Friday, April 25, 2008

Siren Song

'American Eve: The Birth of the It Girl and the Crime of the Century'

By Paula Uruburu
April 24, 2008 11:55 p.m.

Chapter 1: Siren Song

Evelyn Nesbit, image of an age, its sins, its soullessness . . .

Most don't know that her given name was apparently Florence Mary. She was not-so-plain Flo to her family and "Flossie the Fuss" to the chorus. She was "Kittens" to Stanford White, "Evie" to John Barrymore, and "Boofuls" to Harry Thaw. She was "Mrs. Thaw the younger" in London, "Le Bébé" in France, and "Mrs. Harry" when in Pittsburgh. Schoolgirl. Florodora girl. Gibson girl. "Angel-child." "Snake-charmer." Vixen. Victim. The ur-Lolita. The very first "It" girl before anyone know what "It" was. She could be what anyone wanted her to be. And inevitably was, even if it wasn't what she wanted. To anyone familiar with E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, the name Evelyn Nesbit may evoke the mauve-tinted crucible of the sentimentally inclined and cynically named Gilded Age To others it may signify passion and perversion, murder and scandal, "love, hate, villainy, perfidy, and outraged innocence." The extinction of an era. And a red velvet swing.

[americaneve cover]
Riverhead Books/ Penguin Group

Herself a product of the Victorian past but with an approach to life that was unconsciously and uncannily modern, Evelyn Nesbit unwittingly embodied the country's paradoxes and ambiguities at its trembling turn into the twentieth century. At times she seemed the very picture of nineteenth-century sentimentality and girlish purity, yet her naturally bewitching Mona Lisa smile promised something dangerously new and enticing. A self-inventory of her visible assets tells the story: the curled pink ribbon of a mouth (painted red only for the stage) contrasted with "slightly olive-hued" skin; huge, dark, sultry eyes set in an angelic face, all framed by a "profusion of burnished copper curls." It was an image that spoke of both the vitality and freshness of an antediluvian world and the brave new world of the Century of Progress. As with Eve before the Fall, Evelyn's natural charms and air of innocence created an overwhelming and immediate impression of incorruptibility in certain poses. Yet the deceptive maturity of her heavy-lidded gaze and ever so slightly openmouthed expression of apparent self-satisfaction in photo after photo suggested an Eve who had already tasted forbidden fruit.

In those first few years of what would prove to be a thrilling and ingenious decade of crusaders and con men, cakewalks and coon songs, contradictions and coincidences, class wars and conspicuous consumption, Evelyn Nesbit became its most precious commodity, even though, as the newspapers reported, she had come to New York with "nothing but her looks." But her face was her fortune (as her parasitic mother well knew), and Evelyn's mercurial rise to fame and equally precipitous plunge into notoriety only five years later reflected the era's accelerated, intoxicating, and uniquely schizophrenic mood.

[evelyn portrait]
Riverhead Books/ Penguin Group
Postcard pose of sixteen-year-old Evelyn for Sarony, 1901.

All the feminine myth and mystique of the ancient world seemed to coalesce with contemporary American freshness in Evelyn and form a "beguiling new creature." She was Freud's "eternal question," embodying both "contemporary social types like 'the charmer' and 'The New Woman,' " as well as more universal abstractions such as "virtue, progress, etc., raised to nearly mythological proportions." Like the nation itself, she was poised fearlessly on the brink of uncharted discoveries but apprehensive about abandoning the illusion of security or sentiments of the past.

To the reporters who followed her every move and unprecedented rise as a celebrity before there was any discernible evidence of a singular talent to justify such attention (we of course no longer harbor any delusions with regard to the modern cult of personality), she was a startling silky contradiction, "a vision who assailed one's senses like a perfume at once delicate and heavy, overpowering and yet faint." As the American Eve, her delectable budding underage appeal proved irresistible to the renegade creator who wanted to cultivate her as the rarest fl ower in his Garden of too-earthly delights. Yet no matter how different she may have looked from one image or photograph to the next, the public felt they knew her. Women wanted to be her; men wanted to own her. She became a maddening object of desire, and tragically, a victim of her own beguiling beauty during the "gaudy spree," which she would help bring to a stunningly shameful end.

At first the publicity that swirled and hummed around Evelyn would have you believe that hers was a fairy- tale existence. She was seen as a modern-day Cinderella who came from a city of literal burning ash and coal to become the "glittering girl model of Gotham." She then made the precarious but inevitable leap from studio to stage. From there it was but a cakewalk to a life of luxury as the "mistress of millions" once she became Mrs. Harry K. Thaw, of Pittsburgh. Or so the newspapers said. And all before she was twenty-one.

An unwitting sexual anarchist draped in a crimson silk kimono and laid out seductively on a pure white polar bear rug, she could incite the wrath of reformers and excite the imagination of the public merely by sleeping. Once the "Madison Square Tragedy" tore its way into the headlines, the "little butterfly" generated more newspaper sales and publicity than Hearst himself could ever have manufactured. Through two trials riddled with theatrical tribulation and shocking revelations, she was the "pale flower" whose petals took on a "bruised pallor," with sympathetic observers wishing she had "grown wholesomely in a wholesome garden." Others, like the sculptor Saint-Gaudens, were less charitable, commenting just before he died, in 1907, that "she had the face of an angel and the heart of a snake."

Throughout her humiliating and protracted ordeal on the witness stand, Evelyn's ubiquitous and mesmerizing image—and what it represented to a nation of novice interpreters—captivated even the most cynical New York journalists. Irvin S. Cobb, a well-known syndicated columnist and social critic, described her as "the most exquisitely lovely human being I ever looked at—[she had] the slim quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half dollars; a mouth made of rumpled rose petals." Yet even as her startling testimony helped push an unsuspecting and unprepared America into the modern age, while canny entrepreneurs sold hastily manufactured little red velvet swings on the street outside the courthouse, as quickly as Evelyn's star rose, it fell victim to the very culture that created and consumed her.

Reprinted from American Eve by Paula Uruburu by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright 2008 by Paula Uruburu.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Girl in the red velvet swing?