Picks and Pans Review: Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist

UPDATED 05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/23/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Brooke Kroeger

While hardly as well known as Amelia Earhart or Susan B. Anthony, Nellie Bly, born in Pennsylvania in 1864, was an important feminist figure of the early 20th century. One of the first female journalist! to venture beyond women's features at such papers as The New York World and The New York Evening Journal, Bly was a crusader who exposed social ills (by admitting herself to an insane asylum and reporting the horrible conditions there), who championed the downtrodden (by befriending orphans, and eventually adopting one) and who fought for women's rights (although, ironically, she was opposed to the idea of working mothers).

Yet, the Bly that emerges in Kroeger's long (552 pages), cluttered biography is more whining than winning. According to Kroeger—herself an established journalist, who has worked for UPI and The New York Times—Bly could be calculating.

In 1895 she married elderly Robert Seaman, a rich industrialist whom she had known for less than two weeks; the marriage, which made Bly a wealthy woman, lasted nine years until his death. Her lifelong battles with her siblings over small amounts of money also suggest that Bly, a crusader in print, was far pettier in person.

The biggest problem with Nellie Bly may be Kroeger's own fascination with her subject, which leads to in overdose of Bly minutiae. The reporter's financial situation, for example, is dissected as if by an IRS agent, and her newspaper articles are often quoted at length when one or two carefully chosen paragraphs would be more illustrative.

Perhaps Kroeger expects us to be as besotted with her subject as she is; if so, overloading us with unimportant facts only hurts her cause. (Times Books, $27.50)

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