Framing Evelyn: The Time Hollywood Romanticized The Abuse of A 14 Year Old Girl
It’s 1954, and a screenplay is delivered to Marilyn Monroe: she’s playing the naive fourteen year old Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful chorus girl who falls in love with the fatherly and kindly architect, Stanford White. He knows it would be terribly wrong to take advantage of the young girl, though, so he pays for her to go to a fashionable boarding school and get an education. Away from the guidance of kindly Mr White, she decides to marry the handsome young millionaire Harry Thaw for financial security. Harry is horrified when he discovers she’s still in love with Stanford White, growing obsessed with the man who ‘ruined his wife’ and shooting him in a public theatre! Evelyn is forced to lie about being abused in court to save Harry’s life, saying that Stanford raped her after plying her with champagne. She’s distraught at having betrayed such a good and kindly man, and is forced to bear the punishment and humiliation of becoming a freak of social scandal.
Unsurprisingly, Marilyn refused to play Evelyn. But the film went ahead.
Who was the real Evelyn Nesbit?
Evelyn Nesbit, far from the lying, men-ruining golddigger Hollywood would later write her as, was possibly the first major child star victim of the celebrity age. At just twelve, she was already posing for pictures, adverts and artists across the east coast, often half naked or in suggestively thin or low cut materials.
The pictures are so revealing, even, that I can’t even share them with you, although they disturbingly come up straight away in a google image search. She was one of the ‘Gibson Girls’, a symbol of Edwardian beauty with long thick dark hair, enamel white skin and wide, staring eyes. By 1900, she was a New York staple in the modelling industry.
Even at the time, before the scandal, people tutted about how young Evelyn was. Most of the other models were in their early twenties, and modelling was not a respected profession back then, often reserved as a side job for sex workers. They blamed her mother, painting her as unscrupulous and greedy for pushing Evelyn to work. It’s easy to demonize Mrs Nesbit as a stage mom, but the truth was that as a widow with children to support, and no income beyond a woman’s wage in shop work, it can’t have been an easy ride in 1900s New York. Back then, once you hit nine or ten in the slums, you’d be expected to go earn a living, whether that was selling papers, sewing shirts or sweeping stores. And Evelyn could earn far more as a model than she ever could behind a shop counter. No one, however, blamed the rich playboy, Mr Stanford White.
Stanford White: The Predator The World Forgave
Stanford White, known as Stanny to his friends, who you might also know as the bloke who built the Washington Arch that tourists shelter under in the rain, was a serial sexual predator of young girls. At 46, he’d take front seats out at shows and watch chorus lines to find his next victim. He’d ply them with champagne and gifts, take them up to his luxurious apartments, and rape them. He had a thing about virgins. He liked being the first.
Evelyn was just another victim to Mr White.
Using a female friend, Edna Goodrich, to disarm Evelyn from any suspicion (some things never change) he arranged to meet her for tea after seeing her in Floradora. Evelyn, far from falling madly in love, thought he was ‘terribly old’ and of a ‘appalling imposing size’. Evelyn was however overwhelmed by the spectacular wealth he had in his apartment, a far cry from the dismal room she rented with her mother. He also lured Evelyn’s mother into trusting him with Evelyn, paying for them to live in better living quarters, and paying for her brother to attend military academy. What a kind, thoughtful man!
But, as my mother has always warned me, an act of generosity has a price.
Mrs Nesbit looked tired, he told her one day. She should go visit friends, out of New York. He’d look after Evelyn. After all, he was like a father to her. He invited Evelyn to dinner and champagne at his apartment, capped by a tour ending at the mirror room, which was furnished only with a green velvet sofa. After they drank more champagne, Stanford told Evelyn to change into a yellow satin kimono: this was the last thing she remembered. When she woke up, she found herself naked in bed next to the completely naked White, and saw blood on the sheets, showing she’d been raped. She burst into tears. Stanford White’s response was chilling:
“Don’t cry, Kittens,” he told her. “It’s all over. Now you belong to me.”
From a modern perspective, what happens next is irrelevant: we know that a minor who has been raped is a victim, that the man who raped them is a predator, and that any further ‘relationship’ is the result of grooming. It’s not at all unusual for a rape victim to validate what has happened to them by assuming familiarity or romantic feelings for their abuser, particularly if that victim is a child or vulnerable. It’s a form of survival and regaining control over their own bodies. Evelyn was not in love with Stanford White, she was a child victim of a serial predator. He certainly never saw it as a loving, legitimate relationship. She even discovered that throughout their relationship, he’d kept a ‘little black book’ of his relationships with other young girls.
Why did Hollywood decide to tell such a different story?
The film Stanford White is a hero. He’s not a child rapist, he’s definitely not a sexual predator. He never pursues other women, he never takes advantage of Evelyn. The real Stanford White certainly didn’t try to prevent Evelyn marrying the obsessive Harry Thaw: he’d long moved on to other, younger victims when she’d turned 18.
The film positions everything that happened as Evelyn’s fault: the trailer even announces her ‘sin’ was ‘loving the wrong man, and marrying the wrong man’.
It’s truly shocking when you know what really happened to a girl who was groomed by a serial predator. But, if you are aware of the darker side of tinseltown, and who was putting together the narrative of the time, it kind of makes sense.
The men who made this movie were all Stanford Whites.
In the 1950s, Couch casting wasn’t just happening, it was expected. Giving a director, producer or studio owner sexual attention for roles wasn’t exploitative, it was a requirement. You should be grateful they’re offering you an opportunity. You should be honored to have him take off his belt in his office. You should be excited by the fact your director wants to sleep with you. As crazy as it sounds, the men who abused their positions of power like this really thought they were the good guys, giving women and teenage girls the opportunity to get ahead. Even Shirley Temple, at just 12, recalls being confronted with a studio producer taking his penis out in his office when discussing her contract.
In their heads, Stanford White wasn’t the villain, and they couldn’t write a villain who so closely mimicked their own behaviours and activities in the film industry. It was too close to home. So they did what they always had done, and have kept doing right up to Weinstein: framed Evelyn as a liar.
And that, perhaps, is the darkest part of this tale.
Evelyn’s story was written and produced by the men who were doing the same thing as her abuser.