Photo: Robert Ecksel
Evelyn Nesbit was arguably the twentieth century’s first major celebrity. Before her 21st birthday, the model and girl-about-town found herself at the center of a love triangle that ended in 1906 with the Madison Square Garden rooftop murder of her former lover, famed architect Stanford White, at the hands of her millionaire husband Harry K. Thaw, and the ensuing trial and media coverage set a precedent for all future Crimes of the Century. In American Eve, which just hit bookstores, Hofstra professor Paula Uruburu shows how the exploitation of Evelyn’s underage beauty in pursuit of fame strikes a prescient note. She spoke to Vulture about Nesbit’s rise and fall.
I’ve been struck by how many news stories quote you for historical context about the Miley Cyrus photo flap.
I’ve become the resident expert on the degradation and lasciviousness of young girls [laughs]. Nothing’s really changed in 100 years. I don’t want to use the word serendipitous, but as I was writing the book — and it took ten years from start to finish — the parallels between Evelyn and current culture, be it Girls Gone Wild or Mean Girls or Britney and Lindsay, were hard to ignore. Evelyn’s celebrity lasted from age 14 to 21, and her entire life was defined by that period.
There are about 50 photos in the book, and many of them look surprisingly modern…
Yes, exactly! I’ve had a few people, who when they saw the book for the first time, couldn’t believe the photos were taken more than 100 years ago. Some even remarked that they could see why someone was killed as a result of knowing her; she was that beautiful but also other. They’re right, in a way: The fashion for models at the time was for a more voluptuous, more zaftig look. Evelyn was almost of the wrong time, being much slimmer and more like the flapper girls of the 1920s.
Was it strange to immerse yourself in old New York, now that the city’s changed so much?
I say in the book several times that Evelyn’s fate was subject to greater forces at work, and those forces — the clash of old money with new and the rich and powerful lording it over the poorer classes — are still at work. And when I finally finished the manuscript for American Eve and turned it in to my editor, the building where Stanford White had one of his apartments, which figures prominently in the book, collapsed! Before I had another chance to take a look, the building was buried in rubble. I felt this twinge of what was lost and what couldn’t be brought back.
This is the age of the fabricated memoir, and you relied heavily on Evelyn’s two memoirs and a vanity-published account by Harry Thaw. How did you ensure that everything was accurate?
One of the reasons it took me so long to write the book was because I wasn’t going to accept anything at face value. It was real detective work: Some facts were easy to check; others required much more legwork and a number of perspectives to put together a framework for what took place. I went back to the transcript of the trials, a total of 6,000 pages. I found a collector who owned hundreds of letters Evelyn wrote much later in life, when the need for an agenda probably wasn’t as strong as it had been in her youth. Interestingly, Harry Thaw’s book, which was published in 1925 not long after he was released from a mental institution, is very bizarre. It’s pretty clear he was still angry and still had an ax to grind against Evelyn. And yet he corroborates dates and times even when it’s not in his interest to do so.
What lessons, if any, can today’s starlets learn from Evelyn Nesbit? Can her story be viewed as a cautionary tale?
I hate to sound didactic and preachy, but Evelyn’s story is a real metaphor for destruction. When The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, the movie of her life and the murder, came out in 1952, she described herself as “living in the everlasting now.” Right now I feel like we’re in a culture of the everlasting now, where an actor who starred with Bonzo the chimp can become president and the Terminator ends up as the governor of California. The hypocrisy of celebrity culture is that the private is now public and nothing is sacred anymore. So I guess I do want American Eve to be a cautionary tale for parents, those who would sacrifice their children on the altar of the feeding frenzy of fame. —Sarah Weinman