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Immaterial Girl: Paula Uruburu on Evelyn Nesbit, a Real Pre-Madonna

The Stop Smiling Review

(Riverhead Books)

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Thursday, September 04, 2008


American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century
By Paula Uruburu
(Riverhead Books)

Reviewed by Lara Kristin Lentini

At the turn of the century, Evelyn Nesbit was the most beautiful, most photographed and possibly the most admired woman in America. Envied by women, courted by men, she was considered a new kind of beauty, the perfect type to embody the feminine ideal of a new era. Despite boasting no special accomplishments to augment her surpassing physical loveliness, she was as famous as famous gets — and that was before she became a central figure in the “Crime of the Century:” the murder of Stanford White (one of the most celebrated architects of his time, long before every major city had its resident starchitect) by Harry K. Thaw, lunatic and millionaire. (This was back when millionaire really meant something, and lunatic — well…)

The tale of this bewitching but unlucky beauty is told at a frantic pace by Paula Uruburu, whose knowledge of Nesbit is without par, but whose writing style can come across a bit madcap. She likes to pile puns on top of allusions in a fashion better suited to the liner notes of an AC/DC Greatest Hits compilation than a serious historical study: “There were skirmishes unfolding on a wide variety of sexually charged fronts even as Tom (and Dick and Harry) foolery of every illegal and immoral kind appeared ready to burst through the seamy cracks that were exposing themselves in various parts of the city. But those who were routinely exposing themselves in nocturnal missions of dissolution found themselves locked in almost weekly moral combat …” And so on.

In the brief pauses for breath in her narrative, Uruburu draws interesting parallels between White and Thaw, particularly their upbringings. Uruburu also does a beautiful job of allowing a psychological profile of Evelyn Nesbit to emerge from the careful accumulation of facts about her early life and circumstances, often relying on Evelyn’s own words — not as easy a task as it sounds, with so many lurid and fascinating details about the crime to report.

When Evelyn was eleven, the death of her doting and affectionate father left the family in dire financial straits and Evelyn with a painful and perplexing emotional void in her life. She was also more or less left to the mercy of her flighty and unhelpful mother, who seems to have done as little as the merest pose of motherhood would allow. The slight gestures of disapproval Mrs. Nesbit made when Evelyn began to pose for artists and photographers quickly subsided when her child began earning money; by the time Evelyn began her stage career, Mrs. Nesbit had grown accustomed to living off her income. Having thus consigned Evelyn to the role of breadwinner, she assuaged her conscience about letting her daughter associate with disreputable “theater people” by approving Stanford White in his self-appointed role as Evelyn’s protector.

It was an error that would effectively ruin her daughter’s life. White’s architectural impact on the city of New York has been written about extensively; what Uruburu brings out, perhaps for the first time, is the effect he had on Evelyn Nesbit and her mother. Here was a powerful, intelligent, wealthy, and socially prominent person, effortlessly dominating the urban landscape, much of which he had built to his exact specifications. He possessed an unshakable faith in his power to orchestrate any scene, setting, or scenario to satisfy his whims. After months of acting as Evelyn’s friend and protector, White — whose sexual preference for very young girls was not unknown — brought 16-year-old Evelyn to one of his meticulously decorated hideaways, plied her with champagne and raped her, robbing her of the crucial “marital currency” of virginity.


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