The Blue Raccoon

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


The New Sensation

The image of this smiling, arms-raised young woman is more than a century old. She is Evelyn Nesbit, arguably one of the first mass media sex symbols and the template for all the pathetic, tawdry scandals that followed in her wake. She was featured both in E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, the movie in which Elizabeth McGovern won an Oscar nomination portraying her, and the popular musical of the same name. And she was one of my early fascinations.

In the waning months of 2009 there've been the deaths of beautiful women who've died before the generally accepted actuarial eventuality. This has occurred to me personally, and generally.

I offer to you the words of Richmond novelist James Branch Cabell from his 1909 novel The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking. These concern the death of a pretty and vivacious young woman.

"You see the world had advanced since Stella died, -- twice around the sun, from solstice to solstice, traveling through I forget how many millions of miles; and there had been wars and scandals and a host of d├ębutantes and any number of dinners; and, after all, the world is for the living.

So we of Lichfield agreed unanimously that it was very sad, and spoke of her for a while, punctiliously, as 'poor dear Stella'": and the next week Emily Van Orden ran away with Tam Whately; and a few days later Alicia Wade's husband died, and we debated whether Teddy Anstruther would do the proper thng or sensibly marry Cecilia Reindun: and so, a little by little, we forgot our poor, dear Stella in precisely the decorous graduations of regret with which our poor dead Stella would have forgotten any one of us.

Yes, even those who loved her most deeply have forgotten Stella. They remember only an imaginary being who was entirely perfect, and of whom they were not worthy. It is this fictitious woman who has usurped the real Stella's place in the heart of the real Stella's own mother, and whom Lizzie de' Arlanges believes once to have been her sister, and over whom Peter Blagden is always ready to grow maudlin; and it is this immaculate woman -- who never existed, -- that will be until the end of Avis' matrimonial existence the standard by which Avis is measured and found wanting. And thus again, the whirligig of time, by an odd turn, brings its revenges...."

..And I? Well, I was very fond of Stella. It would be good to have her back,-- to jeer at me, to make me feel red and uncomfortable and ridiculous, to say rude things about my waist, and indeed to fluster me just by being there. Yes, it would be good."

And, thus, the year ends and takes away those who were loved and whose memory, though piquant and near now, will in time fade. As will we all.

Who will remember us? What will they write? What will they make of us, a century on?

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3 Comments:

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Brett Busang said...

You write real good, Harry. Any ideas about novelizing such "constructive nostalgia?" I'd read it - particularly if it were set in Richmond. It's a place I can at least get around.

Speaking of: a friend of mine gave me a book about Elizabeth Scott Bocock and I must admit that I'm enjoying it tremendously. I've always wanted someone to put a human face of the people who have, in some cases, mis-managed the lives of others because they could. ESB, as she is known in the book, was a pretty good manager and had Richmond's best interests at heart. Rather than decry blue-blooded culture - which is my dearest instinct - I grew to appreciate it.

In any case, I have enjoyed your posts. They have your characteristic humor and are comfortable with the world beyond the James River.

 
At 9:48 AM, Anonymous Patricia said...

I highly recommend reading Paula Uruburu's American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the birth of the "It" girl and the crime of the century. It's the best book I've read on Evelyn Nesbit.

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Patricia, thanks for dropping in at my moldering corner of the Internets. I also appreciate the recommendation.

 

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