Late one April evening in 2016, sitting at my desk not writing, this article in The Atlantic caught my eye. The premise was that there were more female action stars 100 years ago than today. Most were in the mold of the Perils of Pauline, with an intrepid young woman leaping off horseback or clinging to the side of a train. From the article:
In 1914, a breakout year for the category, the actress Mary Fuller played a daring reporter in The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies. The same year, Grace Cunard appeared in Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery, which was billed as the “Most Sensational Series of Pictures Ever Produced … AEROPLANES — LION — TIGERS — CANNIBALS — SHIPWRECKS …”
Intrigued, I started looking up these films, and discovered most of these daring fictional females were newspaper reporters. Of them, the majority were based on one real-life figure. A woman reporter who was, at that time, still alive.
A woman called Nellie Bly.
The name rang a very specific bell. In the second season of the television show The West Wing, in the episode entitled And It’s Surely To Their Credit, the President’s amorous intentions are thwarted when he belittles the achievements of Nellie Bly, whose statue the First Lady had just unveiled. Bartlet dismisses the task, saying she shouldn’t bother with such unimportant events. The First Lady takes umbrage, and he quickly backpedals:
Yeah. You know what I did, just then, that was stupid?I minimized the importance of the statue that was dedicated to Nellie Bly, an extraordinary woman to whom we all owe a great deal.
You don’t know who she is, do you?
This isn’t happening to me.
She pioneered investigative journalism.
Then she’s the one I want to beat the crap out of.
She risked her life by having herself committed to a mental institution for ten days so she could write about it. She changed entirely the way we treat the mentally ill in this country.
Yes, Abigail —
In 1890, she traveled around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, besting, by more than one week, Jules Verne’s 80 days.
She sounds like an incredible woman, Abbey. I’m particularly impressed that she beat a fictional record. If she goes twenty-one thousand leagues under the sea I’ll name a damn school after her. Let’s have sex.
Needless to say, the night did not work out the way the President planned.
That being my sole knowledge of the intrepid reporter, I typed ‘Nellie Bly’ into The Googles and stayed up deep into the night, reading. Quickly the author in me realized I had struck gold.
Here I had the chance to explore early Feminism, a piece of history largely ignored in the fabric of American history. If Nellie is mentioned, it’s for pioneering undercover journalism. Totally true, but hardly the whole story. It wasn’t just how she got the stories. It was the stories she chose to tell. Fought to tell. Nearly died to tell.
As mentioned in The West Wing, she’s best known for her stay in the madhouse and her race around the world. However there are dozens of other daring stories, from her Factory Girls series to her apprehending a serial rapist in Central Park by posing as a potential victim. Or exposing a white slavery ring selling children. Or forcing the king of the New York lobbyists to run from prosecution. Or being chased out of Mexico for exposing government corruption.
Yeah, she was pretty awesome. No wonder they made so many movies inspired by her. Reading all her adventures, it was no surprise to discover that Nellie Bly was the basis for DC Comics’ Lois Lane. Only Nellie had no Superman to come and rescue her when she got herself into tight situations. She had to survive on her wits alone.
Maybe because I love origin stories, what snagged my attention was how she became a reporter in the first place. Columnist Erasmus Wilson (who wrote under the name “The Quiet Observer”) had recently penned a piece entitled “What Girls Are Good For”. Infuriated, 20 year old Elizabeth Cochrane wrote a scathing letter to the Pittsburg Dispatch, signing it “Lonely Orphan Girl”.
That outraged letter prompted the Dispatch editor to place an advertisement in his own paper summoning the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to appear at the Dispatch offices. She went, and within the month was going out on her first assignment as an investigative reporter under the name “Nellie Bly”.
Nellie Bly has been the basis for every woman reporter in fiction for over a hundred years. It’s high time her own story was told.
WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR is that story. A story I can’t wait to share with you.
David Blixt is an author, actor, and fight director based in Chicago, where he’s allowed to co-exist with an awesome woman and a pair of really cool kids. His new book, WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR: A Novel of Nellie Bly, is available now on Amazon Kindle and print. Follow David on Twitter @David_Blixt, on Facebook here, and on his website at www.davidblixt.com.