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With Her Pen, Who Needs Swords? : NELLIE BLY: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, By Brooke Kroeger (Times Books: 27.50; 614 pp.)

March 06, 1994|Patt Morrison | Patt Morrison is a Times staff writer

The pleasure and the trepidation of reading a grown-up biography of a childhood role model, with all the possibilities of hero-worship fulfilled or idols dashed, made these 614 pages feel even weightier in my hands when I picked up "Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist."

Except for the daredevil part--I get sick on roller coasters--Nellie Bly was who I wanted to be. A "juvenile" biography I read at age 9 or 10 introduced me to a woman who was no self-effacing Clara Barton or Florence Nightingale marshmallow heroine fed to us girls as laudable, namby-pamby handmaidens of male waywardness.

Bly's was the thrilling account of a trailblazer--emphasis blaze , as in glory --a pioneering journalist who made things happen with her pen. She committed herself to a madhouse to expose the abuse of inmates. She labored in sweatshops to learn the truths about factory girls. She invited the braggadocio of a powerful New York lobbyist and then creamed him with his own words. She argued the human worth of poor women and children at a time when Victorian class niceties still made a distinction between deserving "ladies" and mere "women."

And of course, less significantly but to fabulous effect, Nellie Bly traveled around the world in 72 days, making headlines and doing it with a suitcase smaller than a Bullocks Wilshire shopping bag. She was America's Lady Lindbergh, 40 years before the Lone Eagle.

Whatta career. Whatta woman.

Now I was meeting her again, in this closely detailed biography of one of the few women who was a household word in turn-of-the-century America, star of her own product line and, for a time, the haphazard but powerful social conscience of New York.

Ours was a mostly happy reacquaintance.

To the bad, it turns out that Bly was a sloppy speller, and not always meticulous in attributing her information. She tore up her notes after writing her stories (a bad idea, then and now), and she skedaddled off to wartime Europe in 1914 to avoid an indictment for not opening her metalworks company's books to a judge.

She nicked three years off her age when she was but 25, she sometimes flirted with story subjects and threatened to go to another newspaper if she was thwarted--but she didn't cry to get a story. She was impulsive, brash, ardent, prideful, stubborn, more doer than thinker.

Hers was the Gilded Age of big money, big railroads, big dreams and to make good, she had to match it, a Horatio Algerette who valued pluck and brains and courage, who scrapped to support her family and make her way, and didn't mind crowing about it.

In an era when decent women's names appeared in print only three times--at birth, marriage and death--"Nellie Bly," the pseudonym that Elizabeth Cochrane's first editor gave her, from a Stephen Foster song, became a brand name for a kind of bold personal journalism that had passion and a moral imperative behind it.

Think of Oriana Fallaci and Barbara Walters with a dose of Madonna's flair for publicity. Bly was one of her own best topics. "You are indifferent to everything," an interview subject asserted in frustration. "Not to dogs," she declared blithely.

Bly was also her own best press agent. It was hardly a Nellie Bly story if it didn't note that someone was charmed by her eyes or bowled over by her wit. A New York newspaper trade journal that never liked her much wrote snippily, "Of course we all know that she is the smartest woman that ever lived, and has accomplished more than all the men journalists of this century put together. . . ." (The same journal often rated New York's few women journalists by looks, marveling that one "comes from Boston, but does not wear eyeglasses.")

Thirty-seven years elapsed between Bly's first newspaper story, in 1885, and her last. She lived through and wrote about two wars, the labor movement, women's suffrage, the automobile, birth control and Prohibition--always confident that what she had to say was worth reading. Almost always, people agreed.

Some colleagues considered her the best newspaper reporter in the nation, full stop. With blunt questions put in a soft voice, she refined the interview technique and the intimate profile that has become de rigueur in American journalism. Vanity Fair has nothing on Nellie Bly. Boxer John L. Sullivan let her pinch his muscles, and confessed with what sounds like astonishment, "I have given you more than I ever gave any reporter in my life."

Her name appeared in big type at a time when reporters rarely got bylines. She was willing to try anything once, but in an age of "stunt" journalism, hers resonated with rare personal conviction.

With a newspaper audience titillated by "girl reporters" pulling manly escapades, Bly's stunts sometimes made a point, among them the "new American woman," who could travel unchaperoned around the world, who journeyed to Mexico to report with only her mother as company.

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