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The mystery of the girl in the cake

So you are attending a bachelor party. A huge cardboard cake is wheeled in, everyone gathers around it, and… yeah, you know how it continues, of course. In fact, you do because the “stripper in the pop-out cake” gag is a veritable cliché – and often a pretty sad one. But hold on a moment: how the hell such a preposterous act has come to embed itself so firmly in our culture?
The answer, it turns out, is much more convoluted than you’d think.

Historically speaking, surprise cakes – or, more precisely, pies – are nothing new. The tradition began in the late Middle Age with entremets, novelty dishes that were served between the actual courses to allow diners the time to take a break from the gorging and to be dazzled by spectacular mise en places involving wonders such as papier-maché caravels battling across the table, castle replicas assembled from venison cuts or actors reeling off among giant fruit triumphs. With time, the entremets became more and more elaborate. In 1474 the Libro de arte coquinaria by Martino da Como contained a recipe for a special pie to be filled at the last moment (through a hole in the bottom crust) with live blackbirds and frogs, so that when the pie is served the animals will invade the banquet to the delight and amusement of the assembled guests. More specifically, a British 1660 book details how the birds will tend to seek the light and therefore to fly into the candle flames, plunging the hall in the dark as the batrachians terrorize the ladies.

Although the practice was common enough to even inspire nursery rhymes, I really don’t miss those dinners. Apparently, neither did the aristocracy, who switched to less messy courses. By the early 1800s French engineer Philippe Le Bon had designed a self-opening pie large enough to hold no less than a 28-elements orchestra, but that was the exception. The surprise pie fad had trickled down to less outrageously rich audiences. Unsuspecting housewives adorned their creation with pie birds inspired by the old tradition, while gentlemen’s clubs occasionally used metal cakes to present their guests with a complimentary prostitute they could enjoy to tie up a celebration night. Such custom was mostly frowned upon and short-lived, however, and it would have remained a bizarre footnote if it wasn’t for a momentous incident.

On the night of June 25th, 1906, the musical review Mam’zelle Champagne premiered at the Madison Square Garden roof theatre. The show was coming to an end with its grand finale, titled I Could Love a Million Girls – but nobody saw it to its completion. Right during a crescendo, millionaire Harry Thaw rose from his seat, walked to fellow plutocrat Stanford White, extracted a handgun and shot him three times, splattering pieces of his face and skull all over the other guests. Some screamed, some fainted, and most of the audience cheered and clapped, thinking it was yet another crazy prank between wealthy socialites. As soon as the truth became apparent, of course, the attending newspaper reporters bolted for the lobby phone booths to dictate the scoop – thus starting the long coverage of what became known as ‘the trial of the century’.

Although Thaw was mentally ill in a rather severe measure, the murder was quickly explained as the vendetta for a six-years-old grudge White hadn’t been even aware of. It all came down to the questionable past of the killer’s wife, one of the original Gibson Girls and inspiration for the Anne of the Green Gables character, Evelyn Nesbit. The man had became infatuated with 16-years old Nesbit when she worked as a chorus girl: he obsessively watched her play night after night, anonymously showered her with precious gifts and stalked her from afar for months before revealing himself. That was also, unfortunately, when he learned that Evelyn was pregnant with the child of actor John Barrymore, and she was in dire need of an abortion – her third.

Thaw set up a European trip to cover the surgery, maliciously schemed to alienate Nesbit’s mother who had been traveling with them and send her back to the United States, then took the girl to a whirlwind tour of the worship places of the Virgin Mary. His obsession for chastity was absolute, and the inscription he left in the guestbook at the birthplace of Joan of Arc became an important piece of evidence: ‘she would not have been a virgin if Stanford White had been around’.

The journalists went wild with the story of the courtesan who had married into millions, especially when they learned in court about Thaw’s bizarre courtship. During their European journey White’s killer had literally imprisoned Nesbit in the tower of an Austrian castle for two weeks, during which he beat her into forsaking her lewd past and accepting his proposal, even using a whip. He had then taken on a whole different persona, swearing he’d become «as straight as a Benedictine monk» in spite of his renown debauchery, brought the girl to America and promptly proceeded to segregate her under the watch of her bigot, overbearing mother.

Week after week, the newspapers revealed increasingly outrageous details. This was in part due to the two-tiered strategy of publisher William Randolph Hearst, the unscrupulous tycoon who famously later became the model for Citizen Kane. He used the Thaw trial as the spearhead for the newfangled enterprise of modern yellow journalism, taking the opportunity to broadside business competitors off the board in the process. The media frenzy was also righteously stoked by the actual revelations contained in the depositions, however. Especially when it came to Stanford White’s life of excesses.

White wasn’t merely a star architect who had designed, among others, the enigmatic Wardenclyffe laboratory where Nikola Tesla said he had built a death-ray weapon capable of breaking the world in two. In his private life, the man was most of all a shameless libertine. According to his autopsy, his passion for alcohol, drugs and lovers of either gender would have killed him anyway in a matter of months, saving Thaw the trouble.
His standard modus operandi with girls was pretty simple. White set his sights on a young – very young – and easily impressed subject, possibly at the famous and very large toy store FAO Schwarz. Then he invited her for an afternoon of good-natured fun at his striking multi-floor apartment in the same building, whose attractions included a whole room built around a ceiling-mounted swing on red velvet ropes. Finally, he invited the girl back: if she came with her mother, he paid the parent hush money and spent his time with the girl; otherwise he simply raped her.

Some of Stanford White’s victims were somewhat willing to defile themselves for the opportunity to become what amounted to high-end prostitutes, even if it involved participating in kinky activities of various sorts. And here is where the stripper cake comes into play, because the newspapers couldn’t possibly relate most of the millionaire’s pastimes in any decent terms, but they could write about the cake thing. In fact, this very element became the focus and the symbol of White’s debauchery – especially when it came to light that the gimmick had been used during a grand dinner where many publicly upstanding citizens including the aforementioned Tesla and Gibson were present. The ‘girl in the pie’, as she became known, was 15-years old Susie Johnson, whose only clothing was a small see-through piece of black gauze.

Harry Thaw was a guest at several such nights, so he knew very well what treatment the girls went through at the hands of White and sometimes of the other participants. You can easily imagine what went through his mind when he learned that Evelyn Nesbit had been among the entertainers, and that it was White himself who had introduced her to Barrymore, another recurrent guest.
You can also imagine the prurient interest and mock outrage of Hearst’s readership when they learned about the bacchanals, especially when the pie bit was repeated over and over as the symbol of affluent decadence itself. It is no wonder that, soon after that, every sleazy club and cheap fraternity wanted to have their own girl in the pie. And that, my friends, is why the tradition is still alive today.

Oh, and in case you were wondering: the first Thaw trial ended with a deadlocked jury. At the second trial he claimed to have acted in a state of temporary insanity, and thanks to the outrageous witness accounts of his wife (who was later proved to have been compensated with up to one million dollars in exchange for her reputation) he was imprisoned in an asylum for the criminally insane. Years later, his mother managed to organize his escape to Canada but he was extradited back to the US where he was re-tried and found innocent. Pity that he was soon committed to an asylum again after he assaulted with a whip a rent-boy, but he bought freedom once again and finally resigned to a life of clausure with his religiously-obsessed mom.
Evelyn Nesbit divorced Thaw in 1915, became a sculpting teacher and was haunted by her fame as ‘the lethal beauty’ until her death in 1967. On the other hand, Susie Johnson went missing immediately after her testimony, possibly never imagining the chain of events she had unwittingly put into motion by popping out of a pretend cake.

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