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Historiography in Mass Communications: Brooke Kroeger Q&A on Researching Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, Spring 2023

May 1, 2023

You can access the May 2023 issue of Historiography in Mass Communications on the publication’s site.

“Leave no stone unturned. Be fierce in your determination to find the unfindable. And learn to ‘will’ things you need badly to appear. Often, they do.”


Book Award Interview Brooke Kroeger ©

Brooke Kroeger’s Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist was named a 1994 NPR Best Book of the Year. She has published five other books, including Fannie: The Talent for Success of Writer Fannie Hurst (1998, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of the Year); Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are (2003, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch Best Books of the Year); Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception (2012, a finalist for the Frank Luther Mott Research Award from Kappa Tau Alpha); and The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote (Gold Medal in U.S. History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize of the Center for Political History). Her latest book is Undaunted: How Women Changed American Journalism (Knopf). It will be published this month. Ms. Kroeger is professor emerita at New York University, where she taught from 1998 to 2021 and served for six years as chair and founding director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Earlier, she was UN Correspondent for Newsday and deputy metropolitan editor for New York Newsday. With United Press International, she reported from Chicago, Brussels, London, and Tel Aviv, where she was bureau chief before returning to London as division editor for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The following interview is for her book Nellie Bly.


Historiography: Give us a brief summary of your book.


Kroeger: Published in 1994, it was the first heavily documented biography of Nellie Bly, and was meant to be as reliant as possible on primary sources.


Historiography: How did you get the idea for your book?


Kroeger: In 1990, my middle school-aged daughter, Brett, had a research assignment from school to do a “famous woman” project. I suggested she research Nellie Bly, my childhood hero. In those pre-Internet days, through our local bookstore, we placed an ad in the Antique Trader for the juvenile book I had read, the one by Mignon Rittenhouse. Two biographies arrived; the other one by Nina Brown Baker. Brett read the books and quickly realized how much of the material must have been fictionalized since the two books differed on many points. Brett created a board game for her project (“Bly gets a job at the Pittsburg Dispatch! Advance three spaces!) and told her mother, “Maybe you should write one.” It struck me as a good idea.


Historiography: Tell us about the research you did for your book: What were your sources, how did you research your book, how long did you spend, and so forth?


Kroeger: I prepared a proposal for a publisher, only 14 pages, double-spaced, as it was already clear the primary material available was very sparse indeed. In the text of the proposal, I said that if Bly proved too hard to pin down as thoroughly as she needed to be pinned down, the book would be about women journalists in the last decade and a half of the nineteenth century more generally.

I spent three years, literally day and night, seven days a week. I started with a handful of letters at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and a couple at Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History (Smith College).


I discovered letters in other collections. Syracuse, for example, had a neat stack of them from correspondence with Arthur Brisbane, but in her married name of Elizabeth C. Seaman. The library didn’t know what it had.


She turned out to be very litigious; there was an ample legal record.


I went to Austria to the Staatsarchiv in Vienna. Records there are meticulously indexed, and I managed to find all the wartime articles she had submitted to the military censors and her correspondence with the authorities.


At the National Archives, I found her passport application (“retroussee nose”) and other valuable correspondence with the U.S. embassy in Vienna. From military intelligence records, I found records of the scrutiny she was under during the post-war talks at Versailles as she warned President Wilson’s team about the threat of the Bolsheviks.


In Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, with the help of a wonderful local historian, I found her baptismal record, which established her age as three years older than she claimed, and the chilling transcription of the testimony she gave at the divorce proceedings of her mother and her drunken lout of a second husband, not to mention her business debacles in later life.


City directories year by year and census records proved important. In her probate packet, I found an envelope on which she had scribbled her net worth in 1919 — almost nothing on her return from Vienna. And I found the first clue to the last living link to Nellie Bly, a per stirpes heir whom she had placed with a family in Ohio.


Through the necrology files of the historical society in Cleveland, I was able to trace that family to St. Petersburg, Florida, where, with the help of a real estate agent, followed them to Ashville, North Carolina, where I found Dorothy Brauer alive, in her eighties, with early dementia but with pristine memory of her early life and time with Nellie. Her own daughter had been collecting documentation on her mother in hopes of establishing that she was U.S.-born and being able to obtain a passport for her. They never did. The daughter let me copy all of the orphanage records she had from two New York area institutions. I visited both and obtained other records as well.


The man who helped her in Austria, the sugar refiner Oscar Bondy, emigrated to the United States during World War II. Through his probate record and connections to his family, I was able to fill out a fuller picture of him, too.


As for Bly’s husband, the industrialist Robert Seaman, I did genealogical records as I did for Nellie, and used state and local histories and New York City and Brooklyn business records to fill out his profile. Beyond all of that, there was Bly’s published record and the hundreds upon hundreds of articles about her. (How nice it would have been to have had or in those days!)


But I have to say that in subsequent searches just for the fun of it, I don’t seem to have missed much at all doing things the old-fashioned way. Scrolling the microfilm for the New York World took six full months, every workday, all day at the New York Historical Society, and I hired a researcher at the University of Texas (not the HRC), where the only known extant full runs of the New York Evening Journal and Journal American are (or were) housed.


Historiography: Besides the sources you used, were there any others you wish you had been able to examine?


Kroeger: Two things: I didn’t know Harvard had pristine copies of the New York World, still on paper in 1990-1994, which would have made much better images for the book than the ones I had to extract from scratchy microfilm or silver prints. Also, I did not have all of Bly’s Family Story Paper stories, as copies of the publication in the United States are few. Kudos to David Blixt, who thought to go find their London edition in the past couple of years. It doesn’t substantively change what I wrote, but of course I would have liked to have eyeballed them all. And of course, had her personal letters been preserved, I wouldn’t have had so few to work with. I ended up with something like two hundred of them, having started with only six. Still — for a biography, few.


Historiography: Based on your research for the book, what would you advise other historians in our field about working with sources?


Kroeger: Leave no stone unturned. Be fierce in your determination to find the unfindable. And learn to “will” things you need badly to appear. Often, they do.


Historiography: What were the challenges you faced in researching your book? Kroeger: I had some great good fortune and enormous privilege with a husband willing to take on all the quotidian duties of life together. I was freelancing at the time, so did not have a competing academic schedule yet and my daughter was in school all day, my husband was an amazing support-force, as just noted, and his children were college-aged. That book could never have been written in three years without that enormous freedom.


Historiography: Is it possible to get too close to a research subject? How do historians maintain their neutrality of viewpoint when conducting and interpreting research?


Kroeger: For me, it was a matter of journalistic training. There had been enough hagiography in the juvenile books about Nellie Bly. Her life was a complicated one and I was determined, even at the expense of providing too much detail, to give as accurate an accounting of it as possible. Since there was no repository with her papers and given that everything I found had be scraped together from so many disparate locales, I thought of the book as an archive for future researchers, a road map. Not to over-credit myself, but I think the record over these past thirty years indicates it has fulfilled that mission.


Historiography: What new insights does your book provide?


Kroeger: It filled in the gaps in her story after the trip around the world. It gives a fuller account of her journalism after the trip around the world, her marriage, her work as an industrialist, her manifold legal wrangles, the troubles with her family, her four years in Austria during the entirety of World War I, her appeals at Versailles, and her work for Arthur Brisbane at the New York Evening Journal until her death in 1922. Her goals and sense of mission to serve the under-served — even as her circumstances changed radically at several points — never changed. There was authenticity in her public persona.


Historiography: What findings most surprised you?


Kroeger: The contours of the marriage, how she spent her time in Austria and its aftermath, straight through to her days at the Journal. And then there was the discovery of her ward. That was extraordinary.


Historiography: What advice would you give to people in our field who are considering doing a book in JMC history?


Kroeger: As noted above. Leave no stone unturned. Deploy the force of your will to find what seems to be unfindable. The joy of the hunt carried me. My second biography subject, Fannie Hurst, left every scrap of paper in her long life to the Harry Ransom Center. Research was lengthy for that book but easier than the work on Bly (and as an experience, less satisfying without such a heavy detective-work onus). Nonetheless, I stopped myself from being content with all that I found in one place. I made myself redeploy the strategies I had developed doing the work on Bly, especially for Hurst’s early life in St. Louis.

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