As a young vaudevillian, the story goes, Nellie Revell punched out George M. Cohan.
Decades later, Cohan hosted a Friars Club benefit for Revell – a first for a woman. He also was among hundreds of celebrities who lined up to visit Revell during the four years when she was confined to a hospital bed with a degenerative spine. Among the others were Harry Houdini, Jack Dempsey, Lillian Russell, Babe Ruth, Eubie Blake and Eddie Cantor. Will Rogers performed rope tricks in her hospital room.
Revell (1873-1958), grew up in Riverton and Springfield, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton H. McAleney. Most of the stories about her early life seem to have been recounted by Revell herself and are difficult to verify. (See below.) And, since Revell was a skilled publicist, the most celebrated one of her time, it’s entirely possible that she invented much of her own background.
On the other hand, Revell’s later life, in some ways just as implausible, is well-documented and unquestionably true.
Revell was married three times: to circus advance man Charles Smith, Chicago businessman Joe Revell and press agent Arthur Kellar, but “Revell” stuck as her last name. She was the mother of twin daughters with Smith. Olive died in 1910; Dorothy (“Dodo” or “Retta”), like her mother, became a writer and radio performer herself.
As a newspaperwoman, Revell always called herself “a police reporter,” but also said she had covered some of the signal events around the turn of the century: the funeral of Queen Victoria, the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, the Haymarket Riot and the Iroquois Theater fire in Chicago, and the celebrated murder trial of Harry K. Thaw.
The late Doug Pokorski summarized Revell’s memories of her journalism work in a 1999 State Journal-Register article:
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 Il 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.
Listen: Revell discusses “Love” in a clip from a 1936 broadcast of her long-running radio program “Neighbor Nell.” (The rest of the broadcast can be heard here: “Nell” begins about four minutes into the audio.)
Old advertisements and Billboard magazine clips confirm that Revell performed on the vaudeville stage. One ad described her act: “Nellie Revell: Comedy, Monologue and Singer.” In 1908, Billboard said she was billed as “the girl who says things” and added:
Nellie has a knack of making friends with her audience as soon as she starts that “made to order” laugh of hers, and she knows just when to use it.
In the early 1890s, Revell joined Charles Smith as an advance agent – another first for a woman – for traveling circuses, going from town to town ahead of the circus to ballyhoo upcoming performances. That laid the groundwork for her to become a theatrical publicist.
According to an unpublished biography written by Barbara Humphrey, a great-niece of Revell, Revell quit a Chicago newspaper in 1906 to become press agent for a vaudeville show there.
By 1911 she was living in New York and was employed as a publicity director for Percy Williams, who owned a string of theaters. She also continued to go on stage herself from time to time. She reached the pinnacle of her stage success in Shubert’s Winter Garden shows, Al Jolson shows and the Passing shows.
… An offer from the New York World, which then represented the apex of journalism, brought her back to reporting. In following years in New York she also worked for The Evening Mail, The Evening Telegram, The Morning Telegraph and Variety. There were many people who thought a woman had no place in journalism, but Nellie swept aside all opposition. … (S)he demanded to be treated equally with male reporters in assignments and respect for herself as a journalist.
At one point, Revell was press agent for the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and the Keith Orpheum motion picture circuit, business manager for the Winter Garden Theater and publicist for the Shubert Theaters, Humphrey reports. Her clients also included Rogers, Russell and Al Jolson, among others.
Garnett Warren of the New York Herald questioned Revell about her publicity techniques, in a rare story that focused on her rather than her clients, in 1911. (The article was republished in the Illinois State Journal, under the headline “Confessions of the Queen of Press Agents,” but with no mention of Revell’s local origins.) Revell summed up the secrets of successful press agentry:
“Intuition, system, sense of humor and loyalty,” answered Miss Revell, going the trinity one better.
“System?” I repeated. “but I thought press agenting was all imagination and thinking up stunts to warm the polar hearts of news editors?”
“It’s all of that,” agreed Miss Revell, melting into a sort of companionly diminuendo from the crisp masculinity of the businesslike; “It’s all of that and a lot of other things besides. It’s psychology and returns“ –
“Returns?” I repeated, at a loss.
“They say you don’t come back,” observed Miss Revell explanatorily. “If you’re a press agent you’ve got to. And keep on coming back, too, or you won’t be a press agent, but only somebody looking for a job.”
“Nellie Revell was the top woman publicist of the country,” radio pioneer Edythe Meserand said. “She was the first in motion pictures as a publicist. She was famous throughout the country.”
At the height of her career, however, Revell suffered a spinal injury that would leave her hospitalized for four years. She explained the injury in her book Right Off the Chest (1923), which she wrote in her bed.
The breakdown … had been approaching a crisis for two years. My step had become slower, my nervousness more acute. At length, after I had sat on rubber rings and surrounded by air cushions for months, suffering excruciating pains in the back, a friend prevailed upon me to go to a chiropractor in New York. He hurt me so badly that my secretary had to come for me and take me home.
A few days later, Mrs. Elizabeth New, a masseuse who treats many theatrical people, was summoned. She ran her fingers up and down my spine, and exclaimed: “I wouldn’t touch you for a million dollars. Your back is broken!
… The next day I was X-rayed and learned the horrible fact that three vertebrae had been caved in.
Revell moved into St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her back was encased in mortar that “had to be built around a core, which was me, while the mixture was soft,” she wrote in Right Off the Chest. “When it dried it held me more rigidly than a Puritan conscience.”
Revell remained in the hospital from 1919 until September 1923, for most of that time flat on her back in her cast. She wrote two of her half-dozen books in St. Vincent’s (Right off the Chest and Fightin’ Through, published in 1925; the full text of both is available via the Hathi Trust digital library). But her main activity seems to have been reading her mail (an estimated 32,000 cards, letters and telegrams) and receiving celebrity visitors. Newspapers called her “the world’s most famous invalid.”
Writer and humorist Irvin S. Cobb paid tribute to Revell when he wrote the introduction to Right Off the Chest.
(T)o the best of my observation, remembrance and belief, Nellie Revell is the bravest living creature I ever saw in my life. … I believe she has more friends, more real, honest-to-God, on-the-level friends, than anybody I know; and the reason why she has them is because she gives back friendship in such unselfish and plenteous measure.
It is this which helps to explain why her little room down at St. Vincent’s on West Twelfth Street in New York was a sort of shrine for so many persons. Men and women, drawn from every imaginable channel and cross-section of metropolitan life, went there to see her. Prima donnas and chorus girls, publicans and sinners, side-show spielers and famous clergymen, political demagogues and political demi-gods, grafters and leaders in national affairs, nuns and burlesquers, bill posters and circus barons, millionaires and beggar boys off the street – they all went and they all came away again renewed in strength for their own fights, taking pattern of determination from this example of a perfect faith, a perfect sanity, and a perfect example of endurance.
Some of those visitors slipped checks under her pillow – Revell reportedly lost all her savings in a bad investment shortly before her back injury was diagnosed – and a 1920 benefit starring Eddie Cantor, Chic Sale and host of other vaudeville acts brought in $20,000 to help with hospital bills.
Revell reportedly met George M. Cohan when both were young vaudeville performers. In her account of Revell’s life, Humphrey said the two “were stage kids together for a while.”
“Nellie could hang by her toes from a parallel bar,” Humphrey wrote. “George, who was just starting trouping with his pa, didn’t think much of Nellie’s act. He told her so. Nellie doubled up her fist, George got a shiner and was bowled off a trunk backstage.”
After her injury, however, Cohan – by then a towering figure in the American theater – was one of her most faithful friends. When Right Off the Chest was published, at $2.50 face value, Cohan sent Revell $1,000 for a copy to give his mother. According to a 1923 San Francisco Chronicle article, he said later, “I know the world’s two greatest women. They are my mother and Nellie Revell.”
Once she was finally out of the hospital, Cohan, Cantor, Cobb and a spectrum of other theatrical friends threw a Friars Club benefit for her at the Hotel Astor in New York. (Revell was named an honorary Friar, making her the club’s first woman member.) The 1,200 people in attendance saw Revell walk in public for the first time since her injury.
Revell moved to an apartment near Times Square and continued to write – more books, a syndicated newspaper column (the Illinois State Register picked it up in September 1924) and silent-movie treatments. Among the latter was a screen adaptation of her circus novel, Spangles. (See below for lists compiled by Humphrey.)
In addition, she started yet another new career, this one in radio, in 1930. Revell’s 15-minute daily interview program, “Neighbor Nell,” ran on NBC for the next 17 years.
Cataracts finally forced Revell to retire in 1950. (At some point, she had surgery to remove the cataract from her left eye. Asked when the same operation would be done on her right eye, Humphrey writes, Revell said, “Soon as my left eye heals up. I can’t run out of eyes, honey. They’ve operated on me for everything except dandruff.”)
A broken hip returned her to a hospital bed in the summer of 1958, and Revell died there on Aug. 12, 1958. She was buried in the McAleney family plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, but the family had little money. As a result, her grave remained unmarked until fall 2016. Humphrey, her sister Sally Hurme and other relatives held a short dedication ceremony there on Oct. 5, 2016.
Listen: Sally Hurme discusses a family trip to New York City to visit Revell.
Humphrey summarized the impact of Revell’s life by quoting her entry in American National Biography:
She established herself in journalism at a time when relatively few women were accepted, and she went on to prove that a woman could succeed in the male field of press agentry. She displayed pluck and courage, both personally and professionally.
Books and movies written by Nellie Revell (thanks to Barbara Humphrey)
Books written by Revell
- Right Off the Chest, 1923
- Fightin’ Through, 1925
- The Funny Side Out, 1925
- Spangles, 1926
Books co-written or contributed to by Revell
- When You’re Making Good, 1907
- Writing for Vaudeville by Brett Page, 1915 (Chapter XVIII written by Revell)
- It Can Be Done, A True Story by Sol Rothschild, 1925 (Introduction written by Revell)
- Spangles, 1927 (based on her book)
- The Magic Flame, 1927
- The Golf Nuts, 1927
- Smith’s Restaurant, 1928
- Smith’s Farm Days, 1928
- The Beach Club, 1928 (one of the writers)
- The Mighty, 1929 (one of the first talkies)
Verification note: One example demonstrates the difficulty of confirming details of Nellie Revell’s early life, a problem probably compounded by fallible memories, transcription errors and Revell’s own penchant for embroidering her experiences.
According to Revell’s account, she became a reporter after her father, who she said ran the Springfield Republican newspaper, refused to run a poem she wrote following the death of a young friend. She then offered the poem to the Illinois State Register, the story goes, which did publish it.
Problems with the story include:
- There was a Springfield Republican newspaper, but it was published in the 1850s, 15 years before Revell’s birth, and the proprietors were two brothers named Jameson.
- Hamilton McAleney’s 1909 obituary says nothing about him ever working for a newspaper. (The 1880 U.S. Census lists an H.H. McAleney living in Riverton, but it identifies him as a plasterer.)
- Revell quoted what she said were the opening lines of her poem in a column published in the Register in 1924. Those lines never appeared in either the Register or the Illinois State Journal, an internet search reveals.
However, Springfield had other newspapers at the time that are not searchable online. It’s possible Revell attributed the publication to the Register in 1924 because that paper had agreed to publish her syndicated column. It’s also possible that she misremembered the name of the newspaper. And, of course, it’s possible that she simply made up the incident.
Other details in Revell’s brief Springfield memoir, however, mostly ring true. For instance, the play East Lynne, which she said was her first exposure to theater, was performed at Springfield’s Chatterton Opera House several times during the early 1880s. Revell also said she made her first stage appearance in the play Three Nights in a Barroom at the Chatterton. That melodrama, though actually titled Ten Nights in a Barroom, in fact was produced at the Chatterton in 1887, when Nellie was 14 years old.
Hat tips: Barbara Humphrey, a great-niece of Nellie Revell, brought Revell to the attention of SangamonLink. As suggested above, much of this entry is based on Humphrey’s research, to the extent that Humphrey should be considered co-writer of this entry. Our thanks to her.
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