A true story of glamour and tragedy

Review: “American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the Crime of the Century” by Paula Uruburu

Looking for a true story with the 1920s glamour and tragedy of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald? Check out “American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the Crime of the Century” by Paula Uruburu, current English Department Chair at Hofstra University.

This book, published in 2008, isn’t new but neither is the story of love, loss, betrayal and passion. Evelyn Nesbit’s connection to the Adirondack region is through her stay at Chateaugay Lake in 1915, while hiding from hordes of reporters during her husband’s second murder trial in New York City.

In 1900, when Florence Evelyn was 15 years old, she moved from Pittsburgh to New York City with her mother (confusingly named, Evelyn Florence) and brother. Painters, sculptors and photographers had already re-created her likeness so often that her face was everywhere: magazines, advertisements, newspapers and even in church stained-glass windows. In NYC, the trend continued. She was slightly built, a “waif” who stood barely 5 feet tall, due mostly to malnourishment her entire childhood. Her father died when she was 11 years old, leaving a financial mess for her ill-equipped mother to untangle. Once her neglectful mother realized her daughter’s beauty was a valuable currency, Florence Evelyn became the family breadwinner until her mother remarried and cut off all communications with her daughter.

Although Florence Evelyn read every book she could find and dreamed of fulfilling her father’s dream that she attend Vassar College, instead of attending high school, Florence Evelyn worked in a department store during the day and posed for painters and sculptors in the evenings. Her younger brother worked in the same store while their mother dreamed of becoming a clothing designer. She often left the children with family members for months at a time while she searched for work with no results, and the family continued to live in poverty. Even after moving to New York City for Florence Evelyn’s career, they fared little better. She continued to work during the day, posing for artists. In the evenings, she played the role of a Spanish maiden in the musical Florodoro, and then she partied into the mornings. She was 16, with inconsistent parental supervision. During this time, she changed her name to Eve Nesbit.

Men began to notice the girl’s beauty. She became an obsession for countless, much older, men. On a nightly basis, her dressing room was filled with flowers, love letters and gifts from admirers she didn’t know or even care to know. Until Stanford White, millionaire architect, made his entrance, Eve was uninterested in the men who sought her attention. White was 46 years old, married and a father. White kept up his carefully cultivated public persona as a patron of the arts, but he privately preyed on young girls like Eve. She wasn’t the first, nor the last. This is only the beginning of Eve’s story.

Even if you don’t know the tragic story of Evelyn Nesbit, you can probably guess some of what this young, vulnerable girl endured. But there is much more to the fascinating story in Paula Uruburu’s book. I recommend reading the tale of the “It” girl at the turn of the century. American Eve is a little bit like a reality television show mixed with a melodramatic telenovella and a Bollywood movie, but sadly true.


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