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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

Bly left journalism in 1895 to marry Robert Seaman, a 70-year-old New York millionaire, and took over his Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. upon his death. She built showers, a bowling alley, two libraries and a clinic for the workers, living up to her belief that owners should share their profits.

But her ignorance of accounting and blind affection for her cheating factory manager brought her down. The business went bankrupt, and Bly resorted to hiding her books from the courts, withholding information and warring with her family.

Broke, Bly returned to the New York Evening Journal, ending her days as an advice columnist and activist who found homes for orphans.

Bly died of a heart attack on Jan. 27, 1922. Her grave in the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery lay bare until 1978, when a California student came searching for it and Woodlawn's public relations director persuaded the New York Press Club to install a headstone.

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As she worked on her book, Kroeger learned that she was among many women who had been inspired by the children's books about Bly.

Muriel Nussbaum resurrects Bly in a one-woman show that has been performed at colleges, historical societies and the Smithsonian. "Nellie was the forerunner of the very modern and bold woman," Nussbaum says. "She was a woman who would say, 'I will expose injustice, and if my story changes the social condition, good. But first spell my name right and pay me well.' "

"I wanted to be Nellie Bly my whole life," says Bernice Kanner, senior editor at New York magazine. "When she faked insanity and had to stay in the madhouse for weeks until her boss came to get her, when she had to bathe in dirty water used by all the inmates. That is the sharpest memory of my childhood. It is why I went into journalism."

As Kroeger realized the scope of Bly's impact, it became more important to her to resurrect the real woman, but she wasn't sure she could succeed. Bly died poor, her personal affairs a mess. There were no diaries or journals, no huge catalogues of letters.

"Most scholarly biographers would just cut bait. They wouldn't do it," Kroeger says. "But she was such a heroine to me, I didn't feel it was fair for her to get buried because her life was a mess at the end and she didn't have a chance to get her files in order."

Kroeger found her basic investigative reporting skills doubled well as a biographer's tools. She read Bly's stories and drew on her own days as a foreign correspondent to get Bly's military intelligence file in Austria, where Bly covered World War I.

Best of all, from a biographer's point of view, Kroeger learned that contentious Nellie Bly liked to sue people. "She left a huge legal record," the author says. "And that really saved this from being another children's book."

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It is difficult, 72 years after Bly's death, to measure her impact on journalism. Early histories of the field, notably the 1940 "History of Journalism in the United States," don't even mention her. Only now, in a new era when women make up 60% of journalism school students, is she being discussed in college classrooms, says Tom Leonard, professor of journalism history at UC Berkeley.

"Reporters like Nellie Bly were one of the marketing techniques of yellow journalism, one of the fresh story ideas that editors brought in to boost circulation," Leonard says. "They were sometimes respected and sometimes paid well, but it did not mean women were being ushered into the newsroom. They really couldn't break down the door for later generations."

But Brooke Kroeger believes that Nellie Bly and the stunt girls led a revolution, carrying women off the society page and onto the front page.

"I can't imagine the editors of her day were excited about the idea of throwing a woman onto the front page as often as she got there," Kroeger says. "But she got there nearly every time she wrote, which in itself is astounding. It's hard to understand today what that really meant in its context.

"We (women) really thought we were blazing trails when we entered journalism in the early 1970s," Kroeger says. "We thought we were crashing through the barriers. It just wasn't true. There was this wonderful time of women in the history of journalism that got forgotten. And that's something that really shouldn't happen again."

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