The temptation in the red hammock
The details, the details… The new Netflix series, the golden age, created by Julian Fellowes, the same librettist of Downton Abbey, takes place in New York from the 1880s. The main theme is the rivalry between the decadent “aristocracy” and the families without pedigrees that the railroad had turned into millionaires; those sides are embodied in fiction by the patrician family of Agnes Rhijn; and by that of the newly rich George and Bertha Russell, who inaugurated an imposing residence due to its size, splendor, state-of-the-art comfort, and location on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park.
The Russell mansion was built in the series by none other than a historical figure, Stanford White (1856-1906), the fashionable architect. He is the detail. In the first episode of the golden age, White makes a very brief appearance. Will it just be a footnote?
In real life, the cultured and worldly Stanford was part of the prestigious McKim, Mead & White studio. To him, we owe nothing less than the design of the second version of Madison Square Garden, in 1890; and in 1891, that of another New York emblem, the Washington Square Arch.
White was likeable and irresistible. He was married, had children and a weakness: adolescent girls in a difficult social and economic situation. In addition to his official home, the architect had put a semi-clandestine house on 34th Street. In a room painted green, a red velvet hammock hung from the ceiling for sexual games with the tender guests. The most beautiful of them was Evelyn Nesbit (1894-1967), a model, showgirl and actress, whom Stanford met in 1899 or 1900. She was 15 or 16 years old; he, 48. White was enthusiastic enough to support Evelyn’s mother and brother.
Although Stanford became his protector, Nesbit had also accepted the courtship of Harry Thaw (1871-1947), a young heir of 40 million dollars. Harry hated Stanford because he had abused Evelyn and because he had prevented his (Thaw’s) entry to high society clubs: he had unstable mental health and was a drug addict. He was expelled from Harvard for “immoral practices.”
White was an obsession for Harry who, through money, seized Evelyn, with the complicity of her mother, to take revenge. He took them to Europe; he separated the daughter from the mother and isolated the girl in a castle. There he subjected her to his sexual cravings and lashes for four weeks. After four years of luxury, travel and beatings, Evelyn married Thaw. The couple went to live in the house of Harry’s tyrannical mother in Pittsburgh. Fed up with matriarchy, Thaw returned with Evelyn to New York to set sail for Europe. The night before the trip, June 25, 1906, they went to the premiere of a musical comedy at the theater in Madison Square Garden. Thaw was sure that White would attend. Upon entering, he saw it. In the interval, he approached Stanford’s table and killed him with two bullets.
Thaw spent seven years in a clinic. He went out and reoffended: he sexually abused and whipped young people; this time, boys. He died in 1947.
Evelyn had a son by Thaw, received money from him, divorced, and later reconciled. She married a modest variety artist. In 1955, she was a consultant for the film The girl in the red hammock, in which her role was played by Joan Collins; White’s, Ray Milland; and Thaw was Farley Granger. The director Milos Forman, in 1981, premiered the film Ragtime, based on the novel of the same name, by Doctorow. In it, the role of Stanford was played by Norman Mailer: that of Evelyn, Elizabeth McGovern; and Thaw’s, Robert Joy.