Late on the night of June 25, 1906, architect Stanford White passed suddenly and violently out of life and into legend. He was 52 years old.
Stanford White shone in his personal and professional life. He was well-known for his work, his generosity, and his charm. He lived in a decadent home, filled with oil paintings and rich decor. He had powerful connections who could help him overcome any scrape he got into.
These connections were essential to the darker side of “Stanny” because he was a predator who set his sights on adolescent girls. He would “ruin them” then move to the next victim. Today, he could not enjoy celebrity and continue his intrigues, undetected. But maybe he wouldn’t have cared – everyone who knew of White’s unsavory activities only admired him more.
White’s most famous conquest was a chorus girl named Evelyn Nesbit. Their relationship began when Nesbit was 16 and White was 47. Eventually Stanford bored of Evelyn and moved on, but the seeds had been sewn for a bitter harvest.
White was technically spoken for, despite the parade of (very) young girlfriends. He and Bessie Smith (not the singer) married in 1884; later, they had a son they named Lawrence. Mrs. Stanford White came from money, which explains the architect’s interest. If Mrs. White knew she was married to a serial philanderer – and we don’t know that she did – it’s a mystery why she stayed with White.
Whatever his faults, White was an exceptionally talented architect. He was a partner in the architectural firm McKim, Meade & White, and the homes he designed personified the Gilded Age. Tourists still come from far and wide to see Rosecliff, the Beaux-Arts mansion he designed in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to the palatial dwellings he designed for the Astors and the Vanderbilts, White created large public buildings, the most magnificent being the 8,000 seat Madison Square Garden.
Madison Square Garden was the place to be.
The arena was primarily devoted to boxing, however it also hosted expos, circuses, and other entertainment. There was a lavish rooftop theatre, and White commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a copper sculpture of the goddess Diana to top the structure. When it was completed in November 1893, the 700 lb. sculpture was balanced carefully at the top of the Madison Square Garden tower. Diana remained there for the next 32 years, until the building was demolished.
For all of his apparent success, White was in desperate circumstances. He was in debt to the tune of $700,000. (That’s over $20 million today.) Reluctantly, he agreed to auction off many of his treasured possessions, hoping to clear some of the debt. His property was moved to a warehouse to be auctioned. A fire broke out, destroying everything. White had not insured it.
That wasn’t White’s only bad luck: he was fast becoming an object of fascination to a dangerously unstable man named Harry Kendall Thaw. The young man was the heir to millions, with a cocaine and morphine addiction. Most recently, he was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit.
Thaw had a long history of violent, abnormal behavior.
Evelyn later testified her husband insisted she tell him about her past with White. She said Harry became obsessed with White’s relationship with her, and with other girls.
Thaw believed that White’s crimes against his wife years earlier were a personal insult to himself and was keenly aware White had not apologized to him.
White, for his part, probably didn’t pay enough attention to Thaw to realize he was angry.
The narcissistic Thaw, however, eventually forced himself upon Stanford White’s notice. It was late in the evening on June 25, 1906 when White entered Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theatre, where a dismal performance of Mam’zelle Champagne was in progress. White took a seat with some friends near the stage.
Evelyn and Harry were also on the rooftop. They were seated in the back, listening as the chorus girls sang I Could Love a Million Girls, with what seemed like lurid significance. Evelyn arranged to meet Harry by the elevators to go home. She was waiting there, oblivious, when her husband shoved his way forward to Stanford White’s table and shrieked, “You ruined my wife!”
Before White could turn, Harry Kendall Thaw fired three bullets into the architect’s skull, and his victim’s body slid to the floor. The crowd was stunned; a few people thought it was a prank and laughed. But when it became apparent White was dead, screams filled the night. Thaw, unperturbed, walked to the elevators. Evelyn, hearing the noise, cried out: “Harry! What have you done?”
“It’s all right, my dear,” her husband replied. “I have probably saved your life.”
The sensational trial that followed resulted in a hung jury.
At his second trial, Thaw was declared Not Guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to life at Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was declared sane and released in 1915. His first action as a free man was to file for divorce from Evelyn.