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 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.
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.
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.