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American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Centuryby Paula Uruburu
Synopses & Reviews
The scandalous story of America's first supermodel, sex goddess, and modern celebrity, Evelyn Nesbit, the temptress at the center of Stanford White's famous murder, whose iconic life story reflected all the paradoxes of America's Gilded Age.
Known to millions before her sixteenth birthday in 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty. Women wanted to be her. Men just wanted her. When her life of fantasy became all too real, and her jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, killed her lover celebrity-architect Stanford White, builder of the Washington Square Arch and much of New York City she found herself at the center of the "Crime of the Century" and the popular courtroom drama that followed — a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity, and sex.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit is one of glamour, money, romance, sex, madness, and murder, and Paula Uruburu weaves all of these elements into an elegant narrative that reads like the best fiction — only it's all true. American Eve goes far beyond just literary biography; it paints a picture of America as it crossed from the Victorian era into the modern, foreshadowing so much of our contemporary culture today.
"Uruburu, an associate professor of English at Hofstra who has consulted for the History Channel, examines the notorious life of model and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (1885? — 1967), whose rise to stardom was as spectacular as her subsequent fall. Born in rural Pennsylvania, Florence Evelyn Nesbit was an 'exceedingly pretty infant' who by 15 had achieved success as an actress and model in New York City, where her blend of sultry sexuality and unspoiled purity attracted the eye of famed architect and playboy Stanford White. But Pittsburgh heir and sexual sadist Harry K. Thaw wanted Nesbit for himself and vowed to expose White's 'immoral' conduct with underage girls. Thaw went on to brutally rape and beat Nesbit, yet she agreed to marry him. Still consumed with jealousy, Thaw shot White to death in 1906, leading to a headline-grabbing trial. Uruburu's depiction of Nesbit's early life and career is richly detailed, but the book loses steam near the end and barely addresses Nesbit's post-trial tailspin into alcoholism. Still, readers will appreciate the parallels between Nesbit's 'It Girl' status and our own celebrity-obsessed culture. Photos. (May 1) " Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In a now-famous essay, the journalist Janet Malcolm once characterized her profession as a game of "seduction and betrayal" in which the writer is the seducer and the subject the victim. "Every journalist," she observed, "is a kind of confidence man ... gaining (his subjects') trust and betraying them without remorse." Reading Paula Uruburu's "American Eve," I found myself wondering if the shoe isn't... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) just as often on the other foot, with the subject, particularly the candid and confiding one, doing the seducing. The facts behind Uruburu's story are simple, if lurid enough to hold their own on the front page of any of today's tabloids. In the early 1900s Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful underaged showgirl and model, became the mistress of Stanford White, the architect of choice for New York's Gilded Age set (his designs included Madison Square Garden, the Washington Square Arch, Judson Memorial Church and the mansions of Astors and Vanderbilts); subsequently, she became involved with the young John Barrymore and then with a millionaire named Harry K. Thaw, whom she married. A paranoid sadomasochist with a fixation on White, Thaw shot the architect in the face at point-blank range, killing him instantly, during a show at Madison Square Garden in 1906. At the trial Thaw pled insanity brought on by jealousy, and Nesbit took the stand in her husband's defense, describing in detail her ravishment at White's hands and her husband's reaction to it when she disclosed it to him. Thaw escaped the electric chair but was confined for many years to a lunatic asylum. In return for her testimony, Nesbit was supported by Thaw's family until she became improbably pregnant (she claimed the child was conceived during a conjugal visit with her incarcerated husband). Subsequently, she attempted a career on the stage and wrote several versions of her memoirs; there was a lengthy period of drug addiction and alcohol abuse. At the end of her life she managed to sell her story to Twentieth-Century Fox and saw herself portrayed by a 21-year-old Joan Collins in the film "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing." Out of these sensational elements Paula Uruburu, a literature professor and documentary consultant, has aimed to create an archetypal fable of a "fantastical Eden with its own strange walls and boundaries" and of "its very own Eve ... image of an age, its sins, its soullessness." Nesbit is an enticing subject, not least because of the powerful way her beauty communicates in photographs — some taken for commercial and fashion advertising but many more for the "pretty girl" postcard market or for the private collections of men like Stanford White. These show a dark-haired girl with a slender, almost boyish figure ("a type artists and ... older, more experienced men admired," Nesbit astutely remarked) and what Uruburu describes as a "curled pink ribbon of a mouth (and) huge, dark, sultry eyes set in an angelic face." She was also, Uruburu tells us, spunky and intelligent, and had been from childhood a great reader, devouring everything from Arthurian legends and Horatio Alger's stories of pluck and luck to Zola's "Nana." Her seduction by White — a manically voracious consumer of beautiful objects, paintings and young girls — automatically pushes all our abuse-sensitive buttons. She had, after all, just turned 17 when, as Nesbit put it in her memoirs, the 46-year-old architect did her "the greatest wrong of all." But in telling this story through Nesbit's dark, sultry eyes, Uruburu has been led almost as far astray as her heroine was by Stanford White. Her major mistake is to have relied so heavily on Nesbit's memoirs, seemingly never cross-checked against other accounts or interpretations. For if anyone had motive to spin or embroider on the truth, it was Nesbit, who needed to repackage herself in order to survive. Careful consideration of some of her claims raises real suspicions about their veracity. For instance, how could someone who for two years had worked (both clothed and nude) as an artist's and photographer's model and as a chorine in a Broadway girlie show be shocked, shocked!, when a man who was showering her with furs and jewels turned out to have designs on her virtue? It seems even more whimsical to parrot Nesbit's protestation that a night she spent with the hot-blooded Barrymore — with whom she'd been publicly carrying on during her nearly two-year affair with White — was a fraternal sleepover in which the two of them lay fully clothed on the floor of Barrymore's hotel room. Unaddressed questions are also raised by the emergency appendectomy Nesbit is said to have undergone while at a girls' boarding school to which White supposedly sent her after her night chez Barrymore: Was this an appendectomy or an abortion? And what was the nature of the "friendship" she began cultivating with Thaw, who invited her to his rooms at the Knickerbocker Hotel in order to show her "some old laces that she liked very much"? Was Nesbit stringing Thaw and White along when she traveled to Europe under Thaw's protection, but with a $500 letter of credit from White in her pocket to give her "a sense of independence"? Why — especially after confessing her relationship with White to Thaw and enduring a savage beating at his hands (an event Uruburu relates in almost pornographic detail) — did Nesbit return to White, then end up marrying Thaw? Some who have written of these matters, like the critic Brendan Gill, believe that Nesbit was an adventuress; others, like White's great-granddaughter Susannah Lessard, think she was self-deluding. But whatever the question, Uruburu takes Nesbit's answer for it. Uruburu has a fine sense of time and place, which comes through in her portrait of New York at the turn of the century: "a walled-in, man-made wonder... run by a handful of powerful men ... act(ing) with impunity outside the boundaries of conventional practices." But too often she gives way to an impulse to heighten her prose with grandiose imagery, overblown language and dramatic oversimplification. Mixed metaphors, hoary cliches and tidal waves of alliteration abound. It is as if — in the effort to mythologize Evelyn Nesbit as "the American Eve, (whose) delectable budding underage appeal proved irresistible to (a) renegade creator," "an unwitting sexual anarchist draped in a crimson silk kimono and laid out seductively on a pure white polar bear rug" — she has succumbed to Nesbit's highly colored, romanticized view of her life. "I couldn't help but marvel at this strange effect I had upon him," Nesbit wrote of Stanford White: "I was the type he adored and fell slave to." One can't suppress the feeling that she has made her biographer her slave as well. Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently of "Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins," and of the screenplay for the upcoming PBS documentary " Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." Reviewed by Amanda Vaill, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Uruburu...is a master of detail....American Eve is a real page turner." New York Times
"Paula Uruburu serves up an intriguing and meticulously researched slice of American history. Evelyn Nesbit typified the glorious excesses of the Gilded Age, and this story has everything: sex, deception, drama, and a lurid love triangle, all culminating in the crime of the century." Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul
"Of all the famous beauties of a hundred years ago, Evelyn Nesbit is the only one who would still turn heads today. Paula Uruburu's triumph is to fix this very modern-looking girl in her proper time and place, and also to describe the New York of the early 1900s so vividly that we feel we, too, could be strolling towards the 21st Street apartment where the teen was seduced by Stanford White — or sitting in Madison Square Garden on the fatal evening that White was shot dead." Mike Dash, author of Satan's Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, and New York's Trial of the Century
"Paula Uruburu has given life to the tragic American story of the poor, beautiful nymph whose fate is so often entangled with extreme wealth and the powerful man." Martha McPhee, author of L'America and Gorgeous Lies
"In American Eve, a fascinating evocation of a woman and her times, Paula Uruburu does more than just tell the story of Evelyn Nesbit. Sex, money, scandal, celebrity, doom — the whole cocktail of America's obsessions is served up here in this intriguing, addictive book." Zachary Lazar, author of Sway
"Wonderfully absorbing....A lurid tabloid story of yore brought to fresh life and relevance with remarkable insight, verve and wisdom. Old New York is laid bare in all its decadence and the cult of pubescent beauty traced to its source, all with worldliness, wit, humor, compassion, and suspense. The result is a real page-turner." Philip Lopate, author of Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan and Writing New York
"Tragic now when a century ago it seemed merely scandalous, the story of Evelyn Nesbit is a gripping cautionary tale for those who believe Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan are the first of their kind. How is it that after a century of feminism, young beautiful women still crash and burn for an eager public? Using newly available family sources, Paula Uruburu tells Evelyn Nesbit's story in all its darkness and terror." Honor Moore, author of The Bishop's Daughter
"In American Eve a beautiful young woman, a lecherous prince of New York, and an unstable husband show us how the national sport of media-fed scandal began. Before the story ends, one man is dead, another is locked away, and Paula Uruburu has given us a look at an age of excess that looks remarkably like our own. It is page turning history at its best." Michael D'Antonio, author of Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams
"[A] tale oft-told, but never as diligently and lovingly researched as here, an operatic story — not of celebrity or the American Dream but of sex, class and power." Los Angeles Times
"With generous quotes from Nesbit's own memoirs, and dozens of photographs and illustrations, American Eve is the most sympathetic and comprehensive history of Nesbit to date." Newsday
"Uruburu draws some valid comparisons between then and now in this tell-all biography of one of the first in a long line of tarnished 'It Girls'." Booklist
The scandalous story of America’s first supermodel, sex goddess, and modern celebrity—Evelyn Nesbit.
By the time of her sixteenth birthday in 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was known to millions as the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty, and whose innocent sexuality was used to sell everything from chocolates to perfume. Women wanted to be her. Men just wanted her. But when Evelyn’s life of fantasy became all too real and her insanely jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, murdered her lover, New York City architect Stanford White, the most famous woman in the world became infamous as she found herself at the center of the “Crime of the Century” and a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity, and sex.
About the Author
Paula Uruburu is chair of the English Department at Hofstra University. Considered an expert on Evelyn Nesbit and the time period, she has been widely published and has appeared or consulted on A & E's Biography, PBS's History Detectives, and various series for the History Channel.
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