Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Scandal in the Garden: American Eve by Paula Uruburu

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

During her brief tenure as the most beautiful, enigmatic, and desirable woman in America, Evelyn Nesbit would be called "the modern Helen," "a fresh and fascinating theatrical find," and "the little Sphinx." But within the space of a few years, the press had given her dramatically different names -- "the lethal beauty," "the woman whose beauty caused death and ruin," and most famously, "the cause of it all."

The story is now a touchstone in the annals of true crime. In the rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden on June 25, 1906, Pittsburgh coal heir Harry Kendall Thaw approached architect Stanford White and shot him twice in the head in front of hundreds of witnesses. "The cause of it all" was Thaw's wife, Nesbit, who had been White's underage mistress during her days as a model and chorus girl (between the ages of roughly 14 and 20), and had been ushered into that role after White raped her. Thaw's counsel claimed he was driven mad by learning of White's attack on his bride, and Evelyn's harrowing testimony saved her husband from the electric chair.

However, Thaw was mad long before he clapped eyes on Evelyn Nesbit. He was prone to laugh at inappropriate moments, and often drifted into baby talk. He was a staunch supporter of morality laws, and often wrote letters to Anthony Comstock; however, Thaw also enjoyed luring aspiring actresses and young boys into hotel rooms where he beat them with dog whips, bound them, and in at least one case, scalded them in the bathtub -- which is how he earned the nickname of "Bathtub Harry." His improprieties were legion, but as Harry was possessed of both family fortunes, and an indulgent mother who would pay off any battered chorus girls who threatened to bring charges, Harry Kendall Thaw walked free.

It's a story so meaty that it's difficult to break away from the facts of the case and the circumstances that brought them about to discuss what Uruburu accomplishes in her telling of it.

And that bears discussion, because it's a masterful telling.

Previous accounts of the murder have focused on Thaw and White, leaving Nesbit as a child vixen able to whip men into feats of frenzy without opening her mouth. First and foremost, Uruburu's account gives Nesbit a voice and a face more substantial than the heavy-lidded nymphet with the Mona Lisa smile that we see in her portraits. To do so, Uruburu relies heavily on Nesbit's two memoirs, but she does so with meticulous care and responsibility.

Her patience in sifting through variously unreliable and sensational accounts in the press and in Nesbit and Thaw's memoirs uncovers credible explanations for Nesbit's sometimes puzzling actions -- why she became White's mistress after he raped her, why she married "Mad Harry" when she knew him to be unstable and violent, and why she provided the testimony that saved his life.

She also shows how a crime that was clearly the story of two privileged men with sick, well-concealed perversions somehow came to rest on the shoulders of a young model who had been abused by both men.

Uruburu's writing style is also a marvel, invoking the purple prose of the era alongside the fictional icons that would figure heavily into Nesbit's photographic studies and her life -- Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Persephone, and Alice in Wonderland, to name a few. Of the affair that developed between Nesbit and White, Uruburu writes,

"In the months following Evelyn's Dionysian initiation, Stanny behaved as if he had to possess her as completely as humanly possible... Like the perfect champagne grape, he had picked her at the sweetest moment of her development, when she would be at her most deliciously erotic, susceptible to decadence, but without a sexual history and no equipment for passing sour judgments."

In the months leading up to the book's publication, Uruburu has frequently been called upon to provide commentary on celebrity stories involving the likes of Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, and it's not surprising. In her memoirs, even Evelyn Nesbit would write, "I do not know that to be brought into the public eye so young is the happiest of experiences."

3 comments:

Dr. Paula said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Paula said...

Thanks for appreciating what took ten years of my life -- and for doing it so eloquently and smartly. I can only hope enough people recognize the real tragedy behind the fictionalizing and mythologizing of a young woman too easily sacrificed on the altar fame by the very culture that created then consumed her.

Paula Uruburu, author American Eve

p.s. I'd love to add a photo but am still stuck in the 1900's. lmk if I can do it somehow.

mary_m said...

Thanks so much for your kind words! BTW, I received the terrific images of Evelyn and the odious Mrs. Thaw, and will post them later today.