Over the course of the past few months, many of the incredible women memorialized at Woodlawn were in the news. There were stories including Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) during the election, articles focusing on the future of the Irvington mansion built by Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) on the internet, and a television documentary on the life of the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz (1925-2003).
At a time when we are all talking about the press and questioning the role of the media in our lives, we pay tribute to the Woodlawn Women who made the news.
In the 1880s, Elizabeth Jane Cochran (1864-1922), better known as “Nellie Bly,” went undercover to experience life at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She lived there for a week and a half. The stories she wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World were published as a book, “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” which influenced lawmakers to improve conditions at mental institutions.
Marie Mattingly Meloney (1878-1943) was considered a leading American journalist. Using the “power of the press,” she organized a fund drive to buy radium for Madame Curie and was involved in raising awareness for improved housing in the 1930s. She married William Brown Meloney IV, editor of the New York Sun. As a reporter, she worked for several publications, including The Washington Post, the New York World and the Denver Post.
Following the death of her husband in 1880, Miriam Folline Leslie (1836-1914) legally changed her name to “Frank Leslie” in order to take over and manage her husband’s magazine empire. Leslie’s Illustrated was among the several publications in the chain that were on the verge of bankruptcy. Miriam’s business sense and tenacity stabilized the business and, by 1897, circulation of the monthly magazine was up to 20,000 copies. The magazine featured stories ranging from the Klondike Gold Rush to the growing Women’s movement. When she died, $3 million dollars from her estate was left to support Suffragist efforts.
In addition to writing and publishing the news, several Woodlawn women made headlines for being “firsts.” Gertrude Ederle (1905-2003) was the first woman to swim the English Channel. Not only did she make headlines all over the world for her tremendous feat, New York City honored her with ticker-tape parade – the first for a woman.
Another triumphant first took place in 1944, when Laurette Taylor (1883-1946) was the first to play Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ ground-breaking play The Glass Menagerie. Considered one of the “greatest performances of all time,” during the course of the recent revival, accounts of Taylor’s interpretation of the role have appeared in major papers and magazines, including the New Yorker.
Although she was not the first woman to meet her fate in the electric chair, the execution of Ruth Snyder (1895-1928) was front page news, literally. Papers and tabloids across the country provided eager readers with daily accounts of her murder trial, called “Trial of the Century.” On the day of her scheduled execution at Sing Sing prison, a reporter from the Daily News strapped a camera to his ankle and snapped the dramatic photo of Ruth Snyder’s final moment. The paper sold a record number of copies and the horrific image led to significant regulations on press involvement when the death penalty was carried out.
Another woman who broke down barriers was Fannie Hertz (1881-1963) the wife of taxi and car rental company owner John Hertz. The couple was involved in horse racing and, in 1943, her horse Count Fleet won the Triple Crown. She was the second woman to own the horse that won racing’s most prestigious title. To this day, when articles written about racing as a male-dominated sport appear in the news, Fannie Hertz is still in the headlines.
In the month of March, make the time to honor the women who paved the way for others: Alva Belmont (1853-1933), Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) just to name a few. These strong ladies shaped our culture, fought for human rights, and made the news!