Mother of 'new journalism': a biography

April 12, 1994|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,Sun Staff Writer

When speaking of the nation's journalism history, journalists usually make references to such legendary reporters as Edward R. Murrow or Walter Lippmann.

Rarely are women mentioned.

Partly with this in mind, Brooke Kroeger, a former foreign and national reporter, decided to write the first extensively researched biography of Nellie Bly.

Bly had been the subject of several thin volumes, mainly children's books. But after reading this treasure -- which is carefully documented with personal letters, court records, newspaper articles, photographs and other material -- I find it rather bewildering that no major biography had been written before about this journalism and corporate- boardroom pioneer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ms. Kroeger's work shows that if newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer was the father of late 19th-century "new journalism," which brought sensationalism into the mainstream, then Bly was its mother.

Item: She feigned insanity to get herself admitted to a New York City insane asylum, and then wrote about the Dickensian conditions found there.

Item: She went on an around-the-world journey -- faster than anyone had previously -- during a time when respectable women didn't travel across town unchaperoned.

Item: She sent dispatches from the eastern front of World War I, where she was held briefly as a suspected spy until a German military officer recognized her celebrated name and freed her.

After tiring of battling with male editors, Bly took control of her deadhusband's company, where she designed, manufactured and marketed the first successful steel barrels in this country, making her one of the first women industrialists, Ms. Kroeger writes.

In presenting details of the business' collapse and its aftermath, the book bogs down under the weight of court records. A slightly more simplified explanation would have been better.

When the business faltered -- after several male employees were accused but never convicted of robbing the treasury -- a middle-aged Bly returned to journalism to work as a columnist.

However, those later years paled in comparison with her early career.

At the peak of her career, the western Pennsylvania native was best known for journalistic stunts such as the around-the-world trip, spawning a generation of stunt-girl reporters, according to Ms. Kroeger. Publishers such as Pulitzer began to realize that women could be valuable employees -- bringing different aspects to the job than men. Thus, the fledgling feminist movement grew along with modern journalism.

However, Bly's repertoire went beyond stunts, Ms. Kroeger notes, calling her one of the first investigative reporters. Her reporting also got results: The story on the insane asylum was a key factor in New York City's increasing funding for such institutions by 57 percent, to $850,000. Another resulted in a grand jury investigation of an Albany lobbyist who, Bly reported, solicited a bribe from her.

Bly, who was born in 1864, is believed to have been a key force in driving Pulitzer's New York World to the highest circulation of any New York paper in the late 1800s. Ms. Kroeger documents how the paper's circulation rose after Bly's name regularly began to appear -- usually in front-page headlines, such as: "Nellie Bly Too Sharp for the Island Doctors."

Early on, the reader learns that the normal-school dropout lied about her age and education to appear younger and better educated.

Born Elizabeth Cochran, she assumed Nellie Bly at the behest of her first editor at the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She left that job after becoming bored covering social news. In New York in 1887, the (( 23-year-old Bly wangled her way into the office of the World's editor-in-chief by saying she had an important subject to propose. She was placed on retainer and later hired.

It was the beginning of a sometimes stormy relationship. Bly would work for the paper off and on for a number of years, once leaving to become a reporter for Hearst's Chicago paper.

Much of her work would not be acceptable today -- too ponderous, and ethical questions would be raised about some of the reporting.

An example from an article detailing her interview with an accused killer: " 'Are you guilty or innocent? Tell me now. I may be able to help you. Anyway, I am going away and you will never see me again,' I said to her at last when it was drawing close the hour of midnight."

Upon her death in 1922, the New York Evening Journal wrote that Nellie Bly "was the best reporter in America."


Title: "Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist"

Author: Brooke Kroeger

Publisher: Times Books

Length, price: 631 pages, $27.50

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