Gilded Age New York was a veritable playground for men both bachelor and married alike. From the Lobster Palace restaurants to the Bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village to the theaters dotting Broadway, there were a variety of entertainments–and women–available for gentlemen to partake. The quintessential man-about-town of the period was the famed, wealthy, and handsome (by the standards of the day) architect Stanford White.
White and his partners McKim and Mead were–along with Richard Morris Hunt–the men who defined the architecture of the Gilded Age. White designed many of New York’s most celebrated buildings and edifices, from the Arch at Washington Square and Madison Square Garden II to the “cottages” on Newport (Rosecliffe) to the mansions on Long Island’s Gold Coast and down the Atlantic seaboard.
In between his designing and decorating, White managed to squeeze in a few hours chasing after teenage girls and gallivanting through New York’s burgeoning nightlife. Of course, as we know, these two hobbies ultimately caused his doom, but ten years before the “Trial of the Century” Stanford White was dragged into another scandal involving his predilection for very young women. This event became known as the “Pie Girl Dinner.”
Stanford White had collected a bevy of like-minded friends by the 1890s, from society photographers, to artists, to Wall Street bankers, and the like. James L. Breese, the aforementioned society photographer, had a reputation just as naughty as White, stemming from his notorious all-male midnight salons. These late-night suppers were equally sumptuous and scandalous, where the main course were the pretty young women hired as waitresses.
It was only natural that someone devised the idea to make a pretty young woman the actual main course.
The occasion: A friend’s tenth wedding anniversary
The idea: a girl inside of a pie
The place: Breese’s photography studio
The girl: sixteen year old Susie Johnson
The 1890s were already becoming notorious for lavish stunts pulled by bored, wealthy “400” socialites, but there was still something a bit shocking about this dinner. Somehow, months later, Joseph Pulitzer’s tabloid newspaper The New York World managed to get a scoop on this dinner, and suddenly, Stanford White’s lurid, seedy doings were splashed on the front pages of the metropolis’s most notorious newspaper.
The paper described the dinner in excruciating detail, from the scantily clad young waitresses to the names of the dinner guests to the naked girl–Susie Johnson–who sprang out of a large pie. Johnson later disappeared (newspapers reported her death a little over a decade later: the wages of sin), and Stanford White’s personal reputation acquired a slight stench. Though he was not fully ostracized, when he was murdered by Harry Thaw in 1906 out of jealousy and madness over deflowering his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit, many were not surprised or sympathetic. Some news reports went so far as to call White a pervert.
New York as a bachelor’s playground did not disappear, of course, but the specter of Stanford White was a warning to all men who dared to skirt the edges of respectability.
American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu
Mrs. Astor’s New York: Money and Social Power in a Gilded Age by Eric Homberger
The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Simon Baatz