Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A H*o*T*t*i*e IN DISTRESS

For your consideration, take a gander at yon hottie. Slim, enigmatic, modern-looking and a 16 year old professional model when the photo was taken, setting the Wayback Machine to 1901. The half-closed eyes, head tilted thusly, off shoulder garment just so: this is one talented model. She's Evelyn Nesbit, whose still relevant story most recently was chronicled in the book "American Eve" by Paula Uruburu, published in 2008.

In the summer of 1981 I took my visiting grandfather to see two films made about people he knew personally around the turn of the century before, "Reds" about John Reed, his erstwhile Harvard classmate turned doomed Bolshevik hero, and "Ragtime," which included a sub-plot of the scandalous real-life murder of Stanford White over a showgirl/model. My grandfather (story HERE) had worked for Stanford White's firm of McKim, Mead and White, the latter architect unceremoniously offed by the jealous husband of White's former mistress, aforementioned showgirl/model Evelyn Nesbit. So who was this intriguing female face? 

I obsess easily (but hasten to add harmlessly) and one of my continuing interests remains beautiful femme fatales with early success who, despite obvious innate intelligence, were slated for later failure. (Can we say subjectivity boys and girls?) Evelyn Nesbit fits nicely within this subset of my books or movies about Louise Brooks, Gia Carangi, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen,) Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Lady Idina Sackville (wife of murdered Joss Hay, Earl of Errol, both of Kenya,) Zelda Fitzgerald, Edie Sedgwick, Adele Bloch-Bauer, Bettie Page or Lady Anne Blunt (daughter of mathematician Countess Ada Lovelace [often regarded as the world's first computer programmer] and granddaughter of no less than Lord Byron. Good genetics there! While her bounder husband slept with every female aristocrat in England, Lady Blunt alone is responsible for having saved the Arabian Horse breed from interbred extinction, as it rapidly was being crossed only with Thoroughbreds in its native Middle East to fashion faster racehorses.)

Author Uruburu contends that Nesbit's life and ordeals represent a cautionary tale to today's teen celebs (while firmly rooting her bio in the times and context.) Nesbit was gifted with curiosity, artistic proclivities, love of books and learning, and yes, drop dead beauty, and became the sole breadwinner for her widowed family with her later modeling career. She had no adult guidance from her clueless mother and was easy prey for exploitative types of all stripes. Her main benefactor raped her, her new rich husband beat her, and the millionaire dynasty who counted on her testimony to save its scion from the electric chair for shooting her former lover in cold blood in front of oh, er, um, 500 or so witnesses in a public place dropped her financially like a lead balloon once same was accomplished.

There's no extant film footage of her, but plenty of photos to discover online, given her popularity in the modeling world of the Fin Du Siecle. In every one, she looks out to us from a universal, timeless place, nary a sign of the clunky, stylized and fixed-in-cement dowdy heroines like Lillian Russell who more typlified the age. She could be... similarly aged Miley Cyrus in that off-shoulder drapery. Her cautionary tale is that even the gifted need professional guidance and personal support in careers that are so innately collaborative, the media. (As far as the gifted requiring both support and aspects of luck to succeed, I highly recommend the book "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell, which outlines how even mega-talents like Bill Gates and the Beatles needed surprisingly similar additional factors beyond talent to have realized their respective successes.)

Her lovely smile, as depicted above and below, would soon fade.

The mega-rich Thaw family who had enlisted her help vital to getting the murderous husband off immediately disowned her, rare in cases with an heir. Thaw himself eventually only left her $10K, the same amount he left to a waitress he had just met.

Her attempted film career failed. There was drug abuse, suicide attempts, and extreme single mother hardships during The Depression and war years. She eventually supported herself as a sculptor and ceramics teacher, and lived modestly into her eighties. My schoolmate Reidun was one of her caretakers at a facility, said she was sweet and remembered her son visiting as well.

"The tragedy wasn't that Stanford White died, but that I lived." 
   -Evelyn Nesbit, 1934

5 comments:

RetroKimmer said...

Beautiful story why did her smile fade?

Fast Film said...

"The tragedy wasn't that Stanford White died, but that I lived." -Evelyn Nesbit, 1934

The mega-rich Thaw family who had enlisted her help vital to gettting the murderous husband off immediately disowned her, rare in cases with an heir. Thaw himself eventually only left her $10K, the same amount he left to a waitress he had just met.

Her attempted film career failed. There was drug abuse, suicide attempts, and extreme single mother hardships during The Depression and war years. She eventually supported herself as a sculptor and ceramics teacher.

You're right, I'll add this to the post.

Carolyn said...

In the late 70s I went to a costume party in a red velvet dress as Evelyn Nesbit. Didn't know her whole story till now. Thanks.
another interesting femme fatale was Lili Damita, first wife of Errol Flynn. I became somewhat obsessed with her life. Similar to Evelyn's

Jeanette Rowland said...

Even more beautiful was the lack of airbrush or starving of actresses of that time.
Was she the "girl in the red velvet swing"? Or am I thinking of another tragic Hollywood beauty?

Fast Film said...

Jeanette, yes she was the girl in the Red velvet swing, as Carolyn notes above, but strictly East Coast. What even Elizabeth McGovern's bouncy portrayal in "Ragtime" didn't sufficiently convey was how professionally talented a model the teenage Evelyn was. As a photographer I know the model has to be well aware of what she can do consistently to have that great of photos every shoot.
Current obsession (meaning reading everything I can get my hands on) is about Adele Bloch-Bauer of the famous Klimt portrait. Apparently her affair with Klimt (for 12 years!) was confirmed in an obscure choice for scholarship, Arts & Antiques Magazine, 1986. The author revealed he had spoken with Adele's maid who confirmed same, who gave second reference of Adele's late physician confirming same. The author seemed to have dropped the ball on further publishing when it later got rolling with "The Lady in Gold" book and film, and instead concentrated on his research on Frida Kahlo (far too out of control neurotic to interest me much. Give me the slightly damaged art types.) Known to contemporaries in her get-together salons for her serious, autodidact studies of philosophy and contemporary art, Frau Bloch-Bauer is smiling and flirtatious in all Klimt works of her except the second oil portrait. Someone with this pronounced an inner life must have been fascinating...

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