The Wall Street Journal
“The Mother of All Girl Reporters”
By Amy Gamerman
She had herself committed to a Victorian insane asylum. She circled the globe in 72 days and set a new record. She put on tights and joined a chorus line. She put on boxing gloves and knocked down a champion prizefighter. She rode an elephant. She inspired songs, a board game, and a minor fashion in caps.
She was Nellie Bly, girl reporter. Newspaper readers in the late 19th century knew her as the Personification of Pluck. Picture George Plimpton in a bustle, and you have an idea of the heroine of Brooke Kroeger’s “Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist” (Times Books, 631 pages, $27.50).
Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, the 13th child of a wealthy Pennsylvania judge. On his death, the family lost most of its money. After one semester in teacher’s college, Bly was forced to quit.
In 1885, she was back home trying to figure out what to do with her life, when she read a column in the Pittsburg (sic) Dispatch lecturing women not to stray from the “Woman’s Sphere” — the home. Irked, Bly wrote an impassioned letter to the editor about the plight of poor girls like herself who needed a good job but couldn’t find one, and signed it “Lonely Orphan Girl.”
An impressed editor placed an ad asking the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. Bly did, and came away with an assignment, headlined “The Girl Puzzle.” In no time, she had a job at the Dispatch for $5 a week. Since it was unthinkable for a lady to write under her own name, the boys at the paper gave her one — Nellie Bly.
Just four years later that byline would be one of the most famous in America, thanks to Bly’s love of risk, her distaste for reporting on rubber raincoats and haircare — and editors’ eagerness to try new ways to boost circulation. As one colleague put it, “A voyage through the Minetta sewer or a fake bomb attack on a British man-of-war no longer stirred the jaded sense, but done by a girl with a name like Nellie Bly . . .”
When Bly arrived in New York at the age of 23, she had already put in a five-month stint as a foreign correspondent in Mexico (her mother came as her chaperone). But she couldn’t get her foot in the door of the city’s top editors. Then she came up with the idea of interviewing them for the Dispatch. The subject? How a woman could get a job as a reporter. The editor of the Sun told Bly that women didn’t make good reporters because they weren’t accurate. “Here I groaned mentally for the fate of this interview,” Bly quipped.
Bly had her flaws as a reporter: Her stories, though lively, were corny even by Victorian standards. But she made up for it in moxie. When the editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World challenged her to report on the city’s infamous woman’s insane asylum — from the inside — Bly didn’t miss a beat. She checked into a boarding house under a fake name, began to rave, and was hauled off: first to police court, then to Bellevue, and finally to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women. For 10 days, she endured icy baths, cruel nurses and genuine crazy people until a lawyer rescued her.
Her story was a sensation. In subsequent adventures for the World — the leading paper of its time — Bly exposed a corrupt Albany lobbyist; arranged her own arrest (to investigate prison conditions); and attempted to buy a newborn baby. In the process, she spawned a slew of quaintly named imitators. Viola Roseboro dressed herself in rags and went begging on the streets, while Nell Nelson went undercover for a “White Slave Girls” expose.
Pushed to evermore daring stunts, Bly set off around the world in a bid to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Although she only sent back a handful of cables during her 72-day trip, the World reported her progress with regular bulletins, complete with illustrations of the globe-girdler in her checked travel coat and peaked cap. On her triumphant return, Bly was greeted by thousands of well-wishers — but no bonus. She quit.
Bly would work as a journalist on and off until her death in 1922. But it was sometimes hard to distinguish her real life antics from her reportorial stunts. Her 1895 marriage to a 70-year-old millionaire prompted this mock headline: “Is Marriage a Failure? Nelly Bly Tries It with a Good Old Man!! Her Experiences and His!!! A Divorce Applied for to Set Our Contributor Free!!!”
Taking the earnest if plodding bio-by-the-numbers approach, Ms. Kroeger tracks every dip and rise in Bly’s life. After 300 pages, even this girl reporter’s interest began to flag. Ms. Kroeger’s fondness for phrases like “shackles of gender” and “congenital feminist” does not make the going smoother.
Bly would probably have a good laugh over the author’s politically correct contortions. She filled her columns with references to her tiny waist, her winning smile — and their effect on her male subjects. An example of her tactics, from an interview with a controversial governor, follows:
“You can get anything you ask for when you smile,” said the smitten gov.
“I’m smiling now,” Bly replied. “So do tell me, are you an anarchist?”
Video, event summaries from recent talks in Reports from the Road.
2021 Events: “The Branded Journalist: Nellie Bly Changes the Game.” [VIDEO of TALK] Ephemera Society of America, Jan. 14, 2020, 3pm. Nellie Bly: Pioneer of Investigative Journalism.” American Woman Writers National Museum, March 10, 2021, at noon. Empire State Center for the Book, March 18, 2021, 7pm.