The Real-Life Heroine Who Wrote Nancy Drew
Mildred Wirt Benson, arguably the person most responsible for Nancy Drew’s success, couldn’t care less about the hoopla surrounding the reissuing of the early Nancy Drew books.
In a phone interview, Benson, who lives in Ohio, said she wrote the first Drew mysteries 60 years ago to pay the bills.
“It is just part of my life,” says Benson, 86, who has been a reporter at the Toledo Blade for four decades. “I’m still working. I have a column called ‘On the Go.’ I write about people. I’m writing as well as I’ve ever written.”
The mysteries were a small chapter in her career. Since the late 1920s, she has written dozens of children’s books, including Penny Parker and the Dana Girls series. Some were published under her name, others under pseudonyms.
Benson bears some similarity to her spunky heroines. She was an accomplished pilot before many women flew, and she still flies.
“Mrs. Benson is the quintessential feminist of the 20th Century, and yet she’s almost completely unknown,” says David Farrah, publisher of Farrah’s Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles. “Gloria Steinem is a pea compared to this woman.”
If Benson seems indifferent about writing the enduring series, it is not simply because she has led a full life. Her history with Nancy Drew has been troubling.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate, a prolific literature factory that produced the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series--as well as the Bobbsey Twins, Dana Girls and Tom Swift books--for years concealed the identities of the writers.
The Hardy Boys books have always carried the name Franklin W. Dixon, and the Nancy Drew stories purportedly are written by Carolyn Keene. (The author of the original Hardy Boys books was Canadian writer Leslie McFarlane, who died in the late 1970s.)
As part of her contract with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Benson, like other ghostwriters, was paid a flat $125 per book. Having signed away the rights to Nancy Drew, Benson has never received royalties.
She was forbidden to use the name “Nancy Drew” for professional gain and from disclosing that she was Carolyn Keene because, according to Farrah, the syndicate didn’t want it known that the books were ghostwritten.
As for the 1959 revamping, Benson doesn’t mince words: “It was a very poor job.”