In “American Eve,” Paula Uruburu, making magnificent use of Nesbit’s memoirs, letters and photographs (which introduce many of the chapters), places the notorious murder in a new context. Nesbit comes across as a naïve young girl manipulated by both the great architect and his millionaire assailant, both of whom happened to be sexual predators. The Gilded Age “It” girl, in other words, was far less Salome than Pauline (as in “The Perils of”).
In Uruburu’s telling, Nesbit had a bucolic childhood in Pennsylvania until her father’s sudden death, which plunged the family into penury. She, her mother and her brother bounced from one temporary home to another before a teenage Nesbit pulled the family out of debt by modeling and then acting. Her mother ostensibly tried to protect Evelyn from men but actually encouraged their attention for her own profit.
At 16, the virginal Nesbit fell in with White, the 46-year-old creator of wonders like the Garden and the Washington Square Arch. A married man but a well-known womanizer (or rather, girl-izer), White introduced Nesbit to high culture and fine food, lavished financial support on her family and invited her over for rides on his red velvet swing. (His obscure fetish was watching swinging girls kick at paper parasols.)
When the dreamy relationship turned into rape (inevitably, to the jaded observer), Nesbit felt shocked, betrayed and yet more beholden to White than ever. She later called him “a benevolent vampire” and described him as both “infinitely mean” and “generously big.” Until her death in 1967, she would say White was the only man she’d ever loved. But his attentions cooled when she reached the age of 17, and she was forced to look elsewhere for companionship.
After a dalliance with a frequently drunken John Barrymore, Nesbit wound up in the company of Harry K. Thaw. Thaw, a psychotic sadist whom Uruburu portrays as “a fraudulent Savonarola and deluded savior,” was determined to rescue Nesbit from Stanford White, who he believed had gotten him blackballed from some of New York’s elite men’s clubs.
Thaw, however, had all too much in common with his nemesis. Driven mad by Nesbit’s account of her past with White, Thaw (in a particularly gothic passage of the book) raped and beat her in a castle. But just as she had “easily and happily surrendered” to White after he raped her, like a “typical victim of abuse,” she began to think she was in the wrong and did not flee Thaw. Powerless, abandoned by her mother and still recovering from an appendectomy, Nesbit married her torturer. From that moment, his murder of her former lover feels inevitable.
Uruburu, who teaches English at Hofstra University, is a master of detail. When she’s describing, for example, the snow flurries, glowing Chinese lanterns and lead-painted penny whistles that greeted the start of 1900, the effect is magical. But at other times, her language veers from vivid to purple. Her figures of speech tend toward the florid (Victorianism in America “lingered like a ripe Anjou pear in Indian summer”). She also at times uses comically short phrases for dramatic effect (on Nesbit: “Vixen. Victim. The ur-Lolita.”), or more modifiers per sentence than are strictly necessary, as in: “A startlingly loud gunshot pierced the torpid night air.”
One other quibble: in depicting the way the young Nesbit appeared to White, Uruburu reports that the teenager was “tantalizingly pubescent,” of “delectable budding under-age appeal,” a “willing and uninhibited child-woman” plucked “at the sweetest moment of her development” like “the perfect Champagne grape.” White, Uruburu writes, would “pinch her smooth white shoulders, feeling, he said, for her wings.” It’s hard not to wish for a little more editing, something along the lines of “[ed note: blecch].”
Nonetheless, “American Eve” is a real page turner, especially the later sections, which deal with the murder and the sensational trials. (The first one ended in a hung jury; in the second, Thaw was acquitted by reason of insanity.) The highlight is one of Evelyn Nesbit’s all-too-few triumphs: her eagerly anticipated testimony on the stand. The cutthroat district attorney had planned to humiliate her, and pounded away on the subject of her morality. But it turned out that at least one good thing had come out of Nesbit’s misery: at the ripe old age of 22, she was well prepared when yet another man came along and tried to destroy her.