Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interview with Paula Uruburu - Part II

Welcome to part two of my interview with Professor Paula Uruburu, author of the new biography American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White and the Crime of the Century.

Q. The trial of Harry K. Thaw seemed to set the tone for later celebrity trials of the century like O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers, where the victim seemed to be demonized in some way. Not that Thaw and Evelyn came out much better in the press.

It really was a watershed moment for the new century (which would see unfortunately other trial rooted in scandal and sensationalisms, each decade having its “trial of the century” – you mentioned a couple and I would add the Fatty Arbuckle , Lindbergh kidnapping,, and the Manson murder trials in this unholy unhappy pantheon.)

As I say in the book, at first, Harry was seen as the knigh t in shining armor and Evelyn the “ruined maid,” but once all the facts started to emerge about insanity and less than innocent behavior (in order to save Harry from the electric chair) the demonization had touched each of them.

Q. With so much written about the trial at the time, Evelyn’s two memoirs and Harry K. Thaw’s autobiography, where does a biographer begin to start sorting fact from fiction?

First by comparing what’s in those memoirs and then, trying to put them into the specific context x of the moment in which they were written and then the larger cultural context -- with a century of hindsight. Add to that significant detective work (such as finding hundreds of personal letters, the original trial transcripts) talking to real live people who knew the principals (family members, not all of whom are necessarily sympathetic), culling information from everymore impartial source possible (thousands of newspaper accounts, articles, etc.) and then hopefully using common sense and an informed vision of the forces of class and gender at work in such a complicated series of events.

Q. Harry’s mother was the complete opposite of Evelyn’s mother. Mrs. Thaw seemed to alternately smother and control Harry. When Harry was arrested, she did everything she could to make sure that he was acquitted, including having a film made of the murder. Not even OJ tried that!

Yes and I don’t think anyone would have been receptive to an OJ film (look what happened to his recent book deal that ended with an outraged hue and cry) But at the time of White’s murder, it was still an incredibly naïve period and the Thaw millions made it possible to utilize every means of media available to bombard an unsuspecting public only beginning to develop a taste for tabloid.. I say in the book it was a nation of “novice interpreters”and Mother Thaw at times did not realize that her own financial fueling of the media frenzy would come back to bite Harry and the Thaw family’s reputation – with a vengeance.

Q. There was certainly no ‘Dream Team’ in this trial. Thaw fought against being seen as insane. He insisted that he had the right to kill White because of his violation of Evelyn. How unusual was that for a defense? And do you think that Thaw was insane? It seemed fairly pre-meditated.

As I say in the chapters in the book that cover the trial, the “quaint” defense of the “Unwritten Law” which Harry’s lawyers tried to use in the first trial, was a Victorian holdover that would not fly even a year and a half later, when they had to go with the obvious insanity defense. Yet it was enough in 1907 for a hung jury even though Harry killed Stanny in front of 900 witnesses. I do think it was as premeditated as anything Harry could pull off – he had carried that gun around with him for a year and that day he had detectives tailing White’s every move. Once the “convenient or calculated” opportunity presented itself at the Madison Square Garden theatre, Harry made his fatal move. I do, however, also think he was totally demented.

Q. The district attorney William Travers Jerome (who as it happens was Jennie Jerome's double first cousin and Winston Churchill’s second cousin) also had a secret to keep, that he had a mistress. He also had a reputation for fighting against corruption. How important was this trial for him?

I think he was surprisingly naïve when he thought he could wrap this up as just another love triangle gone bad. He had no idea of the force of Mother Thaw’s will or of Evelyn’s astonishing presence in the courtroom – he had reduced many older, wiser professional men to fumbling idiots on the witness stand -- but Evelyn held her own with the “courtroom tiger.” If it was a question for the press of the Lady or the Tiger, I think most would say the lady won -- and this effectively dashed any hopes Jerome had in looking at the governor’s seat and possibly even the presidency at some time in the future (which had been the rumor). Having just lost our former governor to a sex scandal, I suppose not only has nothing changed in 100 years but it’s probably lucky for Jerome that things went the way they did -- since his own philandering might have come to light had he taken a higher public office.

Q. What was the nature of Evelyn’s relationship with Thaw after the trial?

That’s a complicated issue – since she felt the Thaws owed her big time for sacrificing her reputation and making herself a scandalous woman to save Harry’s life, she tried to stick things out and hoped for the best. But it was clear almost immediately that once Harry was in the insane asylum, Mother Thaw had no intention of rewarding Evelyn for her testimony. Yet she was now married to a lunatic incarcerated for who knows how long, and to say things were strained would be an understatement, especially since Harry grew more and more resentful that she was not grateful enough for what he did “for her” – which was to ruin any chances she might have had for a “normal “life.

Q. Evelyn’s life after the trial seemed to go from bad to worse for a time. What lessons, if any, can today’s young stars learn from Evelyn Nesbit? Can her story be viewed as a cautionary tale?

Without discouraging further scandalous behavior by adult women who are free to do what they like, I only wish that those young girls (not women) who are already in the harsh cynical light of celebrity-fueled fire – with names like Miley, Brittany, Lindsey, Mary-Kate and Ashley – or those contemplating fame based on such fleeting things as beauty or the whims of a fickle public, read Evelyn’s story and learn something from it. It is of course doubly difficult when, like Evelyn, virtually all of today’s teen-aged femme fatales are placed in harm’s way by parents with dubious motivations and atrocious parenting skill -- and that we are still a culture which delights in watching young women crash and burn for its own titillation and entertainment. As I say early in the book, those who don’t learn from history’s sins are doomed to repeat them -- and 100 years later NOTHING has changed.

Q. Evelyn lived long enough to see the movie 'The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing' with Joan Collins which you said that she thought that Joan Collins was too voluptuous to play her (how funny that both actresses cast to play her physically look nothing like her, at least in terms of body type). What do you think she would have
made of the continued fascination with her story?

Given that Evelyn wrote several letters in the last few years of her life about how she "rocked civilization," I'd say she would find the whole thing pretty amusing. She was able to have both literal and critical distance from the "Garden tragedy" by then. As "the girl who brought down the house" (much like Eve, Pandora, Helen of Troy, etc.) she ultimately believed that she was somehow destined to expose the sins of the rich and powerful.

I also think she would have had a great deal to say about the current state of affairs where young girls, who have much greater opportunities than those a century ago, are being "exposed" to the limelight by unscrupulous or deluded parents in the HD, TMZ, Hollywood Heat culture of today. Even though she could never bring herself to openly criticize her mother, she wrote again and again about how damaging it was to be exposed to fame at a young age

Thank you Professor Uruburu for joining me at Scandalous Women, and for allowing me to post the lovely images of Evelyn, as well as Stanford White and Thaw. You can purchase Professor Uruburu's book at or Barnes and Noble. Also please see her web-site to read an excerpt from the book as well as watch the trailer at American Eve.


La Belle Americaine said...

Love that last line. Nothing has changed, and it is that certainty that fuels my own interest in the Edwardian era and my own fiction.

These interviews were marvelous! Thank you both Elizabeth and Paula for sharing this story and interview. I can't wait to read American Eve.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

It is a fantastic book. I couldn't put it down.