I ate up the story of Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, better known as Annie Londonderry, like the tale of adventure it is. As I said earlier, this story combines sports marketing, women doing outrageous things, bicycles, travel, and history. Nowhere to go wrong there, unless in writing badly or boringly – which Zheutlin thankfully does not.
Annie was a working-class young mother of three living in the tenements of Boston in the 1890′s, when she decided, out of the blue, to take on the challenge of riding a bicycle around the world in under 15 months. She had never ridden a bicycle before, and her decision to set off on this journey is rather mysterious. The origins of the idea are rather unclear: she claimed that two wealthy Boston businessmen had made a wager that a women couldn’t do such a thing (following the around-the-world ride just recently accomplished by a man), and that they were offering a substantial purse upon her successful completion, but it does not appear that there were any such businessmen or any such wager. At any rate, Annie acquired a hefty women’s bicycle, a new name (the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company became her first sponsor), and set off.
Annie doesn’t appear to have planned very well. She set off first for New York, from Boston, then Chicago, then back to New York, then across the ocean to France. If your knowledge of geography suggests that this is not the most efficient route for circumnavigating the globe, you are correct.
In Chicago, Annie abandoned the attire that was appropriate at the time for ladies: high collars, long sleeves, full skirts with copious undergarments and petticoats and corsets and… lots of things I’m not familiar with. She first went to bloomers or split skirts, and eventually (I believe on her second visit to New York) gave up on even the bloomers and went to a “men’s riding suit”, meaning pants that more or less fit her – ack, shocking! She also picked up (in Chicago) a “diamond-frame” men’s bicycle – meaning, with a horizontal top tube, making skirts impractical or impossible. Her bike lost some 20lbs in this transition, and her wardrobe change lost a lot of weight, too.
The most fascinating parts of Annie’s story are the inconsistencies, erm, not to say lies she told throughout. She changed the terms of the wager repeatedly; she gave a plethora of personal biographies to different newspapers, ever-changing and not once (at least not that is documented) telling the truth. She never mentioned, for example, that she was a married mother of three; this would have made her leaving home unacceptable in her society. Annie told outrageous stories of violence, adventure, and near-death experiences during her journey, many or most of which appear to be false. And most egregiously, perhaps, she did not ride a bicycle for the majority of her trip at all. She rode, as stated above, around the northeast United States, and then across France, and from there took trains and ships almost exclusively (with a series of short, recreational or social rides for exhibition or touring purposes) from France to the Far East. She then shipped to San Francisco, where the riding began in earnest again; she rode south to El Paso and back up to Chicago, Boston, and New York, most likely with some miles by rail interspersed, but overwhelmingly by bike.
Annie claims to have won the wager, making it back to Boston under the 15-month deadline, and to have secured the $10,000 purse; but who paid it? Never mind the details, she would have told us. Although she didn’t ride anywhere near all the miles, she did a lot of riding, and appears to have finished in awfully good shape, even for a man of her time (and goodness knows, unheard of for a woman). She was a colorful character, and while not above criticism, what she did do was a remarkable accomplishment. If she cheated and rode “only” 10,000 miles, I would still give her a high-five and my respect. By today’s standards it’s easy to disparage the ethics of her, um, liberties with the truth, and the journalistic ethics of the many papers who covered her story credulously (and her own later career in sensationalist journalism). But Zheutlin does a fine job of setting the stage for the reader, reminding us that these were the journalist standards of the times.
Interspersed into this story of Annie’s wild ride and her telling of tall tales, Zheutlin gives us snippets of the history of the women’s suffrage movement, the history of the bicycle in American culture, and the revolution in women’s clothing reform that was deeply intertwined with bicycle riding (I wasn’t aware of the close relationship there). I found the author’s Afterword, in which he discusses his research process and his relationship with Annie’s memory (she is his great-grandaunt, although he only learned of her existence after her death), especially moving and interesting, and I wish this aspect would have played into the body of the book. As I’ve said of several nonfiction books I’ve read before, I enjoy the author’s voice, and her/his experience in research and writing. To me, this is part of the story, and leaving it out can be a disservice, leaving the story incomplete, or at worst, even dishonest. I don’t accuse Zheutlin of dishonesty of course; I’m just saying his role in Annie’s story being told is an important chapter, in my opinion.
I really enjoyed this story for its crossover elements into so many chapters of history: women’s rights and clothing standards, bicycles, travel, journalistic trends, even tidbits of various world cultures. I also appreciated Annie as an outlandish and wild woman, cyclist, and teller of tales. And I took pleasure in Zheutlin’s quiet comments on his research processes. If you’re a stickler for honesty, don’t expect to find Annie entirely likeable; but I think you’ll still be impressed by her story, and learn a few little-known details of our history as women, cyclists, and Americans. Check it out.
Thanks again, Fil!