The Eternal Question

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was also a critical figure in the proliferation of discourses around the scandal. A picture of Nesbit drawn by Charles Dana Gibson when she was an artists' model, entitled "The Eternal Question" and in which Nes-bit's hair is arranged as a question mark (figure 3), was widely reproduced during the scandal, offering an embodiment of the confusion that circulated around the figure of Nesbit. Gibson's pictures, historian Kevin White has noted, "broke away ever more decisively from the restraints of the cult of True Womanhood and of Victorianism in general" and have been seen by scholars as symbolic of shifts in the roles of women and of an extension of sensual expressivity in the culture at large.53 Evelyn Nesbit was a visible

Figure 3. Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit titled "The Eternal Question," by Charles Dana Gibson, 1903. Courtesy Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter.

figure in this movement, emerging in mid-1906 as a critical contested site around which debates about gender roles and about the positioning of women in the emergent heterosocial sphere of leisure practices were waged.

Her role in the scandal was a source of considerable speculation in the press. Two positions were delineated: on the one hand, Nesbit was seen as a "ruined" innocent "girl" (much play was made of her age again in this context); on the other hand, she was regarded as a corrupt and lying "public woman" who had brought the scandal on herself because of her own desire for pleasure and her role in the public eye (as artists' model and chorus girl). Like the accounts of Thaw's actions debated at the trial, a series of arguments about agency developed here, counterposed not to irrationality, however, but to vulnerability.

Exemplary of this division in the construction of the role and meaning of Nesbit were the positions outlined by the prosecution and defense at the first trial of Thaw. "The schoolgirlish appearing wife," the New York Times reported on the day after Delmas's plea of dementia Americana, who had been "depicted under cross examination [by District Attorney Jerome] as a typical member of the Tenderloin colony of New York," now "saw herself depicted in a halo of virtue."54 Delmas's strategy was quite clear, as he attempted to present Nesbit as virtuous in order to bolster his suggestion that Thaw's actions were a tolerable protection of his wife and of domesticity more generally. His summation initially centered on another telling of Nes-bit's life story, told countless times in the wake of the murder and again in

detail when Nesbit testified at the trial. Here as elsewhere the narrative began with the death of Nesbit's father, the dissolution of an idyllic domestic past that plunged the family into poverty and forced Nesbit to work outside the home to protect that home.55 "She drudged," Delmas claimed, "giving her scant dollars to the support of her mother and brother."56 In this narrative Nesbit was forced into the realms of the working class, her life as a model and chorus girl protective and not destructive of the domestic. Consistent with the melodramatic rhetoric surrounding the scandal and trial, this strategy aimed also to counter a widely held suspicion that, as the New York World phrased it, "the stage girl is different from her domestic sister" and that, as one of the jurors at the trial would subsequently remark in an interview, a career on the stage could be seen "as an expression of revolt against the enforced routine of home life."57

Not surprisingly, District Attorney Jerome emphasized this position, representing Nesbit as a typical immoral member of the "Tenderloin," the vice district of New York City. Under cross-examination Nesbit admitted to an operation that was "not countenanced by all surgeons" (the implication being an abortion);58 Jerome theatrically produced a diary Nesbit had written after she had met White, where she had written of other girls, "[T]hey will never be anything except, perhaps, good wives and mothers," next to which she had drawn a picture of a nun with three exclamation marks. "This child," Jerome remarked, "[had] no desire to be a good wife or mother."59 Widely circulated postcards pictured Nesbit in provocative poses (see figures 4 and 5). Jerome's strategy in relation to Delmas's was summed up by a comment in the British paper the Daily Telegraph: "Public conscience may condone private vengeance for such acts, but the hearth that has been violated must have been kept tolerably clean before."60 As had been the case with the rhetoric surrounding Thaw and White, a series of issues about domesticity, respectability, and "perversity" were central to the delineation of the significance of the scandal and the trial.

Evelyn Nesbit's career as an artists' model and chorus girl meant that she inhabited the commercial world in which the breakdown of class- and sex-segregated entertainments of the nineteenth century enabled the emergence of women as consumers. Lois Banner has shown how chorus girls were represented as exemplifying a "new, modern concept of womanhood, one that involved independence, sexual freedom, and an enterprising, realistic attitude towards a career."61 Visible in particular in the redefinition of working-class female sexuality, this discourse had far-reaching implications for the formulation of middle-class femininity in the later 1910s and the 1920s through the figure of the "flapper" and the "new woman."62 Indeed, Nes-

Evelyn Nesbit Postcards
Figure 4. Composite photograph postcard, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Thaw, 1907. Courtesy Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter.

bit would herself remain in the public eye through the teens, going on to become a vaudeville and cinema star, perhaps—as E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime suggests—America's first sex symbol and certainly a visible part of that shift in the cultural figuration of woman from, in historian Joanne Meyerowitz's words, "Victorian angel to sexy starlet."63 Nesbit and the scandal that surrounded her were important to this contested transformation. Her discursive positioning prefigured a series of debates about the pleasures and dangers of female and youth consumption and agency that would come to center on the new nickelodeons proliferating in urban space.

Legal debates about Nesbit's testimony extended beyond Thaw's trial: President Theodore Roosevelt raised the issue of whether verbatim reports of the testimony ought to be excluded from the United States mails, and a number of newspapers in Louisville, Kentucky, were indicted under local legislation for printing obscenity when they reproduced "part of Mrs. Thaw's evidence . . . describing the manner in which Stanford White drugged and seduced her."64 The trial in Louisville can stand as an important example of legal debates about obscenity and the rights of the press and other media immediately preceding more extensive debates about the role of cinema. In the trial Judge Carroll focused attention on the public dimension of the harm of "obscene materials"—defined as those presenting an "immorality" linked to "sexual impurity" that "have a tendency to corrupt the morals and deprave the taste of the people"—but ultimately ar-

Figure 5. Postcard, Evelyn Nesbit, 1907. Courtesy Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter.

gued that the case was of legitimate public interest and the press had a right and duty to report it.65 "The Thaw trial was a notable criminal case," the judge noted; "the public everywhere were interested in all of its details— and the newspapers of the country, to gratify this desire, however depraved it might have been, published full accounts of it."66 Even though newspapers were not "privileged to publish all the filthy and disgusting details that are developed by the evidence in court proceedings," and despite widespread concerns about the tabloid or "yellow press," Judge Carroll still asserted that a distinction needed to be made between the application of obscenity law to daily newspapers as opposed to books and pamphlets and other pictorial representations.

Evelyn Nesbit's account of rape and of White's perversity became, then, a charged moment in both the trial and in the ongoing delineation of "obscenity," becoming a test case for the application of obscenity laws to newspapers that drew a clear distinction between a newspaper as an impartial purveyor of "the news of the day" and other forms of fiction. Later, the representation of the rape would become central to the film made of the scandal and to debates about that film. Even more important, the establishment of a distinction between the press and moving pictures, which were at this

time still frequently considered "visual newspapers," would be critical to the definition of the social function of cinema.67

Lighting up "an abyss of moral turpitude," the press and the legal process set up the competing stories about the scandalous events and their causes in a way that clearly spoke to broader moral contestations about perversity and masculinity, character, class, and leisure space and about women and children and the public sphere, contestations that took place as nickelodeons and moving pictures were proliferating. In turn, the events occasioned public debate over the propriety of the public representation of private immorality and about the rights of newspapers and other forms of communication. Legal consideration of these questions at the precise moment cinema was emerging is an important site to understand the tradition from which the legal contestation over cinema emerged. It is toward further account of the moment of cinema's emergence and proliferation that I now turn, beginning by examining the cinematic encoding of the Thaw-White scandal in early 1907 and its negotiation of the cultural locale delineated thus far, asking: how did the film construct the scandal? How did it intervene in the broader public scandal? And how did the film's form and style intersect with emerging questions about the social uses of film? Later in this chapter I will turn to the response to the film and to the broader regulatory discourses and practices focused on cinema from early 1907.

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