'American Experience' Focuses on Exploits of Nellie Bly
Cox, Ted, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Ted Cox TV/radio columnist
Nellie Bly was a woman intruding on a man's world, a reporter working in the anything-goes days of journalism, an American asserting her independence just as the United States was becoming a global power.
A compelling figure who is now a footnote to history, BLY is a perfect subject for "The American Experience," the excellent and wide-ranging PBS documentary series. "Around the World in 72 Days," which debuts at 9 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11, covers Bly's rags-to-riches rise through the journalism field in an hour, a brisk pace to rival even Bly's record-setting 1889 trip around the globe.
This Horatio Alger success story seems so contemporary, even in its period detail, it's like a new work of fiction -- what happens to an American Girl when she grows up.
Born Elizabeth "Pink" Cochran, Bly was the 13th child of a 19th century U.S. industrialist, born to his second wife. When he died, her mother and siblings were all but abandoned. The mother's second marriage failed, leaving the family stranded in Pittsburgh, the burgeoning Iron City, described by one Atlantic magazine writer as "hell with the lid off."
Bly briefly attended a teachers' college, but had to quit for lack of money. In one of those stereotypical, Alger-esque strokes of fate, she answered a chauvinist Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper columnist with a blistering letter she signed "Lonely Orphan Girl." The paper's editor was so struck, he advertised for Lonely Orphan Girl to come to the paper, then hired her as a writer.
Renaming herself after the servant girl in Stephen Foster song, Bly went on to display astute muckraking instincts. But she was shunted into the usual area for a woman reporter: the ladies' page.
For a time, she escaped that by going to Mexico and sending back dispatches. But on her return she was assigned again to the ladies' section until she quit, leaving only the message: "I'm off for New York Look out for me. Bly."
For six months she pursued a job until finally John Cockerill, editor of Joseph Pulitzer's trashy New York World, fobbed her off with an impossible assignment: Get committed to the city's infamous insane asylum for women on Blackwell's Island and come back with an expose. Bly did (she was diagnosed as delusional with a persecution complex), and when World lawyers finally freed her after 10 days (she couldn't convince the doctors she had been faking it) she came back with an article that created a stir even in those muckraking days. …