Friday, August 15, 2008

Evelyn Nesbit: the Mark of a Beauty

"Plain girls are the happiest."
--Evelyn Nesbit

I am reading Paula Uruburu's spectacular biography, American Eve Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century. Evelyn began posing for artists and photographers when she was a child, before going on stage as a Florodora girl (just like my muse, Edna). She then found herself at the center of one of this country's most infamous murder trials. Joan Collins played Evelyn in a film about the events, Girl on a Red Velvet Swing.

The book is saturated with quotes from Evelyn's memoirs, letters and testimony, and she comes off as modern and savvy, brilliant in her observations of her surroundings and (many) suitors. I love biographies that strike the right balance of history and juicy personal anecdote. This one is so scandalous: velvet-covered, hidden lairs with mirrored ceilings for under-aged mistresses, clandestine surgeries in boarding school classrooms, and perhaps best of all, little beauty stories.

When Evelyn is yanked from her life as a chorus girl and sent briefly to a girls' school, she helps her new classmates concoct cosmetics using whatever they can find. In another passage, a young suitor vividly demonstrates the beauty of Evelyn's lips by floating two rose petals in a glass of milk at a restaurant. There are countless careful descriptions of her silk dresses, done up with tiny pearl buttons, and this:

"She wrote to him every day from her hotel room and kept his responses in a silk-lined tufted pink jewelry box, already stuffed with expensive hatpins from Tiffany, a small hand-painted compact full of fashionable faux beauty marks, and theatrical baubles bought on lower Broadway."

I've been meaning to tell you about faux beauty marks. But I'll let Mrs. H.R. Haweis do it. She was a beauty authority and the genius responsible for the quote you find at the bottom of each page on this blog, "A Woman is most beautiful when she is most herself and least aware of it." The following is from her 1878 book, The Art of Beauty:

"The patch, as it first came it, was one of the most harmless and effective aids to beauty ever invented. t was but a tiny, mole-like black spot of black velvet or silk, which was used to draw attention to some particular feature, as well as to enhance, by contrast, the fairness of the cheek. Thus, if a girl was conscious of a pretty dimple on her chin, or of long eyebrows; or if her forehead formed the best part of her face, or her mouth-- she cunningly placed the little patch near it, and consequently every time you looked at her your eye was insensibly drawn by the patch to the best feature, so that you partly forgot any less handsome detail. To an accustomed eye, the patch gives a singular finish to the toilet; it is like a the seal on a letter or the frame to a picture. You see the grey powdered curls and the bright eyes, and the low luxurious bodice, and the ribbon necklet around the throat-- ad if the patch is absent, it is instantly missed, and the whole toilet seems incomplete. This craft little piece of vanity was afterwards vulgarized of course... the tiny round spot was transformed into a star or a crescent, that increased in size and multiplied in number-- blind vanity forgot that in trying to draw attention to all her features at once, she drew attention to non; and, later on, it ran to such absurd extremes that ships, chariots, and horses, and other devices in black paper, began to disfigure the female visage, and at last the whole face was bespatted with vulgar shapes, having no meaning, unless sometimes a political one, and of being of no value to beauty whatever."
--Mrs. H. R. Haweis

Evelyn would had her little box of patches about fifteen years after the fad Mrs. Haweis describes. Gray-powdered curls would have been terribly out of date by then. I believe that cartoon-shape madness took place more in London than in New York. By Evelyn's time they were used more sparingly, and I imagine they were more popular with actress types. Faux beauty marks were probably one of the beauty tricks that dazzled her schoolmates.

I'm only about two-thirds through the book, and I'll be sad when it's over.