Nellie Bly, the Heroine Nobody Hears About




The guys I knew in journalism worshipped Hunter S. Thompson. Literally worshipped, as though he were a mythic god and gonzo a rite of passage. They imitated his stunts, dreamed up pranks that would make him proud. One even took “Thomas Hunter” as his pseudonym.

Me, I just loved Nellie Bly.

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, actually. Nellie Bly was her pseudonym. She landed her first newspaper job by writing a furious letter to the editor, words leaping off the page to slap a misogynist columnist. This was in 1885. Then she moved to New York and spent four penniless months persuading Joseph Pulitzer to hire her at the New York World. Her first assignment was an exposé of the asylum at Blackwell’s Island—and it required her to enter as a patient.

Bly, just twenty-three years old at the time, stopped bathing and cultivated a faraway expression that suggested a separate reality. In the best (and really, only) biography of Nellie Bly, we learn that her editor “gave her no more instruction than to use the name Nellie Brown, so that she could be identified by her monogram no matter what, and to try to suppress her chronic smile. He promised to find a way to get her out when the time came.”

She broke the first rule and used the name Nellie Moreno, “moreno” being Spanish for brown—but breaking the monogram.

Then she checked into Matron Irene Stenard’s Temporary Home for Women and had fun scaring the other residents with her murderous rantings. Soon she was handed over to the judicial system. When the judge said he was sure she must be “somebody’s darling,” she hid her laugh with a hankie.

They shipped her off to Bellevue and from there to Blackwell’s Island, where she had to take freezing cold baths and sit on a bench for fourteen hours, not speaking or moving or reading. This life would soon drive her insane, she decided. But she kept her eyes open, trying not to wince when she saw patients beaten and choked. She met immigrants who were perfectly healthy but could not speak English. She drank coppery tea and ate bread, setting aside the piece whose rancid butter had trapped a spider.

After ten days, Bly was sprung—by the only man who knew where she was. Had he been hit by a streetcar…. I guess she chose not to worry about that. Her exposé ran in several parts and was later published in book form, along with some of her other reporting. She was paving the way for a new kind of investigative reporting—and for women to write more than the society pages.

Her next big assignment was to travel around the world in less than eighty days. Actually, the assignment was given to a male colleague, but she swore she would do it for another paper and beat him, so Pulitzer capitulated. Bly ordered herself a blue plaid broadcloth dress “sturdy enough to withstand three months of constant wear” and packed a waterproof coverall (but no umbrella), paper and pens, a small flask, and a “bulky and compromising” jar of cold cream. Vain, she was not. She clambered aboard a mail train at Calais, then set sail on a steamer. She loved sitting in a dark corner and eavesdropping while the sailors played tom-tom drums and told tales. In the morning, she called to the wide-awake toddler in the next cabin, “For heaven’s sake, tell papa what the moo-moo cow says and let me go to sleep.”

Though she tolerated other passengers’ flirtations, Bly bought herself a monkey as a companion. She had no time for larger distractions. Soon her shipmates were cheering for the ship to meet her deadline. “If I fail,” she announced, “I will never return to New York. I would rather go in dead and successful than alive and behind time.”

She made it in seventy-two days.

Though not the most lyrical of writers, Nellie Bly fought hard for social justice, and she never shrank from a challenge. She was far too curious. I always felt a little apologetic about adoring her—what a lightweight, a gonzo girl reporter. Yet hers were the very traits Maria Tatar identified—curiosity, empathy, and a desire for justice—when she went looking for mythological heroines.

Tatar wanted to “continue” (her courteous way of framing the project) Joseph Campbell’s 1949 classic, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Shaped by his time, Campbell thought of women as mothers and muses. His book influenced modern filmmaking and other cultural forms by pointing out the single, universal structure mapping the journeys of Jesus, the Buddha, Odysseus—all the (inevitably male) heroes who set out to find a deeper wisdom, no matter what the cost.

In her new, corrective sequel, The Heroine with 1001 Faces, Tatar points out that curious, venturesome women have more often been punished than lauded. Think Eve, or Pandora. In a 1593 book of icons, curiosity was drawn as an enraged woman, wild-haired and winged. The shift from such censure is relatively recent and still incomplete, with the weight of centuries on the other side of the scale. All those women branded as nosy gossips; all those “witches” burned for their knowledge, all those women who know too much and had their tongues cut out, like Philomela after she was raped. The Little Mermaid had to give up her voice if she wants legs instead.

Though I did not fear fire or amputation, I was scared, as a girl, to ask questions. It took me so long to make myself raise my hand in class that it would finally go up halfway, down again, up a little, just as the teacher was ready to move on. Slowly, the adrenaline would ebb away, my heart would stop thumping, my palms would dry. Hardly ever did I—who ask questions for a living—dare ask one in front of my classmates. Nellie Bly’s cheerful ambition, her confident opinions, her willingness to risk being trapped on Blackwell Island forever…you can see how all of that would resonate. I wanted to be plucky, too. As a little girl, I had gotten stuck on Flossie Nightingale, despite having zero interest in nursing anybody. (It was the lantern, I think, and her cool hand on the soldiers’ foreheads.) Nellie, though—I wanted her life. At least the best bits. Above all, I wanted her attitude.

Tatar moves from the Greek myths to the heroines of folklore and pop culture—Jo March, Miss Marple, Carrie Bradshaw, Lisbeth Salander. Reading the litany makes me happy. I press my copy upon a good friend, one whose curiosity tends more toward natural science.

“But where are the real women?” she asks when she finishes.

“That wasn’t Tatar’s purpose,” I start to say, ready with a lot of blah-blah about archetypes and mythopoesis. And then I grin. Nellie Bly would have asked the same impatient question. We need to recover our symbolic heroines, but we also need to step up IRL.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.