Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Q&A with American Eve Author Paula Uruburu

Earlier this week, I reviewed Paula Uruburu's American Eve, and it knocked my socks off.

The story of America's first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit, her tragic relationships with architect Stanford White and coal heir Harry Kendall Thaw, and the brutal crime that thrust her into the public eye in a way her photographs never had would appeal to any true crime fan or history buff. However, Uruburu's account digs beneath the sensation and spectacle to uncover much more -- not only the circumstances leading up to the 1906 murder, but also a critical side of the story that's previously gone untold -- Evelyn's.

Uruburu, an English professor at Hofstra University, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, and on top of that, she also sent some wonderful images that didn't make it into American Eve (including one of Harry Thaw's very scary mother). Enjoy!

Even though the events of American Eve took place over 100 years ago, your narrative has a very intimate, in-the-moment feel -- the scenes where you describe Stanford White's parties for Evelyn come immediately to mind. Was there a moment in your research when you began to understand the figures in this story on a deeper level, and if so, what brought it about?

Ghosts can be very instructive if one pays attention. It also helps to live so close to Manhattan where so much of the story takes place and have a passion for true crime and -- I would hope -- a sensitivity to gender issues and what I call in the book “the currencies of power” that saturate and define American culture – power, money, sex, beauty and celebrity. After spending ten years with Evelyn’s own writing in memoirs and letters, tons of contemporary newspaper accounts and subsequent articles, family reminiscences, the original trial transcripts (which had not been seen in 100 years) I really did begin to live in the period and put Evelyn into the larger cultural context she herself could not see while in the moment.

It also helps that as an English professor with a specialization in the Gilded Age and turn of the century literature and culture, I already had an intimacy with the language of the times, the social milieu, etc. I have a background as well in art history and theater, which also helped me write about a world I felt I knew on a deeper level and wanted to recreate as faithfully as possible. I eventually got to a point where I wanted a steak and glass of champagne from Delmonicos.

How did you track down the photographs, postcards, and ephemera used in the book, and of these, what was your most exciting find?

I had to become what I call a stealth detective, often entering into dark dusty places off the beaten track (and as I say in my notes, in a pre-Ebay, pre-internet world). My research required a lot of traveling to libraries, historical societies, archives, various sub-cultures of different kinds of collectors, to finding people who knew Evelyn, even to the former asylum Harry was in which is now a correctional facility in upstate New York. I have a great deal more material than is even evident in the book, and almost think I need to write a book about the experience of writing American Eve (think Flaubert’s Parrot or the film Adaptation).

My most exciting find early on was the original first trial transcript (all 6000 pages) which the generous grandson of the original judge in the case let me copy. The other exciting find has to be uncovering the private collector who had 400+ letters that Evelyn wrote. He also generously let me use them as source material for the book. Just seeing her own handwriting, her incredible wit and sense of humor in these letters helped me continue when I realized she never gave in to the idea of being a victim. They made me want to reveal the human being behind the myth and the Mona Lisa smile.

I couldn't believe how quickly public sentiment turned against Stanford White during Harry Thaw's trial, especially considering how unsympathetic a figure Thaw was. Of course, White wasn't around to defend himself, but why do you think the people chose to stand behind a madman who brutalized chorus girls and was shunned by most of the upper crust?

“Timing is everything” as they say -- and it is also the reason why I think the book is incredibly relevant today -- tragically and depressingly so. Not only did new technology make it possible for the Thaws to wage a media war in Harry’s defense, led by the indomitable Mother Thaw and her dead husband’s millions, but it was a culture in crisis. The so-called new Century of Progress was ripe for change and class wars -- and social/culture clashes were inevitable. The Thaws, with their well-paid alienists and spin-doctors, created a media blitz (using everything at their disposal including sheet music, postcards, pulp-type accounts, film, etc.) that the old-money old guard would not have sullied themselves with -– and as you said, Stanford White wasn’t around to defend himself. Those who might have tried to defend him high-tailed it out of town to avoid any guilt by association.

In addition, the invention of the female force of reporters that I describe in the book (the sob sisters) saw an opportunity in Evelyn’s pathetic tale to break into the newspaper business, playing initially on the melodramatic, almost operatic aspects of a battle of the sexes being played out in public for the first time. It took a while for people to realize that Harry was not the knight in shining armor but rather something much, much darker and that White was not the wholesale villain the Thaws wanted to promote to save Harry from the electric chair.

You mention in the acknowledgments that Evelyn's surviving family members were very supportive in helping you with this project. What were their thoughts when you first approached them, and what do they think of the book, now that it's finished?

When I contacted the person I thought was Evelyn’s son, Russell, it turned out to be Evelyn’s grandson, also named Russell (his father had passed away a decade before). He was initially reluctant to talk to me, having been burned in the past by unscrupulous collectors and “just plain kooks” every time Evelyn resurfaced in the popular culture (first in Doctorow’s Ragtime and again in the 1981 film –- he was too young to remember much about the time when The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing came out starring Joan Collins as Evelyn).

But I eventually gained his trust (it helps to be sincere and have credentials as a university professor) and he then invited me to visit, to look through family artifacts, home movies, photos, etc., and to talk to his mother, whom Evelyn lived with for twenty plus years. I was of course very anxious about the family’s reaction but am happy to say they appreciated it on several levels —- in fact Russell really liked it (including the writing style), saying that at first it was very weird, looking over my shoulder into his own family’s history and his grandma’s life and the “wicked, wicked” circumstances that always threatened to engulf her. He also thanked me for showing how she was the victim of powerful men and social forces and not the vixen she has been made out to be historically. It was extremely rewarding and quite a relief.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century, Riverhead, May 2008

Also, American Eve is on YouTube -- more great images from the book.

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