Sunday, August 07, 2011

Evelyn Nesbit – What we can learn from the first “IT” girl

I began thinking about the path that leads to the exploitation of young female celebrities after reading New York magazine’s article Paw Paw and Lady Love about Anna Nicole Smith recommended by Citizen Reader.

If you read the article you will learn Anna Nicole Smith born Vickie Lynn Hogan, lived in an abusive household, dropped out of school at 15 after failing her freshman year, had a mother who didn’t protect her, and was exploited and taken advantage of throughout her tragic life.

After reading the above article I began searching for books about young celebrities who were able to rise above the fame and exploitation. Instead  I came across Paula Uruburu's book American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White: The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century on a women's issues non-fiction book list on

Here is the book synopsis from the article:
But when did our fixation on celebrity, youth, beauty, money, and scandal begin? Author Paula Uruburu travels back in time to reintroduce us to "American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "It" Girl, and the Crime of the Century." At the young age of 16, Evelyn Nesbit entered pop culture history as the nation's first pin-up girl; but her rags-to-riches story ended in a trial that involved madness and murder.

What is the book about/my thoughts:
The book is an engrossing quick read told entirely from Evelyn’s point of view. Her exploitation begins when her father died when she was ten. He left the family penniless and in debt. Her mother unable to find adequate employment pulls her children from school lies about their ages and finds them employment at a department store. Evelyn who is an incredible beauty becomes a popular artist’s model and eventually an actress. From there she is noticed by Stanford White, a famous married architect who has a weakness for young girls. You can see where the story is going. After being abandoned by her mother with few options available she marries Harry Thaw a jealous millionaire with mental stability issues.
In 1915, Evelyn wrote, “Some women have a conscience: some have a sense of self-preservation: they frequently exist together, but most often one does duty for the other.” Having been forced at such an early age to choose self-preservation, not to mention the preservation of her precarious family unit, Evelyn the child-woman saw precious few examples of conscience in action from the so-called adults or guardians in her life. (pg. 208)

Harry ends up murdering Stanford White and the trial of the century begins. Because of the publicity of the case six hundred prospective jurors went through the process before twelve were selected.
(Women, of course, were not allowed to serve on juries.) (pg. 323)
Evelyn testifies. After years of working as an artist’s model she is able to maintain her composure and stick to her story despite a grueling cross examination. The trial ends in a hung jury. The second trial sends Harry to a mental institution. Harry’s family disowns Evelyn and once again she is out on the street. She spends the rest of her life living in the aftermath of her celebrity trying to make ends meet. Her mother never comes to her rescue.

It is interesting to note in interviews after the trial, Evelyn’s father’s family point out Evelyn’s mother could have done more to support her family. She could have taken in laundry. Instead, she chose to live off Evelyn.

To answer the question was Evelyn Nesbit so different from today's young starlets? I turn to a Paula Uruburu interview on the Book Club Queen. Paula answers with:
Sadly not at all – she is in fact the poster girl as the first in a pattern we have seen with young starlets ever since. I only wish that the young girls (not women) who are already in the harsh cynical light of celebrity-fueled fire – with names like Miley, Britney, 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.
And to my original question - what about celebrities who were able to rise above their fame and make it? Paula answers:
Sadly, Evelyn may have been the first but she was not the last in a long line that very few can seemingly escape successfully – Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields come to mind as two who did rise above circumstances– and of course they went to Yale and Princeton respectively. Somehow, I don't see college in the future of the Lindseys, Britneys, and Mileys who dominate the current pop culture scene. With the world at their feet and global information at their fingertips, it's hard for me to see young women squandering the opportunity to do something significant and lasting with their lives. As Jack Kerouac wrote, "Fame is yesterday's newspaper blowing down Bleecker Street."
The book includes numerous photos of Evelyn from her modeling portfolio which adds to the enjoyment of the book. If you enjoy nonfiction and true crime similar to Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America will enjoy this book.


  1. Ahh the girl on the red velvet swing. Not sure she can be compared to Foster or Shields. Marilyn Monroe perhaps. She was more than an it girl, the press and trial focused more on her sexual exploits than the murder itself. Much like the current atmosphere where women are condemned for certain behaviors. She supposedly served as an advisor to the 1955 movie about her. More like rags to riches to rags. Makes most actresses today look very privileged by comparison.

  2. frautech,
    Rags to riches to rags sums up her life perfectly. Yes, the murder trial and press focused more on her sexual exploits than the actual murder. They put her through hell. That is one of the reasons Paula Uruburu believed Evelyn was telling the truth (Stanford initially drugged/got her drunk and raped her). Uruburu believes if Evelyn was lying she would have cracked under the pressure and changed her story.

    Now that you mention it Shields and Foster are not much of a comparison. The only thing they have in common with Nesbit is that they started acting at a young age.

  3. I just came over from The Lady Bloggers blog hop and I found this post interesting. Imma head to the Library a lil later to see if I can find the book. Thanks and enjoy your weekend.

  4. I've always been fascinated by the story of Evelyn Nesbit. Did you ever see the film, "Ragtime"? I heartily recommend it, the film is about the era in which Evelyn lived and it retells her story, interwoven with other stories to bring to life the tumultuous times that they were. Beautifully done, with wonderful ragtime music.

  5. Margaret,
    I hope you enjoy the book.

    I read the book Ragtime several years ago and remember enjoying it. I'm sure I would like the movie as well. Thanks for the suggestion I think I will check it out this winter.

  6. I read a little bit about Evelyn in E.L.Doctorow's Ragtime. I had never heard of her, but love real-life crime of passion sensational murder stories. You would also love Erik Larson's Thunderstruck if you liked that.