The World’s First Supermodel – Evelyn Nesbit

When we think of supermodels, names like Heidi Klum, Adriana Lima and Kate Moss come to mind. But have you ever wondered when did being a model become a job? How did the first supermodel look like? When did she live? What did she actually do? How much did she make? Would she fit today’s standards of beauty? If you are curious about these questions and you want to find out more, we have what you’ve been looking for.

Her name was Florence Evelyn Nesbit and she lived in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. According to BBC, this “willowy, copper-haired beauty from Philadelphia was the most sought-after fashion and artists’ model in America’s Gilded Age”.

She was born in 1884 (although it is still uncertain whether her mother added a few years to her age in order to circumvent child labor laws), and legend has it that the neighbors visited for months after she was born to see her, because she was so beautiful.  She became a star pretty early in her life. In the early 20th century, in her teen years, she became one of the most famous artists’ models in New York.

Evelyn became the most common face to appear on the covers of women’s magazines such as Vanity Fair, The Delineator, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, Women’s Home Companion and Cosmopolitan. She advertized everything, from toothpaste and face creams to beer trays and tobacco cards. She modeled for a pioneer in fashion photography, Joel Feder, making approximately $10 per day, which would today be worth around $260. Not bad, is it?

Apart from being a model, she started singing in chorus and acting as well. This brought more income and popularity to her. On May 4, 1902, The New York Herald showcased her in a two-page article, and other than that she was the subject of many gossip columns and theatrical magazines.

As for her personal life, Evelyn Nesbit had a very interesting and turbulent one. Thanks to her beauty, she was not unknown to men, and had many of them seek her attention. Her taste in love will, in the end, prove to be very dangerous. In 1901, she met a New York architect, Stanford White, who was 47 at the time, and he became her lover and benefactor. Their relationship lasted for around a year, and during that time he provided her family with extravagant gifts and a beautiful apartment. This relationship cost him his life in 1906. By that time, Evelyn had married a millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who turned out to be a very jealous man. Claiming he was defending his wife’s honor, he approached White one evening in Madison Square Garden and shot him dead.

What followed this event was the so called “Trial of the Century”, where Nesbit was the main witness. The trial was so full of shocking details concerning her relationships with both men that a church group attempted to ban reporting from it. The case attracted so much media attention that the jury was, for the first time ever in American history, sequestered. In the end, Thaw was sentenced to a lifetime in Mattawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Beacon, New York.

This left a great impact on Evelyn, as it would on anyone, but she managed to continue with her personal and professional life afterwards. In 1910, she gave birth to a son, Russell William Thaw. She continued to act, and wrote two memoires, The Story of My Life (1914), and Prodigal Days (1934). After divorcing Thaw in 1915, she married a dancer, Jack Clifford, but the marriage turned out to be unsuccessful, so she divorced him in 1933.

Evelyn died in a nursing home in California, on January 17th 1967. Her life was an inspiration for many poems and plays, as well as the movie called The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow.