Author Interviews
2:36 am
Mon May 5, 2014

Extra! Read All About It: 'Girl Stunt Reporter' Turns 150

Originally published on Mon May 5, 2014 9:28 am

In 1887, American journalist Nellie Bly had herself committed to New York's notorious Blackwell's Island insane asylum — on purpose, as part of an assignment from the New York World newspaper. When she was released 10 days later, she had seen cruelty that made her shudder.

"I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret," she wrote in her account for the World. "Pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who I am convinced are just as sane as I was and am now myself."

The story that resulted is called Ten Days in a Mad-House, and it's one of many pieces collected in a new volume, Nellie Bly: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings — released this year in honor of Bly's 150th birthday.

It's the first edited collection of Bly's work, featuring more than a dozen of her articles as a "girl stunt reporter." Jean Lutes was the editor, and she tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that she was inspired by Bly's bravery. "The idea that she pretended to be crazy to get into an insane asylum to write an expose was just shocking and exciting. ... I knew that there was a big gap in power between Nellie Bly and the people she was taking on, and to see her turn the tables on them was just incredibly fun."


Interview Highlights

On Bly's origins

She grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. She was from a family that didn't have much money. ... She had actually started out writing for a newspaper in Pittsburgh, but she didn't like having to write about butterfly collections and garden shows ... and so she resisted. And the first thing she did to resist was, she convinced her editors that she could go to Mexico and write as a foreign correspondent. So she did that for a few months, and when she came back, she still felt frustrated in Pittsburgh, so she went to New York and said "I'm going to make it there."

On getting a job with the World

One morning, she borrowed carfare from her landlady, she took a cab down to the New York World building, and she just sneaked in. She worked her way into an editor's office, and she offered to go to Europe and return steerage class, to write about the experience of immigrants coming to the United States. And he said that's too far-flung; you can't do that. But, he said, if you want to, you can have yourself checked into this insane asylum that's more nearby, and write about that. And she said OK!

On the insane asylum

The insane asylum at Blackwell's Island was already notorious for its poor conditions. It was essentially a custodial facility for mentally ill immigrants, and this was a moment when ideas about how to treat the mentally ill were changing, and so a public asylum was one of the targets for critics. So when Bly went there, there were all these rumors about how awful it was, and so the idea was, she would see if they were really true.

On the downside of Bly's stunt journalism

Bly can be dismissed because she embraced the idea of being a spectacle, because she always made herself into the story. It was the way that she got out of writing about gardening and fashion. She wanted to be on the front page, not in the women's pages, and she did that by calling attention to herself. When she interviewed people, she would talk about what her interview subjects said about herself — and that led people to see her as self-aggrandizing.

So readers got what she would often call "plain and unvarnished facts" of her experience. And they could decide what they thought about her own experience, but she did not pretend that it was anything but that. And she insisted that experience was valuable in and of itself.

On the enduring value of Bly's stories

They stand up as a record of one woman's courage and her desire to change the world by inserting herself into it. And so, I think that she's an example of a pioneer that tells us that women still have a lot to say.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Years ago, a school girl named Jean Marie Lutes read a story. It was the story of a 19th century woman known as Nellie Bly. That was the name of an aspiring newspaper reporter who moved to New York City in her early 20s. To get a story for a New York newspaper, Nellie Bly pretended to be insane and she was committed to an asylum. And after 10 days inside, she wrote an expose of its horrific conditions.

"Ten Days in a Madhouse" was the headline in 1887, the first of many big stories by the woman who later circled the globe in 72 days. Jean Marie Lutes read all that as a girl. And now, as a grownup, she has edited a new collection of Nellie Bly's writings.

Can I take you back to that kid that you were? What was it when you were a girl that appealed to you about Nellie Bly?

JEAN MARIE LUTES: Well, she was so young, and she was so brave. The idea that she pretended to be crazy to get into an insane asylum, to write an expose, was just shocking and exciting - and the fact that she showed up all those doctors, that she took on the experts. And I don't think at that moment, when I was first reading about her, that I understood exactly what that would have taken. But I knew that there was a big gap in power between Nellie Bly and the people she was taking on. And to see her turn the tables on them was just incredibly fun.

INSKEEP: And now, years later, you have been able to explore her actual life and look deeply into her actual writings. Let's talk about the real person. Who was she? Where was she from?

LUTES: Nellie Bly's real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochran. She grew up in a small town outside of Pittsburgh. She was from a family that didn't have much money. Then her father died when she was only 6. Without a will, her mother lost the house. So she came from a place where she really had to learn to be self-reliant and it really helped to form, I think, her viewpoints for the rest of her life.

INSKEEP: How did she get to New York?

LUTES: She had actually started out writing for a newspaper in Pittsburgh. But she didn't like having to write about butterfly collections and garden shows.

INSKEEP: She was being assigned women's stories.

LUTES: She was. And so, she resisted. She convinced her editors that she could go to Mexico and write as a foreign correspondent. So she did that for a few months. And when she came back, she still felt frustrated in Pittsburgh, so she went to New York and said: I'm going to make it there.

INSKEEP: And what happened in New York?

LUTES: Well, at first, very little happened. Editors refused to see her or interview her, and dismissed her very quickly. So she was desperate. So one morning, she borrowed car fare from her landlady. She took a cab down to the New York World Building, and she just sneaked in. She worked her way into an editor's office, and she offered to go to Europe and return steerage class, to write about the experience of immigrants coming to the United States. And he said that's too far-flung; you can't do that. But he said if you want to, you can have yourself checked into this insane asylum that's more nearby and write about that. And she said OK.

INSKEEP: This was the alternative assignment.

LUTES: Yes, it was the easier one.

INSKEEP: And it was not like her 10th expose. This was the first thing, the first big thing that she did.

LUTES: Yes.

INSKEEP: Wow. So what made the insane asylum an interesting story?

LUTES: The insane asylum at Blackwell's Island was already notorious for its poor conditions. It was essentially a custodial facility for mentally ill immigrants. And this was a moment when ideas about how to treat the mentally ill were changing. And so the public asylum was one of the targets for critics. So when Bly went there, there were all these rumors about how awful it was. And so, she would see if they were really true: Was it as bad as people said.

INSKEEP: It was this a huge journalistic success?

LUTES: Yes. As far as journalism goes, it certainly caught attention to injustices in the asylum to women who were mistreated, to doctors who were dismissive, to nurses who are abusive. And it certainly was a huge success for Bly. It made her so recognizable that her name appeared not just in the byline, but in the headline of virtually every story she wrote for the rest of her career.

INSKEEP: Now, you have pointed out that she was seeking attention for herself - that was part of her business model. Was there a dark side to that business model?

LUTES: Bly can be dismissed because she embraced the idea of being a spectacle. She always made herself into the story. It was the way that she got out of writing about gardening and fashion. She wanted to be on the front page, not in the women's pages, and she did that by calling attention to herself. When she interviewed people, she would talk about what her interview subjects said about herself. And that led people to see her as self-aggrandizing.

So readers got what she would often call, Plain and Unvarnished Facts of her own experience. And they could decide what they thought about her own experience. But she did not pretend that it was anything but that. And she insisted that that experience valuable in and of itself. And I do think that Bly has a lot to say to women today. Nellie Bly had a confidence excess. She always believed that she could do what she wanted to do - always. So that I admire.

INSKEEP: There's something really American about what you're saying. It seems to me that one of the essentially American things is just to assert that you belong and that you can pull your own weight. And if you manage to do that you get to stick around. You're saying that everybody has done that. Women have maybe not always culturally done that. But the Nellie Bly did, you're saying.

LUTES: She did. And I think that her most famous story, you could call it her most famous stunt. Her trip around the world in 72 days made her into an American icon because she was a single American girl, and she rocketed around the world faster than anyone had ever before. And that story was not about the places that she visited.

It was about her journey. It was about how fast she could go, about her ability to manage steamship schedules and railroad schedules, and carrying one bag that she could hardly fit her jar of cold cream into. That made her an American icon. She made the whole world seems smaller when she did that.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing. Those of us who've been journalists know that we would love it if the things that we write would last for very long time, and be valuable to be read years from now. But, of course, most of the time that's not true with most news stories. They're useful today and maybe only useful for a second.

Here you are reading these news articles from more than a century old. Did they stand up?

I think they do. They stand up as a record of one woman's courage and her desire to change the world by inserting herself into it. And so, I think that she's an example of a pioneer who tells us that women still have a lot to say.

Jean Marie Lutes is editor of "Nellie Bly: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings." Thanks very much.

LUTES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And, by the way, Nellie Bly was born 150 years ago today, May 5th, 1864.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.