Story of Victorian daredevil reporter Nellie Bly comes to JW3 stage

Maya Levy as Nellie Bly

Maya Levy as Nellie Bly - Credit: Image © Karla Gowlett

A one woman play will shed light on the little known journalist as part of International Women’s Day, finds Bridget Galton.

The life of daredevil investigative reporter Nellie Bly is barely known in this country but a one-woman play is set to put that right.

At a time when women couldn’t vote, the Victorian pioneer excelled in an exclusively male world; going around the world in 72 days, working as an elephant trainer and reporting from inside an asylum.

New York-born Maya Levy’s self-penned show comes to JW3 - appropriately - as part of International Women’s Day celebrations.

She says: “I was interested in telling the story of an important woman in history and as soon as I started reading up on her I knew she was the one. She was an important figure in feminism but even in America she has fallen out of the history books.

“On a personal level I found her really inspiring, someone who persevered and was determined to make something of herself. At a time when women couldn’t have careers, she accomplished things that even today would be impressive.”

Born in Pensylvania in 1864, Bly started working for the Pittsburgh Despatch after writing a furious letter to the editor in response to a misogynist article. Passionate about social justice, she wrote about the working conditions of women in factories, but found herself sidelined on the society pages writing about gardening and hats.

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Aged 22, Bly headed to New York with her portfolio. “She knocked on every door, they all turned her away until Colonel Cockerill the editor of the New York World was impressed enough to ask her to have herself committed to one of the asylums by pretending to be insane.”

Once inside Blackwell Island Bly started acting sane again and 10 days later her editor’s lawyer got her out.

“It was shocking, the treatment of patients was apalling it was a terrible experience but she wrote a scathing expose from her personal perspective that made her a sensation. A grand jury was summoned, she was a witness and based on her story they reformed New York’s mental health system.

“At the time she was literally the only woman in the world doing these things, she pioneered the genre of investigative reporting and was so good at it the other newspapers copied the idea of getting a young woman to do what Nellie was doing.”

Levy’s show, which includes original songs, is couched as a 19th Century lecture on success given by the irrepressible Bly.

“When she did something there was always a reason behind it, she cared about women and working people and was keen to make life better for everyone There was a warm quality in her writing, her style of putting herself in the story made for good reading.”

With characteristic feistiness Bly insisted on undertaking the round the world voyage – based upon Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg - alone.

“She told her editor she would not need a chaperone, ‘I am going with one bag I can hold in my hand and I will go by myself and if you don’t let me I will find another paper who will’. Within two days she was gone.”

Armed with an introductory letter from her editor requesting safe passage, and a chequered coat made especially for her, Bly made the epic voyage by boat and train, a trip recounted in the show in an urgent patterish, Tom Lehrer-style song.

The episode epitomised her all-American individualistic mantra that “bountiful energy readily applied and dedicated will accomplish anything.”

Bly married a much older wealthy man, retired from journalism and died aged 57. She didn’t keep a diary so Levy has put together her piece from contemporary accounts and biographies.

“It was a challenge to tell her story and keep it lively and true. She was warm, full of heart but slightly pompous, inserting herself into the story even when it was inappropriate.

“But even that was a charming aspect of her – ‘if I don’t tell you that I am great how will you know?’”

The Adventures of Nellie Bly is at JW3 in Finchley Road at 8pm on March 7 as part of their Weekend of Women.