The Scandalous Pie Girl Dinner of 1895 is not a dusty history lesson. Rather, it was a lesson never learned. What could possibly go wrong with a gauze-clad, 16-year-old baked in a giant pie to entertain powerful, champagne-soaked men? Yes, the men were embarrassed by a few headlines when the story leaked. But with a dismissive wink, their behavior was swept away. Then the pie girl and a large pile of flaky crumbs disappeared. To this day, eerily familiar stories plague our headlines.
The extravagant banquet was held in a Manhattan photography studio on May 20, 1895. Portraits of society’s rich and famous lined the walls. Multiple courses and free-flowing inebriants cost $3,500 for 30-plus guests. The dessert was a giant pie containing one sixteen-year-old model named Susie Johnson. She was accompanied by a flock of birds.
All guests and staff were sworn to secrecy regarding details of the event. But the word slipped out several months later. According to the news wire story on October 14,1895:
“The pie bearers advanced solemnly down the center of the room, and after much shuffling of chairs deposited their burden in the center of the table. It was apparently a beautiful pie of mammoth size, but not of the ordinary shape. The crust was brown and flaky, and the aroma was delicious.
The headwaiter, with a solemnity and importance born of the possession of a stupendous secret, advanced to the table, and with a quick movement cut the crust of the pie with a silver knife. The pie divided as if by magic, and, falling apart, disclosed Susie Johnson, the sixteen-year-old model.
A great bevy of canaries, which had been enclosed with her, flew into the room and perched on the easels, on the pictures, anywhere they could find refuge. Then there was a great shout […] and the young model was lifted from the table to the floor.
She was dressed in filmy black gauze.”
The Pie Girl Dinner was planned as a tenth wedding anniversary celebration for polo player John Elliot Cowdin. His wife was not invited, but more than 30 of his prominent male friends were.
The dinner was the “brain child” of Stanford White, famed architect and notoriously lascivious bachelor. He and his partners Charles McKim and William Mead attended the Pie Girl Dinner. Their firm, McKim, Mead & White designed famed structures including Pennsylvania Station, Columbia University, Madison Square Garden II and the Brooklyn Museum. They also designed scores of mansions for blue bloods as well as people who were newly rich thanks to the Industrial Revolution.
The all-male guest list was a Who’s Who of the New York social scene of the 1890s. Among them were illustrator Charles Dana Gibson of Gibson Girl fame, famous architect Whitney Warren, and the painters John Twatchman, Alden Weir and Edward Simmons. Robert Racon, a “handsome six-footer” according to wire stories, was a famous Harvard athlete in his day. He was also son of one of “Boston’s principal church pillars.” Even noted inventor and germaphobe Nikola Tesla attended.
White’s co-hosts were Wall Street broker Henry W. Poor and semiprofessional photographer James L. Breese. The latter’s studio served as the venue for the evening.
Both White and Breese were known for their exploitative bachelor lifestyles. White held wildly risqué parties at his multi-story Manhattan apartment with its rear entrance on 24th street. Young females and probably males were regularly on his menu. Breese was equally sordid with his elaborate all-male dinners frequently served by very young, beautiful females.
Breese was a member of New York’s most exclusive society. On his walls were the portraits of dozens of New York’s wealthiest women and the social leaders of the metropolis. Presumably these were the portraits on which the birds baked in the pie with Susie perched when the pie was cut.
Sixteen-year-old Susie Johnson was the “handsome” daughter of an East Side mechanic. Like so many young girls of the 1890s and later, she started as an “artist’s model.” That transitioned into nude modeling. Soon she scored the Pie Girl Dinner gig that won her a few minutes of fame. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,
“The pie divided as if by magic, and falling apart, disclosed Susie Johnson, the sixteen-year-old model. A great bevy of canaries, which had been enclosed with her, flew into the room and perched on easels, on pictures, anywhere they could find refuge.
Then there was a great shout—a tribute of applause to the man who had planned the surprise—and the young model was lifted from the table to the floor. She was dressed in flinty black gauze. Perched on her head was a blackbird. “
In 1880 the age of consent (to sexual activity) was between 10 and 12 in most states. In Delaware, it was 7. Nearing the end of the 19th century most states set the age from 14 to 16 to fight child prostitution.
As a result of the changing times, females were increasingly entering the work force. According to Dr. Stephen Robertson, Professor of History at George Mason University the new freedom from family supervision cultivated a more sexually expressive lifestyle.
“Their new freedom brought girls danger as well as pleasure: subordination at work and dependence on men for access to leisure, limited their agency and ability to consent, and sometimes exposed them to sexual violence.” A History of Age of Consent Laws, August 7, 2018
It seems that Susie Johnson was caught in that trap.
There are conflicting accounts of Susie Johnson’s fate. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, 1895 she posed for artists for roughly one year after her moment of pie-related fame, and then disappeared. Others claim she married and eventually died penniless.
Stanford White continued exploiting young females and males alike. In 1906, he was shot and killed by millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw, who had become obsessed with White’s previous relationship with actress Evelyn Nesbit, his new bride. White had reportedly raped the teenaged Nesbit a few years before while she was unconscious after drinking champagne.
The murder triggered the “trial of the new century.” Newspapers published recounts of the Pie Girl Dinner at which Evelyn Nesbit was said to be present. Susie Johnson’s story was retold in detail, although accounts conflicted.
“It has been nearly thirteen years since the story of the pie girl was first printed in the New York World. The now celebrated dinner was a sensation of the time, although the story did not come out until long after the date of the dinner on May 20, 1895.”
According to the article, Susie Johnson’s parents hunted for their missing girl, who had become “a prisoner in the studios.” Johnson later reappeared, married and died tragically after her husband cast her off, when he discovered that she had been the plaything of a great artist.
The article recaps the
“very distinguished company, indeed, into which was suddenly introduced the shrinking little girl from the Ninth Avenue and Thirty-second Street neighborhood.
Sixteen she was then, of good American stock, daughter of a well-to-do mechanic, and a mother who had brought her up in the way she should conduct herself— lessons that apparently left her small mind in the presence of brilliant men and great display.
Her girlhood was like that of thousands of other New York girls until she came to her sixteenth year, and began looking around for some means of employment. In an unlucky moment she met a girl friend that had been posing as an artist’s model. It was then she learned that for apparently easy work she could earn $10 or $20 a week. And have her evenings and spend money for amusements.
When she spoke to her parents about it they vehemently refused to allow it, but when she promised to pose only head and shoulders they gave in. It was in easy transition from head poses to figure posing.
Susie Johnson was of medium height, plump, pretty, brown haired, blue eyed, and had great, even white teeth. The story of her going the rounds of the studios la not unlike Evelyn Nesbit’s own experiences…”
Susie became a fairly well known figure in the studios when she was offered the opportunity to entertain at the Pie Girl Dinner.
“Two days later she disappeared and her parents heard no more of her. They went to the police and press, saying that their daughter was held somewhere in Borne studio building, One man they seemed to have in mind, but the name was not revealed.”
The case was forgotten until Susie Johnson’s marriage again made the pie girl’s story common gossip. The man who had married her heard it and cast her off and she died miserably and was buried in potter’s field. But she had made one nigh “pleasant” for Stanford White’s friends.
The other attendees that night in May 1895 continued to enjoy success. They presumably lived untouched by the infamous Pie Girl Dinner.
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