French architect Henri Patrick Devillers may soon find himself at the center of a Chinese murder trial. Devillers had been working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, when he was arrested at China’s request, The New York Times reports. The architect, who is friends with now-disgraced Communist party leader Bo Xilai and his wife, was being held in connection with the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Xilai’s wife, Gu Kailai, is the main suspect in the case—and, allegedly, Devillers’s lover.
As far as scandals involving architects go, though, Devillers’s story is only a drop in the bucket. The murder of Stanford White received A1 coverage, and the trial was a front-page story for years.
Stanford White had no reason to suspect a man might be lurking at Madison Square Garden—one of his own architectural achievements—waiting to do him harm.
It was June 25, 1906, and Harry Thaw had been following White, of the eminent firm McKim, Mead, and White, for some time when he decided to kill him—possibly for more than a year, says Mosette Broderick, an architectural historian and the director of urban design programs at New York University.
“Thaw wished he was a man-about-town the way Stanford was,” Broderick says.
White and Evelyn Nesbitt—a young model who herself was a society figure—had an affair, which White cut short, much to the dismay of Nesbitt, who was one of the country’s first pop-cultural celebrities. Shortly thereafter Thaw began to fixate on Nesbitt, obsessing over her the way he did with so many things associated with White. But Nesbitt rebuffed Thaw for years. Finally, after succumbing to the realization that White was truly no longer interested in her, Nesbitt gave into Thaw, settling for the wealthy suitor. The two married in 1905; Thaw began beating her soon afterward.
The son of a railroad and coal baron, Thaw came from money, but the New York elite status that White possessed evaded him. Thaw’s volatile temper kept him on the outer rungs of those coveted social circles. His own father recognized the flaw at an early age, Broderick writes in her book Triumvirate, which chronicles the lives of McKim, Mead, and White.
Was Thaw crazy? Yes, Broderick says. They both were. But where Thaw was a sadist, White was merely a narcissist. “Stanford White was the clear role model for Thaw in his fast life in New York,” Broderick writes. “White knew the chorus girls, had amusing pastimes, and seemed to be having a wonderful life.” One thing Thaw couldn’t see: White, who was 52, was extremely ill at the time of his murder.
White, along with his firm, designed the Astor, Tiffany, and Vanderbilt mansions. He penned the plans for the New York Herald Building and the Washington Square arch. And perhaps most importantly, he dreamt up the second Madison Square Garden—where he was shot three times in the chest.
No one knows for sure why Thaw chose that precise moment to kill White. Maybe it was because they shared a lover or maybe Thaw’s jealousy was too much for him to bear. As Broderick says: “White died because a crazy man irrationally fixated on him.”