The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale

book cover

God save Nellie from the ladies’ pages. If a woman was lucky enough to get a job working for a paper—which spared her from working in a factory, or as a domestic or a wife (shudder)—she would have to spend her days writing about household hints and recipes, garden shows and charity luncheons. It was mind-numbingly tedious and she wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was one reason why she had left Pittsburgh.

There is nothing worse than being told that you don’t know your own mind or body. If you aren’t mad when you go in, chances are you will be by the time you come out.

When twenty-three-year-old Nellie Bly headed to New York City in 1887, she left a message for her boss at The Pittsburgh Gazette.

I’m off for New York. Look out for me.
—Nellie Bly

Good advice. It was no easy task for Elizabeth (Elly) Jane Cochrane. Women in journalism were relegated to the “ladies’ page” when they were hired at all. And often had to use pen names to get their work into print. Persistence paid off, though, and Cochrane finally got a gig with The New York World, by promising to go undercover at the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island. (called Roosevelt Island today). The notorious institution had already been the subject of multiple journalistic examinations. But it was a tough place to get into, and, as it had changed from a co-ed institution to a women’s asylum in 1872, it would take a female to be able to get inside, one of the downsides to journalism being such a boys’ club. But Nellie’s self-confidence, and courage, knew no bounds, so she dove right in.

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Maya Rodale – image from Open Shelf – photo by Elsa Ngan

The Mad Girls of New York is a novelization of Bly’s actual early adventures in NYC. Some of the characters are taken from Bly’s seminal work, Ten Days in an Asylum, which was comprised of and expanded from the articles she had written for the New York World, a series that made her reputation. She persuaded those who needed persuading that she was mad, in order to be institutionalized as a patient. It was surprisingly easy. Once in, she experienced the horrors inflicted on the patients, although inmates would have been more accurate.

The asylum was a physically cold place, and the residents were provided with painfully inadequate clothing and covers. The food was unspeakable, often insect-ridden, the physical accommodations spartan, the doctors dismissive, the nurses abusive, and the cleanliness regimen was cruel. It did not help that some of the help was recruited from the prison that was also on the island.

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Nellie Bly – image from the Irish Times

We meet several groups of characters. The journalism pack leads off. This includes the editors she interviews during a project on why the papers do not hire women. There is a fair bit of LOL to be had in this as she leaves them spinning and sputtering in their own contradictions. There are the other women journalists with whom she engages, a club of sorts, who help each other out, getting together in an establishment, The Ordinary, that serves women only. Such institutions did exist at the time. She has a competition going with a male reporter, Sam Colton, from Chicago. There is also a simmering attraction between the two, but it is not romancy enough to intrude into the story too much, thankfully. There is also a flirtation with the hunky, single mayor.

When you learn that there was in fact a hot bachelor mayor of New York City named Hugh Grant, you must include it in your novel. – from Rodale’s Twitter feed

Rodale has produced numerous romance novels, (22 by my count, plus some novellas, a children‘s book and a couple of non-fics) so it would have been a shock if there were not some sparks flying in this tale. But if you are hoping for ignition into conflagration, you will have to check out her considerable romance work instead.

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The New York City Asylum for the Insane – image from Wikipedia – cheery-looking, no?

Then there are the patients. Anne is in need of care, but cannot afford decent treatment at a private institution. The Princess has a regal bearing but will only say three words, Rose, Daisy, and Violet, over and over. Tillie has a nervous condition, truly needs some rest, some peace and quiet, in a warm place, but her friends dumped her off at Bellevue (with friends like that…). Prayer Girl, who pleads with god to kill her ASAP, somehow never takes the initiative herself. Women are committed to this place for a variety of reasons, few of them good. Many devolve to a broad category of their being inconvenient, something Martha Mitchell might recognize. Then there is Mrs Grady, the Nurse Ratched of this enterprise, a cruel overseer, super control freak, eager to inflict pain and punishment and never willing to hear any of the real concerns of her charges. Toss in a few cruel cops and attendants, a clueless doctor, and another who at least shows some bits of humanity.

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Newspaper Row in Lower Manhattan. That is City Hall in the foreground on the left. The domed building to the east of City Hall is the New York World Building. The Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been built when this shot was taken, but if it had, it would appear to the north (left) of the World Bldg) – image from Stuff Nobody Cares About

Rodale’s focus is on how women were treated, not just in this horrid institution, but in all institutions of the wider world, using her story-telling skills to show us how women were regarded as a lesser life form, in politics, in journalism, in finance, in the overall world of work, well…paid work. Slaving at home for hubby and progeny was still just fine and dandy. She shows the struggles that smart, driven women had to endure in order to access the same level of opportunity and respect as men, just to be able to cover hard news. Bly was one of a group of women called “Girl Stunt Reporters,” daring women journalists who put themselves in peril in order to delve into many of the social wrongs of the late 19th century.

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Hugh J. Grant two-term NYC Mayor – image from Wikipedia

Rodale spices up the story, as if it needed additional condiments, with a mystery about a high-society spouse gone strangely missing, with the widower chomping at the bit to wed a younger, richer, woman. She incorporates actual historical events and people into the tale, sometimes with name changes, sometimes with tweaking of timelines. Some personages retain their names, including the aforementioned mayor, Hugh Grant, (who did not actually become mayor until 1889, two years after the events of this novel) Hetty Green (The Witch of Wall Street), Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a writer of articles about beauty and health for the New York World, and others.

Despite the harshness of the conditions Bly, and now Rodale, reveal, there is no graphic violence or sexual behavior in The Mad Girls of New York. This helps make it perfectly suitable for younger readers, particularly girls, who may not know about Nellie, and what a pioneer she was. It is a very fluid, quick read.

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Hetty Green – The Witch of Wall Street – image from wiki

The book is listed as A Nellie Bly Novel #1, so we can presume there are more in the works. I do not have any inside intel on this, but I imagine that Nellie’s around-the-world-in-80-days challenge (she did it in 72) will be among the upcomings. Something to look forward to.

Nellie’s story is a remarkable one. Rodale has done a very nice job of letting modern readers in on what Nellie faced as a gutsy, newbie reporter in New York, and what she accomplished, at least in the short term, encouraging us to learn more about this brilliant, dogged, remarkable woman. You’d have to be crazy to pass this one by.

The madhouse had been horrible, but this part—writing it all down with the promise of seeing the atrocities in print, made it feel worthwhile. When she thought of the public reading her words and knowing about the suffering that happened at Blackwell’s, Nellie felt shivers. Do stunts, Marian had flippantly suggested. But Nellie had found her life’s work.

Review posted – May 6, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Mad Girls of New York from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Can I get a warmer blanket, please?

This review has been cross-posted Goodreads.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interview
—–Wine, Women and Words – Nerding out about Nellie with Maya Rodale with Michelle Leivas and Diana Giovinazzo

Item of Interest from the author
—–Lithub – The Real-Life Heroines of an Outrageous Era: A Gilded Age Reading List

My obsession with the Gilded Age began with romance novels—I wanted to set a series in old New York in the world of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and dollar Princesses, which felt like an updated version of the Regency Era. But in researching the time period I discovered that the best stories weren’t just uptown in Fifth Avenue mansions—they were everywhere. I also discovered that the Gilded Age was a golden age for independent, ambitious, boundary breaking real life heroines.
One of my favorites is Nellie Bly…She was the first and most daring of the stunt girl reporters, who found fame and success by going undercover to report stories that detailed women’s experiences as factory girls, or getting abortions, or learning ballet.

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Nellie Bly
—–Wiki on Hugh J. Grant – NYC’s 88th mayor
—–Wiki on Hetty Green – “The Witch of Wall Street” – Marian goes to see her to get intel on Jay Wallace in chapter 24
—–Wiki on – Harriet Ayer – Nellie’s mentor in the book
—–Library of Congress – Research Guide for Nellie Bly
—–Gutenberg – Ten Days in a Madhouse – the full text
—–Wiki on The Martha Mitchell effect
—–Smithsonian – These Women Reporters Went Undercover to Get the Most Important Scoops of Their Day – an outstanding piece by Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters
—–Wiki on The Ladies Ordinary – a women-only establishment where Nellie meets with other reporters
—–For a real blow to your consciousness, check out this site, for Octagon NYC. This part of the original asylum has been converted, as all things in NYC are, into luxury housing. The prices are insane. (a 540 sq ft studio is $3,028 a month, a 3 BR, 1,316 sq ft goes for $7500 a month)
—–The American Journal of Psychiatry has a brief, but informative, piece – The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the New York Press

Reminds Me Of
—–Leslie Parry’s 2015 novel, Church of Marvels, includes a look at Blackwell’s when one of the characters spends some time inside.
—–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the film

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York City

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