With Her Pen, Who Needs Swords? : NELLIE BLY: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, <i> By Brooke Kroeger (Times Books: 27.50; 614 pp.)</i>
The pleasure and the trepidation of reading a grown-up biography of a childhood role model, with all the possibilities of hero-worship fulfilled or idols dashed, made these 614 pages feel even weightier in my hands when I picked up “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist.”
Except for the daredevil part--I get sick on roller coasters--Nellie Bly was who I wanted to be. A “juvenile” biography I read at age 9 or 10 introduced me to a woman who was no self-effacing Clara Barton or Florence Nightingale marshmallow heroine fed to us girls as laudable, namby-pamby handmaidens of male waywardness.
Bly’s was the thrilling account of a trailblazer--emphasis blaze , as in glory --a pioneering journalist who made things happen with her pen. She committed herself to a madhouse to expose the abuse of inmates. She labored in sweatshops to learn the truths about factory girls. She invited the braggadocio of a powerful New York lobbyist and then creamed him with his own words. She argued the human worth of poor women and children at a time when Victorian class niceties still made a distinction between deserving “ladies” and mere “women.”
And of course, less significantly but to fabulous effect, Nellie Bly traveled around the world in 72 days, making headlines and doing it with a suitcase smaller than a Bullocks Wilshire shopping bag. She was America’s Lady Lindbergh, 40 years before the Lone Eagle.
Whatta career. Whatta woman.
Now I was meeting her again, in this closely detailed biography of one of the few women who was a household word in turn-of-the-century America, star of her own product line and, for a time, the haphazard but powerful social conscience of New York.
Ours was a mostly happy reacquaintance.
To the bad, it turns out that Bly was a sloppy speller, and not always meticulous in attributing her information. She tore up her notes after writing her stories (a bad idea, then and now), and she skedaddled off to wartime Europe in 1914 to avoid an indictment for not opening her metalworks company’s books to a judge.
She nicked three years off her age when she was but 25, she sometimes flirted with story subjects and threatened to go to another newspaper if she was thwarted--but she didn’t cry to get a story. She was impulsive, brash, ardent, prideful, stubborn, more doer than thinker.
Hers was the Gilded Age of big money, big railroads, big dreams and to make good, she had to match it, a Horatio Algerette who valued pluck and brains and courage, who scrapped to support her family and make her way, and didn’t mind crowing about it.
In an era when decent women’s names appeared in print only three times--at birth, marriage and death--”Nellie Bly,” the pseudonym that Elizabeth Cochrane’s first editor gave her, from a Stephen Foster song, became a brand name for a kind of bold personal journalism that had passion and a moral imperative behind it.
Think of Oriana Fallaci and Barbara Walters with a dose of Madonna’s flair for publicity. Bly was one of her own best topics. “You are indifferent to everything,” an interview subject asserted in frustration. “Not to dogs,” she declared blithely.
Bly was also her own best press agent. It was hardly a Nellie Bly story if it didn’t note that someone was charmed by her eyes or bowled over by her wit. A New York newspaper trade journal that never liked her much wrote snippily, “Of course we all know that she is the smartest woman that ever lived, and has accomplished more than all the men journalists of this century put together. . . .” (The same journal often rated New York’s few women journalists by looks, marveling that one “comes from Boston, but does not wear eyeglasses.”)
Thirty-seven years elapsed between Bly’s first newspaper story, in 1885, and her last. She lived through and wrote about two wars, the labor movement, women’s suffrage, the automobile, birth control and Prohibition--always confident that what she had to say was worth reading. Almost always, people agreed.
Some colleagues considered her the best newspaper reporter in the nation, full stop. With blunt questions put in a soft voice, she refined the interview technique and the intimate profile that has become de rigueur in American journalism. Vanity Fair has nothing on Nellie Bly. Boxer John L. Sullivan let her pinch his muscles, and confessed with what sounds like astonishment, “I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life.”
Her name appeared in big type at a time when reporters rarely got bylines. She was willing to try anything once, but in an age of “stunt” journalism, hers resonated with rare personal conviction.
With a newspaper audience titillated by “girl reporters” pulling manly escapades, Bly’s stunts sometimes made a point, among them the “new American woman,” who could travel unchaperoned around the world, who journeyed to Mexico to report with only her mother as company.
Hers was not a publisher’s power. When an artist sent to Cuba by William Randolph Hearst to illustrate battles said he couldn’t find any war, Hearst wired back, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Bly’s force was in her passion for doing good, and her conviction that she could. (Both her tactics--posing as someone she was not and her personal politics--would get her the boot at most newspapers today.) The force of her name and her very healthy ego were, as far as she was concerned, tools to accomplish that.
Read all about it--Nellie Bly exposes washing machine swindles, fake mind-readers, co-ed jails! Nellie Bly speaks out against women gambling, sloppily dressed suffragists and “parasite” women who don’t need to work but take jobs from women who do! Nellie Bly praises birth control and plastic surgery, divorce reform and hair dye for men!
She could command other paper’s ink on the mere promise to raise a regiment of women for the Spanish-American War, though nothing came of it. To an old friend who wrote up her later business success, she wrote disarmingly, “Aren’t you afraid I will get a big head?”
One hundred years ago, only about 250 women worked as bona fide journalists at the nation’s many newspapers. The simple fact of being a woman in a man’s profession, coupled with Bly’s eye for detail and willingness to hear people out, brought to her readers fresh voices they might never have heard otherwise. While her male colleagues wrote of the power politics of the famous Pullman strike and Coxey’s Army, Bly visited the families. “The question Bly always seemed to ask of God and life,” wrote author Brooke Kroeger, herself a longtime reporter, “was how she could do her part to save the world from wherever she happened to be standing.”
Bly never stood in one place for long. From her first paper to the big New York dailies, the restless Bly went through as many retirements and comebacks as Sarah Bernhardt, each as splashy and full of promise as the first.
The quandary in writing Bly’s biography was not a lack of published material or that much of it was difficult to mine, but that a life lived so publicly and melodramatically should yield frustratingly little firsthand information on Bly’s private self.
Only seven of her letters exist; she kept no diary. Much of her life just appeared, often in flatteringly colored fashion, on the pages of the New York World or the Journal. So Kroeger works to find the private Bly in the public one:
In Bly’s early arguments pleading understanding for struggling women, she demands, “If sin in the form of a man comes forward with a wily smile and says, fear no more, your debts shall be paid, she cannot let her children freeze or starve, and so falls. Well, who shall blame her?”
In such frankness, Kroeger finds Bly’s feelings about a father who died, leaving his family inadequately provided for, about a mother who could never manage her own life and remarried a drunken lout, a ne’er-do-well brother who lived on his sister’s industry (and who, gallingly, was once credited with writing her stories).
Bly had perhaps one failed romance, perhaps two. In her own stories and in her one truly bad novel, she was always the queen of hearts. She married at 30 a man of 70, an industrialist whose family was against the marriage, and when it looked as if it might not last--he sent a servant to follow Bly, and she turned the man in to police--Bly went back to work.
The marriage did last, for 10 years, and when Edward Seaman died, Bly ran his ironworks with profitable bravado. She learned every machine in the factory, held 25 industrial patents and extended to her 1,500 employees the benefits she had seen missing in the labor turbulence she once covered--showers, recreation, hospital care.
What broke Bly was not business, but embezzlement and betrayal, first by trusted employees who spent her thousands on campaign contributions and even a yacht, and later by some of her own family. “I cannot blame myself enough for not having learned banking methods and commercial accounting . . . ,” she lamented.
Even World War I looked more peaceful than the New York courts. Bly spent virtually the entire war in Austria, writing about Austrians’ suffering as a universal, even after America entered the war on the other side. Cut off from Allied information, she finally abandoned her correspondent role to plead Austria’s cause, at the end of the war warning Woodrow Wilson by a letter to the Democratic Party chairman that “hunger breeds Bolschewismus (Bolshevism).”
And back in New York, she started over, yet again, in her 50s, with the only successful column she ever wrote, an advice feature that became so influential that desperate women abandoned their babies with instructions to give them to Nellie Bly. Skirting the authorities with her usual impatience, she arranged adoptions and foster care, help to homeless boys and unwed mothers. Her last column ran the day she was hospitalized with the heart disease and bronchopneumonia that would kill her at age 57.
So dense is this book that even I, an acolyte, found myself nodding over the detailed bankruptcy court sessions. And yet what I so much wanted to read--one or two complete Nellie Bly stories, as overwritten and quaint as they might be--I did not get.
Most poignant were two enduring echoes of Bly’s voice, her pained rejoinder to a critic and her wistful query to the world. They mark how small, in truth, are the years between her life and mine.
“Century after century,” she told a male journalist who mocked some feminist idea of hers, “you men have been jeering, imprisoning, burning, scoffing (at) every person who came forward with a new idea.”
And then, in 1912, eight years before women could vote and a quarter-hour before Woodrow Wilson was sworn in as president, she charmed a guard into letting her stand on the empty swearing-in platform. “Will you and I,” she wrote later, “ever see a woman stand there and take the oath of office?”
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