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Gallagher’s and Evelyn Nesbit

September 4th, 2010 by DavidFreeland

There aren’t a lot of old buildings left in Times Square, but the few remnants of 19th century architecture that have managed to survive conceal a wealth of entertainment history (see my last post about Helen Morgan’s club on 54th Street).  Walking along Broadway the other day, I passed Gallagher’s Steakhouse at 228 West 52nd Street and stopped to admire the heft and solidity of the townhouse it has occupied since the late 1920s.

Gallagher’s Steakhouse, 2010

Gallagher’s has been around so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when its neon sign wasn’t an indelible part of the Rialto landscape.  But I knew that, given the building’s age (according the NYC Department of Buildings, its construction permit was issued in 1874), it must hold some secrets.  What was it before Gallagher’s?

For the answer, we need to go back to the years just after the turn of the 20th century.  In October of 1904 Harry K. Thaw, young Pittsburgh millionaire, was rumored to have eloped to London with a chorus performer and artists’ model, Evelyn Nesbit.  Nesbit, who modeled for Charles Gibson’s famous drawing, “The Eternal Question,” possessed the kind of beauty guaranteed to inspire admiration in any age.  The pure symmetry of her features appears wholly contemporary, and if she were around today no doubt she would be just as celebrated.

Evelyn Nesbit, early 1900s

Despite the initial opposition of Thaw’s family, the two were later married in an official ceremony in Pittsburgh.  But Nesbit’s past romantic association with the ruggedly masculine Stanford White, celebrated architect (the two had met while Nesbit was performing in Floradora at the Casino Theater in 1901), grew to obsess the unstable Thaw.  What happened next is known to even the most casual followers of New York history: on the evening of June 26, 1906, Thaw shot and killed White at Madison Square Garden’s rooftop theater (which White had designed), in the middle of a song entitled, “I Could Love a Million Girls.”  During the trial that followed, details of Evelyn’s involvement with White, including putative sexual escapades on a swing in White’s 24th Street love nest, made her the heroine of the century’s first American sex scandal.  Forever after Evelyn Nesbit would become known as “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

Despite promises of a healthy settlement, Evelyn got nothing after her subsequent divorce from Thaw.  She continued to perform, struggling for a career in movies and nightclubs, and by the 1920s was described by writer Stanley Walker (in his book, The Night Club Era) as “a tired, nervous little woman trying to make a go of a tearoom just off Broadway in the West Fifties.”  I am always skeptical of these kinds of pronouncements, especially when they fit so neatly into the “fallen woman” narrative which figures like Nesbit seem to inspire.  Perhaps she felt bitter, and no doubt her stability was hampered by suicide attempts and bouts with drug addiction, but nevertheless she must have retained enough charm and personality to function as a nightlife hostess – no easy job in those days of Prohibition.

Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White

This brings us back to our earlier question.  Where exactly was “Chez Evelyn,” Nesbit’s nightclub, located?  That’s right – 228 West 52nd Street, in the same building as the present-day Gallagher’s.  In November of 1927 the New York Times reported that Thaw made an appearance at the club, causing a scene in which he “violently pounded the table and swept from it all the bottles and glasses to the floor.”  Later Nesbit described it as “one of Harry’s mild tantrums.”  A side note here is that Walker’s characterization of the place as a “tearoom” is almost certainly inaccurate.  During the same article, Evelyn cites the size of the check (which, apparently, caused Thaw’s outburst), as “somewhere between $200 and $250.”  “Speakeasy” is more like it.

Like the building at 228 West 52nd Street, Evelyn Nesbit survived.  Later she became a ceramics teacher in California, and even moved for a time back into the spotlight when she was hired as a “technical consultant” for the fictionalized 1955 movie account of the scandal, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, starring Joan Collins.

Evelyn Nesbit and Joan Collins in 1955

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9 responses so far ↓

  • THANK YOUI I ENJOYED READING THE HISTORY. TO ADD TO IT, MY GREAT UNCLE LEON ALLAND OWNED THE BUILDING FROM 1928 AND SIGNED THE LEASE WITH THE SOLOMONS IAT THE AMERICAN EMBASSY IN PARIS. TODAY THE ALLAND HIERS OWN 50% OF THE LAND AND BUILDING WITH MRS. BRODY WHOOWNS GALLAGHERS RESTAURANT.

  • hi david! this article is great–i’ve always loved stanford white, and have an image of evelyn nesbit portrayed in the swing in a musical that i saw (damn yankees maybe?). white designed my friend’s home out on the north shore of long island–if you ever do any exploration on long island, i’d be happy to show it to you!
    i’m writing up an article on the changing area around lincoln center as we speak…did you know there was an elevated railway on columbus avenue?

  • The musical Michelle must be referring to is Ragtime.

  • I found this article fascinating. I came across it while researching Evelyn Nesbit. What is your source for the photo of Evelyn Nesbit and Joan Collins in 1955?

    Now I want to go to Gallagher’s the next time we see a Broadway show. Thanks for your great work!

  • You state that you believe that Evelyn Nesbit had a speak easy and not a tea room at this location. There is a photo for sale on Amazon.com showing Evelyn Nesbit with 2 female customers in her Tea Room at 235 W 5 ? in 1921. This photo is taken from the Library of Congress. Perhaps she had 2 business locations. The Amazon cite is http://www.amazon.com/Historic-Print-Evelyn-standing-holding/dp/B003ATJEXW/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1288308408&sr=8-8 (10/28/2010). Evelyn sure had an interesting life – especially in New York City!

  • I found the cite for the photo of Evelyn Nesbit in her tea room with 2 other women. It is http://lccn.loc.gov/2002706192 in the Library of Congress under LC Control No. 2002706192.

    The photo was taken on Oct 30, 1921 by Underwood and Underwood. Per the description on this photo, Evelyn Nesbit’s tea room is located at “235 West 52 Street (just off Broadway), New York.” Do you have a time frame for when Evelyn Nesbit used 228 W 57th Street at a place of business?

  • Dear Lynne – please pardon my delay. The articles referencing Evelyn Nesbit’s club at 228 West 52nd Street date from November of 1927. Below are two links for you (the Times charges a fee to view the whole articles, but at least you’ll have the citations). My sense is that Evelyn did indeed move around a lot as she struggled to keep her career going. The earlier location does seem to have been a tearoom, but the text of these two 1927 articles indicates that she was definitely in the nightclub/speakeasy business by that point. So it seems as if she operated both a tearoom and a nightclub in the 1920s. Please drop me a line if I can help with any further info! Best, David

    http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10B15FE355B157A93C0AB178AD95F438285F9&scp=2&sq=%22228%20west%20fifty-second%22&st=cse

    http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FB0C11FA3F591B7A93C4AB178AD95F438285F9&scp=7&sq=%22228%20west%20fifty-second%22&st=cse

  • Fascinating article. Gallagher’s used to be one of my many regular haunts when I was in the ad business. I loved the old world flavor of the place and the racks of beef aging behind the windows as you walked into the place. Thanks for sharing.

    Chris

  • 52nd or 57th? Photo says 235 West 52 Street (just off Broadway), Gallaghers article says 228 W 52. Was there Another tea room on 57th??
    Lynne used 57, but it appears to be a typo, right? “when Evelyn Nesbit used 228 W 57th Street at a place of business?”
    DF & the Times ” articles referencing Evelyn Nesbit’s club at 228 West 52nd Street date from November of 1927.”

    Ever heard her Called “Eva” before?
    Per American Eve, she was born Florence Mary Nesbit, called Flo to famly, Kittens to Stanny, Evie to John Barrymore, Boofuls to Harry Thaw.
    When she was in the Floradora girls Chorus (not the famous Sextet), she changed her name to be Evelyn Nesbit, as the 1901 Chorus was calling her Flossie the Fuss at the Moorish Casino Theatre (now the Casino building by Ely Jacques Kahn?)
    Funny thing research. American Eve, pg. 370 says she “opened a tearoom on 57th St.”, not 52nd. Hmm. If you know where Paula U got her address, perhaps we can reconcile these seemingly divergent facts.
    rr