American Eve, Paula Uruburu's retelling of the murder of famed architect and high-society flaneur Stanford White, should more properly be titled Evelyn Nesbit: Stuck Between a Pedophile and Madman because at the end of the day it's a sad tale of a young girl pushed into a career known to be a way-station for prostitution, used a pawn in a one-sided grudge match, married off to a psychotic and scapegoated for murder.
Evelyn Nesbit was a small-town girl from a poor family who possessed uncommon beauty. She was pressured as a young teenager to provide for her impecunious family through modeling, first for paintings and drawings and later for photographs- advertisements, postcards, etc. Soon she attracted the attention of Stanford White, a glamorous figure of turn-of-the-century New York. They become lovers under the neglectful eye of her mother. Her relationship with White drew the eye of one Harry Thaw, scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family and documented psychotic and sadist. (I use the term "psychotic" as an informal descriptor, not as a term of medical diagnosis- but I'll leave you to judge.) Thaw was obsessed with White and seemed to have fixated on Nesbit as a means of venting his anger towards White. Thaw eventually murdered White (no spoiler here- the murder is referred to in the book's title, after all), with Nesbit shouldering much of the blame in the media and popular imagination. It all adds up to a near-irresistible tale of lust, beauty, taboo, and murder.
I wish the book itself were as much fun.
I'll give it this- American Eve is definitely a page-turner. If nothing else, I wanted to see what happened to Nesbit- how she was drawn into a relationship with White, how and why she married Thaw, and what happened to her after the trial, and Uruburu provides satisfactory answers to at least the first two questions. The main difficulty I had with the book was with the writing. There is a lot of repetition- I lost count of the number of times Uruburu refers to White's lecherousness, or Nesbit's beauty, or Thaw's various peccadilloes. At a certain point I wanted to say, Okay, I get it- she's pretty- enough already! I also found her overly salacious tone tiresome and dull, as well as her habit of indulging in speculation. About her wedding to Thaw, Uruburu writes,
The reason for the choice of costume, Evelyn explained to reporters later on, was that she and Harry had to leave immediately for their honeymoon, so it was more sensible for her to wear the traveling outfit. But perhaps she was already in mourning for the life she had to deny ever existed. Or perhaps Harry had instructed her to wear black as a rueful reminder that he was willing to take her as his bride even though Stanny [Stanford White] had taken her first. Whatever the reason, if one were superstitious, it seemed more an unhappy omen than a practicality.She later describes Thaw as a "demented avenging angel of death in his black coat and broken white halo of a hat," and Nesbit as a "sacrificial lamb chop." The stereotypes even extend to anonymous crowds speaking in what Uruburu describes as an "Irish whisper". Is the ethnic slur really necessary?
Uruburu seems to want to tell Nesbit's story from her own point of view, and in that she succeeds. She portrays Nesbit in a very positive light throughout as an innocent victim of two men who knew no boundaries with respect to their own behavior or their treatment of her, and she argues for the most flattering (to Nesbit) interpretation of events in every case. She relies heavily on Nesbit's published memoirs for much of her documentation (and extensive quoting), which leads me to wonder how deeply Uruburu questioned what might be self-serving or biased in Nesbit's memoirs. Uruburu also whitewashes certain aspects of Nesbit's biography, such as her two pregnancies by Jack Barrymore and the true parentage of her son Russell.
I think what Uruburu wants to do, in addition to giving Nesbit a voice, is to write an entertaining social history about a particularly juicy and tragic true story. Full to the brim with sex, money, class, gender and the early days of glamour and celebrity, American Eve would be a fine book for someone looking for a light beach read of social history of early 20th century New York- with the emphasis on light. I enjoyed it enough to keep reading, but not much more than that.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.