Sunday, June 3, 2012

"Ever since I could remember, I had read admiration in the faces of casual passers-by."


Evelyn Nesbit. Look at her. No wonder men desired her and women wanted to be her. She was not only the first "It" girl, she was the template for the modern woman. Take away the trappings and her face could grace the covers of today's tabloids and magazines.

3.5 out of 5 stars


Breezy, gossipy, intimate, and casual, American Eve tells the tragic and riveting tale of America's first pin-up girl, Evelyn Nesbit – artist's model, showgirl, Gibson Girl – her involvement with Stanford White, literally the architect of New York City, and Harry K. Thaw, nouveau riche and totally off his rocker. This twisted triangle of lust and mania was called “The Crime of the Century” for a reason: Not only did its participants become rallying points for social reform, either as villains or heroes, the story behind the drama – inside the courtroom and out – fueled the explosion of yellow journalism and America's obsession with celebrity, sex, beauty, and scandal.

The ten years Uruburu put into this book shows, as the reader is immersed in the hedonistic excesses and rampant poverty of the Gilded Age with details pulled from period newspaper articles, personal letters, postcards, as well as autobiographies written by Evelyn Nesbit and Harry K. Thaw. However, Paula Uruburu is not an historian, but an English professor, which shows: occasionally those details can become a bit overwhelming and her prose has a tendency to be flowery and overly metaphorical; not to mention, at times, Uruburu comes up with quite the tangled sentence, requiring mental convolutions to straighten out its meaning. However, she does have a knack for channeling the lingo of the the era in such phrases as “He went into a purple frenzy...” or “...a particularly dull way to end an otherwise spiffy evening.” She also does a fine job of letting the story tell itself; while Uruburu is obviously on Evelyn's side (and, really, once you get to know her, who wouldn't be?), she doesn't make Evelyn out to be an innocent angel. That said, Evelyn's is the most prevalent voice, coming to us down the years through her two autobiographies, though Uruburu does manage to give us a glimpse into the minds of the other two big players in the story, Stanford White and Harry K. Thaw (whose autobiography Uruburu also relied on, though with more grains of salt than Evelyn's, considering the rather twisted mind from which the book came). All in all, it's a well-researched tome and it's certainly the first to truly bring to life, that I know of, all of Evelyn's story. However, while I'm not the expert on Evelyn Nesbit Uruburu claims to be, I did notice a couple of inconsistencies:  When Evelyn meets Jack Barrymore, Uruburu puts him at being 21-years-old at the time. However, from all the sources I've checked, even official Barrymore sources, Jack was 19 when he first met Evelyn, having been born in 1882 to Evelyn's 1884. Also, I thought it was weird that Uruburu wrote that Evelyn was not quite five feet tall, yet, once again, all the sources I've looked at place her at being around 5' 3” tall. Small things and I could be wrong about them, but they still stuck out for me.

What the reader notices, though, is that there is truly nothing new under the sun. The story of Evelyn, her rise and fall, the notoriety of her involvement with Stanford White and the fallout from the trial mimics the trajectory of so many starlets who came after Evelyn, right up to Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and other “It” girls who have hypnotized the masses, sometimes with nothing more substantial than the willingness to be in the spotlight, and fallen from their pedestals when it was revealed they had feet of clay. While American Eve may not be what you might call a substantial history, it is a revelational one, giving us a glimpse into the creation of cult of celebrity and, in a way, the loss of innocence. Once the seamy underbelly of their lives of decadence and debauchery was revealed, which the scions of the American power landscape tried to desperately to keep hidden for so many years, the blinders fell away; whether they liked it or not, the American public saw these men, these former idols, for the utterly human and utterly fallible beings they were. And nothing would ever be the same again.

Read May 23-29, 2012
Reviewed June 3, 2012

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