October 10, 2013  |  Film
The Unwritten Law: Reel Life/Real Life

On my way to MoMA each morning, I walk past the majestic Italian Renaissance revival building of the University Club of New York. This stronghold on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 54th Street was designed by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and completed in 1899. One of the architects, Stanford White, a particularly famous man about town at the turn of the century, was involved in one of the most scandalous romance/murder trials of the time. The 1907 film The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw/White Case, part of MoMA’s film collection, was produced by Sigmund Lubin and the Lubin Film Manufacturing Company and presented a contemporaneous depiction of the love triangle between teenager Evelyn Nesbit, Pittsburgh scion Harry Kendall Thaw, and Stanford White.

The film opens with a sign reading, “Model wanted.” Evelyn Nesbit (played by the real Evelyn Nesbit Thaw) and her mother arrive at the artist’s studio for a sitting. Enter the dashing and mature Stanford White, played by an actor with a bushy mustache, who is immediately spellbound by Evelyn’s beauty. The real Evelyn was 15 years old when she arrived in New York City in 1900. With her long, wavy hair, and petite but voluptuous figure, her work as an artist’s model in New York was so lucrative that Mrs. Nesbit had no need of finding a job for herself. Evelyn even posed for illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl, the archetype of early-20th-century female beauty.

In the film, Evelyn is backstage practicing a dance routine. White arrives and persuades her to leave rehearsal and join him for some champagne. Coincidentally, Harry Thaw is also present in the restaurant and objects to White’s plying Evelyn with alcohol, but he is unceremoniously brushed off by White.

Evelyn did indeed find success on the New York stage with her performances in the popular musical Floradora, and newspaper and tabloid reporters of the time hounded her at the stage door and on her travels around the city. A media darling who seemed to garner much press and fanfare for having underdeveloped talent and an overdeveloped body, she was the Miley/Kim/Paris of her day.

Gertrude Käsebier. Evelyn Nesbit. 1903. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Gertrude Käsebier. Miss N. (portrait of Evelyn Nesbit). 1903. The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Soon White and Evelyn arrive at his West 24th Street apartment, where the infamous red velvet swing was installed. In real life, White had designed the room which was painted green and evoked a woodlands atmosphere. Evelyn would gleefully swing while White pushed her higher, playing a game of “kick the parasol hanging from an archway.” White invited the teenager upstairs to another room that was decorated with 100 mirrors. On the back wall of The Unwritten Law’s movie set is a painting of a traditional Odalisque portrait. (Evelyn had been photographed by Rudolf Eickemeyer in 1901 in a similar pose, wearing an ornate silk kimono on a bearskin rug.) In this mirrored room, White pours a glass of champagne for Evelyn and drops in some sort of narcotic that causes her to lose consciousness. White places a folding screen in front of the divan—and the scene cuts to Evelyn’s wedding day with Harry Kendall Thaw. Clearly White, now well into his fifties and a noted libertine, seduced the teenage Evelyn.

In reality, following the end of their affair Evelyn became romantically involved with John Barrymore. This romance infuriated White and, with Evelyn’s mother’s approval, the girl was sent to boarding school in New Jersey—with all expenses paid by Stanford White.

Simultaneous with White’s pursuit of Evelyn, Harry Kendall Thaw also sought her attention. Evelyn rebuffed him several times during her relationship with White, but when that affair ended and she was at boarding school, Thaw began his campaign anew. Perhaps Evelyn decided that, given her stained reputation at a time in which these conventions mattered, it would serve her well to marry Harry Thaw, as another respectable man might not come along. Unfortunately, the respectable Harry Thaw was known to abuse drugs and had violent tendencies. He was also obsessed with female chastity, and was driven to murderous behavior when Evelyn detailed the night she was seduced by White.

In The Unwritten Law, following their wedding, Evelyn and Harry are joined by a friend and head to the roof theatre at Madison Square Garden. The convivial atmosphere disappears when Thaw sees Stanford White—the architect of the then-iconic Madison Square Garden building—sitting nearby. Thaw pulls a pistol from his pocket and shoots the architect dead. The date is June 25, 1906, and there are hundreds of eyewitnesses to the appalling event.

Spurred by White’s seduction of the teenage Evelyn, Thaw was convinced that his actions that night were chivalrous. While awaiting trial, Thaw was incarcerated in The Tombs in lower Manhattan, where he was visited by his mother and Evelyn. In one superimposed scene he relives the shooting of Stanford White and in another, he stands between his mother and Evelyn and kisses them both goodbye. A correction officer enters the cell, he tells Thaw to get dressed for court.

Harry Kendall Thaw was tried twice for the murder of Stanford White. The first trial began on January 23, 1907, and was dismissed on April 11, 1907, due to a deadlocked jury. In an odd stroke of jurisprudence, Thaw was once again tried for the same crime in January 1908, and found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in February 1908. The Unwritten Law reenacts only a single trial, with Thaw pronounced not guilty. Curiously, The Unwritten Law was released on March 2, 1907—more than a month before the first trial ended. How prophetic to present a not guilty verdict on film before the actual jury conclusion nearly one year later.

In a Lubin Co. description of The Unwritten Law, the following comment is provided for potential film exhibitors familiar with the impious nature of the case: “The film contains absolutely nothing objectionable and may be shown in all theatres.”

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw remained married to Harry Kendall Thaw for 10 years. She died in 1967 at the age of 82. The scandalous love triangle and murder would also live on, influencing both the 1954 Richard Fleischer film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime.