Every now and then when it seems the world can’t get any greedier or immoral, a book comes along to remind us that the world’s always seemed spiritually bankrupt to the generations who lived through their own mad, bad times. That’s the implied premise of Southampton writer and historian Mary Cummings’ fascinating narrative about New York’s Gilded Age, which she revisits by way of one of the most bizarre murders in American history and its judicial aftermath, often called “the trial of the century.” At least before O.J.
The date was June 25, 1906, when the debauched, unstable 35-year-old Harry K. Thaw coolly marched up to the celebrated and degenerate 53-year-old American architect Stanford White at White’s Madison Square Garden Tower club and shot him dead in front of hundreds of witnesses. The cause was young Evelyn Nesbit, chorus girl / artists’ model / actress, whom the infatuated architect and social lion had regaled with gifts, champagne and parties when she was 16, and deflowered. Known as “the girl on the red velvet swing,” a reference to her giddy pumping away in White’s secret trysting studio, Nesbitt told the insanely jealous psychopathic Thaw about the affair. Thaw, her husband now, had always hated “Stanny,” a high-society competitor Thaw called “The Beast.” He became obsessed over the relationship, though a subsequent affair Nesbitt had had with John Barrymore didn’t seem to bother him much.
The story’s well-known, but what Cummings brings to it and makes clear with the title of her book, “Saving Sin City,” is that the bizarre shooting and the two soap-opera trials that followed were the culmination of a riotous time in New York, known then as Sin City. She also makes her focus not White or Nesbitt but the prosecuting district attorney, William Travers Jerome, a brilliant reform-minded judge from the same glittering social world as White and Thaw and incidentally, a cousin of Winston Churchill.
Everyone knows the name Stanford White, as Cummings reminds readers, because of his spectacular achievements as an architect and interior designer—he did the best with other people’s money. But who remembers Jerome, a passionate crusader for justice? A flawed hero, intense, arrogant, ambitious, but also fair and compassionate. A likely candidate to run for governor, but the city’s pols and the media were impatient. Jerome, slow and meticulous, was finally seen as ineffective.
Here’s a story of a time not unlike our own, Cummings writes, when New Yorkers were swept up in a “contagious lust for riches.” But it was also a time when a few daring souls like Jerome, believed you might “slay the monster” of corruption and save the city. That evidence and logic could prevail over bribery, lying, tabloid sensationalism and the entrenched political machine. Hmmm…
With a dramatic you-are-there present-tense style, Cummings alternates chapters on Jerome with chapters on White—six years older—folding in sections on Thaw and Nesbit and a host of other unsavory characters. It’s a fabulously entertaining tale, well told…and sobering.