Throwback Thursday: Edgewater’s Famous Fugitive Nell Brinkley

By R.C. Harvey (RCHarvey.com)

Without much question, newspaper cartoonist Nell Brinkley is among the most famous of the fugitives from Edgewater. She began her career in 1903 as a sketch artist, a reporter with a pen instead of a camera.

She left the town at the edge of the lake in November 1907 to work for the Hearst newspapers in New York. At the beginning of the next year, she was assigned to cover the trial of millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who had murdered the noted New York architect Stanford White in a rooftop garden restaurant in full view of other patrons of the place. Within months, Brinkley was a household word, the “Brinkley Girl” having displaced the “Gibson Girl” of Charles Dana Gibson. But the Brinkley Girl was not Nell; she was, rather, quite another creature altogether.

What made the Thaw case “the trial of the century” was the testimony of Thaw’s gorgeous young wife, Evelyn Thaw nee Nesbitt, ex-model, ex-Floradora Girl, whose deflowering by White before her marriage while she was just a teenager so inflamed her husband when he found out that he blew White’s brains out with a pistol the first time he saw him. For several days running, Nesbitt recited in lurid (for the time) detail how White seduced her and the immediate aftermath.

She had frequently been White’s guest in his apartment—he was in some vague (not to say nefarious) manner mentoring her modeling career —but on the night in question, she was alone with him, her mother, who usually chaperoned, being out-of-town on an errand devised by White, and the worldly architect and man-about-town plied Evelyn with champagne. She became conscious, she said, of “a buzzing and a drumming, a persistent thumping in my ears. I felt dizzy and sick, and the objects in the room became blurred and indistinct. … Then all went black.”

In her biography of Nesbitt, American Eve, Paula Uruburu, relying upon court records and two autobiographies Nesbitt later wrote, records what happened next: “… when she opened her eyes in an approximation of some form of fuzzy awareness, she was lying on top of the silken sheets in a huge canopied bed next to Stanny … [who] lay apprehensively beside her, taking in the contrast of her creamy skin against the violet folds of the sheets. She was clad only in ‘an abbreviated pink under-garment’ that covered her small breasts, while White exposed ‘the naked body of his naked sins,’ only slightly receded in the ‘full flush of his extraordinary physical powers.’”

In her testimony, Nesbitt probably didn’t mention her creamy white skin or White’s receding manhood, but she left no doubt that White, as she put it, “had ravished her sixteen-year-old flesh” while she was unconscious from having drunk too much champagne—a highly charged and scandalous recitation for the times.

And she was also at the time of her testimony, at age 23, still in the flower of her wide-eyed waif-like beauty—exactly the sort of model that Nell Brinkley, only a year younger, could limn to perfection. So she did.

For a public fascinated by Evelyn Nesbitt, Brinkley produced almost daily drawings of the wronged young woman, seated in the courtroom or on the witness chair. And her beautiful renderings of her famously beautiful subject made Brinkley famous, too. Her first portrait of Nesbitt was published January 7, 1908; her second, which appears near here, January 8. These were the first of the parade, and Brinkley was at the head of it.

Later that year, the second of the famed Ziegfeld Follies featured a tableau called “Nell Brinkley Studies” in which models were arrayed to look like one of the artist’s drawings, all accompanied by a new song, “The Nell Brinkley Girl.” Overnight, the Edgewater girl was a star.

Foreigners to our part of the country might be tempted to think that Brinkley, fresh to the sinful Big Apple from a small town in Colorado, would be ill-suited to cover such unsavory sensations as Nesbitt’s testimony. But we know better.

BRINKLEY was scarcely a country mouse, not some summer flower that might have wilted in the steamy hothouse of Nesbitt’s torid recitations. Born in 1886, Brinkley grew up in what would become Edgewater, a community near Manhattan Beach amusement park, which had been established on the northwest shore of Sloan’s Lake in 1891.

Manhattan Beach displaced an earlier recreation entity called Johnson’s Park, and Manhattan Beach soon became much more than a picnic spot. From humble beginnings with just a bandstand, gardens, and picnic area, the park soon acquired other attractions—a mammoth theater that could seat 3,000, dance pavilion, zoo, roller coaster, skating rink and concessions, including a pleasure boat with a dance hall.

As many as 20,000 people might visit Manhattan Beach on a Sunday; transporting the crowd kept 34 street cars busy. The big crowds Manhattan Beach attracted included some fun-seekers less desirable than others.

Although Denver in those days was still a wide-open city (harlotry would not be suppressed until 1912), the suburban town of Highlands whose boundaries embraced Manhattan Beach was “a dry, moral community where no alcohol, gambling or prostitution were tolerated,” according to Phil Goldstein in his The Seamy Side of Denver.

The amusement park attracted great crowds, and entrepreneurs of the booze and bodies businesses, eager to take advantage of this bonanza of clientelle but not wanting to arouse the ire of Highland puritans, set up shop just across the Highlands city line of Sheridan Road.

By the turn of the century, gin mills and gambling shacks, girlie cribs and a two-story house of ill repute lined a block of Sheridan from 24th to 25th.

The corner of Sheridan and 25th was the center of a genuine sin city, saloons and brothels the principal residents. Other nearby residents, however, the ordinary citizen kind, got tired of having to step over the supine bodies of passed-out drunks that littered the intersection every morning while at the same time averting chaste sober eyes from the blandishments of ladies of the previous evening, still out soliciting business, so they voted in August 17, 1901 to incorporate a town named  Edgewater, which, at the first opportunity, passed ordinances regulating saloons and “suppressing bawdy and disorderly houses of ill-fame or assignation” which law, the text explains, “refers to fornication and houses of prostitution.” In effect, Edgewater ceased being Denver’s playground.

At the time of Edgewater’s incorporation, Nell Brinkley was almost sixteen. Her father, Robert Serrett Brinkley, and her mother had moved to Colorado from Illinois, and in 1895, the year before Nell was born, they settled in the lakeshore community. Robert Brinkley worked for a lumber company in downtown Denver, several miles from Edgewater.

RECALLING HER CHILDHOOD in 1908 during a brief but triumphant visit to Edgewater, Nell waxes poetic: “Out in the country, and I lived in a white house with a gay little garden around it, above a blue lake, and I went to a school out where ‘the mountains slip down into the prairie.’”

This picturesque cottage was on Calhoun Street, as Gray was called until 1908, between 25th and 23rd.

In her biography of Brinkley, Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century, Trina Robbins speculates that “little Nell was probably kept blissfully unaware of the bawdier part of town,” but that seems unlikely. The bawdy part of town was precisely that part of town one had to pass through to get to downtown Denver and the shopping attractions of the big city. What’s more, residences in a town with only 300 citizens could not have been very far away from the seedy street.

Assuming Nell was a normal adolescent, she could hardly be unaware of such goings on in the immediate neighborhood. Furthermore, the saloons were, still in 1901, immediately across the road from the biggest attraction in that part of the world—Manhattan Beach with all its amusements for families. The Brinkleys would have to live a life of monastic seclusion to have stayed away from Manhattan Beach.

And Robert Brinkley was not a monk: he was a member of the town’s board of trustees from the very first, and when the first mayor, Jimmy Westhaver, took off for several months to tour Europe, Brinkley was mayor pro-tem; at the next election, he would be elected mayor, Edgewater’s second. In short, he was engaged enough in the affairs of the town that such matters as the saloon district must have been discussed at home, and Nell must’ve known something about the unsavory section of town that had inspired incorporation in the first place.

Moreover, in 1903, Nell Brinkley quit school and went to work as an artist at the Denver Post. (Robbins said she dropped out of Edgewater High School, but Edgewater’s school system did not include a high school until 1907; Nell would have gone to high school in nearby Wheatridge or Ashland.)

She could not have gone to work in the Post offices in downtown Denver without passing by Edgewater’s saloon district. She had to know about it. And she also had to know something about the recent past of that neighborhood: nothing as salacious as a history of whores on the hoof would escape the notice of a teenager, no matter how sheltered her existence (and Nell’s was probably not sheltered).

So when she went to New York in 1907, Nell was scarcely a wide-eyed innocent about the ways and sins of the world. Evelyn Nesbitt’s story, while sensational, was sensational because it was recited in public by its victim, not because it was so terribly unusual. And Nell Brinkley would have known enough about the world to be able to put the senations in their proper place and concentrate on drawing Evelyn’s striking profile. And so she did. And made herself the most famous woman newspaper artist of the day.

SPECIALIZING IN DRAWING PRETTY YOUNG WOMEN in a frilly frou-frou style, Brinkley drew portraits of movie stars and famous women like Amilia Earhart and soon graduated into cartooning, drawing romance stories with titles like “The Princess from Nowhere,” “Golden Eyes and Her Hero Bill,” “The Fortunes of Flossie,” and “The Adventures of Prudence Prim,” all of whose heroines in their gossamer curly-haired cuteness were the “Brinkley Girl.”

Until 1918, most of Brinkley’s drawings had been in black and white, which she produced at the rate of nearly one-a-day, accompanied by her prose commentary, a prodigious achievement. But on March 31, 1918, Brinkley’s workload increased: in addition to her almost daily cartoon commentary on the fashions and follies of womankind in America, she began producing a color page for the cover of Hearst’s magazine supplement, The American Weekly.

Running every other week or so, each page was a chapter in a serial narrative, which Brinkley wrote, about the adventures of “Golden Eyes and Her Hero, Bill,” who goes off soldiering in Europe during the Great War. Golden Eyes and her faithful collie eventually follow Bill to Europe, where Golden Eyes dons a Red Cross uniform, drives an ambulance, is captured by Germans, plays Mata Hari, steals secret plans, is rescued by Bill, separated from Bill, saves Bill on the battlefield, and after the War, marries Bill and settles in postwar France, “tucked away in a cottage.”

All retailed in Brinkley’s overblown, breathless prose—gushing fragments of schoolgirl giddy (to take a sample picked virtually at random: “—came an ensorcered day when these three [Golden Eyes, Bill, and a pet collie] stood in a wide green plain—and could scarcely ever after remember what happened to them! Only—the heartrendingly beautiful hordes of the Allies, blue and scarlet, green, battle-tan, swept by, and stood some places in silent lines, the thrilling fanfare of silver trumpets of the French opened the poignantly sweet, terrible, beautiful ‘Somme et Meuse,’ the strains of ‘Dixie’ and the swelling music of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’”—but, enough; reading it, I fully expected to see little hearts dotting the i’s, but, thankfully, didn’t).

The accompanying pictures, however— luxuriously frilly, gaudily curlicued—were something else, something expertly achieved, however frothy. This serial ran for a year and was followed immediately by another. And then another. These are the Nell Brinkley of comics history, the girly cartoonist we all remember (if we remember her at all). But this Nell Brinkley was not the whole of the artist.

By the mid-1920s, Brinkley was no longer producing the text that accompanied her drawings: now the stories were related in rhyme, poems by Carolyn Wells, who also wrote for famed cartoonist Russell Patterson and cranked up a number of potboiler novels, too. Brinkley’s stanza-by-stanza illustration of Wells’ doggerel yielded a sequence of narrative pictures: for the first time, Brinkley was producing what could be called a comic strip.

By the time Brinkley retired in 1937, she had refined her style, eliminating lots of her customary visual folderol but preserving the curls. Earlier in the decade, her commentary cartoon had been reduced from daily to twice-weekly. The weekly serial continued—written again by Brinkley, its narrative vignettes were now clearly within the borders of comic strip panels—but, says Robbins, “drastically reduced” (in size? Frequency? Alas, she doesn’t say).

After her retirement, Brinkley continued to draw, illustrating an occasional book and painting for her own pleasure. She died in 1944, “the same year that saw the deaths of her contemporaries, Kewpie artist Rose O’Neill and Charles Dana Gibson,” Robbins concludes, by this time having demonstrated beyond question that Nell Brinkley was much more than a flapper phenomenon.

Robbins’ 2001 biography is even more instructive, despite the diminished scale of the illustrative material. Surrounded by a miraculously acquired trove of Brinkley material, Robbins realized that Brinkley was not just drawing pictures of pretty women.

“Sure, she drew and wrote enough romance and sentiment to wet all the hankies in the United States of America, but she also … sympathized again and again with working women at a time when most people still thought a woman’s place was in the home. … She gloried in women’s accomplishments. … In comparing Nell to Charles Dana Gibson and John Held, Jr. (both at different times her contemporaries, both known for drawing women), I realized that both Gibson and Held drew rich girls. The Gibson girls attend the opera and soirees … Held’s flappers … attend expensive colleges, the tuition paid in full by their rich daddies. … Brinkley never went to college; in fact, she was a high-school dropout. … The young lovers [she depicts in her romances] are working-class people who get only a half day off on Saturdays.”

Ordinary people, in other words. And this was Nell Brinkley’s forte, frills and curlicues notwithstanding.

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