Book Excerpt, Elizabeth Garver Jordan, Featured, Post, Undaunted

A New Penguin Classic: Elizabeth Garver Jordan: The Case of Lizzie Borden and Other Writings, June 2024

June 24, 2024

Penguin Classics commissioned my friends Lori Harrison-Kahan and Jane Greenway Carr to edit and introduce a collection of the writings of Elizabeth Carver Jordan, 1865-1947, which they proposed. They asked me to reflect on her career in the book’s foreword which caused me to develop some new insights into Garver’s historical place. You can read the foreword and a good part of the introduction here. See if you agree.  Jordan had a multi-pronged career as a reporter who covered hard news when few women got that chance, as an essayist and fiction writer who captured what life was like for a newspaperwoman in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, as the acquisitions editor for Harper & Brothers who first signed Sinclair Lewis, and as the chief editor of Harper’s Bazaar from 1900 to 1913. My task in a thousand words was to assess  Jordan’s significance in the cavalcade of women who did what we might call men’s jobs at major publications in that period. Since Edward Bok was editing Ladies’ Home Journal at the time (1889 to 1919), her years at Bazaar also count. In her day, Jordan was somebody. Witness the length of and detail in her obituary in The New York Times:

New York Times February 25, 1947

I had long been aware of Jordan from the research I did for my 1994 biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist—not for Jordan’s career, per se, but for an 1893 short story of hers in Lippincott’s, “The Newspaper Woman’s Story,” and for her Ladies’ Home Journal essay published six years later, headlined,”What It Means to Be a Newspaper Woman.”  To me, her descriptions of the newspaper woman’s complicated lot seemed so spot-on—still so relevant—that I pulled for Undaunted the same quote I used in Bly. It appears in Undaunted where I introduce the long-forgotten Kate Masterson, a reporter who “shown as a particular star”* among woman of the period— Hearst’s New York Evening Journal sent her to cover the Cuban rebellion against Spain in 1896. Hers was a brilliant career, cut short by severe mental illness.

“What It Means to Be a Newspaper Woman” had admirers, too.  See the item about it below from The American Monthly when the essay first appeared:

Review of Reviews, January 1899

That is the only reference to Jordan in Undaunted. Looking again at the gigantic timeline of contenders I build to track my research, her name and birth-to-death dates do appear. Below is just a small section of that graph, which plots the lives of women journalists of note in their day against the major national and world events of their respective eras, from 1840 to the present. Remember that by the 1880s, the presence of women in mass media had been growing steadily since Margaret Fuller joined Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune in 1844.

For inclusion in the book, I settled on those whose stories were—to me, at least—not only the most fascinating to share with readers but also who best exemplified  the capabilities, challenges, triumphs, and defeats of women journalists in their glacial march toward parity. Jordan’s lifeline and career happened to coincide with the three all-out showstoppers of her period: Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, and Ida B. Wells, all in the Women’s National Hall of Fame. Among the lesser known women of those years to whom I did give space are the long forgotten photojournalist Sadie Kneller Miller and the diplomatic and foreign correspondent Eleanor Franklin Egan. Miller wrote baseball for the Baltimore Telegram as early as 1895 and circled the globe for the next 25 years taking photos and writing pieces for Leslie’s, the popular pictorial magazine. Egan also got her start at Leslie’s at about the same time, but went much further in national attention. She even rated a wartime presidential appointment.

What was Jordan’s distinct significance? As an editor, she quickly moved from helping edit the women’s pages of The World to the general interest sections. This is no mean achievement for a woman, given the dates, but not singular. By the 1890s, when Jordan’s dot appears on that continuum, Margaret Fuller had already been literary editor of the Tribune in the 1840s and Ellen (Nelly) MacKay Hutchinson in the same post in the 1880s. Even for the women’s magazines, Jordan’s tenure as editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar followed that of the magazine’s long-serving inaugural boss, the revered Mary L. Booth. To write a representative history, this is the kind of reasoning I had to apply to so many fabulous women in every decade over and over again. So many examples of greatness and demise; so many outstanding performances were not in the mix because their publications were not mainstream. Making the choices was hard.

In thinking out the foreword to this new Penguin Classic of Jordan’s work, I did come to see that she had a special berth. She deserves some credit for helping to bring an end to big-bylined stunt work by saying no to fame built on its exploitative aspects as she joined the staff of The World early in 1890. This was just as Bly returned from her trip around the world and would quit the newspaper in fury over Joseph Pulitzer’s disinterest in the enormous publicity and revenue her adventure generated. At that point, Bly, too, had left stunt work behind; others would quickly follow. The format by then had worn out from overexposure. Jordan, on hire, struck an unusual deal for a woman in 1890. She started out reporting for The World‘s front section, at first with her regular “True Stories of the News” feature, which gave her standing among her peers who were men—meaning, everyone in power. Although her pieces often deploy techniques considered feminine in style, they were follow-up hard news pieces, not features, and written real time on deadline.  Given the dates, this role is new and noteworthy. Here’s one of her “True Stories” pieces from November 25, 1890:

The World, November 25, 1890, page 2

Notice how The World, in keeping with newspaper front section convention, did not sign Jordan’s name to this piece, nor to her other articles in the series. That means to readers, her byline would not have been common knowledge; nor, it follows, would her reputation have had the chance to grow into outsized celebrity status the way Bly’s did just three years earlier. In Bly’s case, during her years at The Pittsburg Dispatch from 1885 to 1887, and for every story she wrote thereafter for The World or later for the New York Evening Journal, her name not only appeared at the end of each story but in almost every headline. The World did not even promote Jordan’s coverage of the June 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden in that vein, although she did get bylines at the end of her Sunday features during the proceedings, like the one below. The bulk of her daily coverage in the front section, however, went unsigned. Jordan, by the way, per her 1937 Three Rousing Cheers: An Autobiography, believed Borden was innocent.

The World, June 18, 2023.

My conjecture is that The World‘s generally muted promotion for Jordan may have been by top editor design, to avoid fostering the creation of another larger-than-life, hard-to-control Bly-like woman reporter in the mix.

Jordan’s editor roles on the women’s pages, as the paper’s assistant Sunday editor and later in charge of obituaries and comics were well below the masthead level, so no great public reputation-building possible there, either, although she clearly garnered respect from her bosses and peers.  George Harvey, her last editor at The World, took her with him when he moved on to take charge of Harper & Brothers. Before that, publicly, she had received some early notice, as in this newspaper profile from 1893:

Arizona Republic, February 2, 1893, page 8

Her later work as a magazine short story writer, essayist, and as the editor of Harper’s Bazaar were where her reputation found its chance to grow larger. That, her fiction, and her autobiography, which Appleton-Century published in 1938, secured whatever legacy she still can claim.

So how to evaluate Jordan’s particular significance as a newspaper woman? Is her work worthy of the rescue?

I think a case can be made that the deep reporting and the pathos she brought to her “True Stories from the News,” for good and for ill, presaged the next two newspaper women’s cloisters off the women’s pages, the ones that followed the stunt girl era. These were the much-maligned courtroom sob sisters of the 1900s, led by Dorothy Dix, Ada Patterson, and Nixola Greeley-Smith, and then the better remembered “front page girls”—women like Ishbel Ross—who followed them. Beyond that, Jordan’s coverage of the Lizzie Borden trial against the competition proved the possibility that other women might also be adept at covering hard news on deadline. And she certainly matters for her depictions in essays and fiction of the newspaper woman’s life at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth.

And then there is this, her 1899 prediction in the Ladies’ Home Journal essay of what the newspaper woman of the twentieth century would need to do and be. (Ida Tarbell had called for similar back in 1887 in The Chautauquan and Kate Masterson in The Era, but in the latter case, not until 1902):

Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1899

I suggest reading this new volume with these thoughts in mind.

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*shown as a particular star: letter to the New York Herald-Tribune, June 20, 1927, p. 12