At the end of the 19th century, an Orthodox-Jewish woman from Boston left her family behind and set off on a journey that defied all expectations. Annie Londonderry circumvented the world by bicycle, though her achievement was overlooked by the history books. Now, over a hundred years later, a new work of historical fiction attempts to shed light on her amazing accomplishment, and why it was subsequently forgotten.
Born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky in Latvia, in 1870, Londonderry took her pseudonym from the first of her many corporate sponsors: the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company of New Hampshire. And in Peter Zheutlin’s new book “Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story,” she changes far more than just her name three months into her “globe-girdling” odyssey; she creates an entirely new identity.
The epistolary novel takes the form of a long letter written from Kopchovsky to her only grandchild, Mary. “It was in Buffalo [New York] that I really felt I had ceased to be Annie Kopchovsky, the Boston housewife and mother, and emerged as if from a chrysalis as the daring heroine of the wheel, the globe-trotter Annie Londonderry,” our fictional protagonist declares.
Zheutlin himself first wrote about Londonderry in his 2007 nonfiction book “Around the World on Two Wheels: Annie Londonderry’s Extraordinary Ride,” and did not happen upon her story by chance. Annie was the younger sister of the great-grandfather on his mother’s side. But her story and amazing accomplishments remained hidden away in a drawer for over a century.
“What’s amazing is that up to 1992, no one in my family, including my mother, had ever heard of her,” Zheutlin says in a phone interview from his home in Boston. “But one day, my mother received a letter from someone who was doing research about her, and his research suggested there was a family connection,” he recounts. “Even after we discovered that she was related to us, I searched the internet and couldn’t find a thing about her.”
Londonderry set out on her journey from Massachusetts on June 27, 1894, but it took considerably more than 80 days for her to go around the world. She eventually completed her mammoth task on September 12, 1895 – 15 days ahead of the 15-month goal she had set for herself. (In case you’re wondering, there were lots of boat journeys between continents, so she wasn’t cycling the whole time.) Yet how could it be that a woman, who by any measure achieved a groundbreaking feat, was almost completely absent from the history books?
“My sense is that, at the time, there was great embarrassment and shame in the family regarding her journey around the world, which made people reluctant to talk about it,” Zheutlin says. “She went on a 15-month journey leaving behind a husband and three children. At the time, women like her who took such radical action, breaching societal norms and expectations, were often the targets of criticism.
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“In many ways, the double standards regarding strong women continue to this day. One can see this in the criticism many people express now toward the Olympian [gymnast] Simone Biles. The media at the time wrote about [Londonderry] quite a lot, but it was a short-lived glory which passed quickly.”
Londonderry was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate to become a feminist icon. Zheutlin’s book describes the great frustration she felt living a traditional life after emigrating with her family to the United States at age 5. At 17 she lost both of her parents and a year later married an Orthodox-Jewish merchant named Simon (aka Max). Before learning how to ride a bicycle, she gave birth to three children.
“Grandpa spent most of his life in shul while I tended to the children, as most Jewish women did,” Annie explains to her granddaughter in “Spin.” Mary, a New York resident now in her nineties, is believed to be the only living witness to Londonderry’s life. “We Jews prized family and education above all, and it was expected that I, a Jewish mother, would attend to nothing else,” she explains.
But Londonderry – still Kopchovsky at the time – had other plans. “It wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t put on Earth to spend my life cooking and cleaning and changing diapers,” her character writes in “Spin.” “It seemed like every year I had another baby under my apron. Life was full of drudgery. … There was a big, wide world beyond the banks of the Charles River, and I wanted to see it and smell it and taste it.”
Wheel's on fire
The bicycle played a major role in the nascent women’s movent at the end of the 19th century, with Susan B. Anthony – one of the most prominent figures in the women’s suffrage movement – going so far as to declare that “it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel … the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”
Londonderry’s epic journey, though, was as much a PR campaign as an act of female independence. “She told everyone that she’d been selected to settle a wager between two Boston merchants who were arguing whether a woman could do what only a man had done before – circle the world by bicycle,” Zheutlin explains.
He believes, however, that this was only part of the story. “Annie worked as an advertising solicitor for several Boston newspapers and came into contact with many local businessmen. How she entered into an arrangement with the bicycle manufacturer Albert Pope, who provided Annie with the Columbia brand bicycle she started on, is not known. But because ‘Spin’ is a novel, I was free to imagine that Pope saw Annie’s journey as a brilliant marketing device for selling bicycles to women who were taking to the sport in droves.”
Later in her journey, in Chicago, Londonderry switched to a Sterling bicycle and that company used her image in its ads.
How do you explain the decision of a young Jewish woman to do what no other woman had done before?
“Annie was looking for a way to escape her life. As a woman involved in advertising, she understood what people in Silicon Valley understand today: attention equals money. She financed her journey by renting advertising space on her body and bicycle throughout her travels. In that respect, one could regard her as the first athlete in history to receive commercial sponsorship. She was ahead of her time in her ability to convert glory into cash.”
Did she consider herself a feminist?
“When I first met Annie’s [actual] granddaughter Mary, locating her after a long genealogical search, I asked her that question. Her answer was that Annie never was a feminist in the activist sense of women who participate in demonstrations or protest marches. She was a feminist in believing that every woman had the right to choose her own destiny. That’s what led her to breach the barriers of what was expected of her as a Jewish woman in that period, especially in the Orthodox community of Boston.”
Her decision to relinquish a typical Jewish family name such as Cohen Kopchovsky and adopt a neutral one like Londonderry had several purposes. “For a woman riding alone around the world, there were many reasons not to want to draw attention to her Jewish identity – especially when you think, for example, of her passage through Paris, which was a hotbed of antisemitism at the time,” Zheutlin says. “Furthermore, this was also a good marketing ploy, adopting the name of a famous water company that was sponsoring her. And there was something very glamorous, very Hollywood-like, in the name Londonderry – certainly in comparison to her original name.”
Londonderry also challenged traditional gender stereotypes. By the time she reached France, for instance, she had started wearing pants to ride, which were far more practical than the long dresses she started in, and she had become more muscular from all of the riding. And throughout her trip, she never mentioned that she was married with children.
The American press always described her as quite attractive, but the French press was rather disparaging. “She belongs to a category of neutered beings,” a story in Le Figaro stated when she passed through Paris in December 1894. “The suppression of love and maternal function so profoundly alters in them any feminine personality that they are neither men nor women, and they really constitute a third sex.”
Asked why Annie was subjected to such offensive treatment in the supposedly enlightened city of Paris, Zheutlin says he believes it was because “she boldly challenged traditional notions of femininity at the time. She challenged all popular conceptions of how a woman should look and behave. She was challenging a well established and rigid social order.”