Let me first admit to this:
I was one of the old fart parents who was so saddened to see the provocative photo of Miley Cyrus in Vanity Fair recently. To me, the picture was clearly sensuous in a way that it should not have been for a 15 year old. It's especially bothersome since I think that she is a quite talented and charismatic little performer, who has great comic timing and the chance to mature in into a comedienne of the first order in films and TV shows. As far as I am concerned she does not need to sell herself as sexy. Funny is sexy in a better way.
So, with that in mind, I found it ironic (or was it some sort of cosmos putting me in my place?) that my pre-ordered copy this book by Paula Uruburu arrived:
EVELYN NESBIT, STANFORD WHITE
The Birth of the "It" Girl"
CRIME OF THE CENTURY
For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Evelyn Nesbit, she was the first real American superstar and the first "media created" celebrity. The very abbreviated story goes like this:
The mother--Evelyn Florence Mackenzie Nesbit-- found herself impoverished in Pennsylvania when her lawyer husband died very suddenly, leaving his family penniless. During the next several years the mother and her two children shuffled around the state from relative to boarding house and back again until Florence Evelyn, the younger, who was always a strikingly beautiful little girl , is "discovered" by an elderly female artist in Philadelphia. Before very long, she is posing for painters in the area and is the sole support of her family.
They move to New York City, where she continues to pose for well respected artists such as Beckwith and Church and for those studying in such places as The Art Students' League. In addition, she is photographed. And that face becomes "the face" of the turn of the century on everything you can think of: magazines, newspapers, postcards, chocolates, calendars, soaps, and so forth. She is the inspiration behind the "Gibson girl." To say she epitomized a look of the times, is an understatement. She WAS the look and the face of the times.
Enter Stanford White, 48, renowned architect and lover of all things beautiful, including very young girls. He is also a New York celebrity in his own right and the creator of many buildings, including Madison Square Garden with its famous roof top theater and apartment.
Evelyn is seduced by Mr. White, at the age of 16 and they become lovers, while the undercurrent of the righteous right moralists do battle with what they perceive to be the debauchery of the era, which is really the pending end of the Victorian age. One member of this so-called group is millionaire playboy (it is assumed the term was actually coined for him) Harry. K. Thaw of Pittsburgh who is fascinated by Evelyn and sets out to win her affections, as much as he also sets out to destroy the likes of White, whom he perceives as his opponent in more ways than the mere vying for the attentions of Evelyn. After all, they don’t call him "Mad Harry" for nothing.
The rest of the story is that Evelyn does become Mrs. Thaw, and not too long afterward in 1906, Harry murders White in a very public setting because " he ruined my wife and my life." Thaw is eventually acquitted by reason of insanity. This affair preoccupied the public for several years, since the first trial ended in a hung jury. This entire affair was riveting for the public and was even more a part of the collective consciousness than the OJ trial.
The book and the story of Evelyn captivated me. I love that turn of the last century era. It also reminded me that girls are not really turned into sex objects any younger nowadays than they were more than a hundred years ago. Miley was 15 when that photo was shot for Vanity Fair by Annie Leibowitz. Evelyn’s pictures in very provocative poses (even more because of the times?) emerged at 14, 15, and 16. I’ve posted some here.
The book was a great read. I think it would be a very good older YA non-fiction read. The narrative of Uruburu marches the story along in a way that makes it feel so very relevant to present times and issues. I loved the way the author incorporated some of the slang of the era; it effectively put me in the 1900 mindset to hear certain phrases--many of which we still use today. She also successfully tells the tale in a manner that had me, the reader, standing right there, viewing the sad plot up close as it unfolds.
I guess I’ve come to realize that no matter how much in 2008 we think of ourselves as progressive, things are not really so different than they were a century ago. What I can’t decide, however, is if that thought makes me resigned, saddened, or relieved. Or none of those things. But it does fascinate me, that’s for sure.