2008: 92. American Eve

“A little more than a half a century before a winsome, waiflike, and wide-eyed Evelyn Nesbit, not yet sixteen, found her way to to the island of Manhattan, Nathaniel Hawthorne had written a modest allegorical tale titled “Rappacini’s Daughter.”

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White The Birth of the “It” Girl and the Crime of the Century, Paula Uruburu

I’ve been interested in this famous Evelyn Nesbit/Stanford White “Crime of the Century”* since I first E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (and saw the musical, and read a memoir by White’s great-granddaughter - which I just re-read, so watch this space for even more White), and when I read a review of the story from Nesbit’s point of view, I had to read it, and was not disappointed.

For those who don’t know the story, Stanford White was one of the most famous architects in the country at the turn of the last century.  He became involved with Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful young (very young - about 16 to his 40+) actress, who had become the most famous face in the country from her work as an artists model.  And by involved, I mean, he took her under his wing as his protege, brutally raped her, and then had an affair with her that lasted months.  When he grew tired of her, she tried to make her own life, and did so by marrying another rich older man, Harry Thaw, a millionaire from her own hometown of Pittsburgh.  Unfortunately Thaw was a sadistic brute who just happened to be obsessed with White, and, when he learned that White had taken Nesbit’s evidence, he went (even more) insane, ultimately murdering White in cold blood on the roof of the Madison Square Garden (a building White had designed himself).  The subsequent brouhaha was entitled the “crime of the century”* as White himself was put on trial, and Evelyn had to tell all, all so Thaw could be acquitted (and then dump Evelyn, who was left to fend for herself, ruined by publicity).

So that is a hell of a story, regardless, but what Uruburu has done has told Evelyn’s story, which is usually hidden beneath the scandal and glamour (i.e. White made love to her after she swung naked on a velvet swing!).  The story of how, after her father’s death, her mother abdicated the ability to take care of the family and left fourteen year old Evelyn to use her face to take o the family.  She similarly abdicated responsibility when White got involved, leaving her child (for that is what Evelyn was) with an older man for the weekend while she left town, leading to Evelyn to his whims, and encouraging the relationship from them on.  Then White grew tired of her (but not too tired to allow her to enter into a relationship with John Barrymore, who he scared off), and she fell into Thaw’s life.  Uruburu can be a little too far into the feminist camp (even for me!) particularly when she seems to believe every word that Evelyn ever wrote wholeheartedly with no skepticism, but this book is nonetheless great, making you see behind the scandal (and there is no doubt this is a great scandal) to the young woman who bore the burden of it.

*Though, as they say in Ragtime, there was still  “94 years to go...”

Date/Place Completed: 6/17/08; D.C.

Categories: Non-Fiction

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017