The Film & More|
On January 25, 1890, the world waited for a young reporter named Nellie
Bly to arrive back home. For 72 days, as she jumped cargo
ships, trains, tugboats, and rickshaws, newspaper readers had been
following her progress in one of the most highly publicized journeys of
all time. Never before had anyone -- man or woman -- circled the globe with
such speed, outdoing the "record" of eighty days set by Jules Verne's
popular fictional character, the legendary Phileas T. Fogg. The journey
would make her famous.
"Around the World in 72 Days" paints a portrait of a remarkably
ambitious woman who, in an era of Victorian reserve, would become a
household name by doing things a woman wasn't supposed to do. "At a
time in history when women's sphere was the home and children," notes
producer Christine Lesiak, "Nellie Bly extended that sphere to the
entire world, and became a symbol of American pride and power."
By the time Bly embarked on her famous trip, she had already made a name
for herself as one of Joseph Pulitzer's top reporters, documenting the
lives of America's growing underclass. "She seemed to know how to pick
the assignment that would put her on center stage," says Brooke Kroeger,
Bly's biographer. Her exploits titillated readers and earned her a
reputation for fearlessness among the readers of New York's newspapers.
In the process, she also changed the way news was gathered.
The first story to put her on center stage was a harrowing account of
her experience inside a madhouse. On a dare from the editor of
Pulitzer's "New York World," Bly, masquerading as a madwoman, spent
ten terrifying days in the most notorious mental asylum in New York
City -- the women's asylum on Blackwell's Island. Her exposé of the
cruel and even life-threatening treatment she and other patients endured
shook the city to its foundation and was reprinted nationwide. The
series resulted in increased funds to improve conditions at the asylum,
and earned Bly instant renown, as well as grudging respect from her
newspaper colleagues. Never before had a journalist gone to such lengths
to pursue a story. The new brand of undercover, investigative reporting
would continue to grab headlines for another ten years.
"The New York World" immediately recognized "stunt" journalism's
powerful appeal and over the next two years sent Bly undercover in
countless guises: a domestic employee, a chorus girl, an unwed mother.
Soon all the papers had their own "stunt girls," but none could outdo
Bly's style and derring-do. By the age of 23, Nellie Bly was
larger than life; readers loved her, and her adventures sold newspapers.
But none of Bly's exploits prepared her for her greatest stunt ever -- a
race around the world.
"When Nellie Bly actually decided to go all around the world," historian
Mitch Stephen tells THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, "I mean that was like going
up in the space shuttle!" Wearing what would become her trademark
checkered coat and carrying a single bag, Bly set out in November.
Despite numerous perils, Bly said that she "would rather go back to New
York dead than not a winner."
She returned in triumph, a celebrity. A hotel, a train, and a racehorse
were named after her. Just twenty-five years old, Bly was the most
famous woman on earth.