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PREVIEW: The Events Behind the Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing

A promotional image for the Umbrella Collective’s production of Velvet Swing, which premieres tonight at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis, MN.

Google “Velvet Swing” and the first thing that comes up is a not-safe-for-work product mixing sex and cannabis. An odd pairing? Not if you know the history of the term, a now-and-again popular euphemism for a “good time” with a lady. The euphemism velvet swing traces back to one Evelyn Nesbit and one of the most famous court trials in history.

Who was Nesbit? From an early career as a chorus girl and artist model, she became one of the most famous – and notorious – actresses of the early 20th century. This came in no small part from an incident in 1905, when her then-husband Harry Kendall Thaw shot and killed the architect Stanford White in front of a crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Both Thaw and White were well-known society figures: White a famous architect and Thaw an eccentric multimillionaire. Journalists, naturally, descended on the courtroom for a series of lurid events that newspapers termed the “Trial of the Century”.

Both Thaw and White, it turned out, were more than a little odd and kink-filled, the better for selling those newspapers. Under oath, Evelyn described how White liked to play strange games with a large, velvet-covered swing that hung inside his house. After inducing her to play on the swing one night, he plied her with alcohol and sexually assaulted her. Some years later, Thaw bizarrely locked Evelyn in an Austrian castle and forcefully induced the story from her. Depending on who you talked to, the murder that followed was a coldly calculated act of revenge or a spontaneous burst of insanity.

Tate’s murder of Stanford White catapulted Evelyn Nesbit overnight to international fame.

Although many other sordid details also came to light during the trial, the description of a pretty young woman on a red velvet swing burned itself into readers’ minds. Thaw was eventually acquitted after two long-running trials, but sent to a mental institution. His mother had insisted that Evelyn abandon the stage as a condition of their marriage, but Evelyn soon became estranged from her marital family as the trials progressed. Locked out of Thaw’s assets, Evelyn began a new career in screen acting to support herself and her son. Naturally, the press never missed a chance to mention her notoriety.

“After lunch we ascended to the next floor and entered a marvelous studio where I saw, for the first time, the famous Red Velvet Swing!”

–Evelyn Nesbit, Prodigal Days: The Untold Story, 1934

A poster for 1955’s The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a movie starring Joan Collins that dramatized and heavily fictionalized the earlier parts of Evelyn Nesbit’s public life.

The media has always loved scandal, and the buzz that hardly seemed to die down over the years, fueled by radio, stage, and film dramatizations. As the trial’s 50th anniversary approached, 20th Century Fox courted Marilyn Monroe to star in a biopic about Nesbit before casting Joan Collins as Nesbit. In a move that recalls some of the bizarre Charlie Sheen celebrity endorsements of tiger blood fame, 20th Century Fox then approached Nesbit herself to advise and promote the resulting movie, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955).

“There’s a picture of Evelyn Nesbit, the girl on the red velvet swing…a cutout figure of her, sitting on a swing, swinging over the bar. My father very much disapproved.”–The New Yorker, 1925

A hundred and fourteen years have passed since Nesbit was catapulted into the limelight. Books continue to be written on her life, including one by Simon Baatz just last year, The Girl on the Velvet Swing: Sex, Murder, and Madness at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. (The program for Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing comes with its own recommended reading, listening, and watching list.) Her name continues to come up from an array of sources – as a character in the musical Ragtime, and bouncing across social media as one of the inspirations for the archetypical Gibson Girls. Peruse any two or three of these, however, and you’ll find a remarkably different characterization. Will the real Evelyn Nesbit stand up?

Untangling the story and person of Evelyn Nesbit are some of the elements explored in the Umbrella Collective’s Velvet Swing, which opens tonight at Bryant-Lake Bowl in South Minneapolis. Conceived by Alana Horton and created by the Umbrella Collective and its ensembles, the work layers in multiple voices, music, and a snake, among other elements. The all-female cast and creative team includes six actors to bring Evelyn to life; the production follows a 2017 workshop by the Umbrella Collective, also at Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Velvet Swing opens tonight at Bryant-Lake Bowl and plays through April 27.

Amy Donahue

Amy Donahue is a staff reviewer at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. She interned with the magazine during the summer of 2017, served as a guest contributor while studying abroad in Europe that fall, and has moved up to regular old reviewing. She admits to being at least 50% terrified of contemporary German opera.

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