July 16, 2015
The original ghostwriter behind Nancy Drew sounds like a badass
by Taylor Sperry
You’ve probably never heard of Mildred Wirt Benson, but she would have been 110 years old last week, and, according to Marissa Visci at Slate, she was a total badass.
Benson was the original “Carolyn Keene”—the pseudonym under which dozens of ghost writers have penned hundreds of Nancy Drew books since The Secret of the Old Clock was published in 1930.
She ghost-wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books—including the very first—after responding to a trade ad placed by Stratemeyer Syndicate’s publisher, Edward Stratemeyer. “She gave Nancy many of the qualities we remember so fondly and fiercely, like her determination, her intelligence, her self-reliance and her athleticism,” Melanie Rehak, author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her said.
After Stratemeyer’s daughters, Harriet and Edna, took over the Syndicate, “Nancy’s character was revised to make Nancy older . . . less reckless, and more wholesome”—a change Benson bristled against. “That is what I had specifically gotten away from,” she said in a 1992 interview with Salon. “[Nancy] was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She was what the girls were ready for and aspiring for, but had not achieved . . . [Readers] were inspired to go do things for themselves, to go build themselves careers. I think it was an incentive to go out into the world and to become someone as a woman, you know.”
If Nancy Drew was ahead of her time, so too was Mildred Benson. She was the first woman to earn a master’s in journalism from the University of Iowa, became a (notoriously tenacious) court reporter for the Toledo Times in the 1940s, got her pilot’s license in the ’50s, trekked through jungles and canoed down rivers in the Yucatan, saw Haley’s Comet twice, and worked at the Toledo Blade right up until the day she died, at the age of 96.
In fact, the more appropriate analog to Benson isn’t so much Nancy as it is Benson’s own girl sleuth, Penny Parker, who unfortunately remains as overshadowed by Nancy as the woman responsible for creating them both.
Taylor Sperry is an editor at Melville House.