- Tonya Mitchell
Who was Nellie Bly? (Part 3 of 3)
If you missed Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
When we last left Nellie Bly, she was a new widow who’d thrown herself into managing the business her husband, Robert Seaman, had left her. As president and primary stockholder in the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, she’d brought it out of debt, expanded its products, and raised its sales substantially.
For a time, she was one of the leading female industrialists in the US.
However, her blind trust in the company’s financial managers led to disaster. Four men had essentially stolen from her by forging checks over the course of several years. When Bly brought a suit against them, the company was barred from doing business and the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company quickly went into bankruptcy.
Bly lost most of the fortune she’d inherited.
In typical Nellie Bly fashion, when faced with obstacles, she simply re-invented herself.
After years of criminal trials which yielded nothing but eventual insolvency, Bly, now a matronly fifty-year-old who needed rest, set sale for Europe…
Her destination was Southampton, England. From there, she would journey by train to Vienna to visit her good friend Oscar Bondy. She hoped to convince him to invest in the now-flagging company she still owned in New York, the Steel Barrel Company.
Halfway there, the outbreak of World War I left the ship’s destination unknown. She hadn’t lost her sense of adventure though. In a letter to her family, she shared rumors that Germans were planning to take over the ship. “I hope they do,” she wrote. “It will be a fine experience.”
The ship eventually docked and she made her way to Paris, and then onto Vienna where she registered with the US Embassy. She billeted at the luxurious Hotel Imperial, where apparently anyone of importance stayed.
While there, Bly wrote to C.A. Guibert, the manager of her remaining company. She instructed him to pay her mother’s bills (Mary Jane still lived in Bly’s brownstone in New York). She told him to also give Mary Jane spending money and Bly’s salary she was still drawing from Steel Barrel.
Bly’s legal problems weren’t entirely over. She was worried about her attorney, Louis Van Doren, who had represented her in the Iron Clad suit. He was suing her for his hefty legal bill ($25,143).
To protect her stately brownstone on Thirty-Seventh Street, Bly wrote to her mother and instructed her to put the shares of Bly’s remaining company in her name.
In the words of Bly’s biographer Brooke Kroeger, “Bly’s attention had clearly turned from the ways she could use the legal system to protect herself to the ways she could get around it to protect the assets she had left.”
A New Idea
Bly was now stuck in Vienna. She’d only planned to stay a few weeks. However, due to the onset of war, there were limited ships departing and those passages were booked through October.
When life gave her lemons, Bly simply got busy making lemonade.
She occupied herself with getting to know people at the Hotel Imperial. It was probably not more than a few weeks after she arrived in Vienna that she got the idea to become a war correspondent.
With the help of the visiting US Assistant Secretary of War and the US Ambassador to Austria, Frederic Penfield (who’d known Bly fifteen years), she was able to get passage to the front, where the Austrian forces were clashing with the Russians to the north.
Bly was one of only four correspondents granted permission to do so and the only woman.
Arthur Brisbane, her longtime, closest friend and editor of The New York Evening Journal, was happy to print Bly’s exciting coverage of the war.
Her first cable to him read, in part: “I will send three articles…I go to the firing line…Get up a movement among your readers to send packages of cotton…by parcel post to the Red Cross, War Department, Wien. All out here. Poor wounded soldiers suffering. Yours, Nellie Bly”
The Journal carried Bly’s coverage under the repeating headline: “Nellie Bly on the Firing Line.” Kroeger writes, “There was nothing else like it in the newspaper. The Journal seemed delighted to be printing almost every word she wrote, even when the dates of her reports lagged far behind the events described.”
Her stories were open and personal. And she was her authentic self: unafraid, adventurous, steadfast, self-assured and sympathetic.
She was appalled at the filth and described the look of wounded soldiers this way:
“Sometimes they saluted, more often they staggered unconsciously and forlornly on, their sunken eyes fixed pathetically to the west. Blind to their surroundings, their ears deaf to the near and ceaseless thundering of cannons, their nerves dead.”
She spoke of shells exploding within 50 feet of where she stood and colonels yelling for her and her companions to hit the trenches.
She traveled to Budapest, and headed towards the Serbian front. She wrote passionately about the women of Austria-Hungary: “Grand duchesses scrub floors and perform the most menial services for the injured soldiers. And peasant women, unsolicited, bring their last pillow as well as their only pillow. And all men know and appreciate. Women are standing shoulder to shoulder with them, dry-eyed and brave. There can never again in this land be any question as to the equality of women.”
News from Afar
When she returned to Vienna, she learned three creditors had filed a petition against Bly’s Steel Barrel Company. They charged that the company’s machinery had been put in the name of Mary Jane Cochrane, Bly’s mother, which Bly had instructed her to do. Harold Nathan, the attorney of her friend in Vienna, managed to hold off the creditors.
Unfortunately, Nathan was unable to save Bly’s beloved brownstone on Thirty-Seventh Street. It was repossessed and sold. Mary Jane moved in with Bly’s brother Albert in Brooklyn.
Afraid that her company was at risk, Bly instructed her mother to have Nathan re-register the company in her Viennese friend Oscar Bondy’s name.
It was a move that would have significant ramifications later.
After a few years of covering the war, Bly remained in Vienna, shifting her focus from war correspondent to advocate of the Austrian war effort.
She joined an organization to raise money for charitable work such as the arrangement of orphan adoptions, providing medical and financial help for families of soldiers, and other works.
Bly used her influence back home to encourage Americans to send money and relief supplies. She even sent cables to all the newspaper editors she knew to plead for their support.
The US was still officially neutral in the war, but Bly had lost her journalistic objectivity. She wanted to improve lives and minimize hardship. She was especially sensitive to the plight of widows and orphans of the war.
In 1917, the US finally entered the war alongside Britain, France, and Russia. Bly’s friend Oscar Bondy had become, as a citizen of the monarchy, an enemy alien of the US. The shares of Bly’s company Mary Jane had transferred into Bondy’s name were seized by an arm of the United States government.
It is at this time that a rift opened up between Bly and her beloved mother, a woman Bly had supported for over thirty years. Led by Bly’s eldest brother Albert, whom Mary Jane now lived with, her mother filed a complaint against the government, saying Nathan had “defrauded her into signing the shares over to Bondy.”
Bly must have been horrified when she realized that her brother Albert, afraid the government would sell off her company shares, was now schooling their mother in keeping them by lying about Nathan's motives. Mary Jane was now in her late eighties. Albert, with Bly distracted in Europe, hoped to inherit the shares, the dividends of which he and Mary Jane had been living off since Bly’s departure.
Mary Jane’s case against Bondy’s control over the Steel Barrel shares forced Bly to return immediately to New York.
Upon her arrival, it became evident that she was not welcome at her brother’s Brooklyn home.
According to Kroeger, “It was clear from her return that Albert now felt he had full entitlement to the barrel company and would bar any attempt by his sister to regain control. Mary Jane’s suit in federal court…moved ahead. Bly was in another legal mire, this time with a cast of characters sure to create real heartbreak. What followed was the inevitable despair, and Bly’s attendant surge of will to fight once more.”
The New York Evening Journal
Bly needed money and a job. She turned to her friend Arthur Brisbane, editor of The New York Evening Journal, once more. He offered her a position as an editorial columnist for $100 a week, half of what she’d made three decades before.
Brisbane allowed her free reign over her topics, when Bly was at her best. She covered the activities of the Salvation Army, the boxing championship between Jess Williard and Jack Dempsey, and more.
Readers responded by writing in about all manner of things Bly put in print. Soon, her work morphed into an advice column, reinforced when a woman wrote in with financial troubles asking Bly if she should give up her two-year-old baby.
Bly cautioned her against it, but went further by promising to find work for the mother near an affordable daycare center.
It was the start of something big.
A New Outlook
By this time, Bly had made her temporary home at the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan into a permanent one. Letters poured in and she hired secretaries to help her catalog her enormous amount of mail. Without attempting outright to do it, her work, by way of her column, had grown into an impromptu agency for helping orphans and abandoned babies find good homes.
She threw herself into her humanitarianism work. Brisbane increased her salary by $50 a week, but much of what she earned always went to help children in need.
The spunky female stunt reporter of the late 1880s had matured. Her years as a progressive industrialist, war correspondent, and European expatriate had shaped her into a woman who wanted to improve the world in whatever way she could—even when her own family struggles were tearing her apart.
Meanwhile, Mary Jane, over ninety years of age, had purchased a large, turreted three-story home in Brooklyn. If she knew about it, Bly made no mention of it in print.
She would occasionally, however, put into print things that must have been on her mind regarding her split from her brother and mother: “Know yourself,” she wrote. “This is the first essential for success…Smiles, expressions and words should be the shield or mask to protect you. By these means, one can avoid being the victim of the unscrupulous.”
By 1920, Bly was furiously busy. She was writing two columns a week for The Journal, in addition to her adoption work. It wreaked havoc on her health. The overexertion from her war correspondent years had spilled over into her life in New York. She ate sporadically and suffered from bronchitis which led to a hospital stay.
The Final Ruling
That same year, the court ruled in Bly’s favor concerning the suit her mother had put up against the shares in Oscar Bondy’s name. Mary Jane retained the interest income from the shares, which would revert to Bly upon her death. Albert countered by trying to increase the shares in the company, which would have diluted his sister’s stake and increased his own through his mother. Bly blocked the attempt with more legal proceedings.
After much fighting, the outcome of the struggle was “dissipation [excessive waste] through litigation.” Bly would never reconcile with her mother or her brother.
Saving children had become her sole comfort.
The amount of work Nellie Bly produced in 1921 at age 57 was as great as any in her young years as a star reporter. But it came at a cost.
“She neglected her health,” writes Kroeger, “[she] refused to take prescribed medications, raced around in the worst weather in taxicabs, skipped meals often, and was picky when she bothered to eat.”
In February 1921, Bly's mother, Mary Jane, died of bladder cancer. She was ninety-four.
While she never mentioned her mother’s death directly in print, Bly wrote in her column months later: “Death, which leaves no opportunity for forgiveness, is the severest reproach one can harbor in heart and soul. Regret…is like an incurable illness. You cannot evade, you cannot shake off, you cannot kill that voice which will make you say in deepest misery: ‘If I only had…’ ”
Bly wrote her last newspaper column in January 1922. The day it ran, she was admitted to the hospital with an acute case of bronchopneumonia complicated by heart disease. The headline of her column was eerily relevant: “Nellie Bly on Pranks of Destiny.”
She signed her will while hospitalized, giving her younger brother Harry and her niece through her sister Kate a little money, and the shares of stock she’d won in the case. She still held out hope that they would one day bring valuable assets to her heirs.
In fact, the company had been operating at a loss for years and owed $50,000 ($768,000 today) to the IRS.
There was nothing left to inherit.
Death came a few weeks later on January 27, 1922. She was fifty-seven. The newspapers gave notice of her passing and her obituary ran over the wires of the Associated Press.
The New York World, the paper that made her famous, ran a long story illustrating the highlights of her wondrous life.
Perhaps the best epitaph are the words she'd written in her column the previous summer: “To be happy, to know how to find happiness under all circumstances, is the acme of wisdom and the triumph of genius."
If you missed Part 1, click here.
If you missed Part 2, click here.
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Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.