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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 11:12 GMT
Social lion and remarkable architect
Alistair has been sending his Letter from America since 1946
What I'm going to do - in the hope of breaking no house rule - is to begin on a very personal note.

I was figuring the other day that in 57 years I had recorded 16 talks from one hospital or another but missed only one talk on account of illness.

I was enjoying this bit of hubris when - oops - a simple trip, and an unseen character with the forearms of Arnold Schwarzenegger hurled a large hammer at my forehead. Bang, smash, goodbye Letter from America.

Now, with a dry eye, let me respond to one listener who was quickly on the ball with a sympathetic note but added a sigh of disappointment about my last talk on the deliberate destruction of New York's Pennsylvania railroad station, which had been built as an exact copy of the Baths of Caracalla - a masterpiece of ancient Roman architecture.

The mention of its architects - McKim, Mead and White - excited this listener to hope, as he put it that this was going to be a prelude to the fascinating story of the firm's junior partner, Stanford White.

It is in truth an extraordinary story in the annals of American murders and murder trials.

So looking over the nice letter of this disappointed man I asked myself a question I've often thought over when I itch to write about a particular person.

Yes, but where's the motive, the excuse to talk about Stanford White? Every anniversary of the crime is written about and most surely will be written about next June 25, 2006, which will be its 100th anniversary.

But where's the hook today? I was about to apologise to this fan when I came on an astonishing fact - this Sunday, 9 November, will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Stanford White. Surely that's a pretty plausible excuse.

So, to get the feel of the time, first it's essential to picture the man.

The time - June 1901. The beginning of what in England was called the Edwardian age, anyway the end in both countries of the Victorian age.

The succession to the throne of King Edward VII - a large teddy bear of a man, genial, cigar smoking whose adored wife called his mistresses "my husband's toys".

His many male admirers and imitators in the United States personified, practically proclaimed, a public holiday from the long, grey winter of Victorian piety and restraint.

Imagine then at the top of his profession as an architect for the wealthy and famous, Mr Stanford White - handsome and well set-up in the Edwardian fashion: dark hair, a guardee's bristling moustache and piercing eyes, a gaze that had flashed many an early warning signal to many a guileless girl.

I should say that Stanford White's father was a brilliant literary critic and a leading American Shakespearean scholar of his day. Whatever else his son inherited from him a gift of scholarship was one.

Young Stanford White became a meticulous copier of the design of every historic style of architecture.

So a tall, handsome dandy, a social lion and a most remarkable architect - probably unique in his time as a master of pastiche.

At the shake of a hand, the flourish of a contract he would design a neo-Gothic church, a renaissance Venetian mansion for a newspaper tycoon, a fine Georgian house to serve, as it still does, as the officers' club at West Point, a monumental arch for the George Washington centennial, a jewelled Byzantine cross for the most famous actress of her day, Eleanora Duse.

White was a man of immense industry but he balanced his ferocious work with a well-organised private life.

Once a year he dutifully took his wife to Europe and as the summer came on deposited her in their fine house on Long Island, leaving him free for his own devices, of which he had plenty.

Of all the buildings done to his own original design, his masterpiece was built on a noxious clutter of abandoned train sheds, which had been used by Barnum for circuses. Within one year there arose here a colonnaded, three-storey Italianate pavilion in white stone, surmounted by a graceful tapering 300ft Moorish tower.

It was called Madison Square Garden. And this elegant shell enclosed a large amphitheatre, an assembly hall, two restaurants, a roof garden theatre restaurant, topped off with a tower studio for the exclusive occupancy of Mr White and his guests, especially some of the ladies - light ladies - of the town.

But for more intimate assignments Mr White had acquired a walk-up apartment in a shabbier part of town where he was unlikely to be spied on.

A dingy exterior however masked a splendid studio, an opulent flat with Italian antiques, scarlet flock wallpaper, drawings of nudes, a huge moss green sofa.

The oddest feature of the studio was a red velvet swing for the preliminary exercises of Mr White's young ladies.

It was in the summer of 1901 that into this delectable eyrie Mr White invited a young woman from the current musical hit Floradora.

She had a companion who soon remembered another engagement.

And Stanford White was overcome by the sight of a 16-year-old Dresden doll. Her name was Evelyn Nesbit, an exquisite innocent with copper-coloured curls, who had for three years been a favourite model for artists aching to paint or model or transfer to stained glass the perfect representation of an angel, a shepherdess, a water nymph.

Well, to put it crisply, Evelyn Nesbit swung through the air on the red velvet swing, Mr White broke out the champagne and the next morning Evelyn Nesbit woke up to find herself, as she later confessed in court, in the phrase of the day "a ruined woman".

She also recalled asking Mr White a wide-eyed question: did the girls in the Floradora sextet do these things, you suppose?

Mr White, she said, laughed and laughed and laughed.

Miss Nesbit became Mr White's favourite performer on and off the red velvet swing.

It's time now for a tactful flash forward five years on to the fateful evening of 25 June, 1906.

Eleven pm. The musical show in the roof theatre restaurant is coming to an end, with a merry tune and foam of petticoats.

Sitting alone at his regular table and nodding benevolently to friends here and there is Stanford White, now 52 years of age, briskly elegant in his evening clothes, dark flashing eyes, furry eyebrows - a clubman's clubman if ever there was one.

On the far side of the room was a much younger man, not a prepossessing type, more like a bespectacled bullfrog. He was sitting with his wife: Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.

Harry Thaw, the profligate son of a robber baron, was a young man of rather eccentric tastes - a psychopath with a volcanic temper.

He got up. He threaded his way to Mr White's table, took a revolver from his breast pocket and fired three times at White's forehead, who fell dead against the crashing table.

Harry Thaw raised his arm high above his head, letting the barrel droop - a Florentine avenger who had done his duty.

Unresisting, he was taken off to the nearest station house.

If ever there was a case of premeditated murder this was it. But several factors combined to make the trial, the many trials, the most torturous anyone could remember.

First, Harry Thaw's adoring widowed mother hired a famous San Francisco defence lawyer who said of course Harry had murdered White but he thereby was acting on a principle he called "dementia Americana", which was thoroughly legal in the Latin countries - the right to kill any man who had betrayed a wife's honour.

The trial ended in a hung jury.

A second trial befogged by much psychiatric jargon of the day befuddled the jury who found him guilty but insane.

But Mrs Thaw was very, very rich and came to prove that, in the land of equal justice for all, a mother with sufficient money and tenacity can procure justice a touch more equal than most.

It took many millions of dollars and 18 years of incarcerations, escapes and more trials before Harry Thaw was a free man living in New York city.

In the long meanwhile Madison Square Garden, Stanford White's masterpiece, had been losing money heavily and was doomed to destruction.

It is not too fanciful to think of Harry Thaw getting up betimes one morning in 1925 and going down to watch with relish the wrecking ball swing and destroy the graceful Moorish tower - Stanford White's masterpiece and the scene of Harry Thaw's crime.

First broadcast on Friday, 7 November, 2003 on BBC Radio 4.

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