Sunday 16 October 2011

The Gunning Sisters – A Georgian Cinderella Story

When you were younger did you ever dream that one day you would meet a prince, be swept off your feet, and then get married and live happily ever after?  Well, then you may not be too surprised to learn that during the Georgian period two beautiful sisters from fairly humble origins took London Society by storm and then married into some of the most aristocratic families in the land. These two beauties were Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, and their wit, liveliness and good looks captured the public interest and their fame led to them being mobbed when they promenaded in the park and spectators standing on chairs when they were presented at Court.

So how did two unknown girls, lacking in fortune and connections, ever reach these dizzy heights?  The sisters were born around 1733 in Hemingford Grey in Huntingdonshire, the daughters of an Irishman called John Gunning and his wife the Honourable Bridget Bourke.  They were raised in genteel poverty and in 1740 or early 1741 the family returned to Ireland where they rented a house in Dublin and also resided in the ancestral home of Castlecoote House, County Roscommon. As soon as they were old enough it seemed that the Gunning sisters started working in the theatres of Dublin to boost the family income, which was very unusual for daughters of the gentry during the Georgian period, as it was widely assumed that most actresses were also courtesans.

However, in 1748 they were still regarded as respectable enough to be invited to a ball hosted at Dublin Castle by Viscountess Petersham.  It is said that at this point the Gunning sisters were so impecunious that they could not even afford to buy suitable ball gowns for the occasion, and that they were rescued by a theatre manager called Tom Sheridan who lent them a Lady Macbeth and a Juliet costume to wear to the dance. At some point during the ball they were presented the Earl of Harrington, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and they made such a good impression on this noble personage that in 1750 he granted their mother a generous pension.

On receipt of her pension their mother immediately swept the Gunning sisters back to England and their house in Huntingdon, where they entered local Society.  The two beautiful girls were an instant hit at nearby Assemblies and balls, and soon their fame had even spread as far as London. They soon moved to the capital, where their celebrity continued to grow, taking Polite Society by storm.  They were even accorded the honour of being presented at Court in December, 1750, an event which was even chronicled in the newspapers of the day.

The Gunning sisters were much courted and admired, and in January 1752 Elizabeth Gunning was introduced to the Duke of Hamilton.  This fateful meeting led to a whirlwind courtship and at a St Valentine’s Day party in Bedford House the Duke threw caution to the wind and demanded that a local parson marry them then and there.  The parson refused as the Duke of Hamilton had not procured a licence and the banns had not been called.  Undeterred by this setback, the Duke took his bride-to-be to the Mayfair Chapel, where they were married without a licence and with a ring taken from a bed curtain.  These ceremonies were known as ‘clandestine marriages’ and although regarded as somewhat improper were legally binding and valid.

As Duchess of Hamilton, Elizabeth Gunning bore three children, but unfortunately the Duke passed away in 1758.  She had not lost her allure, however, and attracted the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, and entered into an engagement with this illustrious gentleman.  However, for reasons that are not known, the engagement was terminated, and in 1759 she married John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne.  In 1770 Elizabeth Gunning became the Duchess of Argyll when her husband succeeded to the dukedom, and she went on to have a further five children.  She was a great favourite with the royal family, and between 1761 and 1784 she served as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte and King George III created her the Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon in her own right. The impoverished Irish beauty had become one of the greatest ladies in the land and she was also the darling of some of the period’s finest artists, being painted by both Gavin Hamilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  She lived to the age of 57 and passed away on 20th December 1790 in her London home, Argyll House and was laid to rest at Kilmun in Argyllshire.

Elizabeth Gunning

In contrast, her sister, Maria Gunning, lived a much shorter and arguably less respectable life.  As beautiful as her sister, Maria Gunning was also well known for being incredibly tactless.  In London Society this tactlessness just added to her popularity, and she even told King George II that the spectacle that she would most like to witness was a royal funeral.  Fortunately George II found this comment amusing, and Maria went on to marry the 6th Earl of Coventry in March 1752.  The noble couple took themselves off on a tour of the Continent for their honeymoon, taking along Lady Petersham in their train.  The two women did not seem to overly enjoy this trip, and the new Countess of Coventry took a special dislike to the romantic and sophisticated city of Paris.  This might have been because her husband was beginning to show his controlling tendencies, and was refusing to allow her to wear the excessive rouge on her face that was so fashionable in Paris at that time.  As the story goes, the Earl even went as far as wiping her face with his handkerchief when she appeared at dinner with an overly made up face.

When they returned to London, Maria Gunning’s popularity had not waned, and she even had to have her own guard to keep her from being mobbed in the park that was headed by the Earl of Pembroke.  She was not immune from scandal however, as her husband became involved with the notorious courtesan Kitty Fisher, and the two women even clashed over the Earl in public. She was probably no angel either, as it was rumoured that she had an inappropriate romantic liaison with the Duke of Grafton.

But the Countess of Coventry was not to enjoy a long life.  Despite her husband’s protestations, she continued to wear the heavy face make-up that was so fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century.  Unfortunately these cosmetics contained lead and arsenic, which are both highly toxic.  These toxic ingredients would have caused the skin to become highly irritated and break out and would probably have prompted Maria Gunning to have plastered on even more of the make up to cover these skin imperfections.  Continued overuse of the toxic cosmetics eventually caused lead poisoning, which in this case proved fatal, and Maria died on 30th September 1760 at the tragically young age of 27.

So, it was possible for two unknown and impoverished Irish beauties to capture the hearts of fashionable society and marry rich, powerful men. For one of the Gunning sisters it was unfortunately not a case of happy ever after, but is shows that the rest of us can still dream on. One day our prince just might arrive on his white charger!

Wednesday 5 October 2011

The Extraordinary Murder of Stanford White

Imagine that you are part of High Society in New York at the turn of the 20th century.  You are relaxing with your friends, the drinks are flowing and you are all enjoying the premiere of a new musical show called ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ being staged at the fashionable Madison Square Roof Garden when all of a sudden a smartly dressed man in an unseasonably heavy overcoat walks up to a table and shoots another man in the face three times at point blank range.  At first you and your friends laugh as you think that it is just another of the famous practical jokes that are so in vogue at that time, but then people start screaming and you see the blood – you have just witnessed the extraordinary murder of Stanford White.

So what led to this cold-blooded killing in a social venue thronged with potential witnesses?  As with so many acts of violence it was born out of one unbalanced man’s rage and jealousy, as he failed to come to terms with the fact that the woman he wanted had, initially, been with someone else.  This man was a millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, who had been born in 1871, the son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw.  Harry Thaw, according to his own mother, had been trouble since the day he was born and even all of his father’s immense fortune and social clout could prevent him from being expelled from several elite private schools.

He went to the University of Pittsburgh to do a law degree, and used his father’s money and contacts to get a transfer to Harvard.  He spent much of his time in College drinking, taking drugs, gambling and chasing women.  He was eventually sent down after an incident where he pursued a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun, although Thaw claimed it was not loaded at the time.

He moved on to mingle with the rich and famous of New York society, where he carried on his dissolute ways and spent much of his time watching Broadway shows and trying to ingratiate himself with the chorus girls.  It was here in New York that he became aware of a much older man called Stanford White who was a great socialite, very sophisticated and very popular with the ladies. Stanford White’s popularity and prowess with the fairer sex drove Thaw to a frenzy of jealousy and paranoia. This was allegedly triggered by an incident when Thaw was desperately trying to impress a trio of chorus girls without success and White, who just happened to be present, made some denigrating remarks about Thaw to the girls. When all of the chorus girls turned Thaw down, he became convinced that it was the fault of Stanford White and from that day on his jealous obsession was born.

Evelyn Nesbit

So who was Stanford White?  He was an older, sophisticated man about town in his late forties.  He was born in 1853 and was a well known architect in New York who designed palatial homes for the wealthy and grand public buildings. Ironically he had been the architect who drew up the plans for the Madison Square Roof Garden where he would be murdered fifteen years later.  Despite his age, White was a great success with women and was rumoured to have several apartments where he would entertain chorus girls and actresses. One of these apartments on West Twenty Fourth Street was especially notorious, as it was where Stanford White had installed a red velvet swing, so that he could enjoy watching scantily clad young girls disporting themselves.

In 1901 Stanford White stated paying court to one very beautiful and very young chorus girl – she was sixteen and he was forty seven – called Evelyn Nesbit.  Evelyn Nesbit had been born in Pittsburgh in 1884, but her father died young leaving his widow to struggle to bring up their two children.  As Evelyn was a very beautiful girl, she started working as an artist’s model at a very young age.  Her mother moved the family to New York and Evelyn started modelling for some very famous artists and was also one of the first popular photographic models, and was a favourite model of Charles Dana Gibson.  She also started working in the shows and when she was sixteen was dancing as a gypsy in the chorus of Florodora. This is where Harry Thaw spotted her and, mainly because he knew that she was connected romantically to Stanford White, became infatuated with her.  He was determined to lure her away from White and pursued her ardently.

Stanford White tried to warn Evelyn about Harry Thaw and for a while she stayed out of his way, but then she was sent to hospital with suspected appendicitis and Thaw started to visit her, showering her with gifts and bouquets of flowers.  White arranged for Evelyn to convalesce in a sanatorium in upstate New York and for a time both men visited her there, but White lost interest, leaving the field open for Harry Thaw. He whisked both her and her mother away to Paris on her release and lavished money and designer clothes on her.  Certain of success he proposed to Evelyn.  She refused him, but he wouldn’t give up and eventually she admitted that she didn’t feel she could become his wife as Stanford White had taken her virginity, after drugging her with champagne. Eventually he persuaded her mother to return to New York and took Evelyn to a castle in a remote region of Germany where he repeatedly beat her and forced himself on her to try and get her to accept his offer of marriage.

Despite this bad treatment, Evelyn did not part from Thaw and eventually she persuaded him to let her return to New York.  For several years Thaw continued his pursuit of Evelyn’s hand, but it wasn’t until Thaw’s mother turned up on her doorstep begging Evelyn to marry her son and get him to settle down a bit that she gave in and went to Pittsburgh to marry him. Fairly predictably, once Evelyn Nesbit was his, Thaw lost interest in her and continued his drinking, womanising and drug taking ways.  He would regularly take long trips abroad on his own and would disappear for days on end.

Fatefully, in the spring of 1906 the couple decided to take a trip together to New York and then on to Europe.  While they were out socialising in New York, Thaw encountered Stanford White in the Cafe Martin and found out that they would all be attending the premiere of the new show ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ that evening.  Thaw immediately hustled his wife back to their hotel, and disappeared, returning only in time to escort Evelyn to the show.  Although it was a hot summer night, he also insisted on wearing a heavy, black overcoat, and would not hand it over to the hat check girl however many times she asked him for it.  He was seen acting suspiciously during the show, often seeming to approach Stanford White’s table and then backing away, and it wasn’t until the final provocative number ‘I Could Love a Million Girls’ that he did march up to Stanford White and shoot him in the face, killing him instantly. Thaw then coolly walked through the crowd and out of the room, meeting Evelyn who was waiting for him by the elevator and informing her that he had probably just saved her life.

The ensuing trial of Harry Thaw in 1907 became a media sensation and became known as the ‘Trial of the Century’. Harry Thaw had pled insanity and the jury was deadlocked over their verdict.  Evelyn Nesbit had refused to testify at this trial, but as the retrial was being prepared for Thaw’s mother asked her to testify and say that son had only being trying to protect her from Stanford White’s unwanted advances.  If she agreed Harry Thaw would give her a divorce and $1 million.  Evelyn testified, and though she got her divorce, she never saw the money.  Harry Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was placed in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was not restrained there in any way and in 1913 he just decided to leave and crossed the border into Canada.  He was extradited back to the United States, where a court deemed him to be sane and he was released in 1915.

Harry Thaw would go on to live until the age of 76, although he had to undergo another period of incarceration for insanity as he attempted to slit his own throat after being accused of sexually assaulting and horsewhipping a young student called Fred Gump Jr whom he had brought to New York. Evelyn Nesbit’s career after the trial did not mirror her earlier success, and she also made several suicide attempts as she had become an alcoholic and dependent on morphine.  She, however, overcame these addictions and during her life she wrote two memoirs and lived to the grand old age of 82.