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

Speaking of a woman who could have used some better negotiation skills, how about Evelyn Nesbit? On the one hand, the original “It Girl,” born Florence Evelyn Nesbit in Tarentum sometime before the end of the 19th century, was quite successful: Her arrival in New York in 1900 at age 15 or thereabouts caused a media frenzy. Nesbit was unusually photogenic—one reporter described her as “the soul of beauty trapped behind big melancholy eyes”—and her likeness soon appeared everywhere from Coca-Cola ads to fashion magazines.

But, as scholar Paula Uruburu explains in her new book, American Eve, which draws on Nesbit’s own autobiographies as well as the author’s own research and access to Evelyn’s family archives, it’s not clear that Nesbit was ever happy or confident. Her father died when she was young, leaving her and a brother to move among relatives while their mother, whose moods swung from stoic to hysterical to negligent, tried to make ends meet. Evelyn learned early to escape into her imagination. And then the artists discovered her, and she discovered she could make her living just by being uncommonly pretty. Then, she took her act to the stage.

What followed in short order seems too juicy to be a true story. While still a teenager, Evelyn was pursued ardently by Stanford White, the architect who designed the Washington Square Arch and other New York landmarks. (He built himself a sumptuous apartment above the old Madison Square Garden, complete with a red velvet swing—which tells you a lot about the kind of guy he was.)

White had ulterior motives for offering his protection and patronage, however, and after sending Mrs. Nesbit back to Pittsburgh for a visit, he got Evelyn drunk and raped her. And he kept seeing her, with her acquiescence—though you might not call it consent, which in any event she was too young (and, apparently, too naïve) to give.

Enter Harry K. Thaw, a Pittsburgh millionaire with a grudge against White. Ostensibly, he was gravely offended by the architect’s lax morality—but this is a tricky case to make, since Thaw’s own tastes ran toward sexual sadism. He also was profligate with his tremendous inherited wealth, and had a bizarre medical history that included bouts of baby talk and incoherent babbling into late-adolescence.

Thaw whisked Nesbit away and repeatedly proposed marriage, until he finally forced her to confess her shameful experience with White. Professing concern, he chaperoned her on a tour of Europe that ended up in a castle in Bavaria, where he beat and raped her. And then—though Evelyn resisted for some time, and White put up a decent fight, too—Thaw and Evelyn married. She was 20 years old and wore a black gown to the private ceremony.

Had enough drama? Just wait—we haven’t even got to the best part yet. A year later, Thaw shot White dead in front of 900 witnesses in the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden.

Uruburu makes the most of this lurid tale, painting vivid scenes of New York of that era and the colorful characters who inhabited it. Her sympathies are clearly with Nesbit, whose voice, the author notes, has been “muffled and misinterpreted over the last hundred years in spite of her best (or worst) efforts.” And while in some ways this feels a little like feeling sorry for poor Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton—whom Uruburu seems to regard as Nesbit’s cultural descendents—it is certainly the case that Nesbit was young and for much of her life controlled by others, among them her mother, White, Thaw and Thaw’s mother. And as with Paris and Britney and Lindsay, whether you feel sorry for Evelyn isn’t really the point; the story itself is so bizarrely compelling you have to keep reading just to see what crazy thing will happen next.

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the It Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu;
Riverhead Books; $27.95