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Nellie Bly, Girl Reporter : Daredevil journalist. Shameless promoter. She made it possible, her biographer says, for women 'to play like the boys.'

March 28, 1994|JAYNE GARRISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

She was the most famous "girl reporter" of her day, a Victorian Brenda Starr.

Nellie Bly exposed political bribery. She got herself committed to New York's infamous Blackwell's Island Women's Lunatic Asylum to expose conditions inside. She raced around the world on steamers and trains in 72 days, beating Jules Verne's fictional Phileas Fogg. There was little she couldn't--and didn't--do. And she did it all with a self-promotional flamboyance that would make Geraldo pale.

But when she died, she faded from memory, living on only for children. There were no fewer than three children's biographies of Bly published in the 1950s and two more in the late 1980s, but no account of her life for adults--until journalist Brooke Kroeger went in search of the real Nellie Bly.

Kroeger became a reporter because she read about Bly when she was a child and realized, "This was something I could do. It sounded so exciting." The memory launched Kroeger into her first book, "Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist," published this month by Times Books.

"I felt that my daughter, Brett, really needed to meet the real-life character who had affected me so deeply," says Kroeger, 45, a former reporter for United Press International and Newsday. "I just thought it was important for her to know what inspired me as a child, what led to her hopscotch childhood as I reported from Brussels, London, Tel Aviv. . . ."

The research spanned 3 1/2 years, leading Kroeger into newspaper morgues, small-town courthouses and to Vienna.

The Bly she found was far more than the muckraking reporter who had inspired her. Kroeger found a self-made and a self-absorbed woman who "acted on whatever passion she felt at the moment" to national applause and her peers' dismay.

She found a compassionate activist who championed working women and found homes for orphans. She found a shameless promoter who endorsed soap and flirted with the mighty.

Nellie Bly would not have wanted to be forgotten. Kroeger did not want journalism to forget the reporter who, while not the first nor the last female journalist of great accomplishment, changed the rules of the game: "Nellie Bly made it possible to play like the boys," Kroeger says.

*

I wonder when they'll send a girl to travel around the sky.

Read the answer in the stars, they wait for Nellie Bly.

--1889 verse

*

Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in 1864, a Pennsylvania mill-town girl with little education. She started in journalism at 21, hired by the Pittsburgh Dispatch after she wrote a letter to the paper rebutting a columnist's lament that there were too many idle, poor young women in this new Industrial Age who could not sew, spin and cook.

The paper gave her the pen name and she became a champion of the working girl. But after nine months at the Dispatch, Bly declared that she was "too impatient to work along at the usual duties assigned women on newspapers."

She went to Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and was handed a seemingly impossible assignment: Infiltrate the city's Women's Lunatic Asylum.

Her career was launched with "Inside the Madhouse." Bly became the first and best of the "stunt girls," Pulitzer's form of new journalism in which derring-do female reporters exposed wrongs and built newspaper circulation.

When she returned from her crowning achievement as a stunt girl--her dash around the world--Bly was famous, inspiring the names of a board game, a railroad train and a racehorse.

Bly was no great literary voice, and no great intellect. But she wrote what she saw with a fresh bluntness and compassion, giving voice to those who had no voice, the new class of young women who staffed factory lines by day and defied Victorian morals by night, as in this excerpt from an interview with a working girl "gone bad."

" 'Risk my reputation!' and she gave a short laugh. 'I don't think I ever had one to risk. I work hard all day, week after week, for a mere pittance. I go home at night tired of labor and longing for something new, anything good or bad to break the monotony of my existence. . . . I cannot go to places of amusement for want of clothes and money, and no one cares what becomes of me.' "

In another story, Bly asked a child in a factory why she wasn't in school:

" 'I'm through school, and Father don't make enough money to keep us all.'

" 'How old are you?'

" 'I don't know just how old I am.'

" 'Well, you look to be eight or 10.' "

While Bly championed the unfortunate, she also trumpeted herself. Her name appeared in the headlines on her stories, which were all first person. Every compliment she received turned up in print.

"It would be more grateful all around if Nelly (sic) would not take herself quite so seriously and would let up on these periodic descriptions of her glorious eyes and her career," wrote the Journalist, the trade journal of the era.

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