Mildred Benson, 96; Author Gave Life to Nancy Drew
“I’m so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit.”
--Author Mildred Wirt Benson en route to the first Nancy Drew conference in 1993, as quoted in the New York Times
Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, original author of the Nancy Drew series of mysteries, which have intrigued and inspired generations of adolescent girls who identified with the spunky heroine, has died. She was 96.
Benson died Tuesday in Toledo, Ohio, after becoming ill while writing her weekly column, “On the Go with Millie Benson,” for the Toledo Blade. She had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997 but never stopped working.
The Nancy Drew books, as most women who read can tell you, are written by Carolyn Keene. Benson, whose identity became known only when she testified in a court case in 1980, was the first Keene, who had created Nancy Drew half a century earlier and wrote 23 of the original 30 books.
To Benson, a journalist for 58 years at the Toledo Times and later the Blade, and author of about 130 books for young people, concocting 16-year-old Nancy Drew was just a job or, as she told The Times in 1991, “just a part of my life.”
Dozens of subsequent authors have added to Benson’s creation, writing a total of more than 200 Nancy Drew books, which have sold more than 200 million copies in 17 languages.
But it was Benson who gave the enduring wish-fulfillment heroine her character--independent and daring, not unlike herself--in the first Nancy Drew book, “The Secret of the Old Clock,” published in 1930. Benson and Nancy Drew shared many interests: Both flew planes, golfed, participated in archeological digs and radiated self-confidence in the man’s world of the early 20th century.
Every six weeks, for $125 a book, Benson churned out a mystery starring a widowed lawyer’s blond daughter who drove a blue roadster, was the envy of her many friends and liked to unravel clues. Drew controlled her own budget for clothes sufficient to cover a mink coat (providing she could make her existing supplies of makeup and stockings last all year).
“Mrs. Benson is the quintessential feminist of the 20th century, and yet she’s almost completely unknown,” David Farrah, publisher of “Farrah’s Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles,” told The Times in 1991. “Gloria Steinem is a pea compared to this woman.”
In recent years, after she was discovered as Nancy’s originator, Benson scoffed at theories of Nancy Drew’s purported lesbianism and didn’t much care for the character’s 1990s persona as a Mustang-driving, gloveless journalism major. Never mind that Benson was wearing turquoise pantsuits and had been the first woman to earn a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, which prides itself on training writers.
Benson’s job of developing Nancy Drew was given to her by Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, who created a publishing empire by hiring ghostwriters to produce series of books based on continuing characters and aimed at a specific young audience. Among his productions were the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift and the Dana Girls.
Stratemeyer, who provided the character and brief plot suggestions, offered Benson the opportunity to create Nancy Drew because he liked her work on his Ruth Fielding series. Under the collective pseudonym of Alice B. Emerson, Benson wrote eight Ruth Fielding books published from 1927 to 1930.
For all such series, Benson and other writers had to sign agreements forgoing royalties and promising not to divulge their identity. “You couldn’t get any work in those days unless you signed a release,” she said a few years ago. “It never bothered me.”
Despite downplaying her role and her occasional exasperation over the cult following of Nancy Drew, Benson told Associated Press in December:
“I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I’m glad that I had that much influence on people.”
After Stratemeyer’s death, his daughter Harriet Adams took over the series, and when she died in 1982, Nancy Drew became the property of Simon and Schuster.
Writing scores of books, Benson used a dozen or so pseudonyms and versions of her own name. In addition to Keene and Emerson, she contributed to series of titles under the names Julia K. Duncan, Frances K. Judd and Helen Louise Thorndyke.
As Mildred A. Wirt, she wrote her own series of youth books, including the Ruth Darrow Flying Stories, the Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories, the Trailer Stories for Girls, the Penny Parker Mystery Stories, the Brownie Scout Series and the Dan Carter Series, as well as individual novels.
Other pen names were Dorothy West, Don Palmer, Frank Bell, Joan Clark and Ann Wirt, as well as Mildred Augustine and Mildred Wirt Benson.
Born in Ladora, Iowa, she recently said: “I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk. I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.”
She began writing children’s stories in grade school, received her first writing award at age 14, and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Iowa.
Then she set off for New York, where she introduced herself to Stratemeyer and others who hired her to write books, short stories and articles.
She married two journalists--Associated Press newsman Asa Alvin Wirt, who died in 1947, and George A. Benson, editor of the Toledo Times, who died in 1959.
The author went to work for the Toledo paper in 1944 and over nearly six decades covered city hall, federal and courthouse beats and wrote columns including “Millie Benson’s Notebook” and her current one about daily life and senior citizens. Until her death, nothing--neither a broken leg nor cancer nor failing eyesight as she aged--kept her out of her beloved newsroom for very long.
Benson is survived by her daughter, Peggy Wirt of Logansport, Ind., and her immortal creation, Nancy Drew.
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