Swellboy on… femmes fatales

A passionate love of musical comedy can be one’s undoing

Image: Brijesh Patel

While in New York, I called in on Kenneth Jay Lane, and passively smoked about a half pack of Marlboro with this fascinating man. A veteran costume jeweller; his creations have garnished some of the most famous women of the last 50 years, including Jackie O and the Duchess of Windsor. The former asked him to create a faux-pearl necklace that made more than $200,000 when sold at auction after her death. The Duchess, however, decided to take her Lane jewellery with her and is supposedly buried bedizened by bijouterie from this Manhattan Master.

I am researching a book about the international set of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and felt that he would give me unrivalled insight into the lives of such great American beauties as Cee Zee Guest and Babe Paley. I was not disappointed – he duly delivered in spades.

However, I also received an unexpected bonus in the Lane residence on the piano nobile of an authentic Gilded Age mansion on Park Avenue, which Kenneth told me was built by one of my favourite architects, Stanford White. Gilded Age America lived well, and I exaggerate only marginally when I say that you could have fitted my office into the fireplace in Mr Lane’s cavernous drawing room.

Together with William Rutherford Mead and Charles F McKim, he founded the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, and cashed in on the tidal wave of arrivisme that washed over New York in the closing years of the 19th century, when tycoons battled it out for the greatest and grandest buildings. One of the most pleasing projects undertaken by the firm was the Tiffany house of the 1880s, which prefigured the trend for art nouveau. However, while his buildings were the cynosure of society, the architect himself was considered a little bohemian by some hostesses, who decried his lack of prandial smartness – his idea of dressing for dinner was to put a dinner jacket over his day clothes.

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Their most famous building is, alas, no more: the fabulous Madison Square Garden, which featured a tower inspired by the Giralda in Seville, a ballroom, a vast auditorium for horse shows and a rooftop cabaret restaurant where the young blades of the old New York crystallised in the novels of Edith Wharton could gather to hum along to popular ditties and ogle pretty chorus girls.

The place was popular with, among others, Stanford White, a somewhat overenthusiastic connoisseur of musical comedy (or at least the girls who sang it), and it was here that his career was cut short. It was 1906, and the opening night of a light-hearted revue called Mam’zelle Champagne, the sort of belle-époque entertainment that would be long forgotten, except for the rudeness of one of the audience who had been shooting White dirty looks all night. Eventually he got up, walked over to White, pulled out a gun and starting shooting him with bullets, hitting him three times in the face, killing him on the spot.

The killer, coal-fortune heir Harry Kendall Thaw, was typical of the dissipated scions of industrial dynasties that loafed about New York in the days of ragtime, frittering their money on cigars, champagne and pretty demimondaines. In her time, Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit, had been more mondaine than most. She had enjoyed a dalliance with White in his famous love nest with its velvet-covered swing, and had even modelled as a Gibson Girl, a sort of early 20th century pin-up.

Tried twice, the second time around Thaw’s plea of temporary insanity was accepted by the jury. However, I have my doubts about the soundness of that verdict, not least because of Thaw’s impeccable timing: he committed the murder during the closing number, a jolly ragtime number called, “I Could Love a Million Girls”. In Nesbit, White had picked one in a million: the trouble was it was the wrong one.

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