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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Nancy Drew Inspired A Generation

I was dusting the bookcases in the living room yesterday. (I hate dusting, and I don't understand why I have so much stuff that requires this hated chore. Usually, on any given day, I'd flunk a white-glove test.)

Anyway, I digress. As I was dusting some old Nancy Drew mysteries caught my eye. These were books from the 1930's and 1940's that had belonged to my dear mother-in-law. They're not in very good condition, but I can no more part with her books than I can my mother's which now occupy most of another book case. I'm just a sentimental pack rat, I guess.

I pulled out the Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene, the first Nancy Drew mystery published in November 1930. Of course, if you're a writer or a mystery reader you probably know that Millie Benson was the author who was hired to write the books under the name Carolyn Keene. I read the Nancy Drew Mysteries when I was a kid. I have no idea which printing they were. I just know that I loved the books. I loved Nancy and her friends, and I wanted desperately to be just like her.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson

Millie Benson was an American author of children's books, in particular the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries. She was born July 10, 1905, and died May 28, 2002. I think it's fair to say that she was an author who had a profound effect on generations of women.

She was educated at the University of Iowa, and was honored by Malice Domestic with their Lifetime Achievement Award. When she passed in 2002, I read an article about her and did some more research, subsequently writing about her on my blog, SlingWords. What I learned about Millie was intriguing.

The late Ms. Benson created the spunk in the girl detective. I feel that Millie patterned Nancy after herself. (After all, writers are always told to write what they know.) When Millie was a child, she didn't like playing with dolls. She liked sports, especially swimming and golf. Back in the early part of the 20th century, that kind of behavior was considered odd.

Long Life, Well Lived

When Millie Benson died at the age of 96, she had just finished writing her weekly column for the Toledo Blade newspaper. 

(Photograph of Millie posed next to Nancy Drew poster can be viewed at Toledo Blade. Click to read their in-depth article about Millie Benson.) 

I think Millie had to have created Nancy as a reflection of herself. When she was young, Millie often had dived off a bridge into the Iowa River. She never gave up adventuring or sports. She continued to swim and play golf even past the age of 90 when most people are thinking a rocking chair on a porch is physical activity.

What A Woman

She outlived two husbands. She was the first person to receive a Master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Iowa. When she was 59, instead of retiring, she learned to fly and traveled to archeology digs in Central America. She never retired from life, especially never from writing.

Under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, Millie wrote 23 of the first 30 original Nancy Drew books for Edward Stratemeyer, the book publisher behind the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys too. She signed a non-disclosure agreement and kept her word, never revealing to anyone that she was Carolyn Keene. The contract was a work for hire meaning she had no rights to the books; she was just paid a fee for each book.

In 1980, she came forward and testified in a lawsuit about the matter of who wrote those first Nancy Drew books. Millie believed strongly in honesty in everything, especially in journalism. You see, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had celebrated Nancy Drew's 50th birthday that year. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams claimed that she and her father, Edward Stratemeyer, had written those early books. That statement was reprinted everywhere, and that's what got Millie involved. She set the record straight and discussed the style, tone, and voice of the early books compared to the later ones created by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams.

In her testimony, Millie said that the newer books removed the "spice." She said: "I was probably a rough-and-tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living, and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy."

In her last years, she began to get the recognition she so richly deserved. In 1993, the Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowa honored her achievements.

Today's girls probably don't know why Nancy Drew was so important to previous generations of women. Nancy was one of the first females to take on crooks, explore secret rooms, and always solve the mystery in the end.

When my daughter was a tween, the new Nancy Drew books weren't nearly as intriguing as the old ones. In fact, my daughter read a couple of the new ones then read all the old ones I'd collected over the years.

Millie Benson said it best herself. She wrote about her memory book from high school and college. It was "a reflection of youthful career ambitions in an age when girls weren't supposed to have any." From her memory book itself: "Give life your best shot – if achievements fall short, the satisfaction of having tried will be its own reward."

Not only did Millie Benson create a heroine girls could admire but she also created a female role model that valued strength, courage, intelligence, and other characteristics usually reserved for male characters. In fact, I think, with the heroine she created, that she planted the seeds for women's liberation. At the very least, she inspired girls to grow into strong women.

Post Script

Who's the real heroine here? No, it's not Nancy Drew. It's the remarkable author who created the feisty heroine and gave her to a world of women who needed a strong female role model, and who then lived her life like a spunky heroine. Thanks, Millie!

(Note: My contemporary romances are available at all major ebook sellers. Thank you for thinking of me the next time you shop for a book. I hope you'll visit me at my website and blog: http://www.JoanReeves.com and http://SlingWords.blogspot.com.)


  1. Joan, those early Nancy Drew books are now quite collectible, although I know you have no intention of selling them. Just pass the word to your heirs that these are not books you sell for fifty cents at a garage sale. When I was 8, I discovered Nancy Drew and those books had a profound impact on my life. I so enjoyed you post about Millie.

  2. Caroline, thank you. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post about such a remarkable author. No, I'm not parting with my Nancy Drew collection. They're not valuable though except for sentimental reasons.