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Breaking Away

How did a young immigrant mother become a cycling sensation?

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Annie Londonderry on June 25, 1894
Annie Londonderry on June 25, 1894, the day she officially began her trip

“I bet twenty thousand pounds . . . that I will make the tour of the world in eighty days or less,” declares Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s 1872 classic Around the World in Eighty Days. By the 1880s, several real-life daredevils had sworn that they could do Verne’s hero one better. In a publicity stunt that captured attention around the world, an enterprising journalist named Nellie Bly combined the hot topics of around-the-world travel and women’s liberation by circling the globe in just seventy-two days; Thomas Stevens, meanwhile, took advantage of the cycling craze and did it on two wheels (though the trip took him 103 days).

And then there was Annie Kopchovsky. Neither a dashing journalist nor an accomplished athlete, Kopchovsky was a Latvian immigrant living in a tenement in Boston with her husband and three young children. Spying the unlikeliest of business opportunities for someone in her position, she boasted to the press that she intended to bicycle around the globe in fifteen months, raising money for her journey along the way. To give her braggadocio additional spice, she claimed that two businessmen had made a wager on whether or not she would succeed. By the time she left Boston in 1895, Kopchovsky had attracted enough attention that the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company paid her $100 to adopt the surname “Londonderry” for the duration of her trip.

From Trinidad to Jerusalem, the newly global media covered Kopchovsky. In the end, she may have done more bragging than biking—often as not, it seems, she took the train. But her audiences, like Verne’s, were spellbound by her real and fabricated tales of adventure.

The legend of Annie Londonderry had been largely forgotten by the time Kopchovsky’s great-grandnephew, Peter Zheutlin, a journalist and avid bicyclist, discovered her story. He also discovered Mary, a distant cousin, who filled in the details missing from the public record—like the fact that Kopchovsky’s daughter scandalized the family by converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun. His new book, Around the World on Two Wheels, recounts Annie’s private and personal tales.

Why do you think this incredible bit of family lore was lost for so long?

I wonder whether her family members at the time saw it as so outrageous and almost unspeakable that she would leave her children behind and do this, that she may have become sort of the black sheep of the family. You know about Annie’s oldest daughter becoming a nun, which was a very closely held secret in that branch of the family. So much so that Mary didn’t even know that this aunt existed until Mary was thirty.

When I relayed this piece of information to my mother, she said, “Oh, I knew my father had a cousin that had become a nun.” But she knew nothing about Annie or this bicycle trip.

What do you think empowered Annie to do what she did?

I often ask myself that: What possessed this particular woman, out of so many women, to step so far outside of normal behavior, especially given the times in which she lived? For whatever reasons she had a very difficult time settling into the routines of the life of a mother of three young kids and a housewife. I think that this was more her means of self-actualization than anything else. She wasn’t really out to score political points for women, although she was not at all bashful about assuming the mantle of the women’s movement when it advanced her purposes.

She did once say that the purpose for her trip was to earn the means to support her family. Now this is not something that she repeated very often. In fact, most reporters and people who met her had no idea she had a family back home. I think she was ambitious in that sense, and, you know, took it upon herself to lift her family out of the circumstances that they were in.

Annie's Sterling bicycle
Annie began her trip dressed in skirts, on a 42-pound women’s bicycle. When she reached Chicago, however, the Sterling Cycle Works gave her a 21-pound men’s bicycle, and she necessarily switched from skirts to bloomers. The gadget on the front wheel is a cyclometer. The American flag wrapped around the frame was a gift from an American diplomat in Paris.

And she did it. They were able to take the money she’d earned on the trip and buy a home in the Bronx and start a business. She was a businesswoman all her life afterwards. She certainly displayed a lot of entrepreneurial skill on the road. And she put that to good use when she came back as well.

She was one of the first women to be featured in sports-related marketing, right?

As best I can tell, there were two women athletes who did product endorsements in 1894 and they appear to be the first ever. Both Annie Londonderry and Annie Oakley promoted Sterling bicycles, Oakley because she sometimes performed her sharp-shooting act on a Sterling, and my Annie because she rode a Sterling for most of her trip. But my Annie really took the notion to another level. Not only did she adopt the name of her first corporate sponsor, she turned herself into a mobile billboard. Sometimes she was practically covered from head to toe with ribbons, banners, and streamers stitched or attached to her clothing.

You mention a few times in the book that Annie had a strong Jewish identity. And yet from her behavior on the road, it seems like the most consistent thing about her identity is how amorphous and chameleon-like it is. A really striking example of this is how easily she seemed to conceal her Jewishness.

It’s not my sense that she had a weak identity. I think she was very adaptable when it suited her purposes. I think the point of her adopting this name, Londonderry, for the purpose of the trip was commercial. I mean, they were paying her money to do this. I don’t think she was looking for a name that necessarily concealed her identity. It certainly was reported in several places what her real name was. She definitely had a strong identity as a Jewish person. Not that she was necessarily religious the way her husband was, very devout. They kept a kosher home, but I doubt she kept kosher on the road. I think her Jewish identity really comes out in this story of the conversion of her daughter, which was absolutely devastating to her and her husband.

 

Annie Londonderry in a staged confrontation, 1895
Annie staged this photograph near San Francisco in 1895 and used it to illustrate lectures she gave to earn money. In this photo, she is wearing a men’s riding suit.

I wonder if her investment in bringing back tales of the exotic helped her to solidify her identity as an American. She could become the observer of what was foreign, rather than being the foreign object herself.

She was living in an immigrant community and may have had a sense of being an outsider, particularly in Boston, a very sort of Brahmin Protestant community. When she went overseas, she was able to be seen as an American. She boasted in France of being related to United States congressmen and a United States senator.

And then when she returned, she was armed with stories about the crazy foreigners in far-off lands.

Well, no story was more outlandish—or gory—than her account of being taken prisoner by Japanese soldiers in China during the Sino-Japanese War. She told the New York World that she was imprisoned in a freezing cold cell, and that a Japanese soldier dragged a Chinese prisoner into her cell, killed him before her eyes, cut out his heart, and ate it, while the heart muscle was still quivering.

Wow, no wonder the media loved her. Now, can you now talk a little bit about the issue of the wager? Why do you think she made it so central to her around-the-world narrative?

Ostensibly, the genesis of the entire trip was this wager, which I concluded she devised herself as a sort of brilliant public relations device to make the whole trip more sensational. And to make sure that it took place at the intersection of this great debate over the role of women.

But what happens as she goes along is that depending on the circumstances in which she finds herself, she modifies the terms of the wager. Sometimes, for example, she would justify a stint on the train by explaining to reporters that the wager permitted her five hundred miles by train or ship or something like that. Or she would say to this reporter in El Paso, whom I believe was quite taken with her, that the wager didn’t permit her to contract matrimony.

So, how do you make sure people are paying attention? How do you get their interest? You pick up on the big debates of the day. And you pick up on the most popular sporting phenomenon of the day: the bicycle. And you tie it all in together with this whole issue of around-the-world travel, which fascinated people.

I liked how you explained it in the book—you wrote that the wager ensured that “both men and women, whatever their views on sexual equality, would have a vicarious stake in the outcome.”

It’s sort of like the predecessor to when Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs and beat him on national television.

How did your cousin Mary describe Annie?

Mary’s description jibed very closely to a lot of the old newspaper accounts in which Annie is always described as highly intelligent, a brilliant conversationalist. She was also very dramatic person. I remember [Mary] saying to me, “If my grandmother wanted to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, you would buy it.”

It sounds like Annie’s trip had a pretty strong impact, and not necessarily a positive one, on her family.

I should say it wasn’t the bike trip per se, but her lack of interest in motherhood in general that, in Mary’s words, damaged Annie’s children. Each child reacted differently, but they do all appear to have had emotional difficulties into their adult lives, though Molly, who became a Catholic nun, may, ironically, have been the most at peace with herself.

Did Mary tell you stories that didn’t make it into the book?

You know, there were other times of separation between Annie and her family after the bicycle trip, and there’s not much clue as to why. We located Annie in a federal census from around 1900 living in a rooming house in Ukiah, California. Mary thinks she was there to recuperate from a case of tuberculosis. Mary said that when Annie was out there, she hooked up with some sort of Indian shaman named “Indian Joe” somewhere near Yosemite National Park. Whether she went to him as a healer, I don’t know. But she had a way of finding unusual people.

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Breaking Away

How did a young immigrant mother become a cycling sensation?

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