26 September 2019

"Miss Evelyn Nesbit Testifies 'Me Too'"


I'm happy to introduce Ana Brazil as our guest blogger for the day.  Ana and I are both appearing in Me Too Short Stories:  An Anthology (edited by our own Liz Zelvin). Ana is the author of the historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB AND THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER (published by Sand Hill Review Press) and the winner of the Independent Book Publishers Association 2018 Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal for Historical Fiction.  Take it away Ana!  Ana's story in the anthology is "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents", and if you haven't heard of Miss Nesbit - well, she was the nexus of one of the trials of the century - the very early 20th century.  Take it away, Ana! -Eve Fisher

by Ana Brazil

It might seem like a no-brainer.

When I—an author of American historical crime fiction—wanted to write a Me Too-themed short story, a story about crimes against women, retribution, and even, possibly, healing, Miss Evelyn Nesbit was the obvious choice.

You probably know something about Evelyn. Artist Charles Dana Gibson used young Evelyn as the model for one of his most-famous Gibson Girl illustrations. She was the star defense witness in the 1907 “Trial of the Century”, where her exploitation as “the girl on the red velvet swing” was publicly revealed. You might also remember Evelyn from her saucy escapades in E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime or the movie or Broadway musical based on his novel.

But although Evelyn was clearly a victim of sexual and emotional abuse by multiple wealthy and powerful men, she wasn’t my first choice for a historical Me Too-themed short story.

My first choice was Mr. H. H. Holmes.

You probably know something about H. H. Holmes also. During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he owned the “Murder Castle” hotel where women and men could check in, but—as the newspapers reported—they could never leave.

I wanted to explore how Holmes preyed upon his female victims and then I wanted to show how one of those exploited women got the better of him. In the final paragraph, she would heroically clamber out of the “Murder Castle” hotel. But characters, crimes, and motivations just didn’t click in my head, and I couldn’t make that story work.

When I finally put H. H. Holmes aside, I returned to Miss Evelyn Nesbit. And she did not disappoint me.

I knew the bones of Evelyn’s story—she worked as a teenage model and chorus girl to support her mother and younger brother, she was raped by New York architect Stanford White, she married the brutal and off-balanced millionaire Harry K. Thaw, and she witnessed the crime that launched the “Trial of the Century”—on June 25, 1906, her husband shot her rapist to death on the rooftop of New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

I went to Wikipedia for details about Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, and Harry K. Thaw. Amongst the sensuous photos of Evelyn, the "masterful" and “burly yet boyish” description of White, and the revelation of mentally instable Thaw’s interest in “the cult of virgin martyrdom”, I found this information about Evelyn’s trial testimony:

her examination on the witness stand was an emotionally tortuous ordeal. In open court, she was forced to expose her relationship with White, and to describe the intimate details of the night she was raped by Stanford White.
It wasn’t hard to imagine Evelyn sitting stiffly on the witness stand, answering questions about the night in her teens when (as she wrote in her 1934 autobiography) she "entered that room a virgin, but did not come out as one”.

My heart broke a little, imagining how painful her testimony must have been. Her rape had been her private pain—until the murder, known only by White and Thaw—and within minutes, it became known to every newspaper reporter sitting in court. Which meant that it was headline news around the country.

In that sorrowful moment of my imagination, I embraced Miss Evelyn Nesbit as my Me Too short story protagonist. I wanted to comfort her. I wanted to shield and defend her. I wanted to escort her out of court, into a waiting motorcar, and drive her as far away as I possibly could.


In my short story “Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents” (included in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology) I transport Evelyn all the way to 1914. I invite her into New York City’s posh Hotel Astor where, in a very private dining room, I leave her to lunch with the very unscrupulous moving picture producer H. H. Samson. (Yes, I did get an “H. H.” into my story!)

What’s the worst that could happen?

During their luncheon Evelyn desperately fights to reframe her “girl on the red velvet swing” past and reclaim her future. Will she be successful? Or will she once again fall victim to a man’s manipulation and power? Or will she find that retribution can be just as sweet as revenge?

As Miss Evelyn Nesbit presents her final demands to H. H. Samson, the results seem like a no-brainer to me.

***

Many thanks to fellow Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology contributor and SleuthSayer Eve Fisher for inviting me to guest post. Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  (Link Here)

My other stories of historic heroines include “Kate Chopin Tussles with a Novel Ending” in Fault Lines (Sisters in Crime Northern California) and my debut novel—set in 1889 New Orleans—FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER.   (Link Here)

www.anabrazil.com

16 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

Evelyn Nesbit's life is remarkably similar to Emma, Lady Hamilton - used and abused young, later married wealth, became a muse for artists. It could be said of both of them, as it was of Lady Hamilton, "In a world of aristocratic privilege and powerful men, her common birth and gender ultimately circumscribed her options." And sadly, that's still true. Great post!

janice law said...

A fine post and Nesbit is a terrific subject.

O'Neil De Noux said...

The Evelyn Nesbit story is fascinating and disturbing. Eve is right about Emma, Lady Hamilton, as well. Both victims of powerful men. Good posting.

Madeline McEwen said...

I loved your story--definitely transported to a bygone era.
Wikipedia is a fabulous resource for the imagination.
Well done!

Lynn Hesse said...

I'm sorry you couldn't attend the anthology launch. I hope we meet at another time. Now, I must read more about Ms. Nesbit.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Ana, and thanks to Eve and the other SleuthSayers for making room for it. Ana's fresh take on one of the most photographed, publicized, and misunderstood women of her day is a perfect example of why I felt a ME TOO SHORT STORIES anthology was so important. Our culture has a long history of glamorizing victims of sexual abuse and their seducers, oblivious to the fact that the women—some of them young girls—have a point of view about it. Evelyn was 11—right, Ana?—when she was first photographed and ogled and pawed, and she only did it to support her family. And 14 when White, a "friend of the family," raped her. And all most people know about her is that she was beautiful and notorious, a man's-eye view if I ever heard one and a description designed to discourage female empathy.

Robert Lopresti said...

Fascinating stuff and I look forward to reading your story. Here is an earlier SleuthSayers piece related to the White case. https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/04/the-man-who-ate-babies-parable.html

Lawrence Maddox said...

An engrossing story, Ana! Sounds like another terrific entry in the Me Too anthology.

Heather Haven said...

This is a very moving article, Ana. I think most women can relate to abuse on some level, and your using a woman in a short story who was immortalized because of her abuse(s) is laudable and timely. I cannot wait to read this story.

Ana Brazil said...

Thanks to everyone who is commenting on my post. Evelyn's story--which I researched in contemporary newspapers in addition to Wikipedia--really spoke to me, and I'm so glad that others are interested in both the her facts and my fiction.

Leigh Lundin said...

I like the idea of a historical and either of your inclinations appear ideal choices. Congratulations, Ana.

Leigh Lundin said...

@'Burt Lancaster': Act civil toward our guest. If you wish to make a point, kindly present it in a less bewildering and preferably polite manner. Thank you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

To paraphrase Eve's comment, sadly, it's still true that some men still don't get it in 2019 that trying to be funny about a grown man's "lust" for a 17-year-old "chick," ie a teenage girl, is not going to go over as an addendum to a post about how traumatic it was for a similar girl to be perceived that way a hundred years ago. Thanks, Leigh, for deleting whatever it was. I for one am grateful for and to the many decent men who treat women with respect and take us seriously as half the human race.

Eve Fisher said...

Amen, Liz and Leigh.

Leigh Lundin said...

Liz and Eve, you're welcome. Readers are free to disagree, but politely, ever civilly.

Ana, my apologies. Thank you for rising above the trolls.

Ana Manwaring said...

Ana, I can't wait to read your story. How fascinating your research.
AnaM