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

While Evelyn came to forgive White for this violation, balancing it against his kindness to her beforehand and afterward, the loss of her maidenhood was undoubtedly a factor in her later marriage to Thaw. When Thaw persisted in proposing to her despite her confession of the truth about her relationship with White, she seems to have felt he was the only person who would ever take her in her damaged condition. With few options before her and a childhood of desperate instability and poverty that she was anxious to leave behind, marriage to the wealthy and devoted Thaw must have seemed like escape.

In spite of the eccentricities of behavior Thaw exhibited before their marriage — his petulant, childish relationship with his mother, to say nothing of the night he tied Evelyn up and beat her — Evelyn had no idea her husband was nursing a full-blown murderous obsession with White, whom he saw as a despoiler of young girls and against whom he sought revenge. On June 25th, 1906, in an impossibly dramatic culmination of an impossibly dramatic series of events, Thaw entered the elegant Madison Square Garden rooftop theater White himself had designed, and in which the architect was then sitting, and shot him point-blank in the face. Thaw escaped execution when the jury handed down a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity; he was sentenced to Matteawan Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Fishkill, New York. (Uruburu doesn't give the term of his sentence, but an Internet search reveals that he escaped Matteawan in 1913, where he had resided since 1908, and was released in 1915 after being judged sane.) Uruburu illustrates the two sides of Thaw with two photos: one of Thaw pre-murder, a baby-faced gentleman, and the other — taken from the mental ward — a wild-eyed man any thinking person would recognize as a lunatic at a hundred paces.

Poor Evelyn Nesbit Thaw would eventually have to relive these various nightmares in her courtroom testimony, in front of hundreds of rapt spectators, photographers and members of the press — and then spend much of the rest of her life trading on the notoriety of the murder of her former lover by her psycho husband in order to make a living. Some of the most poignant moments in the book are when Uruburu describes Evelyn’s talent as a sculptor (in addition to consulting on the film based on her life, Evelyn spent the last decade of her life teaching ceramics in California, living peacefully with her son and his wife). Nothing but extraordinary beauty, an irresponsible parent, and bad luck stood in the way of her pursuit of that talent many years sooner.




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