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.

So, a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit was the inspiration for L.M. Montgomery’s description of the innocent, youthful, and inspirational Anne of Green Gables. And yet the true story of Evelyn Nesbit, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, is as sordid and debauched a tale as could be imagined. The contrast between the fictional character of Anne and the true character of young Evelyn Nesbit is heartbreakingly sad.

Evelyn Nesbit was born on December 25, 1884 (or maybe 1885). Her father died when she was ten or eleven, leaving the family in desperate straits. Young Evelyn managed to catch the attention of a newspaper photographer, then became a model for several artists in Philadelphia where the family was living in poverty, and finally moved with her mother and younger brother to New York where she became the most photographed young woman of the time. Photographers and artists stood in line to paint or take her picture. She was The American Beauty, the “It” Girl, Psyche, a Sibyl, the Sphinx, or “the glittering girl model of Gotham.” All this, and she was only sixteen years old.

And it all came crashing down, of course. One older New York millionaire seduced her, and another forced her into marriage and then defended her “honor” by murdering his rival on June 25, 1906 at the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. It was the Crime of the Century, and according to some, Evelyn Nesbit was completely responsible for the death of one man and the insanity of another. In her book about the drama, Ms. Uruburu takes the side of the underdog, Evelyn Nesbit. Everyone around Evelyn is described as “depraved” and “negligent” and “wicked”–all of which they probably were— but Evelyn is young and deceived and makes, not horrid, greedy choices, but rather “mistakes”. She is always trapped by her circumstances, unable to escape her fate, a victim of the manipulative, wealthy men and women who make her life into an obscene celebrity spectacle.

I thought the book was interesting in that it told a story that I have never read before. According to Uruburu, Evelyn Nesbit is a major character in E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime. I only made through about 100 pages of Ragtime, if that, and I never saw the movie based on the book. I also never saw or heard of the Joan Collins movie that was made about Evelyn Nesbit’s life, entitled The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. As a defense of Evelyn Nesbit, the book succeeds for the most part, although her “mistakes” were a bit more culpable than the author wants to make them seem to be. It’s a mistake to find yourself unexpectedly alone with a married lecherous man; it’s a really bad choice to become the lecher’s mistress.

Warning: Some of the details of the story are lurid, and Ms. Uruburu’s prose gets a bit purplish at times. However, I doubt the author could have done much to sensationalize the story any more than it already was.

Evelyn Nesbit was definitely a sensation.

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