Uruburu (English/Hofstra Univ.) sees the sensational, salacious career of Evelyn Nesbit as a cautionary tale about a preternaturally beautiful pubescent Red Ridinghood surrounded by hungry wolves in the dark woods of early 20th-century Manhattan.
Born on Christmas day near Pittsburgh, Pa., probably in 1884 (her mother was always vague about the year), Nesbit lost her father at 11 and by age 13 was supporting her family as an artist’s model. In late 1900, she came with her brother and mother to New York City, where she became a wildly popular subject for painters and photographers. (A generous selection of illustrations shows why.) Nesbit was the first in an American procession of very young, very attractive girls who all eventually disappeared down celebrity’s maw, writes the author. She attracted the notice of powerful moneyed men, including architect Stanford White and insane Harry K. Thaw, scion of a Pittsburgh fortune, who eventually married Nesbit and in 1906 shot and killed White in view of a crowd on the roof of Madison Square Garden. At the ensuing trials (the first ended with a hung jury), Nesbit told the sordid story of how White had paid her mother to take a trip out of town in 1901 and leave 16-year-old Evelyn in his care; he then plied her with champagne and raped her in his Garden tower. Her scandalous testimony reversed the arc of Nesbit’s fame, sending her into a 60-year decline, years covered swiftly in the book’s final paragraphs. Uruburu accepts Nesbit’s version of the events throughout, quoting liberally from her two memoirs and portraying her as an innocent victim of powerful men and a bad mother. The author’s stout defense is sometimes couched in prose as florid as that of the fin-de-siècle journalism she deplores: “Seconds later, a startlingly loud gunshot pierced the torpid night air.”
Cliché and hyperbole vitiate this pathetic parable, whose larger cultural significance struggles for attention amid detailed accounts of the rapacious principals’ perversions.