In 1911, Nelly Bly (original name Elizabeth Cochran) was the most famous journalist in the world, male or female. She had:
• Feigned insanity in 1887 to be locked up in the hellhole that was a woman’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now called Roosevelt Island) in New York City.
• Traveled around the world in 1888, in seventy-two days. She was alone for most of it, with only one dress, a Scotch Ulster coat, and a small travel bag. She sent reports from every stop where she could reach a telegraph office.
• Married a wealthy industrialist in 1895. He died in 1904, and Bly took over managing the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company in Brooklyn, New York. When Bly came to St. Louis for a convention in May, 1911, Marguerite Martyn sat her down for an interview.
It was a lovely interview with around-the-world adventurer Nellie Bly, and we were getting along beautifully until somebody mentioned “brewery.”
We were seated on a divan in the Turkish Room at the Planters Hotel, just as the Independent Oil Marketers’ Association was about to convene in the dining hall nearby.
She was saying:
“Yes, indeed, I think that newspaper work is the most worthy, the most noble of all professions for men and women alike. Newspaper people are so true, so loyal — you don’t meet their kind in the business world. You don’t find that heartfelt loyalty to craft and employer in commercial fields, I can tell you from bitter experience.
“Journalists deal in the interchange and development of ideas, and so they have finer instincts than those dealing in cold dollars and cents.
“And newspaper people are all mind, dominated by emotion, sentiment, and sympathy. They never become hardened.
“When I was a reporter, I was always inspired with an enthusiasm to throw the light of publicity into the dark places, to expose abuses, to arouse the public conscience, to reform the world. This very day I would rather be doing newspaper work than anything else . . .”
Then she stopped, having heard something that caught her attention in the gabble of voices around us --
“What was that? Did somebody say ‘brewery’?”
For Nellie Bly had returned to St. Louis as Mrs. Elizabeth Seaman, millionaire owner and operator of the American Steel Barrel Plant, Brooklyn, New York, to attend the convention. She had just overheard a group of men discussing an invitation to visit the Lemp brewery.
“Brewery? Beer? They sell beer in barrels, don’t they? Oh, I must visit that place.”
Her secretary, Miss Collins, interjected: “But the ladies are not going.”
“Oh, nonsense! The idea of letting the men do anything we can’t do!”
I have been wondering what to call my interview subject — Nellie Bly or Mrs. Seaman. On one hand, she was an ardent crusader against special privilege, but she was otherwise a representative of a vested interest.
In the former guise she was charming, ingratiating and delicately audacious, as she was when she established her sex as an asset in newspaper reporting. In the latter she was an aggressive business woman.
It required only somebody’s suggestion — and it may have been a mental one, for I did not see it — to bring a group of gallant oil men bowing before Mrs. Seaman.
“Do you think we would be bold?” she said. “Do you think we would be criticized if we went with all you men to the brewery? I wouldn’t do anything undignified for the world.”
Chivalry was put to its test: Why they just clamored and struggled to see which could be her most attentive escort on the trolley trip!
“But what about my interview?” I remonstrated.
“Come with me to the brewery, and I will tell you about my barrel. I invented it myself.”
She urged me with the others toward the Broadway [street]car, and once we were aboard she kept talking, about this new barrel.
“It never leaks, it’s safe and strong. I took an ash can, closed it up at both ends and had it made of steel. I tried welding, I tried soldering, I tried riveting — every known way, and then one unknown way to put it together. Now I have the most perfect steel package on the market.”
She gloated: “Oh, it is the most bee-uti-ful barrel! I say my prayers to it every night.”
Meanwhile, a beaming, straw-hatted oil man was announcing his appointment as her official escort. Other men gave him tolerant glances suggesting they would humor him in his delusion, mentally reserving some intentions of their own.
• A handsome fellow, gray at the temples and wholesomely sunburned, covertly relieved Mrs. Seaman of the black satin coat she carried.
• A portly, Pierpont Morgan-type whispered to her, and she laughed.
Oh, there were many visible reasons for her popularity.
If she had not been known as a wealthy widow, if she had not had such a reputation for shrewdness in business (a quality in a woman which is always such a wonder to men), if her daring achievements in journalism had not made her one of the most picturesque characters of our time — why, Mrs. Seaman would have still held the attention of any similar crowd.
If I were to recount the events of her life, Iwould fill an octavo volume. Her career has been varied since she disappeared from public notice after girdling the world in seventy-two days back in 1884.
She married Robert Seaman, an aged millionaire (at 73), a few days after meeting with him on a train while she was bound on somereportorial mission. Forthwith she began to grace the role of the idle rich, amazing even the gayer capitals of Europe with her luxurious habits, her sixty-two trunks containing (as she expressed it to me) “all the pretty clothes Paris afforded.”
And then we beheld her taking complete charge of the half-million-dollar estate her husband left at his death — and engaging in new manufacturing ventures.
At age 47, Nellie Bly is a singularly young and pretty woman, tall and slender, with an exceedingly graceful waist line. Her gown was a modish, black mescaline affair, with touches of green. Her coat matched, and the green of her hat and the strings of jade she wore enhanced the peculiar gray-green of her eyes. Most unusual eyes.
Her whole being radiates a thorough enjoyment of life. Her smile is wide and embracing, but the pupils of those large greenish eyes are set high, giving them an uplifted look which counteracts her ceaseless merriment.
A certain reserve, repose, and dignity shadows her vivacity and contradicts her reputation for always being on the move.
Mrs. Seaman proved so attractive to masculine eyes that I, being a mere woman, was unable to get within earshot of her until the return journey from the brewery, by automobile.
As we sped through the congested district of the South Side, she gave me her views on charity.
A “congested district” was the term-of-the-era for what was later known as a “slum” and is today a “blighted area.”
Mrs. Seaman said: “When I married, I thought my fondest dream had been realized and I could extend charity from my own pocket. But poverty and crime are diseases. You cannot efface them with charity, either public or private.”
“Then you are cynical?”
“Oh, no indeed. I find much that is useful for me to do in the world. I hope to build up my industries that I might give many people employment and positions that involve self-respect.
“I hope to install the best and most improved machinery, which of course does displace manual labor — but machinery makes for greater production, and the greater production, well, the more people you can employ in one capacity or another.
“Let industry increase, and let the laws be such that monopolies cannot exist. (She was referring to legislation being considered in Washington that resulted in the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.) One cannot blame shrewd corporations for taking advantage of weak laws.”
“Although I am meeting here with the independent oil men, I must say I have the greatest respect for the Standard Oil people. There are as good people in that monopoly as out of it.
“The faults of this country are with the laws and their lax enforcement. If women were in politics, it would introduce a better element. Eventually you would see a change.”
“You are a suffragist?” I asked.
“Why, yes, to be sure. Everyone should have an equal opportunity under the law. Women should have as many rights as men. If women were assured on political and economic independence, they would not marry for money.”
Mrs. Seaman-formerly-Bly-formerly-Cochran did return to journalism when her company went bankrupt around 1911. She covered the entirety of the Great War in Europe, 1914-1918. Five years after the Armistice, she died of pneumonia at age 57. ___________ • • •
(The article has been edited from the original text.)