At the end of the nineteenth century, three revolutionary women fight for freedom in New York Times bestselling author Chanel Cleeton's captivating new novel inspired by real-life events and the true story of a legendary Cuban woman—Evangelina Cisneros—who changed the course of history.
A feud rages in Gilded Age New York City between newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. When Grace Harrington lands a job at Hearst's newspaper in 1896, she’s caught in a cutthroat world where one scoop can make or break your career, but it’s a story emerging from Cuba that changes her life.
Unjustly imprisoned in a notorious Havana women's jail, eighteen-year-old Evangelina Cisneros dreams of a Cuba free from Spanish oppression. When Hearst learns of her plight and splashes her image on the front page of his paper, proclaiming her, "The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba," she becomes a rallying cry for American intervention in the battle for Cuban independence.
With the help of Marina Perez, a courier secretly working for the Cuban revolutionaries in Havana, Grace and Hearst's staff attempt to free Evangelina. But when Cuban civilians are forced into reconcentration camps and the explosion of the USS Maine propels the United States and Spain toward war, the three women must risk everything in their fight for freedom.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"I think you'll find, Mr. Pulitzer, that as a woman, I'm able to infiltrate parts of society your other reporters can't access. Why, look what Nellie Bly has done in her reporting . . ."
I clutch a leather folio to my chest, the little speech I've prepared running through my mind once more. As I lean down to right my skirts, I stumble on an uneven piece of wet ground, my shoe slipping, the hem of my dress dropping into nearly an inch of dirty water.
So much for making a good first impression.
"Bad luck," a red-haired newsboy shouts out at me, a mischievous grin on his face and the latest edition of the World in his hands.
It's busy today on Park Row, the street that slashes northeast from lower Broadway and houses the major New York newspapers, its proximity to City Hall an attractive proposition for journalists keen to keep up with the inner workings of government. Horse-drawn vehicles form a steady stream of traffic, interspersed by the odd bicycle swerving between them.
I gaze up at the building that houses the New York World, number 99 Park Row, the endless stories piled on top of one another. The tallest building in the city, it was originally the site of French's Hotel. Legend has it that back when Joseph Pulitzer was a penniless veteran he was thrown out of the hotel. Twenty years later he returned, his fortune made, and bought the hotel, demolished it, and constructed this building, topping the new edifice with a four hundred and twenty-five ton gold dome. Two miles of wrought iron columns support the world's largest pressroom, and hopefully, if all goes well--my new place of employment.
"Why, look what Nellie Bly has been able to do," I continue.
I've rehearsed my opening salvo so frequently the words have become rote, but it's done little to calm the nerves inside me. Whereas men go into these interviews needing to be good, I must be better. The crack Miss Bly and others like her have opened for women trying to break into the newspaper industry has made the seemingly impossible possible, but still no easy feat by any measure.
The various articles I've written for smaller papers enclosed in my late father's leather folio represent the last few years of my life. The topics aren't as varied as I'd like: plenty of pieces on women's fashion, some on the care and running of a household from which I borrowed heavily from my mother's example given my lack of a household of my own, the stray piece of relationship advice, which may seem odd from someone who is decidedly--and happily--single. To my readers, my nom de plume A. Markham is a married woman of a respectable age, her children grown, her days spent puttering around her house and dispensing advice when she is not otherwise occupied with her husband's comfort.
I check in with building security, the appointment I made last week the only manner in which I could ensure admittance given the tightly controlled access to Pulitzer's offices. I hurry up to the eighteenth floor, which houses the newsroom.
All of my previous articles for the various small newspapers that have seen A. Markham's advice as fit to print have been sent by post, and so for the first time in my life, I set foot in a newsroom.
I am immediately, irrevocably, in love.
The newsroom feels like a living, breathing entity, the pulse in the air vibrating with excitement. There is shouting and keys tapping, and I've never heard more glorious sounds in all my life. Rolltop desks fill the room. Placards on the walls that say: "Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy! Who? What? Where? When? How? The Facts--The Color--The Facts!" surround the perimeter of the newsroom. Peeking out between the placards, windows reveal the city below, and beyond, a view all the way to the East River, New York City in all her muck and glory on proud display.
It's absolutely perfect.
A man approaches me. "Can I help you, miss?"
"I'm here to see Mr. Pulitzer," I reply. "I have an appointment."
Due to his declining health, Pulitzer is reportedly rarely at his office, favoring his private homes or yacht instead, so I seized this rare opportunity for a private meeting.
The man's eyes widen slightly. "And your name?"
"Follow me, Miss Harrington."
I walk behind him through the newsroom to Mr. Pulitzer's office, struggling to keep from gaping at each new sight that reveals itself. And at the same time, with every step it becomes evident that I am the only woman in the newsroom at the moment, my appearance drawing notice from more than one quarter of the room.
I tried on several outfits before I settled on this one: a sensible white dress with a light blue stripe, fine enough for such a meeting. For all of his success, the rumors that his family in Hungary was wealthy before he arrived in the United States, Pulitzer is a self-made man who understands the divide between rich and poor more than most, considering he's experienced both strata.
The man leads me into Pulitzer's office and announces me before shutting the door behind me, leaving me alone with the newspaperman.
Pulitzer rises from his desk for a moment until I take a seat, and then he follows suit after offering a polite greeting.
Pulitzer is a tall, slim man with a full head of red hair and a matching beard. His career in New York is distinguished--he served as a politician before he began running the World. Like my father, he fought with the northern states in the war. Pulitzer had been pulling back from his newspaper's daily operations, but that was before William Randolph Hearst announced his presence on the scene, and the man who was an unmatched Goliath in New York journalism gained a competitor. In the days when Pulitzer anticipated retiring from professional life, he's unexpectedly forced to wage a war for his paper's supremacy.
"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Mr. Pulitzer."
"I was most intrigued by your letter. I admired your father a great deal when we served in the war together. I was sorry to hear of his death."
There's a pang at the mention of my father's passing, one that hasn't quite faded in the years since I lost him. I'm not proud that I've used their past friendship to secure this meeting, but the competition for a job as a reporter is fierce--particularly at a paper as popular as the World--and since my gender is already a hurdle I must overcome, why not even the odds a bit?
"I confess, I was surprised when you asked for this appointment. While I admired your father when we fought alongside each other, it's been many years. How may I help you, Miss Harrington?"
"I'm here for a job if you have one. As a reporter. I've spent the last few years writing for smaller papers, getting experience where I could." I gesture to the leather folio in my lap. "I've brought samples of my work if you'd like to look at them. They're not necessarily the kinds of stories I want to cover, but they're a start."
"Why do you wish to work here, Miss Harrington?" Pulitzer asks, making no move to take the folio from me.
"Because of the stories you investigate, the impact you have. The World has one of the largest circulations in the world."
Indeed, Mr. Pulitzer has just slashed the World's price to one cent, saying he prefers power to profits, circulation the measure by which success is currently judged.
"You have the opportunity to reach readers, to bring about change, to help people who desperately need assistance," I add. "I've admired the work you've done for years. You've long set the tone the rest of the New York newspaper industry follows. You've filled a gap in the news, given a voice to people who wouldn't have otherwise had one. I've read the articles you wrote when you were a reporter yourself in St. Louis, and I admire the manner in which you address society's ills. You've revolutionized the newspaper. I want to be part of that."
"That's all fine and good, but why should I hire you? What would you bring to the World that someone else wouldn't?"
"My gender, for one. A woman knows what it's like to be pushed to society's margins. There are some who might argue that a woman cannot do this job as effectively as a man. They would be wrong. Nellie Bly has proven that. You did, too, when you hired her."
"And what do you know of Nellie Bly?"
"You gave her a chance when others wouldn't."
"Cockerill gave her a chance," he replies, referring to his editor.
"With all due respect, Mr. Pulitzer, we both know this is your paper. You saw something in Nellie Bly. And now she's gone, and you need another reporter who can take on the kinds of stories she did and can go places your male journalists can't. What she accomplished at the Women's Lunatic Asylum"--the words "lunatic asylum" fall distastefully from my mouth--"on Blackwell's Island, going undercover like that, was nothing short of extraordinary. Those women's lives have been changed because of Miss Bly's courage and her daring. Those placards out there, the philosophy with which you run your newsroom--I promise to uphold it every single day I work for you."
Pulitzer leans back in his chair. "You're plucky like Bly, I'll give you that."
"Your stepfather is Henry Shelton, isn't he?" Pulitzer asks.
"And how does he feel about his stepdaughter sullying the family name with something as common as work--as a reporter no less? Considering how the papers are vilified these days, I'd imagine he wants something very different for you."
"He isn't pleased," I admit.
Pulitzer is silent for a beat. "I have to say, I admire your gumption for coming here."
I take a deep breath, hope filling me. This is it. The chance I've been waiting for to prove myself. I've already thought of a list of articles I want to write, can see my name on the byline--
"That said, we already have more stunt girl reporters than we need," Pulitzer adds, sending the hope billowing inside me crashing down. "Nellie Bly is coming back to write a series of articles for us. The move to Chicago didn't work out for her." He shrugs. "Talented as you may be--you're no Nellie."
I bite my tongue, suppressing the desire to point out that they already have more than one male investigative reporter, but that didn't stop them from hiring scores more.
"Everyone wants to be a reporter, but it's not an easy thing. It takes instincts for this business. A nose for the news. It isn't the sort of thing that can be taught. We could use more society reporters, though. Given your familial connections, you'd have an aptitude for that sort of thing. Our readers love learning about the foibles of the Knickerbockers, hearing about the balls, their entertainments."
"With all due respect, Mr. Pulitzer, those aren't the stories I want to write. It has not escaped my notice that the world I occupy--the society my family belongs to--is not what the rest of the city experiences. As a city, as a country, we are at a pivotal moment. We're deciding who we are, what we stand for, who we stand for. I want to be part of that discussion."
"I don't disagree with you, and I can't fault your enthusiasm or your convictions. But you're young. And relatively inexperienced. I have a newsroom full of reporters who've been working their beats for a long time. You're not ready."
I was prepared for this. Sometimes it feels like I'm banging my head against all the doors closed to me. I just need one door to crack open a little bit, one shot to prove myself.
"You're right. I'm not as experienced as some of your staff. Although, you've been known to take a chance on cub reporters. I'm just looking for someone to give me a chance. If you do, I promise you, you won't regret it."
"Why do you want this so badly? Why the news? If you're so set on working, why not something more respectable? You could be a teacher or a secretary."
"Because when I read Nellie Bly's report from Blackwell Island, I saw someone standing up for women. Women thrust into that miserable place because they didn't conform with society's expectations. Women who were judged insane by the virtue of being different, with little recourse available to them. What Nellie Bly wrote made a difference in the lives of those women. The grand jury's investigation, inspired by her articles, led to increased funding and an improvement in the quality of care for the women in the asylum. I want to write pieces like that, articles that make the world a better place. There's nothing I'd rather do."
When I finish my speech, I can tell I nearly have him by the expression on his face. After all, Pulitzer has made his fortune in the newspaper business. This is his life. Who else would better understand the passion I feel for this profession?
"Why did you come to me, Miss Harrington? Why the World and not one of my competitors? Why not the Journal?"
I'm hardly surprised that he invokes the New York Journal when he speaks of his competitors. The Journal's owner and publisher, William Randolph Hearst, and Pulitzer have been locked in a fierce battle since Hearst came to New York a year ago. Hearst made a name for himself as the publisher of the successful San Francisco Examiner--a newspaper that was floundering when he originally took it over, rebuilding it from scratch-and now he's set his sights on the New York newspaper scene. With his late father's immense wealth behind him, he's a formidable opponent.
"Because the World reports on the news," I reply smoothly. "The Journal reports on the World. It hasn't escaped my notice that you're often the first to break a story only for Hearst to take your work, sensationalize it, and publish the same story in his paper, which he sells at a loss."
Pulitzer's expression darkens. "Hearst has no scruples in the way he runs his newspaper or the manner in which he reports on the news. It is one thing to use dramatics to highlight important causes or to draw readers' attention. But for Hearst, the dramatics aren't a means to the end; they are the end. Months ago, he stole my entire Sunday edition staff. Editor included. When I paid them more money than he did and hired them back, he just stole them again the very next day with the promise of even higher salaries.
"He has spies in my newsroom, Miss Harrington. I doubt his paper can put out an edition without using ours for inspiration. You want to do what the stunt girl reporters do to get the story? You want to be like Nelly Bly? Go undercover and work for Hearst and report back to me on the news the Journal is covering. If he has a lead on something, I want to know about it. Let's see how he likes being beaten at his own game, how he enjoys someone else scooping his stories. If you do a good job of it, say after a year or so, then I'll give you a position as one of my investigative reporters. It's a better offer than you'll get anywhere else with your inexperience."
Of all the possible outcomes I imagined from this interview, this wasn't one of them.
"Because Hearst isn't likely to suspect someone like you. And since you haven't worked for me before, there's no reason he would link us together. No one knows you."
I came in here all bluster and confidence, hoping I could sway a man who'd built his fortune through his own ingenuity, but the truth is, I'm more than a little desperate. Ever since I moved out of my mother and stepfather's house, and into my aunt Emma's brownstone, money has been tight. I have a small inheritance from my father, but it will only go so far, and I hopefully have many years of fending for myself ahead of me. Scruples are a luxury I can hardly afford if I am to be truly independent, and more than anything in the world, I want to be one of Pulitzer's famed reporters. Spying isn't that different from other stunt reporting schemes, and if Hearst is doing the same to Pulitzer by placing spies in his newsroom...
"You want to be an investigative reporter--prove it. Everyone gets their hands dirty from time to time. Do you have what it takes to be a reporter in New York City, Miss Harrington?" Pulitzer makes an impatient noise as if I've squandered too much of his time. "Do we have a deal?"
It's right there in front of me--everything I've been working for, dreaming of, just within my grasp. And if I could do work, then surely the ends justify the means?
"We have a deal."
Reading Group Guide
The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
1. The novel alternates between the three main heroines: Grace Harrington, Evangelina Cisneros, and Marina Perez. What heroine did you identify with the most? What similarities did you discover between them? What differences?
2. Both Evangelina and Marina are involved in the fight for Cuban independence. How do they set out to achieve this aim? How are their roles similar? How are they different?
3. The three heroines in the novel struggle to find their place in society and often rebel against the limitations placed on them. What examples of this did you see throughout the book? How do the women react and adapt to these circumstances?
4. While Evangelina was an international celebrity at the time, much of her story has been forgotten. What other lesser-known women can you think of who lived extraordinary lives?
5. Grace greatly admires the writing of legendary journalist Nellie Bly, who set an important path for women in the field, and at times, Grace attempts to emulate her throughout the novel. Are there women in your career field who you admire and who have greatly influenced you?
6. As a stunt reporter, Grace often finds herself in precarious positions in an attempt to advance her career. Did you see comparisons between the professional struggles of women during the Gilded Age and the challenges women face today? How do you think things have changed?
7. What parallels did you see about the discussion of the role of journalism in society in the 1890s and that of the role of journalism in modern times? What differences?
8. One of the major story lines in the book is the real-life rivalry between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. What similarities did you find between the two men and their attitudes and strategies toward running a newspaper? What differences?
9. Grace begins her New York journalism career with a deep suspicion of William Randolph Hearst’s motives and tactics. How does her attitude toward him, his newspaper, and her own journalism career evolve throughout the novel? Do you agree with her perspective or do you disagree?
10. Do you see any similarities between some of the themes and events in this novel and contemporary events? How much do you think our understanding of history informs the present?
11. Grace and Rafael are both outsiders of sorts in society. How do they relate to each other? How does this bring them closer?
12. How does war affect the characters in the book?