Ray Milland as Stanford White, debonair playboy architect
New York City, June 1906
Film: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
Release Date: October 1, 1955
Director: Richard Fleischer
Wardrobe Director: Charles Le Maire
Tomorrow is the 110th anniversary of the famous Madison Square Garden shooting of architect Stanford White by the deranged Harry Kendall Thaw, one of the first of many incidents dubbed as “The Trial of the Century” by contemporary reporters due to the juicy scandal embellished by manipulative millionaires and illicit sex.
On June 25, 1906, the psychotic Thaw was escorting his wife, actress and artists’ model Evelyn Nesbit, to the premiere performance of Mam’zelle Champagne at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater. Nesbit, renowned for her beauty as the archetypical “Gibson Girl”, had married Thaw the previous year despite his violent and manipulative desire to control her. One of Thaw’s most tenacious provocations was the subject of Stanford White, Nesbit’s former lover and the man who had – in Thaw’s eyes – robbed her of her virtue.
Thaw, born in Pittsburgh to a coal and rail baron family, knew nothing but privilege throughout his life. This distorted and spoiled existence – combined with his obvious mental instability – led to his development into a reckless and selfish profligate who could be triggered by the most petty of slights. He began a manipulative campaign to meet and seduce Evelyn Nesbit after spying her in a show, at the time unaware of her previous liaison with his imagined rival Stanford White. Learning that the object of his latest affection had once been involved with White enraged Thaw, who responded violently and would frequently force both himself and Nesbit to recount the events of her initial seduction. His obsession built up for years until all three found themselves taking in the same summer show on the rooftop of the White-designed Madison Square Garden.
Thaw, armed with a revolver and a perverted sense of justice, approached White and fatally shot him three times before pronouncing, “You’ve ruined my wife!”
Despite the obvious selfishness of this violent act, Thaw’s lawyer is shown in the film summing up their defense tactic of “Those twelve men in the jury must be convinced that Harry K. Thaw was the defender of American womanhood,” an argument that may have led to Thaw being found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Fifty years later, Nesbit herself served as the technical adviser for a somewhat sanitized adaptation of this early chapter in her life, the 1955 film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, borrowing the moniker that stuck to Nesbit after her and White’s activities in his apartment were made public. After Marilyn Monroe turned down the role, Joan Collins was cast as Evelyn Nesbit with Ray Milland and Farley Granger portraying White and Thaw, respectively.
The film mostly delivers a straightforward retelling of the facts, including the unfair vilification of Evelyn Nesbit in favor of examining the actions and motivations of the two possessive, hopelessly privileged, and ultimately careless men in her life. Ray Milland portrays a correctly debonair (though not-quite-caddish-enough) Stanford White who assumes control over Nesbit’s life after feeling the guilt of his manipulative seduction of her.
White expects us to respect him for resisting the advances of a 16-year-old woman three decades his junior, which he does by reciting pretentious poetry about their age difference and using it to claim superiority when making decisions about their “romance”:
That’s all I need, having you cry now. You’re going to get some food and conversation from a Dutch uncle.
Although White’s control is less violent than Thaw’s, it’s no less manipulative and perfectly illustrated by the pleasure he exudes from pushing her around in the titular swing, a reflection of both his desire to control her and his sexualization of the age difference from which he also derives so much obvious guilt.
What’d He Wear?
We first meet Stanford White in the summer of 1901, wearing a shining example of gentlemanly white tie and black tailcoat while bickering with Harry Thaw over a table at an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. Five years later, and five years deeper into the Edwardian era, White is shown returning to the restaurant wearing the increasingly popular black tie and tuxedo.
According to the Black Tie Guide:
At the beginning of Edward’s reign evening etiquette was the same two-tier system introduced in his mother’s era. The formal tailcoat ensemble remained de rigueur for an evening out in public alongside ladies’ elaborate evening gowns while the “dinner coat” or “Tuxedo coat” was largely confined to a man’s home, club or stag parties. Warm weather also exempted men from the full-dress rule, making the alternative jacket ever more popular at upscale holiday getaways on both sides of the Atlantic.
This being a warm summer night in 1906, White’s “alternative” dinner jacket would have been more acceptable in this context than it would have at the beginning of the decade, although the presence of women both at dinner and the show would have likely meant that white tie would still be expected from a gentleman of Stanford White’s social standing.
Stanford White wears a classic midnight blue single-breasted dinner jacket with shawl lapels faced in a smooth satin silk. The shoulders are padded with roped sleeveheads, and the back is ventless.
White’s dinner jacket has a welted breast pocket, where he carries a white silk handkerchief, and jetted pockets that sit straight on his hips. Both the single button in the front and the 3-button cuffs are covered in the same shiny satin as the lapel facings. His midnight blue wool formal trousers matches the dinner jacket with satin side stripes that reflect the lapel facings.
Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the tuxedo was still finding its awkward place among the rules of a stricter society. By the end of the decade (and the Edwardian era), the black bow tie and waistcoat were standardized and would become enduring rules for the basics of men’s formal dress. White wears a single-breasted waistcoat in midnight blue satin that rises to mid-chest with a soft V-shaped opening, self-covered buttons, and no lapels.
Two diamond studs are visible above the waistcoat opening, prominently fastened to the starched plain bib of White’s formal shirt. The shirt likely has single cuffs with matching diamond links. The shirt has a stiff standing imperial (or “poke”) collar, a style that would be gradually supplanted by the detached wing collar as the era progressed. White’s black satin silk bow tie has a slim butterfly shape.
Although only briefly seen, White appears to be wearing a pair of black patent leather balmorals with black dress socks, certainly a fitting choice of footwear although both dress boots and pumps were still popular alternatives for both white and black tie at the turn of the century.
Black silk top hats were still the expected headgear for formally-dressed men of the Edwardian era, but White opts for the more summer-friendly straw boater with a black ribbon and a brown leather band along the inside.
A brief earlier scene that finds White speaking to both Evelyn Nesbit and her mother features the same outfit under a black single-breasted Chesterfield coat made from milled melton cloth with three hidden buttons under a fly front, straight flapped hip pockets, and Tautz-style straight-gorge peak lapels.
He also briefly wears this coat when wearing white tie and escorting Evelyn up to his apartment for the titular “red velvet swing” incident.
How to Get the Look
As a cosmopolitan socialite, Stanford White would be knowledgable about cutting-edge fashion, just as comfortable breaking the rules of sartorial decorum as he is comfortable with breaking the rules of courtship.
- Midnight blue wool single-breasted 1-button dinner jacket with satin-faced shawl lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless back
- White formal shirt with standing imperial/poke collar, 2 diamond studs on plain front bib, and single cuffs
- Black satin slim butterfly-style bow tie
- Midnight blue single-breasted formal waistcoat
- Midnight blue wool formal trousers with satin side striping
- Black patent leather balmorals
- Black dress socks
- Straw boater with black ribbon
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
Paula Uruburu’s 2009 book American Eve is a great, well-researched read that sheds plenty of light on the story and the era as a whole.
You don’t have to finish that sentence, Mrs. Nesbit. I’m a man who shaves himself. No pleasure for me to look into these eyes of mine every morning.