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Book Review: American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the It Girl, and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu

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The turn of the century tabloid-style title is mouthful enough: American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the It Girl, and the Crime of the Century. It seems, however — even though there probably wasn’t room for the trademark entitlement "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" — that one observer’s pithy and illustrative summation about the girl destined to “put one man in the grave and another in the bughouse” could have been tacked on for tacky and apt measure.

Evelyn Nesbit certainly had that mix of innocence and allure that made her rise as an icon of the age and scandalous old-boy toy — vibrantly and comprehensively chronicled by Paula Uruburu — so meteoric. Born near Pittsburgh in 1884 (or a debatable 1885), and later raised there after her father died — leaving the impressionable bookworm Evelyn, her mother, and younger brother impoverished — circumstance and Evelyn’s burgeoning beauty gave her meal ticket status as a much-in-demand artist’s and photographer’s model, especially after she and her mother moved to New York.

Still, in part because she could not afford to buy what she modeled and because her slender, more sinuous figure was more appealing to artists and photographers — and, she was to find, to older, more experienced men — Evelyn brought a revolution of sorts to the feminine ideal, having no need for the torture of corsets, bras, and layer upon layer of underclothing.

PhotobucketThe contrast was all the more refreshing in those days when it wasn’t uncommon to see women wear, as Uruburu so colorfully puts it “hair rats, dead stuffed birds … and a variety of natural or unnaturally dyed animal pelts with limp heads, abrasive paws, and glassy, lifeless eyes … irritating puffs and bustles big enough to hide a loaf of bread, which prevented easy sitting since they pressed mercilessly on the lower spine.”

Even with the days of the hourglass-figured Anna Held- and Lillian Russell-wannabees passing, it wasn’t completely Evelyn’s fashion sense that caught the eye of prominent architect Stanford White. Turns out 16-year-old Evelyn was at that perfect age for the 47-year-old married womanizer – if by “woman” you meant teenage chorine, a flurry-of-added-activity Evelyn had now taken on to supplement her modeling income.

In any case, White, “The Benevolent Vampire,” assuming the role of protector and patron, began to summon Nesbit to informal luncheons, parties, tete a tetes, and… dental appointments (turns out White had a thing about young miss toothy perfection).

Because American Eve is part cautionary tale, too, Uruburu makes a “small town girl in the big city” morality lesson an insidiously evocative one, dog-eared dread ’round every page-corner subtly structured for the hit of harsher realities. When naïve or nefarious mama — Uruburu never comes down firmly on either side of the issue — increasingly warms up to White's avuncular presence, and, yes, payments (read: payoffs), and takes herself out-of-town at his request, that’s when on-the-prowl White makes his move. He invites the seemingly unsuspecting Evelyn to his mirror-lined apartment, plies her with drink, and rapes her.

Initially distressed, though comforted in the aftermath by White’s show of conciliatory tenderness, Evelyn reels with mixed feelings as she considers the added roles — “Father. Lover. Protector. Seducer.” — thrown into the mix for a man she had trusted, and still regards enough to go on seeing and fooling herself for, even though he refuses to jeopardize his marriage.

In any case, Stanny (his new nickname) succeeds in his show of remorse for his abuse while at the same time convincing the vulnerable Evelyn that “everybody was bad … [and] evil was the basis of life.” He also convinces her that, while they continue their affair, she must not tell anyone what happened. That, however, was never, going to be an issue:

What he didn’t know was that the situation had already crystallized for the teenager. She was told not to tell. She had been told to obey him. And she had. The past two and a half years in the studio had been an extended series of daily session where she was told by the men in charge of her fate not to speak. Not to move. On the stage she was told how and where to move, when to speak, when not to speak, and how to hit one’s mark. She knew as she stared out at the rooftops of the dreamlike city that White had made over in his own image that she was utterly powerless.

Of course, a city dream — even one replete with Evelyn’s naked to-and-fros on Stanny's red velvet swing — becomes an urban nightmare from time to time. For Evelyn and White, that nightmare came in the form of eccentric coal and railroad heir Henry Thaw, who, through sheer force of personality — more likely, personality disorder — ultimately wins over, and somehow, some way, marries Evelyn.

He even persuades her — in what Uruburu rightly calls “the worst mistake of her life” — to confess what happened the night of the rape, and tries to turn her against Stanford White on the grounds of moral turpitude, though that was a little bit like the pot calling the kettle black and blue: for Henry Thaw, a walking contradiction — boorish and prudish, genuine and elitist, solicitous and sadistic — also led a secret double life of decadence and degeneracy that far outweighed White’s concealed life as a disreputable seeker of adolescent victimization.

As Uruburu explains it, “Harry played at being a theatrical coach of some sort and scoured the Tenderloin district for gullible, unsuspecting prey … pay[ing] an additional fee to various proprietresses for the privilege of having underage, stagestruck girls come to his rooms for 'tutoring.’” He would then handcuff them and beat them with dog whips, tie them to chairs and headboards, “put them in leg irons, scream in their faces and berate them, reportedly scalding at least one in a bathtub to punish her for her immoral disposition…”

Still, in his demented mind, Harry continues to make no distinction between his and Stanford White’s mindset and actions, and blames White for the undoing of his "Angel-Child's" innocence, though Evelyn feels her own guilt and accepts culpability for her involvement with White, believing herself “chloroformed and squeezed under the microscope of moral scrutiny.”

Even with vengeance on his unbalanced mind, it still comes as a startling shock when, in a very public arena, the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden — built by White — Thaw shot, three times at close range, Stanford White, while the song "I Could Love A Million Girls" was being performed and many looked on. Evelyn recoiled, initially stricken and speechless. While White bled to death, the “stark black apparition of death” proclaimed to all who could hear: “I did it because he ruined my wife! He had it coming to him. He took advantage of the girl and then deserted her!”

The triumphant but shocking abruptness with which Uruburu paints this sudden violence and Thaw's chaotic capture is as masterful — and fitting — as the nuanced and gradual build-up of Evelyn’s culminating assault by Stanford White. It’s also in keeping with the personalities of the principals: White, an articulate man-about-town smoothie, unfazed, has earned the graceful arc that takes all contingencies in stride. Thaw, the perpetual  problem child, takes on the mantle of impulse and instability in which erratic and episodic unpredictably is the norm – and one can witness without warning the short, sharp climatic carnage shrieking around the corner.

Furthermore, while surrealism runs deep in the purplish prose that Uruburu is prone to at times in American Eve, gallows humor augments true-life: the mother of the lyricist attending her son’s first opening night — of a disappointing show — fears the killing may have been a particularly severe brand of criticism and screams out, “Oh, they’ve shot my son!”

Having laid the groundwork for the courtroom battles ahead with her sense of narrative dynamics, character interplay, and a novelistic sensibility, Uruburu brings her craftsmanship to the dramatics and wayward sentimentality of the trials — there would be two — where the question of Thaw’s sanity would be vital and where Evelyn took center stage.

This is also a time when the author expands on her previously more narrow focus to consider some social and historical impulses touching upon the proceedings, such as the “sob sisters’” feminine perspective of florid, heart-tugging journalism of the time, and, because the crime and the trials occurred in the midst of insurance scandals and Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, a more unfavorable view of the rich and powerful.

Then again — as a reminder — Evelyn Nesbit did her bit by putting one of them "in the grave and another in the bughouse."

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Rege Schilken

    Fascinating review. Story sounds like the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” tale where she finally got even with those who persecuted her.

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