This past month I've been absolutely riveted reading Paula Uruburu's book about the country's first "it" girl, Evelyn Nesbit, and the murder of her lover, Stanford White in American Eve. (The lover was offed by her insane millionaire husband, Harry Thaw, in 1906 and was a tabloid sensation, complete with an OJ-worthy trial of the century.)
The book was sent to me by Penguin Press innocuously enough in March when I returned home to Los Angeles after a two-month stint in New York, where I've been living "bicoastally" this year. I was sucked in instantly as I read that this crazy non-fictional event went down in Madison Square Park. The apartment I've been staying at when I go to Manhattan is quite close to the park, and it has become a bit of a favorite hang for me in the city. Since I'm a little superstitious about coincidences, I immediately hit the couch with blankets and the book at my first possible opportunity.
I'm always exhilarated by how, despite advances in modern technology, the human condition is fairly constant throughout history. You start thinking Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus are the product of some sort of cultural decline, but those two pop princesses hold nothing on Evelyn. From her disastrously negligent stage mother who pimped her out for a life of luxury, to the pervy old men who abused her, to the gawking public that watched, this book is further proof to me that Alexis de Tocqueville's theory about our country's inevitable slide into a diluted, cultural void (from Democracy in America) is dead on. Even more true when you consider how swiftly we're becoming an unchecked nation of crowd-sourcers obsessed with our me-centric devices.
I'm so glad I took the time to read this book and delve into a bit of New York's history. (I vowed after a lovely dinner with friends in Brooklyn in January, in which I had nothing but politics to talk about, that I would have to make a concerted effort to broaden my election-fried brain's horizons and get more interesting.) Since I've just moved permanently to New York, as a newbie it's fascinating and romantic to imagine all the other people who have come here over the centuries looking for adventures that would push their minds and boundaries. I walk in the park and imagine Evelyn's gorgeous gowns and the flashes of old-fashioned cameras, what she must have thought caught between two powerful and commanding men, how lonely she must have been with nothing but her good looks and work.
In an interesting corresponding detail, a few weeks ago a New York Times reporter named William Niederkorn began following me on Twitter, which alerted me to his amazing blog, The Times Traveler. He blogs stories from the NYT that occurred 100 years ago. This morning we met for a lovely early breakfast in Gramercy Park and discussed the old turn-of-the-century headlines. It was amazing listening to him talk in past-present speak: "Ah, yes. Harry K. Thaw is about to have a bad couple weeks as he tries to get out of his asylum."
I love William's project because it's amazing, between all the frenetic news coverage we consume in a day, to think of the history we're creating. To imagine some nano-blogger updating via ESP 100 years from now, chuckling at the nuances of our tweets, seeing our "future" with the benefit of hindsight. What's so serious -- torture, wire-tapping, a war -- hangs in the balance of the moment, but is nothing without context. A story that can go any way we choose to live it, document it.
So much of storytelling these days is about reacting at lightning speed, and I am as guilty as the next person of perpetuating it. It's experiences like these, though, that remind me of the important need to practice slow journalism now and then. The reflective kind that uncovers beautiful mysteries, and leaves your skin tingling on a routine walk in the park.