Florence Evelyn Nesbit was born on Christmas day in 1884, to Winfield and Evelyn Nesbit. At the time, the couple resided in Tarentum, Pennsylvania. Evelyn was their first child, and two years later a son followed, whom they named Howard.
Winfield Scott Nesbit was a likable, unsuccessful man. He was educated and made a living as an attorney. He was fond of his daughter: he encouraged her love of books, and paid for music and dancing lessons. Her mother was less educated and intelligent, though probably not a bad sort. During Evelyn’s early years, her life was devoted to being a housewife and mother.
Two years after the family moved to Pittsburgh, when Evelyn was 11 years old, her father died suddenly. In departing the earth, he left his family nothing but debt to remember him by. After losing their home, there were a miserable few years where they seem to have lived entirely on the charity of the family and some friends. Evelyn and Howard often stayed with relatives when their mother could not make ends meet.
After an unsuccessful stint running a boarding house, Mrs. Nesbit relocated to Philadelphia, in hopes of finding work as a seamstress. Again unsuccessful in plying her trade, Mrs. Nesbit managed to land a job at a department store. Though she worked long hours almost daily, she sent for 14-year-old Evelyn and her brother. They obtained jobs at the store too.
It was here that a momentous event took place in Evelyn’s life: a female artist asked her to pose, and paid her a dollar to sit for five hours. The artist must have been happy with the result: she introduced Evelyn to her friends and fellow artists. Soon, Evelyn was modeling for all of them.
After two years in Philadelphia, Mrs. Nesbit decided to try her luck again as a seamstress, this time in New York City. And once again, it was a failure. Though it was never openly forbidden, Mrs. Nesbit clearly wasn’t excited about her daughter’s modeling. Yet with destitution lurking just beneath the surface, and nothing to live on or to support her children, Mrs. Nesbit gave in to Evelyn’s intense desire to pose again.
The artists who employed her in Philadelphia wrote kind letters of introduction to their friends in New York City, which led to lucrative modeling work. Even with her mother managing her career, Evelyn’s success became unstoppable.
Her image was everywhere – paintings, postcards, even toothpaste ads. And when Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator of the famous Gibson Girls, drew Evelyn as “The Eternal Question”, she was officially famous.
High modeling commissions made Evelyn the primary breadwinner for the family but at age 15, Evelyn was ambitious and a little bored. When the opportunity presented itself for her to appear onstage in a play called Floradora, she leapt at it. It’s a bit surprising her mother agreed to it. At the time, modeling was not considered an altogether respectable trade, and Mrs. Nesbit knew it. Acting, on the other hand, was almost indecent by turn-of-the-century standards, particularly for women. Of course, Mrs. Nesbit may have been a liberated woman who was independent enough to shrug off public opinion, but it’s more likely she was swayed by the dollar signs.
Now a Floradora girl, Evelyn inevitably caught the eye of the famous architect, Stanford White. White was a partner with McKim, Mead & White, the architectural firm that designed the Vanderbilts’ and Astors’ Fifth Avenue mansions. White was also known for his cradle-robbing and his architectural masterpiece, Madison Square Gardens. He was enchanted with Evelyn, and managed to be introduced to her through another chorus girl.
White was insidious; he ingratiated himself to Evelyn’s family with heavy contributions to their support. He helped Evelyn professionally by introducing her to powerful people and even paying to have her teeth fixed. Everything 47-year-old White did, however, was motivated by his designs on 15-year-old Evelyn. And though his presence in her life was short-lived, his influence lasted until the day she died.