The Life and Times Of a Stunt Journalist

THE name Nellie Bly rattles around the fringes of the American consciousness. But details of her story do not come forth with the same ease as her euphonious name.

As biographer Brooke Kroeger makes clear in ``Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist,'' she was an American original. A reporter for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in the 1880s and '90s, Bly pioneered and perfected what came to be known as ``stunt journalism,'' a blend of subterfuge and sensationalism, often rooted in genuine moral indignation. Echoes of this genre exist in television magazine shows today.

Bly's most important stunt was feigning insanity to gain admittance to the Blackwell's Island Women's Lunatic Asylum in New York in 1887. She spent 10 days there, subjected to the same gruel, cold-water-and-scrub-brush baths, and callous disregard for these least fortunate and most defenseless of people. Bly's sensationalistic and highly visible series in the New York World hastened long-overdue reforms.

Her most famous stunt came two years later when she traveled around the world in a race against Phileas Fogg, the hero of Jules Verne's popular novel ``Around the World in Eighty Days.'' Bly made it in 72 days; her story was covered in her own words not only in the New York World, but in every other paper in America, as well, juicing the World's already considerable circulation and leaving Bly the most famous reporter in the land.

Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (her pen name came from a Stephen Foster song) and came to New York from Pittsburgh.

The single most astonishing detail of Bly's early journalism career - easily one of the most significant of the 19th century - was its relative brevity. She arrived in New York in 1887. She left newspapering in 1890 and spent three years lecturing and writing pulp fiction before returning to the New York World in 1893. This second tenure lasted just two years, until her marriage to Robert Seaman, a wealthy industrialist 40 years her senior.

Bly ran Seaman's company following his death in 1904, and the melodrama that was her life continued. She was swindled out of millions of dollars in company assets by two company managers - one of whom may have been her lover - and the balance of her life was a tangle of litigation, frustration, and betrayal.

Kroeger, a former reporter for Newsday and UPI, has meticulously pieced together Bly's life from clippings, court documents, and letters thought to have been long ago lost. She speculates that Bly's life has probably not been accorded a full rendering until now because the source matter was so scant. ``Bly's error seems to have been not leaving behind a substantial written record to which there would be a ready access,'' writes Kroeger.

Bly's life is, above all, the story of the hurdles and burdens of being an independent - and independent-minded - woman living in an age that was at best indifferent and at worst intolerant of those qualities in a woman. It is a story of opportunity seized, and life lived with passion and the conviction of values. ``[Bly's] life...,'' Kroeger writes, ``was a study in resolute if shoot-from-the-hip action, of talking straight and doing what she thought was right, whether it was or not, and regardless of anyone else's opinion.'' It is a life that was long overdue for this considered and worthy examination.

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