Book Review: Kroeger, Brooke, “Nellie Bly, Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist” Times Books, New York, 1994
These are 510 astonishing pages from the life of a person of excess. Whether or not one likes and appreciates everything about Nellie Bly, they would have to agree that she did more and went further than any woman of her time. From around 1890 until her death in 1922, the nation and much of the world followed her from one incredible adventure into another one even more drastic.
Elizabeth Jane “Pink” Cochrane was re-named Nellie Bly when editors were assigning her to find out about scandalous treatment of patients in a mental institution. To investigate, she went crazy and let everybody know about it. While she was undergoing “treatment,” she interviewed and observed patients and staff, then lowered the boom on the entire operation. That was just a beginning.
Before she was through, she had been filthy rich and desperately poor, despised and applauded, deceived and honored. When she began, hardly any women had regular jobs in the news industry. The few women employed at all were assigned gossip columns and society news only. When she passed, one of her eulogists called her simply “the best reporter in America.”
Bly served a time as an industrialist with 1,500 employees in her factory. She invented, and held the patent, for steel barrels. To her credit, she took a utopian attitude toward the treatment of her employees. At another time, she championed the Seamen’s Union. Toward the end of her life, she was especially well known for helping poor widows and orphans.
On the negative side, she supported the aristocracy of Austria all through World War I and afterward. She greatly admired Kaiser Wilhelm. She went out of her way to oppose the Russian Revolution and encouraged President Wilson to help combat “Bolshevists.” Her no-holds-barred approach to business, and everything else, must have made many enemies. In this book, though, any rough edges that Bly may have had could be excused by the anti-woman kind of world she lived in. She would never have succeeded at anything without being tough!
The book is good for explaining the historical setting that Bly had to contend with. It especially clarifies the early days of women’s battle for a place in the world of news. A few other newswomen succeeded during Bly’s life, but no one smashed the glass ceiling as thoroughly as Nellie Bly.
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