Biography corner: What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown

What did a murder case that dominated the tabloids look like 112 years ago? Here’s a brief look at two such cases from the opening of Chapter 4 of Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing. 

Evelyn Nesbit and Grace Brown: Visibility and Sexuality in the City, 1906

220px-Evelyn_Nesbit_12056uOn the evening of June 25, 1906, the play Mam’zelle Champagne opened at the Roof Garden Theater atop what was still the new Madison Square Garden. On this particular evening, its architect, Stanford White, sat in the audience enjoying the musical comedy, seemingly unaware of the intense stares of a young man who, unusually for the warm evening, was wearing an overcoat. As the tenor swung into “I Could Love a Million Girls,” the young man left his seat and walked directly in front of White. “You have ruined my life!” the young man shouted, pulling a revolver from his coat and shooting White three times in the head and chest.287px-Stanford_White_33_crop

White slumped to the floor, already dead and disfigured with powder burns, and the young man walked in a leisurely fashion toward the exit where, stopped by a uniformed fireman, he handed over his gun. The beautiful young woman who had accompanied him to the theater cried out, “Oh, Harry, what have you done? You’re in a terrible fix now.”  “It’s all right, dear,” the young man replied calmly. “I have probably saved your life.” He kept moving toward the elevators, later surrendering himself to police at the nearest precinct house and posing with supreme confidence for the waiting crowd of photographers.[i]

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.43.46 PMThe young man was Harry K. Thaw, a millionaire from Pittsburgh, and the beautiful young woman with him was his unhappy wife, Evelyn Nesbit, who even before the murder was as famous in her own sphere as White was in his. Supporting her mother and brother through her work as a child model, Nesbit had moved to New York as a teenager and became a well-known artists’ model widely sought out for her soulful looks and masses of dark hair. Nesbit posed for such noted figures as Charles Dana Gibson, who used her as the model for his iconic “Gibson Girl” portrait “The Eternal Question,” and by her late teens, she had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies before marrying millionaire Harry Thaw.

What her testimony at Thaw’s trial revealed was another life lived between the stage and her marriage: her years as White’s teenage protégée and mistress. When she told the story to Thaw before their marriage in 1905, he became obsessed with the idea of innocence destroyed by White’s debauchery and forced her to recite the story repeatedly, brooding about it until he murdered White. On April 11, 1907, Thaw’s first trial ended in a hung jury; the second concluded in February 1908 with a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 12.45.43 PMIn a pattern that would become familiar in years to come, Nesbit’s story, first reproduced in the newspapers and later appearing in her two autobiographies, was reenacted by Nesbit herself in a series of a dozen movies beginning with The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case (1907) and The Great Thaw Trial (1907) and concluding with a Hollywood version on which Nesbit served as technical advisor, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).[ii]

gilletteThe Thaw case vied for attention with a later 1906 trial that dominated the New York press when Chester Gillette declared his innocence in the murder of Grace (Billy) Brown in upstate New York. The Thaw and Gillette trials contained the same irresistible elements, a combination of sex and violence in the unspooling narrative, breathlessly reported, of a young woman ruined by a man of higher social class. Chester Gillette’s victim, Grace Brown, had moved a few years earlier from her family’s small farm in upstate New York to the nearby city of Cortland. She found work in the Gillette Skirt Factory and later began a relationship with the owner’s nephew, Chester Gillette.

23-chester-gillette-ny-world-11-30-1906When Grace discovered that she was pregnant in the spring of 1906, Chester urged her to return to her family’s farm, promising to rescue her at a later date. By early July, when he had not done so, Grace threatened to return to Cortland and hold him accountable. Chester then took her on a trip to the nearby Adirondack Mountains from which she never returned.

 

americantragedyA few years later, Theodore Dreiser used the Gillette case as the basis for An American Tragedy (1925), and it had a second life as media fodder in its two film adaptations, Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy (1931), a production that caused both Dreiser and Grace Brown’s family to sue Paramount Pictures; and George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951), which starred Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters in a contemporary adaptation of the story.

[i] The account of the killing appears in Mosette Glaser Broderick, Triumvirate: McKim, Mead & White: Art, Architecture, Scandal and Class in America’s Gilded Age, 495; and Paula M. Uruburu, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century.

[ii] Thaw, too, would go on to have Hollywood connections after his release from Mattewan; he sponsored Anita Page, a popular film star of the 1920s, during her first trip to Hollywood.

____

Comments:

  1. Fun fact: Chester Gillette spent many of his formative years in Spokane, Washington, the subject of a future post.
  2. You can still see the rooming house where Grace Brown lived from the windows of the former Gillette Skirt Factory in Cortland, New York, where she and Chester worked.
  3. In addition to Nesbit’s accounts of the White murder, I read the actual Gillette trial transcripts in preparing this and the rest (which is in the book). They used to be online in the New York State archives but aren’t any more.
  4. The “Mead” of the famous architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White was the brother of Elinor Mead Howells, the wife of W. D. Howells. I’m still looking for Howells’s comments (if any) on the trial because of this connection.
  5. The “Biography Corner” label is expanding to include little pieces like this in addition to reviews.

Did Stephen Crane read Emily Dickinson? Better still, did W. D. Howells read Dickinson’s poetry to Crane?

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 10.58.18 AMDid Stephen Crane read Emily Dickinson? And was he inspired by her poetry?

Gregory Laski (@ProfL12) asked about it this morning, and I responded “Yes, Howells read to him from Dickinson. It’s somewhere in Hamlin Garland’s memoirs”  (or words to that effect) and also in Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire.” (It’s  probably also in Stephen Crane Remembered, a copy of which I own but can’t find right now.)

This is what I’d always read and seen: one day in 1893, after Garland had introduced Crane to Howells, Crane visited Howells at home and Howells read to him from Emily Dickinson. It’s a pretty great story.

But what’s the source? Here’s one of those down-the-rabbit-hole searches that’s always more fun than whatever writing you’re doing at the time. Here are some of those paths, numbered so that you can see the process; if you’re not interested, skip to the end.

Mildly dead ends:

  1. Garland talks about meeting Crane in Roadside Meetings (1930), but he apparently didn’t discuss this. (I say “apparently” because I can’t find my copy of the book.)

    220px-Hamlin_Garland_1891

    Hamlin Garland

  2. Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland (ed. Keith Newlin & Joseph McCullough) doesn’t mention Dickinson and Crane except to say that Garland mistakenly thought he had met Dickinson (he met her niece).
  3. Hamlin Garland: A Life (Newlin) doesn’t mention Dickinson in the index but does state that Garland “had arranged an introduction to Howells in April 1893, hoping that the senior writer could help Crane place his poetry with Harper’s Monthly” (192).
  4. The Stephen Crane Encyclopedia (Stanley Wertheim) has no entry for Emily Dickinson.
  5. Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson’s William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life does not repeat the WDH reading to SC episode, but it does report that Crane’s excursions into flophouses and breadlines were at the urging of Howells and Garland and includes this intriguing detail: “With Crane and other friends or by himself, Howells roamed New York’s ethnic neighborhoods” (342). Howells was about 60 at the time, but it’s a great image to think of him with Crane roaming the neighborhoods together, though WDH would probably not have gone at night when Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner was checking up on the policemen on the beat.

Getting closer:

  1. howells

    W. D. Howells. Source: Picture I scanned in 1997 that has since made its way around the web.

     

    Howells reading Dickinson’s poems to Crane is  in the Sorrentino biography: “Garland insisted that Crane show the poems to William Dean Howells, who already knew of Crane’s interest in poetry from their meeting a year earlier, when Crane had been impressed with Emily Dickinson’s creativity as Howells read her poetry to him” (130). The note references The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, p. 54

  2. On to the Correspondence (edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino). Here’s what’s on p. 54 as a footnote to a letter from Howells to Crane dated April 8, 1893 that reads in part “Personally I know nothing of you except what you told me in our pleasant interview”: “Wearing a suit borrowed from his journalist friend John Northern Hilliard, Crane had tea or dinner with Howells in his home on what is now Central Park South one evening in the first week of April 1893. Howells read Crane some of Emily Dickinson’s verses at this time, and her terse, cryptic lines may have influenced the style of The Black Riders.” There’s no citation for this event, however.

Closer still:

  1. Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 12.29.23 PM

    Stephen Crane, from Stephen Crane Studies

    In The Crane Log: A Documentary Life of Stephen Crane 1871-1900, p. 90, there’s more detail: “Early April. Wearing a suit borrowed from his friend John Northern Hilliard, Crane visits Howells in his home at 40 West 59th Street, New York City. At this time, or perhaps on a later visit, Howells reads some of Emily Dickinson’s poems to him, and Crane is deeply impressed (Barry, 148).”

  2. The citation is to John D. Barry, “A Note on Stephen Crane.” Bookman 13 (April 1901): 148.  If you have access at the University of Virginia, or if you are time traveling in the year 2000 and looking this up prior to whenever they took all their public access stuff offline and hid it behind a firewall, you can get it here: https://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/u2739147.  <editorial rant> A great resource was lost to literary studies once UVA sealed up its collections. </editorial rant>

Here it is!

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 11.56.58 AMHere is the original passage *that apparently inspired the anecdote about Howells reading Dickinson to Stephen Crane: “One evening while receiving a visit from Mr. Crane, Mr. Howells took from his shelves a volume of Emily Dickinson’s verses and read some of these aloud. Mr. Crane was deeply impressed, and a short time afterward he showed me thirty poems in manuscript, written, as he explained, in three days” (148).

 

How credible is this source?

John D. Barry knew Crane, and according to The Stephen Crane Encyclopedia, “On 14 April 1894 Barry read some of the poems that would comprise The Black Riders in front of the Uncut Leaves Society at Sherry’s since Crane was averse to public speaking and refused to read them himself. Barry believed that Crane’s poetry had been inspired by Emily Dickinson, whose verses, Barry maintained, had been read to him by William Dean Howells” (20).  (bold for emphasis)

But look at Wertheim’s language here: “believed, maintained.” Wertheim has a point, which he emphasizes with this hedging language: All we really have is Barry’s word, not quite a year after Crane’s death on June 5, 1900, about Howells reading to Crane.

Should we believe it?

On one hand, Barry knew Crane and was quite severely critical of Maggie, calling it “morbid” and “unhealthful.” He believed in Crane’s poetry, however, and seems to have discussed it with him. It wouldn’t have been unusual for Howells to read aloud; to argue by analogy, Henry James and Edith Wharton did this all the time.  Howells’s kindness to young authors was legendary, and Barry was writing shortly after Crane’s death when memories were fresh.

On the other hand, Barry was a novelist, a playwright, and an instructor at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Perhaps the story was embellished because it would make more of an impression for the point he was trying to make in the article: that Stephen Crane should not be classed with the (French) symbolists because he was inspired by that most American of poets (aside from Whitman), Emily Dickinson.

Your thoughts? 

 

 

*With a little digging, you can find Bookman (not The Bookman, published in London and available at Hathi Trust) at archive.org here:

https://archive.org/stream/bookman54unkngoog#page/n240/mode/2up/search/stephen+crane