Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: American Eve, by Paula Uruburu

On June 25, 1906, wealthy millionaire Harry K. Thaw killed his wife’s Evelyn Nesbit’s, former lover, the famous architect Stanford White, at Madison Square Garden. Evelyn, age 20, had spent the past five or six years of her life in the public eye as a model in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, but nothing could have prepared her for the publicity that occurred in the aftermath of the killing.

American Eve is primarily about Evelyn’s life, and not quite so much about the murder and subsequent trial. Evelyn was born outside of Pittsburgh in 1885. After her father’s death, her mother tried to make ends meet by hiring Evelyn out as an artists’ model (as long as the artists were female or elderly men). Because of her timeless beauty, Evelyn soon found herself modeling in Philadelphia and New York, where she met much-older Stanford White, who set himself up as her father-figure and protector. Soon, however, he became much more.

Evelyn met her future husband Harry K. Thaw “of Pittsburgh” in 1903. Thaw was known for his erratic, almost sociopathic behavior, but she married his anyways two years later. Thaw was obsessed with Evelyn, to the exclusion of everything else. He was especially obsessed with Evelyn’s old relationship with White, whom Thaw considered the original exploiter of young, impressionable, virginal girls. Then, one sultry evening in the summer of 1906, Thaw shot White point blank, in front of hundreds of witnesses in the rooftop garden at Madison Square Garden. It led to “the trial of the century,” as Thaw was tried for the murder under the plea of insanity.

Uruburu tells the story from a feminist point of view, portraying Evelyn as victim rather than architect of her own fate. Every now and then, as in the chapter which discusses the selection of the jury, Uruburu puts in a little aside like, “…and women were excluded, of course.” Another thing I didn’t like about the book was the opening chapter. The author begins with a discussion of Gilded Age society, whereas I believe she should have begun with the murder, in order to grab the reader’s interest right away. And though I liked the photographs of Evelyn, I feel that there should be more of Stanford White (there’s only one reprinted here). Also, I wish that more had been said about Evelyn’s life after the trial.

But aside from these points, I really enjoyed Evelyn’s tragic story. Since Evelyn’s life was so public, a lot was known (and speculated) about her life, and Uruburu does a wonderful job sorting out the fact and fiction. The narrative is also easy to follow, which is also another major plus. Even without Uruburu’s contribution, Evelyn, the original “Gibson Girl,” and the girl for whom the term “je ne se quais” should have been coined, remains today an interesting and compelling persona.

Also reviewed by: Bookopolis, The Boston Bibliophile, Devourer of Books

1 comment:

AC said...

Thanks for reviewing this! I'm reading it right now and about 1/4 of the way through it. I completely agree about the opening; it was a little too pedantic and definitely should have opened with the murder. And Uruburu's little asides do get annoying.

If you liked this book, you might like "The Devil's Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century" by Harold Schechter. I think I like it better than "American Eve," at least so far. It's about a real-life, poison-by-mail murder trial that happened a few years before Thaw killed White.

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