The Illustrated Life of Trailblazing Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Paved the Way for Women in Media
By Maria Popova
As a lover of picture-book biographies of cultural icons and an ardent admirer of trailblazing journalist, proto-feminist, and daring media stuntwoman Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922), I was thrilled to come upon The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter (public library) by writer and artist Bonnie Christensen.
In elegant prose and beautiful illustrations that invoke the aesthetic of editorial art from Bly’s era, Christensen tells the story of one of the most remarkable humans our world has ever produced.
We meet young Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, long before she took the pen name Nelly Bly, in her native Pennsylvania, where her mother’s tumultuous second marriage instills in the young girl a longing for self-reliance. To render herself impervious to similar tumult, she decides to pursue an independent career.
We follow her as she impresses a newspaper editor into giving her a job after she writes her magnificent letter to a patronizing chauvinist at the age of only twenty.
As she rises up the ranks of journalism, she decides to move to the profession’s epicenter: New York City, a place as competitive then as it is now.
It is there that she writes her now-legendary exposé on asylum abuse for The World — one of the most courageous feats of investigative journalism ever performed, which nearly cost Bly her life, went viral by the era’s standards, resulted in a grand jury investigation, and forever changed how we treat the mentally ill.
Next, Bly plunges into an equally yet very differently daring assignment — her astonishing race around the world in under eighty days, with nothing more than a well-tailored dress and a duffle bag.
On January 25, 1890 — seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after the start of her journey — Nellie Bly set foot in the Jersey City train station. A huge, cheering throng greeted her. Cannons roared. “The American girl will no longer be misunderstood,” declared the mayor. “She will be recognized as pushing and determined, independent, able to take care of herself wherever she may go.” Nellie Bly had won much more than her race against the clock… The newspaper described her as “the best known and most widely talked of young woman on earth today.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Her picture appeared on games, toys, cigars, soaps, and medicines. A racehorse, hotel, and train were named after her. The name Nellie Bly was heard and recognized everywhere.
To be sure, Bly’s was not the kind of vacant fame associated with the notion of popular celebrity — she was widely celebrated for the monumental work she did and the selfless spirit in which she did it. Until her last breath, Bly continued to champion the rights of women and the working class. When her industrialist husband died, she transformed his manufacturing empire into a pioneering model of socially conscious business, a mecca of fair wages and humane working conditions amid an era that habitually denied workers both. Half a century before Hedy Lamarr rose to fame as one of history’s most prominent women inventors, Bly invented the first steel barrel — one of twenty-six inventions for which she held patents by the end of her life.
During World War I, Nellie Bly, at fifty, was the first woman journalist to report from the Eastern Front. After the war she returned to New York City, where she wrote a column for the New York Journal and crusaded tirelessly to find permanent homes for orphans.
Although she was in and out of the hospital from exhaustion, Nellie Bly continued her work, writing that each individual has a moral responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”
Complement Christensen’s intelligent and inspiring The Daring Nellie Bly with Bly’s groundbreaking Ten Days at the Mad-House and an illustrated field guide to packing like the pioneering journalist, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other exceptional humans: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Paul Gauguin, and more.
Published July 17, 2015