Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter : Daredevil journalist. Shameless promoter. She made it possible, her biographer says, for women ‘to play like the boys.’
She was the most famous “girl reporter” of her day, a Victorian Brenda Starr.
Nellie Bly exposed political bribery. She got herself committed to New York’s infamous Blackwell’s Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum to expose conditions inside. She raced around the world on steamers and trains in 72 days, beating Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg. There was little she couldn’t--and didn’t--do. And she did it all with a self-promotional flamboyance that would make Geraldo pale.
But when she died, she faded from memory, living on only for children. There were no fewer than three children’s biographies of Bly published in the 1950s and two more in the late 1980s, but no account of her life for adults--until journalist Brooke Kroeger went in search of the real Nellie Bly.
Kroeger became a reporter because she read about Bly when she was a child and realized, “This was something I could do. It sounded so exciting.” The memory launched Kroeger into her first book, “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist,” published this month by Times Books.
“I felt that my daughter, Brett, really needed to meet the real-life character who had affected me so deeply,” says Kroeger, 45, a former reporter for United Press International and Newsday. “I just thought it was important for her to know what inspired me as a child, what led to her hopscotch childhood as I reported from Brussels, London, Tel Aviv. . . .”
The research spanned 3 1/2 years, leading Kroeger into newspaper morgues, small-town courthouses and to Vienna.
The Bly she found was far more than the muckraking reporter who had inspired her. Kroeger found a self-made and a self-absorbed woman who “acted on whatever passion she felt at the moment” to national applause and her peers’ dismay.
She found a compassionate activist who championed working women and found homes for orphans. She found a shameless promoter who endorsed soap and flirted with the mighty.
Nellie Bly would not have wanted to be forgotten. Kroeger did not want journalism to forget the reporter who, while not the first nor the last female journalist of great accomplishment, changed the rules of the game: “Nellie Bly made it possible to play like the boys,” Kroeger says.
I wonder when they’ll send a girl to travel around the sky.
Read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly.
Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864, a Pennsylvania mill-town girl with little education. She started in journalism at 21, hired by the Pittsburgh Dispatch after she wrote a letter to the paper rebutting a columnist’s lament that there were too many idle, poor young women in this new Industrial Age who could not sew, spin and cook.
The paper gave her the pen name and she became a champion of the working girl. But after nine months at the Dispatch, Bly declared that she was “too impatient to work along at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers.”
She went to Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and was handed a seemingly impossible assignment: Infiltrate the city’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum.
Her career was launched with “Inside the Madhouse.” Bly became the first and best of the “stunt girls,” Pulitzer’s form of new journalism in which derring-do female reporters exposed wrongs and built newspaper circulation.
When she returned from her crowning achievement as a stunt girl--her dash around the world--Bly was famous, inspiring the names of a board game, a railroad train and a racehorse.
Bly was no great literary voice, and no great intellect. But she wrote what she saw with a fresh bluntness and compassion, giving voice to those who had no voice, the new class of young women who staffed factory lines by day and defied Victorian morals by night, as in this excerpt from an interview with a working girl “gone bad.”
“ ‘Risk my reputation!’ and she gave a short laugh. ‘I don’t think I ever had one to risk. I work hard all day, week after week, for a mere pittance. I go home at night tired of labor and longing for something new, anything good or bad to break the monotony of my existence. . . . I cannot go to places of amusement for want of clothes and money, and no one cares what becomes of me.’ ”
In another story, Bly asked a child in a factory why she wasn’t in school:
“ ‘I’m through school, and Father don’t make enough money to keep us all.’
“ ‘How old are you?’
“ ‘I don’t know just how old I am.’
“ ‘Well, you look to be eight or 10.’ ”
While Bly championed the unfortunate, she also trumpeted herself. Her name appeared in the headlines on her stories, which were all first person. Every compliment she received turned up in print.
“It would be more grateful all around if Nelly (sic) would not take herself quite so seriously and would let up on these periodic descriptions of her glorious eyes and her career,” wrote the Journalist, the trade journal of the era.
Bly left journalism in 1895 to marry Robert Seaman, a 70-year-old New York millionaire, and took over his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. upon his death. She built showers, a bowling alley, two libraries and a clinic for the workers, living up to her belief that owners should share their profits.
But her ignorance of accounting and blind affection for her cheating factory manager brought her down. The business went bankrupt, and Bly resorted to hiding her books from the courts, withholding information and warring with her family.
Broke, Bly returned to the New York Evening Journal, ending her days as an advice columnist and activist who found homes for orphans.
Bly died of a heart attack on Jan. 27, 1922. Her grave in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery lay bare until 1978, when a California student came searching for it and Woodlawn’s public relations director persuaded the New York Press Club to install a headstone.
As she worked on her book, Kroeger learned that she was among many women who had been inspired by the children’s books about Bly.
Muriel Nussbaum resurrects Bly in a one-woman show that has been performed at colleges, historical societies and the Smithsonian. “Nellie was the forerunner of the very modern and bold woman,” Nussbaum says. “She was a woman who would say, ‘I will expose injustice, and if my story changes the social condition, good. But first spell my name right and pay me well.’ ”
“I wanted to be Nellie Bly my whole life,” says Bernice Kanner, senior editor at New York magazine. “When she faked insanity and had to stay in the madhouse for weeks until her boss came to get her, when she had to bathe in dirty water used by all the inmates. That is the sharpest memory of my childhood. It is why I went into journalism.”
As Kroeger realized the scope of Bly’s impact, it became more important to her to resurrect the real woman, but she wasn’t sure she could succeed. Bly died poor, her personal affairs a mess. There were no diaries or journals, no huge catalogues of letters.
“Most scholarly biographers would just cut bait. They wouldn’t do it,” Kroeger says. “But she was such a heroine to me, I didn’t feel it was fair for her to get buried because her life was a mess at the end and she didn’t have a chance to get her files in order.”
Kroeger found her basic investigative reporting skills doubled well as a biographer’s tools. She read Bly’s stories and drew on her own days as a foreign correspondent to get Bly’s military intelligence file in Austria, where Bly covered World War I.
Best of all, from a biographer’s point of view, Kroeger learned that contentious Nellie Bly liked to sue people. “She left a huge legal record,” the author says. “And that really saved this from being another children’s book.”
It is difficult, 72 years after Bly’s death, to measure her impact on journalism. Early histories of the field, notably the 1940 “History of Journalism in the United States,” don’t even mention her. Only now, in a new era when women make up 60% of journalism school students, is she being discussed in college classrooms, says Tom Leonard, professor of journalism history at UC Berkeley.
“Reporters like Nellie Bly were one of the marketing techniques of yellow journalism, one of the fresh story ideas that editors brought in to boost circulation,” Leonard says. “They were sometimes respected and sometimes paid well, but it did not mean women were being ushered into the newsroom. They really couldn’t break down the door for later generations.”
But Brooke Kroeger believes that Nellie Bly and the stunt girls led a revolution, carrying women off the society page and onto the front page.
“I can’t imagine the editors of her day were excited about the idea of throwing a woman onto the front page as often as she got there,” Kroeger says. “But she got there nearly every time she wrote, which in itself is astounding. It’s hard to understand today what that really meant in its context.
“We (women) really thought we were blazing trails when we entered journalism in the early 1970s,” Kroeger says. “We thought we were crashing through the barriers. It just wasn’t true. There was this wonderful time of women in the history of journalism that got forgotten. And that’s something that really shouldn’t happen again.”