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Author explores mystique of Tarentum's Nesbit

Bill Shirley | For the Valley News Dispatch
Denise, Eric and Judi Deskins pose with a print of Evelyn Nesbit at Hill Crest County Club in Lower Burrell on Friday, Oct. 12, 2012. Tarentum’s Nesbit, a Gibson girl in the early 20th Century, was the topic of discussion at the Alle-Kiski Valley Historical Society’s annual dinner.

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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:51 a.m.

As just a teenager, Tarentum's Evelyn Nesbit was a Gibson girl, a chorus girl, a super model, a millionaire magnet and “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.”

She was a turn-of-the-century glamour girl — the “it” girl before anyone knew what “it” was.

A century after she wowed the world, she's as popular as ever, evidenced by a full house for a presentation on Nesbit Friday evening at Hill Crest Country Club in Lower Burrell.

Likely the most-photographed woman of the early 20th century, Nesbit's youthful, spellbinding beauty was so potent that her millionaire husband Harry K. Thaw murdered her lover, New York socialite and architect Stanford White.

“Nothing Evelyn has been involved in was ever mundane,” said Paula Uruburu, author of “American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the ‘It' Girl and the Crime of the Century.”

Uruburu, an associate professor and former chairwoman of the English department at Hofstra University, Long Island, spoke about her 10-plus years of research into Nesbit's life for the Alle-Kiski Valley Historical Society's annual dinner.

She said of all the places that she has given presentations on Nesbit, “This is the most special talk because it's Evelyn's hometown.”

Uruburu proceeded to tell the tales of Nesbit, whose family was impoverished when she was 11 years old by the death of her father. She left the area when she was 15 to find more promising opportunities in Philadelphia, where she started as a model and quickly moved to New York City, where her career exploded as a model and chorus girl.

After the murder, Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to an asylum and Nesbit was financially cut off. She went on to work in silent films and spent the a good part of her life with her son Russell Thaw, an aviator, according to Uruburu.

Nesbit died in Los Angeles at the age of 82.

While looking through Nesbit's letters, Uruburu said the star reflected on her life and about “how she rocked civilizations and that they needed a good kick in the ass.”

Uruburu first got interested in Nesbit when she included the ragtime sex symbol for her literature course “Daughters of Decadence.”

It took many years for Uruburu to mine Nesbit's story, traveling to California to interview Nesbit's grandson and unlikely parts of the country to find a treasure trove of letters written by Nesbit and Thaw.

She credited local Tarentum historian Bob Lucas as one of her first sources.

She spoke to family and some of Nesbit's relatives still living in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

Descendants of Frank Donnell, who was one of Nesbit's cousins, came to learn more about their famous relative and brought their family tree to show how just their side of the family has more than 70 Nesbit relatives.

“Pap (Donnell) just liked to tell stories about Evelyn, who would come to visit him in the summer,” said Judy Deskins, the wife of the late Larry Deskins, Donnell's grandson.

“He talked about the movie, ‘The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,' but was very quiet about the nasty side of her life.”

Eric Deskins, 47, of Fawn, who lives just a few hundred yards from where Nesbit visited his great-grandfather, is just beginning to learn about her legend.

“I can't wait to read the book,” he said, holding an autographed copy of Uruburu's work.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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