The summer issue of The Blue & White has introduced you to Brian Greene, an underworld on fire, and Westside ninjas. Now, in the final of three Bluenotes, our field notes from campus, senior editor Claire Sabel scandalizes us with the liebestod of one of the university’s architects.
It’s material that genuinely earnest tour guides dream of: something to titillate the parents, impress the teens, and show off just how cosmopolitan—and lurid—Columbia can be. Yet somehow a particularly lecherous tidbit of campus lore has been left out of the tour guide’s standard narrative. Whilst strolling around our pleasantly right angle-ridden campus, the triumvirate McKim, Mead, and White trips off one’s tongue without knowing, or caring, much about the gentlemen themselves. If anything, students are vaguely aware of their status as relatively important Neoclassical architects. Allow us to enlighten you, because their story is really too salacious to leave by the wayside.
It just so happens that in 1906, six years after his firm’s completion of Columbia’s campus, Mr. Stanford White was shot in the head by Harry K. Thaw. Thaw was an infamous millionaire who was jealous of White’s raunchy relations with his young wife, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Their romantic trysts, Nesbit later testified, involved White pushing the young woman back and forth on his notorious velvet swing—in the nude. During a serendipitous performance of the number “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Harry K. Thaw assassinated the architect-playboy on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden. The building was then in its second incarnation and had been designed by White himself. Oh, the irony!
The story caused a sensation at the time due in part to the extraordinary circumstances of the crime, and the subsequent scandal of the trial; Thaw was eventually acquitted by plea of temporary insanity. It has remained a source of fascination for writers, inspiring titles such as The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family and American Eve: The Birth of the “It” Girl and The Crime of the Century, which was featured in E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime and exported to France in Claude Chabrol’s film The Girl Cut in Two. That White’s story should be so unfamiliar to those who tread in his footsteps every day should be rectified. Take heed, Undergraduate Recruitment Committee! It’s true stories like this one that the ingénues in your charge will remember, not the myth of Columbia’s “Urban Beach.”