One of the most interesting moments in "Byline: Nellie Bly," the latest of the National Portrait Gallery's series of Portraits in Motion, is when the famous reporter talks about her differences with the women's suffrage movement.
As a reporter who began her career around 1885, Bly thought herself to be "independent" and worried that being identified as a partisan of a political movement would reduce her effectiveness as a writer. Susan B. Anthony chided her for not sticking to the party line in some of her stories, fearful that Bly would "hurt the cause."
The interesting thing is: The entire scene could have been transposed to the 1970s, without changing so much as a line.
This echo effect recurs throughout Muriel Nussbaum's piece, an unspoken comment on a biography of a woman who died in 1922. Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane) was a "first" in many things--but it took a long time for the seconds to come along.
She earned her fame as a "stunt" reporter, first in Pittsburgh and then for The New York World, calling attention to various scandals by entering a mental hospital as a patient ("The Mystery of the Unknown Insane Girl!" was the headline), getting arrested as a thief, and--acceding to an editor's wish for a "light touch"--getting a job as a chorus girl. She wrote the prototype of the modern "profile" about Emma Goldman, whom she portrayed as a person and not just as an anarchist.
Her most famous feat was a trip around the world in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes, recorded in every breathless detail for the readers of The World. She took one dress and a satchel--and picked up a monkey in Singapore that she carried the rest of the way.
This stunt made her the most celebrated of young women--she was barely 25--and she reveled in her effort to establish the American woman as "pushing, determined, and independent," as one admirer put it. She endorsed soap and had trains and horses named after her, and was described as "the most popular young woman in America."
She followed this by marrying a millionaire 40 years older, and then running one of his factories. After he died she was rooked by some of her employes, the factory was closed. She ended her days back on The World writing a column and uncovering more scandals
Nussbaum's portrait takes full advantage of the vivid and amazing character that was Cochrane/Bly. She does make Nellie Bly come alive--perhaps too much so. Although it is easy to see the appeal of the material, there is too much of it, particularly for a one-woman show.
The final two performances are this afternoon.