"Nellie Bly (1864-1922) was the best reporter in America," wrote Arthur Brisbane in his column in the New York Evening Journal on the occasion of her death. Brooke Kroeger, a UPI reporter and editor, tells the reader why Bly deserved such an accolade in a biographical narrative that details the courageous life of a world famous reporter who opened the doors of journalism for women. Kroeger researched court records, memoirs, and historical archives to complete the first fully documented biography on Bly, a multidimensional feminist who grew up without privilege or higher education. Kroeger notes that Bly's formula for success was: "Determine Right. Decide Fast. Apply Energy. Act with Conviction. Fight to the Finish. Accept the Consequences. Move on" (Kroeger, 1994, p. XIV).
Bly took her own advice as a beginning reporter for The Pittsburgh Dispatch and later as a front page reporter for The New York World and The New York Evening Journal, pioneering the development of "detective" journalism, the beginning of investigative reporting. Her news stories and columns often focused on the plight of the unfortunate, notably unwed, indigent mothers and their children. Early in her career, she feigned in sanity and had herself committed to a mental asylum in order to publicly expose the horrible conditions of the facilities. Later, Bly spent time in the homeless women's shelters in an effort to report accurately on the dire conditions of the women who lived there.
Bly's interest in women's lives, their roles, and their rights continued to dominate her writing. One of her most interesting interviews was with Susan B. Anthony, the leader of the Women's Suffrage movement. Bly talked with Anthony about the subjugation of Cuba and Spain and the talk of US intervention to win Cuba's independence, as well as other national and global issues. Perhaps, though, Bly's personal questions to Anthony about love, marriage, were most revealing.
"Were you ever in love?"
"In love?" she laughed merrily. "Bless you, Nellie, I've been in love a thousand times."
"Really?" I gasped, taken aback by this startling confession.
"Yes, really!" nodding her snowy head. "But I never loved anyone so much that I thought it would last. In fact, I never thought I could give up my life of freedom to become a man's housekeeper. When I was young if a girl married poor, she be came a housekeeper and drudge. If she married wealthy, she became a pet and a doll. Just think, had I married at 20, I would have been a drudge or a doll for 55 years. Think of it."
"I want to add one thing," she said. "Once men were afraid of women with ideas and a desire to vote. Today, our best suffragists are sought in marriage by the best class of men."
"Do you pray?"
"I pray every single second of my life. I never get on my knees of anything like that, but I pray with my work. My prayer is to lift women to equality with men. Work and worship are one with me. I know there is no God of the universe made happy by my getting down on my knees and calling him 'great."'
"True marriage, the real marriage of soul, when two people take each other on terms of perfect equality, without the desire of one to...make the other subservient. It is a beautiful thing. It is the highest state of life. But for a woman to marry a man for support is a demoralizing condition. And for a man to marry a woman merely because she has a beautiful figure or face is a degradation" (Kroeger,1994, p. 284).
While WILLA readers will be interested in Bly's feminist reporting, they will appreciate Kroeger's account of Bly as an industrialist whose company manufactured the first successful steel barrel produced in the United States, whose factories were models of social welfare for her 1,500 employees. Bly will be remembered as the mo~st famous woman journalist of her day, an early industrialist, and a notable humanitarian.
Reviewed by Jeanne Gerlach
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) and the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080).