The Girl on the Velvet Swing

Evelyn Nesbit, Harvard University

The following is from Simon Baatz’s The Girl on the Velvet Swing. In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit, sixteen, a chorus girl in the musical Florodora, met the architect, Stanford White, after moving to New York.  They spent many evenings together, often ascending the tower at Madison Square Garden late at night, looking out across the city below, watching as the Broadway theaters, one after the other, dimmed their lights at the end of the shows. Simon Baatz is a New York Times-bestselling author and is currently Associate Professor of History at John Jay College.


Often, on clear nights, they called the elevator back to the seventh floor and took it higher, as far as an open-air platform that then led by way of stairs to the summit. Stanford White had designed the topmost section of the tower with three separate levels, much as one would design a wedding cake, each level elaborately decorated with balustrades and tourelles, all done in the baroque style. A spiral staircase wound its way from the lower platform to the top of the tower, arriving finally at the level that stood directly beneath the copper statue of the goddess Diana at the pinnacle.

The elevator opened onto the first level, the open-air platform enclosed on all four sides by a stone balustrade. Evelyn would lead the way up the narrow iron stairway, stepping gingerly, holding onto the railing with her hand. Stanny followed behind, treading more confidently, waiting patiently for Evelyn to make her way up the steps. On the second level they paused briefly, stopping to catch their breath, resting for a few minutes before making the final ascent. Evelyn led the way again, finally stepping onto the topmost platform.

They stood, side by side, more than three hundred feet above street level. On a clear night, with a full moon, they could see far into the distance, as far north as Central Park. To the southwest they could make out the faint glimmer of the torch of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.

Even in the middle of the night, they could see the ferries crisscrossing the East River, chugging from Manhattan to Long Island City and back again, their lights twinkling in the darkness. The ferry service from Manhattan to Brooklyn had declined recently, in the years since the opening of the new suspension bridge, but the bridge itself was a spectacular sight— the heavy granite caissons supporting the limestone towers, a network of steel cables holding the roadway along which Evelyn could see a steady procession of carts, carriages, and the occasional motorcar. Stanny had shown her, on her first visit to the summit, the construction of a second bridge to Brooklyn, one that would link Manhattan to Williamsburg, but this bridge, not yet complete, always seemed slightly forlorn. Its two towers, tied together by steel cables, stood on either side of the river, but its causeway was empty and abandoned, without any glimmer of traffic.

To the west, the Sixth Avenue train would come into view, rumbling along the elevated tracks, appearing in the far distance like a child’s toy, electrical sparks flying away from the wheels, its passengers staring from the windows into the inky darkness. Farther west they could see the Jersey shore, an obscure and remote hinterland, dotted with small towns—Weehawken, Hoboken, Secaucus—with strange names.

Evelyn Nesbit, Harvard University

Occasionally Evelyn and Stanny, each wearing a heavy coat against the wind, his arms around her shoulders, would stand on the platform waiting a little longer, until daybreak, and then they could watch the city below begin its daily round. Within a matter of minutes, it seemed, both Broadway and Fifth Avenue had become clogged with traffic, with endless lines of carts and carriages stretching north and south. They could see the rooftops below and the spires of the churches, and on the horizon, on the eastern edge, the sun would begin to shine its light over what seemed, at such moments, to be the greatest city in the world.

Excerpted from the book The Girl on the Velvet Swing. Copyright (c) 2018 by Simon Baatz. Reprinted with permission of Mulholland Books. All rights reserved.

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