d seen how contrite he could be after one of his rages. Perhaps she felt that in some strange way, marrying Thaw kept her close to Stanny given Thaw’s feelings towards him. Harry had already informed her that he had detectives following White’s every move. His hatred of White was so complete that he even went to Anthony Comstock, head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and reported that White had debauched over three hundred young girls. He also kept a pistol on his person, claiming that the Monk Eastman gang, on White’s orders was after him. Thaw and Evelyn were wed on April 4, 1905 in Pittsburgh when she was 20 and Thaw was 33.

After their marriage, Evelyn and Thaw moved in with his mother at the family estate in Lyndhurst. Although living with her mother-in-law was not how Evelyn envisaged her marriage, she decided to stick it out. She could always convince Thaw to take her to every play, opera, ballet and musical that played Pittsburgh. Her free time was spent redecorating her rooms in the gloomy house. For all their money, the Thaws apparently had no idea how to furnish a house.

Matters finally came to a head on June 25, 1906. Evelyn and Thaw were in New York staying at the hotel Lorraine, preparing to spend the summer in Europe. That night they had plans to see the first night of a new show Mam’zelle Champagne at the roof theatre at Madison Square Garden, which Evelyn found curious, given Thaw’s hatred of White. Before they left for the theatre, Thaw had left Evelyn at the hotel to have a few drinks down at Sherry’s, where the hat check girl noted that despite the June weather, Thaw refused to take off his overcoat. While they were at dinner at Cafe Martin, Evelyn passed Harry a note saying that the Beast, Thaw's preferred nickname for White, had been in the restaurant.

During the song, ‘I Could Love a Million Girls,’ Thaw went up to White and fired three shots at close range into White’s face, killing him instantly. He then immediately emptied the barrel of the gun and held it over his head to show that he had no intentions of firing again. Various people reported that Thaw either shouted, “You’ll never see that woman again!” or “You ruined my wife,” before firing his gun. Thaw was arrested and taken to the county jail where he had his meals catered by Delmonico’s while he awaited trial.

There were two trials. At the first Thaw plead temporary insanity, claiming that he had the moral right to kill White because of what he did to Evelyn. Evelyn showed up every day at the trial wearing a white blouse, dark skirt, and a charming black hat, looking more like a school girl than the 22 year old wife. Evelyn knew that she had a part to play, and she was ready. It was her greatest acting performance ever. Her outfit soon became a fashion statement due to drawings in the daily papers. When she took the stand, the district attorney, William Travers Jerome, couldn't shake Evelyn's story since she was telling the jury what she told Thaw, not what might have really happened concerning her relationship with Shaw. Instead he tried to smear her character, hammering her on the witness. His strategy had the reverse effect, he just looked like he was bullying a sweet, young girl.

In the meantime a smear campaign was waged against the character of Stanford White. Newspapers dug up all kinds of stories concerning White's debauched behavior with models and showgirls. Other girls came forward and claimed that he was a perfect gentleman. Conspicuously silent where White's friends. Mother Thaw paid not only for a film to be made but also an Off-Broadway play that painted White as a degenerate and debaucher of young girls. It was one of the first cases where the defense went all out to smear the victim (a practice that has become de rigueur since then). In a shocking move, Evelyn's mother came forward to defend Stanford White's character, claiming that she had letters from White that proved that his intentions towards Evelyn had been honorable. However, Mother Thaw took care of the problem, paying her $25,000 for her silence.

The first jury was deadlocked, ending in a hung jury. At the second trial, his lawyers now pleaded that Thaw was definitely insane. Thaw’s mother, always referred to as Mother Thaw, offered to pay Evelyn $1,000,000 to testify that White had raped her and that the thought send Thaw around the bend. After the verdict came in that Thaw was found innocent by reason of insanity, he was treated like a hero. Many felt that the verdict was a miscarriage of justice that was bought by a great deal of money. It was clear from the testimony given that Thaw had suffered from severe mental delusions for years compounded by an addiction to cocaine and morphine. It was also clear that Thaw knew exactly what he was doing when he killed Stanford White.

After Thaw was sent to the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York, he and Evelyn were divorced but she never received the $1,000,000 from Mother Thaw. Evelyn had initially tried to obtain an annulment from Thaw, until she found out it meant that she would have no claim to his estate if anything happened to him. Mother Thaw, however, was a shrewd woman and she'd had Evelyn tailed by detectives who discovered that Evelyn had not

been the adoring wife except in public while Thaw was in jail awaiting trial or while he was incacerated at Matteawan.

Thaw meanwhile enjoyed almost total freedom at Matteawan. While there, he spent his time trying to get the verdict of insanity appealed. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court but was upheld. Thaw managed to escape temporarily to Canada in 1913. He was extradited back to the States, but was finally released in 1915 after being judged sane. But that wasn't the end of Thaw's trouble's. Thaw was accused of sexually assaulting and horsewhipping a young boy and was sent back to a mental hospital until 1924. After his release, he moved to Virginia where he bought a historic home called Kenilworth, ingratiating himself with the locals. When he died in Florida in 1947, he left Evelyn $10,000 in his will.

The years were not kind to Evelyn after White’s death. She gave birth to a son, Russell Thaw, in 1910 that she claimed was Thaw’s child but he denied it, and Evelyn eventually admitted that Russell was not Thaw’s although she refused to say who was. She went into vaudeville, with a partner Jack Clifford who she later married, demonstrating the new dances like the fox-trot. She attempted suicide several times, and miraculously she and Thaw apparently attempted to reconcile but nothing came of it. She lived quietly for many years in New Jersey, where she taught ceramics, after overcoming an addiction to morphine (an addiction she was introduced to by Thaw), and alcoholism.

When the film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing was in production starring Farley Granger, Joan Collins and Ray Milland, Evelyn acted as a technical advisor. She also published two memoirs, The Story of My Life and Prodigal Days. In recent years, her story has entered the national consciousness through E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and the movie and musical based on the book. Evelyn died in a nursing home in Santa Monica, California at the age of 82 in 1967.

The real victim in all this is Stanford White. Not only was his life tragically cut short, but his reputation blackened to such a degree that his name was spoken in hushed whispers after his death, to the point that even his own family were ashamed to be related to him. The unholy trinity of scandal, violence and sexual impropriety still haunt the memory of a brilliant architect who should be remembered for the brilliant buildings he gave the world, not his sex life.

These three people from disparate backgrounds are now intertwined in the history of New York’s Gilded Age, as symbols of the decadence that symbolized the city. Could White’s death have been prevented if Evelyn had never married Thaw? No one will ever know for sure. Thaw clearly had it in for the man he called “The Beast” but his relationship with Evelyn spurred his obsession to unnatural heights. Evelyn, for her part, never seems to have gotten over her relationship with White. Having lost her father at such a young age, White was both lover and father substitute. Her relationship with Thaw in some way kept her connected to Stanford White, and even in death, her name will always be coupled with his as part of the “Murder of the Century.”

For further reading:

The Architect of Desire by Suzannah Lessard (White’s great-great grand daughter)
Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age - Michael Mooney

American Experience – The Murder of the Century
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing