Paula Uruburu is an associate professor of English at Hofstra University. An expert on Evelyn Nesbit and the time period, she has been widely published and has appeared on A&E's Biography, PBS's History Detectives and American Experience, and been a consultant for The History Channel.
The scandalous story of America’s first supermodel, sex goddess, and modern celebrity, Evelyn Nesbit, the temptress at the center of Stanford White’s famous murder, whose iconic life story reflected all the paradoxes of America’s Gilded Age. Known to millions before her sixteenth birthday in 1900, Evelyn Nesbit was the most photographed woman of her era, an iconic figure who set the standard for female beauty. Women wanted to be her. Men just wanted her.
When her life of fantasy became all too real, and her jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, killed her lover—celebrity architect Stanford White, builder of the Washington Square Arch and much of New York City—she found herself at the center of the “Crime of the Century” and the popular courtroom drama that followed—a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with youth, beauty, celebrity, and sex.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit is one of glamour, money, romance, sex, madness, and murder, and Paula Uruburu weaves all of these elements into an elegant narrativethat reads like the best fiction— only it’s all true. American Eve goes far beyond just literary biography; it paints a picture of America as it crossed from the Victorian era into the modern, foreshadowing so much of our contemporary culture today.
Q. Welcome Professor Uruburu. Over a hundred years later, the story of Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White and Harry Thaw still continues to fascinate. What led to your interest in Evelyn Nesbit?
I actually mention this in the notes section of my book – and it fits quite nicely with your scandalous women – since it started with a course I teach called Daughters of Decadence.It’s a lit course on the depiction of women at the turn of the last century in short fiction, poetry and novels. I began to look for images of women to enhance my lectures and kept coming across the hypnotic face of Evelyn Nesbit. Like so many others, I became obsessed with her image and wanted to know more than what I thought I knew from reading Doctorow’s brilliant historical novel Ragtime.
Q. Evelyn’s mother seems to have abdicated her role both as a parent as a breadwinner. She’s not even really a stage mother in the sense of say, a Dina Lohan. And she abandons her when Evelyn needed her most during the trial. What is your take on Mrs. Nesbit?
Well, as I say in the book, initially I was sympathetic to the plight of a woman left a widow with two children and no social programs or avenues of help at the time. But then, the more research I did and the more I learned, she became what I call a “monster in human form” – not all monsters are easily recognizable as such, which makes them all the more insidious and dangerous – as certain parental behaviors in the news currently appear to me.(think Lohan, Spears, Cyrus …).
Q. Nowadays we are so used to people becoming famous seemingly out of nowhere like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie. But Evelyn’s fame was something new back then. Her photographs were everywhere, and she seems to have posed for most of the great photographers and artists of the day. What do you think it was about Evelyn that made her such a celebrity?
Two things. She was an extraordinary-looking girl (I stress that since she started modeling at 14) and had an extraordinarily natural beauty, completely against the type of the time – which made her stand out and which connoisseurs of the artistic avante garde like White recognized. Hers was also a case of unique timing, since new technology converged with Evelyn which literally made her the poster girl of the Gilded Age. It was the New Century in search of symbols to represent the age and she was It.Q. Stanford White was also very well known at the time as well. How was he able to keep his proclivities so secret from the public for so long? Particularly with the likes of Anthony Comstock and the Society for the Prevention of Vice around?
This was the last gasp of the gilded period where an unspoken conspiracy of the rich and powerful were able to keep their private sins separate from the public sphere they ruled over. White was almost found out with the Pie Girl incident( people will have to read the book to find out what that was) but he begged the newspapers to keep his name out of things and pretty much succeeded. After his murder the walls of secrecy came tumbling down.
Q. In many ways, Stanford White seemed to fulfill the roles of both father and lover to Evelyn. Do you feel that the loss of Evelyn’s father when she was young led her to seek out father substitutes? She wrote in her memoirs that he was the only man that she ever really loved; do you think that’s true?
I believe Evelyn when she says that “Stanny” was the only man she ever truly loved – and while I would leave it to the psychologists to offer a more expert opinion on whether or not Evelyn had an Electra complex., I do think that there was some fusion (on confusion) of daughter-love with what became a sexual relationship once White crossed the line with Evelyn. As she says, even though at first he struck her as appallingly old, his youthful exuberance and playfulness eventually won her over. I do think her brief “frolic” with John Barrymore , by the way, was more of a crush and not really love.
Q. Why was Thaw so obsessed with Stanford White?
Thaw wanted desperately to be part of the “smart set” and social elite in Manhattan (as he perceived he was in Pittsburgh and certain European capitals .) But when his crazy antics and abrasive personality manifested themselves, he was virtually banned form every club in the city – many of which White had built or was a member of – and Thaw believed White blackballed him – he saw White as the source of his social disgcrace and thus a perfect target for obsession and revenge.
Q. Why did Evelyn eventually marry Thaw after learning about his darker side?
That’s the hardest question for me since she in fact had a very intelligent and intellectually curious mind (which her beaut y overshadowed overwhelmingly). I think her decision was based on several factors -a childhood of poverty versus what she perceived of as the comfort of the Thaw millions; added to that is the fact that Stanny had already “ruined” her as far as legitimate suitors would be concerned; and like all practiced sociopaths, Harry effectively cut her off from other avenues of choice and promised,(and gave convincing evidence) of being able to curb his darker appetites and behave especially in the presence of his Mother in whose house they would live.
Q. All three principals seemed to have a duality to their nature, Stanford White and Thaw certainly, but even Evelyn seemed to have two sides to her as well.
Yes that’s another reason why I find the story so fascinating – three larger-than-life people from very different backgrounds all converged at the moment of America’s cultural identity crisis at the turn into the new century. People wanted to hang on to outdated stereotypes (the melodramatic scenarios of the Victorian era) when it all began, but the culture was already in transition – and Evelyn was far more a modern girl in spirit than the age allowed. Without any sort of guidance, she had to make her own way, which meant having to survive and embrace decadence.at certain moments, all brought on by her incredible beauty.
Q. Do you think it was possible for the tragedy to have been averted any point? Or do you think it was inevitable in some way?
Evelyn talks in her own memoirs a lot about Fate and I can’t help but see her life and her position in this new world “Garden tragedy” as some weird convergence of larger forces. . The fact shat she was “Evie” and Stanny was the creator of the Garden, infiltrated by the devious snake Harry Thaw only underscores for me the mythic inevitability of the whole thing.
Come back tomorrow for Part II of my interview with Paula Uruburu!