You might recall seeing a woman bursting out of a cake in old movies, or more likely, old cartoons. It was a trope reserved for truly lavish and hedonistic occasions. If you’ve ever wondered how that idea got started, it was a party in 1895, ostensibly to celebrate Ellliot Cowdin’s 10th wedding anniversary, but since there were no women invited, it was more of a stag party. The dessert was a huge pie, from which 16-year-old Susie Johnson emerged, to the surprise and delight of the guests.
For the posh set of late-19th century New York City—a coterie as obsessed with public prudery as with private adultery—the “Pie-Girl” dinner was a sensation. “The ‘Girl in the Pie’ at the Three Thousand Five Hundred Dollar Dinner in Artist Breese’s New York Studio,” declared the New York World, above an illustration of Johnson thronged by besuited men, spread like a Venus in pastry. The picture was as scandalous as the dinner’s cost: more than 2,300 times the daily wage of a day laborer.
In the New York World illustration, architect Stanford White stands to Susie Johnson’s left, wielding a large kitchen knife as though about to carve her. According to the article, shortly after the party, Susie Johnson posed “by electric light” at an artist’s studio, a euphemism for sex work, and went missing soon after. “Poor Susie Johnson, dazzled by the lavish compliments and surprised by the liberality of her distinguished patrons,” reported the World. “Perhaps this article will bring Susie Johnson home to her parents and put a stop to the midnight revels in New York’s fashionable studios.”
The guests at the notorious party included Nicola Tesla and Stanford White, who later made the papers for raping Evelyn Nesbit and then being murdered. Read about the girl in the pie at Atlas Obscura.