By Betty Dravis
When musician/author Diana Cain first told me about her great-great grandmother I was impressed with all she had done at a time in history when most women didn’t venture far from home. (Heck, I would be impressed with Nellie Revell’s career even in this new millennium.)
I asked Diana to write about her revered ancestor for Dames of Dialogue, but instead she found this comprehensive story written by Doug Pokorski.
In 1924, Pioneering Woman Journalist’s Columns Hit Home
by Doug Pokorski, Staff Writer
It was a homecoming of sorts when Nellie Revell’s new syndicated column began running in the Illinois State Register in September of 1924.
A Riverton native who had grown up in and around Springfield, Revell had fond feelings for the haunts of her girlhood, a fact she pointed out in an article published in the Register on September 28, 1899.
“The happiest days of my life were spent in old Sangamon county,” she wrote. “My recollection of those is more vivid than many experiences of more recent years. So many things happened to me first there, and constitute the high spots of memory of my whole life.” Revell was given to exaggeration and she may have been exaggerating just a tad when she said her youth in Sangamon County constituted the “high spots” of her life. It was, after all, quite a life.
Born Nellie McAleney in Riverton, in 1873, Revell took an early interest in journalism. At a very early age, she had her first written work published in the Register, a poem about a playmate who had died. Later, when her family was living out west she began working seriously as a journalist at the age of 16. She may have inherited her journalistic bent–she often told friends that her father, a former army captain and a pioneer settler of Sangamon County, had been a newspaper publisher.
Revell also had an interest in the stage, making her first appearance before the footlights at Springfield’s old Chatterton Theater in a play called “Three Nights in a Barroom.” Her theater career reportedly included appearances with the famous showman George M. Cohan and in Flo Ziegfeld’s production “Rosalie.”
At a time when most women did not work outside the home, Revell juggled a number of careers and seems to have been successful in all of them. As a pioneering woman reporter, she worked for the Denver Post, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Times, the New York World and the New York Evening Herald. She refused to have her work consigned to the “women’s pages,” and instead covered hard news, including police, courts and theater. She was believed to be the first woman to cover a professional prizefight (James J. Corbett versus Bob Fitzsimmons) and reportedly covered the coronation of Czar Nicholas II and the funeral of Queen Victoria.
Revell held her own as a newswoman at a time when journalism was a hard-nosed profession. She liked to tell about how she once threw an ink bottle at Charles Chapin, city editor of the World. When Chapin heard the story, he laughingly pointed out that she didn’t just throw the bottle, she hit him with it.
In addition to her stage career, she worked as a publicist, probably beginning when her first husband, Charles Smith, was advance man for the P.T. Barnum circus.
She was back on the stage in the early 1900s, by which time she had somehow lost Smith, acquired twin daughters and married a Chicago businessman name Joe Revell. She left the theater to work as a publicist for the Olympic Music Hall in Chicago and later went to New York where she was press agent for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.
Revell, who apparently was the world’s first woman press agent, was head of publicity for the Keith Orpheum motion picture circuit, business manager for the Winter Garden theater and publicist for the Shubert theaters.
As a theatrical publicist, her clients included Al Jolson, Will Rogers and Lillian Russell. She also kept a hand in with her old love, the circus, acting as press agent for six circuses.
Revell seems to have been riding high professionally in the early 1900s, but her personal life was troubled. One of her daughters died in 1910 and her marriage to Joe Revell came to an end, probably about the same time she later married Arthur Kellar, a press agent.
In 1919, she was struck by double blows that would have daunted most people. She lost her life savings in a bad investment, and she was confined to a hospital in a cast and braces because of a serious spinal injury.
The injury kept her flat on her back in the hospital for five years, unable to so much as pick up a telephone, but it didn’t keep her from writing, or from visiting with celebrity friends like Cohan, Heywood Broun and Bernard Baruch, who came to see her.
By 1924, when she began writing the column that would appear in the Register, Revell had become known as “the world’s most famous invalid,” and the courage and cheerfulness with which she had faced her illness were considered an inspiration to the country.
When she came out of the hospital, the Friars Club, the famous New York City actors club held a testimonial dinner in her honor, the first time the all-male club ever had a testimonial for a woman. She also was named an honorary member of the Friars.
Revell, who was eventually able to walk again, published three inspirational books, Right Off The Chest at least one of which was written while she was flat on her back in the hospital. She also wrote a novel that was made into a film and numerous columns and articles for newspapers and magazines. In 1930, Revell added another career to the long list she had already mastered–she joined the NBC radio network, hosting an early talk show.
Interviewing celebrities from the stage, screen, sports and politics, she became known throughout the country for sharp wit and cracker-barrel philosophy. When she retired from radio in 1947, at the age of about 74, she was hosting a program called “Neighbor Nell.”
Revell died at the age of 86, in 1958, and is buried in a family plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery. At the time of her death, the Illinois State Journal remembered her in a front-page obituary as a “woman who had left Springfield years ago to become associated with the greats and near-greats of the entertainment world.”
Author Diana Cain has this to say about her great-great grandmother: “She was a wonderful, pioneering lady and I feel like her spirit is right beside me! If she knows how much I admire her and that I’m also a writer, I hope she’s proud and smiling.
“She died in 1958, four years before I was born. My mother Gwendolynn looks just like Nellie and I look just like my mother’s mother, Loretta. I was pleased to learn that Grandmother Loretta wrote too; I have some of her poems and when I look at them it amazes me that they sound so much like my own writing. I’m humbled and proud that the writing talent has also been handed down to me. May Nellie Revell’s spirit always live on…”
In addition to writing several books of poetry, Diana Cain is also a singer, guitar player and songwriter. True Expressions and Life Expressions are compilations of poetry that are an expression of her soul and spirit. Her poems cover a myriad of subjects depicting real-life situations, from a Christian woman’s perspective. She exudes passion and love through her writing and her music. Diana’s church and faith are the foundations for True Expressions.
I’m delighted to be able to share one of Diana’s poems that is a preview of her book True Expressions.
Shield Me, O Lord
Let my life be not in vain,
Let me go not asunder.
But shield me, O Lord, from the rain,
And from the roaring thunder.
Shield me from a sinful life
And from an evil host,
And shelter me O Lord, Jesus Christ,
To the uttermost.
Shield me in Your loving grace,
Shield me from all wrong,
And take me to that hiding place
Which covers me all day long.
Shield my heart and my mind,
Shield this mortal flesh,
And let my light forever shine,
My soul eternal blessed.
Shield me in Your living wings
Into Your holy hands,
That I may always joyfully sing,
To You, the God of Abraham.
(c) 2009 Diana Cain
All Rights Reserved
What better time than Valentine’s Day for Diana to pay tribute to her loved one and for us to present Diana’s works. For more about Diana, please visit her at: http://www.facebook.com/people/Diana-Cain/587476804#!/Trueexpressions