Until recently, my knowledge of Nellie Bly was limited to her 10 days in a mental institution and her race around the world, both stunts she performed for the sake of newspaper articles. Then I read a blurb which listed some of her other accomplishments. Of course in typical fashion, I can’t remember where that was, but it prompted me to read a biography to learn more about her.
Brooke Kroeger’s book, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, is well-written, very well-researched, and full of details, in some cases more than I wanted. Bly seems full of contradictions, especially when it comes to calling her a feminist, but her articles are full of information about her and her feelings about the person or topic she is writing about. Kroeger makes good use of quotes to give us a feel for these contradictions.
Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran and called “Pinky” by her family and friends. (The “e” was added to the last name later.) Her father, an immigrant from Ireland, worked his way up from mill worker to owner and left the family reasonably well-off when he died. But a disastrous second marriage by her mother, Mary Jane, and mismanagement of the children’s trust funds left Elizabeth with a distrust of some men, and a need to make her own way.
She didn’t, however, set out to become a reporter. In response to a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Elizabeth wrote a letter to the editor signed “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The editor then wrote an ad asking the author to identify herself; she did and her career began. He chose the name Nellie Bly as a pseudonym, commonly used by women at the time, and judiciously edited her early articles. Throughout her twenties, Nellie Bly wrote for women’s pages (although she hated it) and did “stunt” journalism, such as the “around the world” articles (which she loved).
Journalism was something that Nellie always returned to. By the time she was 30, she had such name recognition that she could always find work. But her life took a different turn when at the age of 31, she married 73 year old millionaire Robert Seaman. The relationship is intriguing and Kroeger does a good job describing the interaction between the two. Through Seaman, Bly became a businesswoman, eventually becoming the President of his business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. She also became an inventor and was issued a number of patents related to the business.
There were three major elements which consumed the rest of Bly’s life after Robert’s death: litigation regarding the company, her coverage of World War I from Austria, and her final years writing a column which led into a type of social work. All of this was unknown to me and I found it very interesting, with the exception of the extensive litigation. This did, however, give a lot of insight into Bly’s relationships with her family, her return to journalism, and her attitudes toward women and women’s issues at the end of her life.
The parts I enjoyed most were about Bly’s childhood and her time in Austria during the war and its aftermath. I found it astounding how uninformed she was about the war overall and specifically the stance of the United States. Never one to let what other people think affect her opinion of herself, she was convinced that she had information that President Woodrow Wilson desperately needed. With a decidedly pro-German outlook, she was definitely of interest to Military Intelligence.
Overall, the book is well worth the read. Nellie Bly was certainly much more than a “girl” reporter.
Brooke Kroeger is a journalist, a professor of journalism at New York University, and has four published books.