Wednesday, June 18, 2008

It's 1906

The Tiger Lilies have started to bloom in my yard today. This is a few weeks earlier than they usually bloom for me, but they always open in late June when it starts to get really uncomfortably hot. Not the kind of heat where you turn on your AC and go about your merry way, but the kind of hot where you turn on your AC and it doesn't really seem to help much. You don't want to go anywhere or do anything because effort = sweat, and in this sticky heat it's a sweat that will hydroseal your clothes to your skin, preventing any evaporative cooling. You might as well be wrapped in plastic for all the relief you'll get.

Imagine, if you will, that you're a rich young man around the turn of the century before air conditioning was invented. Not only are you generally sticky-hot today, but you're in New York, legendary land of summer swelter. Is there any reason you would choose to wear a heavy fur coat on a day like this?

Maybe. If you were crazy. Or hiding something.

If you were Harry K. Thaw of Pittsburgh, you were both.

Although the story has been told by better storytellers with more detail, here's the gist of it: Rich, unstable, violent Harry Thaw had pursued and married beautiful showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, in spite of (or perhaps because of) Evelyn's defloration at the hands of rich, famous, and much older architect/professional debaucher of showgirls, Stanford White several years earlier. Harry had an obsession with the details of the seduction, and on the night of June 25th, 1906 all three principal players found themselves attending a performance of Mamzelle Champagne on the rooftop stage of Madison Square Garden. Stanny was at a front table with several friends when Harry approached him, oddly dressed in a fur coat on this sweltering night. He had been wearing it for hours despite efforts to convince him to remove it. A few words were exchanged before Stanny turned his back on Harry, at which point Harry pulled a revolver from the pocket of his fur coat and blasted three holes in the back of Stanny's head in front of several hundred witnesses.

Although the impact has dulled over the years for people who don't know their names, let me put it into some modern perspective. Pretend Tom Cruise shot Sean Connery over deflowering Katie Holmes, in the front row of the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night.

The resulting trial set the press on fire. Had it been a seduction or had it been rape? Was Harry crazy or was he sane? Was he avenging his wronged bride ("He ruined my wife." Harry said calmly when police arrested him), or did he marry Evelyn specifically so he could have an excuse to murder the already-hated Stanford White?

The trial settled nothing. Harry was found guilty but insane and sentenced to a sanitarium. He was later declared sane at another trial and released. The only jail time he had was while he was waiting for his trial, and to say he had preferential treatment would be an understatement. He had all his meals, including champagne and desserts, catered by Delmonicos, and had a personal valet on staff. Evelyn was offered a large settlement by the Thaw family to swing her testimony more towards justified protection and insanity rather than premeditation, but as soon as Thaw got off they reneged. Evelyn was soon penniless, returning to the stage for as long as her notoriety as "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (Stanny had a bit of a fetish) would hold out. After that, several attempts at swallowing copious amounts of Lysol failed to provide the desired release, so she moved to Los Angeles and lived as anonymously as possible, only being bothered years later when she publicly displayed her sculptures at an art show, and again for the premiere of "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" in 1955. Evelyn died in 1967, but will forever be known as the central figure in The Trial of the Century. Harry died of a heart attack in 1947, leaving what remained of his vast multi-million dollar fortune - all $10,000 of it - to Evelyn.

In 2006, the one hundredth anniversary of the murder did not pass this Timecat quietly. I was amazed to find that assorted descendants of all three players were planning to get together to meet and discuss the impact of the murder on their respective families, but darnit, I never found out if anything came of it. At the time I thought it was a REALLY bad idea, but now I sure hope they did it. I would have loved to listen in on the discussion! Meanwhile, not having any Thaw, White or Nesbit blood in my veins, I did what I usually do when I get obsessed with a damned good story. I DEVOURED everything about the case I could get my hands on: Books, memoirs, talking heads, biographies, fiction, movies, documentaries, newpaper articles and rumors. While I was doing all this brainwork, the flowers I'd been growing in my old-fashioned garden that year had started to bloom. On June 25th, I got my very first Tiger Lily.

I gave it to Evelyn.