Nell's story is important for many reasons: she is one of the first and most successful self-made women millionaires in American business, she designed and sold more dresses in the 20th century than any other single person in the United States and she challenged the notion that women were best suited for domesticity. In 1950, when Nell was 61 years-old, the NBC Radio Network dramatized Nell's life on the Cavalcade of America radio program "The Golden Needle," starring actress Dorothy McGuire. Excerpts from the broadcast are included in the documentary film to help advance the story of Nelly Don. But what's most significant is the recognition even then that Nell's accomplishments were special and deserved to be shared with the rest of the country.
The story of Nelly Don has its roots in Ireland. Nell's father, John Quinlan, emigrated to American shortly before the Civil War. He met his wife, Catherine Fitzgibbons, the daughter of Irish immigrants, and together John and Catherine had 13 children. Nell was the 12th child and the fifth daughter. She was christened Ellen Howard Quinlan but her older sisters quickly took to calling her Nell. She grew up in the small railroad town of Parsons, Kansas, where her father worked as a farmer and worked in the shop at the Katy Railroad.
Nell was relegated to wearing hand-me-down clothes from her older sisters and learned to sew early on so as to repair and re-size the clothes that she was given. She also liked to sew dresses for her dolls. Most of Parsons, Kansas, was comprised of Protestants with the Catholic population a definite minority. This benefited Nell greatly because she was educated by Catholic nuns, one of whom was Irish and the other French. Their worldliness imbued in Nell not only a longing to learn, but also to move beyond the limitations of Parsons which she did at age 16 when she moved to Kansas City in 1905. She had graduated from Parsons High School and had learned stenography at the Parsons Business College.
Nell met 23 year-old Paul Donnelly at the boardinghouse where she stayed and married him at age 17. At age 18 Nell enrolled at Lindenwood College in St. Charles, MO, outside St. Louis. After earning her degree Nell moved to Kansas City and became a housewife, but not for long.
This is where the Nelly Don story takes off. Nell did not want to wear the everyday Mother Hubbard fashions women were resigned to wearing in those days so she started making her own dresses. She gave them away to her family, friends and neighbors who soon encouraged her to sell them, which she did. In 1916, Peck's Dry Goods Store in Kansas City ordered 18 dozen of Nell's dresses and her business was off and running.
By 1923, Nell had 250 employees. By 1931, Nell had more than a thousand employees and $3.5 million in sales. Her factory was making five-thousand dresses a day and continued to do so under her leadership for the next 25 years.
Nell's first husband Paul Donnelly, for reasons unknown and certainly due to being depressed, had often threatened Nell that if she became pregnant he would kill himself. Paul became a philandering alcoholic and Nell and Paul grew emotionally distant. Nell came to know James A. Reed, the fighting U.S. Senator from Missouri. In September 1931, while Nell was still married to Paul Donnelly and James Reed was married to his wife Lura, Nell ostensibly traveled to Europe to adopt a child. The truth is that Nell was pregnant with Reed's child and delivered a healthy boy named David Quinlan Donnelly and returned to Kansas City.
Three months later Nell was kidnapped along with her chauffeur in Kansas City in front of her house. Reed went ballistic and threatened the kidnappers that if they harmed a single hair on her head that he would track them down and ensure they received the death penalty. Reed then contacted the reigning mob boss in Kansas City at the time, gangster Johnny Lazia, an associate of Tom Pendergast the city's political machine boss, and threatened Lazia that if he did not find Nell within 24 hours that Reed would buy half an hour of national radio time and expose Lazia's illegal vice operations. So it was that up to 25 carloads of gangsters went searching for Nelly Don. The whole story is set forth in both the book and the film.
Nell was greatly loved by her employees. She was the largest manufacturer of women's military and work clothing during World War II. She fought unionization successfully. In 1947 she built the largest dress manufacturing plant in the world. Nell lived to be 102 years old, outliving all her brothers and sisters. She died 47 years to the day that her second husband James A. Reed died.