Expanded from blog post Nellie Bly on Radio
By Bob Stepno
“1885… Women are coming out of the kitchen and invading fields hitherto considered sacred to the male of the species. One of these fields is the newspaper, and the spearhead of this invasion is a girl with big soulful gray eyes, a manner determined, and the energy of a wildcat, Nellie Bly… Nellie has journalism by the throat and shakes until it cries for mercy.”
A bit violent, but that’s how Cavalcade of America opened its 1945 radio profile of Nellie Bly, star reporter of Pulitzer’s World, and star of her own famous trip around the world. Listen to the full program here…
Nellie was a lady(Click the title to download or play if you don’t see a player icon.)
Turner Bullock’s script, titled “Nellie Was a Lady,” has some wildcat energy of its own.
The half-hour drama manages to include Nellie’s race with Jules Verne’s fictional “Around the World in 80 Days,” a brief meeting with Verne, and her exposes of a madhouse, a prison, mashers in Central Park and lobbyists in Albany — all to the cheers of crowds and whines of a disappointed suitor.
The reporter’s real name, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, is never mentioned, but we do get a barbershop chorus of the Stephen Foster song, “Nellie Bly,” that inspired her pseudonym.
The program clearly is more entertainment-drama than serious history. As author Brooke Kroeger notes, until the publication of her 1994 book, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist, “anyone interested in knowing more about her had to rely on a number of juvenile biographies, all partly fictionalized, which have done as much to distort the record as they have to perpetuate Bly’s memory.”
Cavalcade’s Nellie was played by Agnes Moorehead, one of radio’s greatest actresses — listen to her singing and shrieking her way through a bit of Ophelia’s madness scene to get herself committed to that asylum. Her other radio roles ranged from Margot Lane on “The Shadow” to memorable episodes of “Suspense,” and frequent appearances as a radio member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players. (As far as I know, “Margot” was her only Lane — she never played Lois.)
In another Welles connection, Moorehead’s film career had a major close-encounter with journalism several years earler: She played publisher Charles Foster Kane’s mother, Mary, in the opening scene of the 1941 film, “Citizen Kane.”
A year earlier, she played the mother of an even more famous fictional journalist in another opening scene: The baby Kal El’s doomed mother, Lara, on the first radio Superman episode, “The Baby from Krypton.” (For the second episode, where Kal El takes the name “Clark Kent,” see jheroes.com’s first episode, Getting off the ground at The Daily Planet.)
The audio file is streamed from the Calvacade collection uploaded to archive.org by the Old Time Radio Research Group.
The less-known Six Months in Mexico, along with Around the World in 72 Days and Ten Days in a Madhouse have been adapted for the Web at the University of Pennsylvania. The latter book includes “Miscellaneous Sketches: Trying to be a Servant” and “Nellie Bly as a White Slave.” The two best-known books are also available read aloud in several audio formats from Project Gutenberg: Ten Days, Around the World.
For an excellent biography, as mentioned above, see Nellie Bly — Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger, 1994. (By the same author, “Nellie Bly, She Did It All,” a 1996 article from the Quarterly of the National Archives.)
For the more cinematically inclined, see the PBS American Experience documentary based on Kroeger’s book, Around the World in 72 Days.
For a substantial Web resource page, see Nellie Bly Online.
Students of “the portrayal of the journalist in popular culture” should search the Internet Movie Database for movies, TV serials and episodes featuring Nellie. In print, via Worldcat or book review databases, you’ll find many “juvenile” biographies, and fictionalized versions of Nellie. In The Alchemy of Murder (2010) by Carol McCleary, Nellie goes to Paris, meeting Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur and Oscar Wilde, among others. She rubs shoulders with Sherlock Holmes and real-life 19th century characters in four of former journalist Carole Nelson Douglas‘s Sherlock-Holmes-inspired mystery novels, starting with Chapel Noir and most recently Spider Dance.
2014 update: National Public Radio marks Nellie’s 150th birthday with editor of new volume of her collected work.
2016 update: Brooke Kroeger’s National History Day Nellie Bly Resource Page.