The Ghost of Nancy Drew

This article originally appeared in The Syracuse New Times, March 3-10, 1993.

* * *

One night at bedtime, my daughter asked me to read her a mystery. She was 8 and not quite ready for P.D. James, but I remembered I had an old Nancy Drew downstairs, a memento of the era when I exhausted the Hardy Boys and turned to my cousins’ shelves for more thrills. As I read aloud from the faded blue book, I stole a look at my daughter’s face. Her eyes were as big as saucers.

The plucky teen sleuth had struck again, as she has for generations in books packed with thunderstorms, dark old houses, secret passages, sneering villains, car chases, sudden peril and death-defying heroics. In the 60 years since they were first published, her mysteries have sold more than 80 million copies.

Young readers have devoured series fiction since the dime novels of the 1800s and continue to do so. Janet Park, a librarian at the Onondaga County Public Library in the Galleries (Syracuse, N.Y.), notes, “They help children jump from picture books to novels. That sea of print is frightening. But with a series, they know the characters and setting, so it’s friendlier.”

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, who produced more than 1,200 novels in 125 series, including The Rover Boys, Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins. He paid ghostwriters $75 for each book and made millions.

The Hardy Boys emptied young boys’ wallets when they were introduced in 1927, so in 1930 Stratemeyer added a female detective to tap into purses. Sixteen, pretty and popular, Nancy Drew lived in River Heights, somewhere in the Midwest. Her mother was dead; her father, lawyer Carson Drew, was often out of town, and Nancy had her own car, a sporty blue roadster. This was power and independence that most young girls could only dream of, and dream they did.

:: The Big Lie ::

When Stratemeyer died, publisher Grosset & Dunlap begged his daughters, Edna Stratemeyer Squier and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, to continue the series. They accepted. Squier prepared brief outlines for Nancy Drew’s ghostwriter, known to the public as “Carolyn Keene,” and Adams handled the business. After Squier retired, Adams added the outlines to her responsibilities.

As years passed, Adams began to encourage the belief that she was the real “Carolyn Keene.” Feminists sang her praises and women’s colleges gave her honorary degrees. When she died in March of 1982, The New York Times honored her as Nancy Drew’s creator. As recently as the November/December 1992 issue of Ms. magazine, Mrs. Adams was credited as the author. But this is not true.

Especially not to Nancy Drew collectors, many of whom have met the genuine, unheralded “ghost” of Nancy Drew. I stumbled into their underground at a used book sale, as I reached for The Sign of the Twisted Candles. A soft voice said, “Are you looking for Nancy Drews?” It was Lorraine Rogers, nursing coordinator at the Kaplan Educational Center in Syracuse, whose book-covered walls reveal her to be a leader of the Nancy Drew cognoscenti. Under Roger’s guidance, our Drew collection multiplied like guppies. She taught us the language (“It’s a nice copy, original text, good pages, Tandy illustration, digger endpapers…”), led us to collectors’ newsletters, to David Farah, the national Dean of Drew, and finally to Nancy’s ghost.

The real “Carolyn Keene” is Mildred Wirt Benson, a remarkable woman who lives today, like her creation, somewhere in the Midwest. She flies her own airplane, writes for the local paper, jogs, works out and last summer was “most improved golfer” at her country club. She is a strong, independent, multi-talented woman, herself the real-life inspiration for Nancy Drew.

She wrote the first seven Nancy Drews for $125 each, with no royalties and no recognition. She left when Adams tried to cut her price to $75, then returned for numbers 11 through 25, and 30. Also the author of many Dana Girls, Kay Tracey and Penny Parker mysteries, Benson has written 137 books in all and is one of the best-selling novelists of all time. Yet she remains almost entirely unknown.

Her work as “Carolyn Keene” might have remained a mystery forever, were it not for a 1980 lawsuit pitting the Stratemeyer Syndicate against Grossett & Dunlap. In two days of testimony under oath, Benson detailed her authorship for the public record. (One witness recalls that when Adams saw Benson in the hallway outside the courtroom, Adams went visibly pale and said, “I thought you were dead.”)

:: The Changes in Nancy Drew ::

An interview with David Farah, author of Farah’s Guide to Nancy Drew, cast more light on the mystery. He explained how Harriet Adams’ claims of authorship were as ironic as they were unfounded. Unlike Benson, Adams was strongly anti-feminist, a stance she shared with her father who would not allow her in the office because he felt women shouldn’t hold paying jobs.

Stratemeyer’s death thrust Adams into the business, and her sister’s departure left her to write the story outlines. In 1959, Adams began to revise the series. The stated reason was to make the books more contemporary and easier to read. Adams cut paragraphs of description and weeded out long words. Modern readers would no longer stumble over (or learn) words like “interminable,” “perplexity” or “quandary.”

Ethnic characters were lost entirely or rendered Anglo-generic. (This was not always a great loss, and parents reading the originals aloud may wish to make a few changes themselves. The stereotypes of the era are infrequent but jolting.)

In the most telling change, Edward Stratemeyer’s dutiful daughter pulled in the reins on Nancy Drew. Instead of being 16 and independent, Nancy was suddenly 18 and sheltered. Housekeeper Hanna Gruen became her surrogate mother and the voice of caution. Friends accompanied Nancy on investigations. Villains became less threatening. In the final indignity, men came to save Nancy from the perils she used to evade all on her own.

In her lifetime, Adams tamed Nancy Drew and overshadowed Mildred Benson. But she never counted on Benson living so long or on the truth seeing the light of day. A growing number of collectors, dismissed as “nostalgic purists” by the current publisher, are telling us that something of value was lost in Harriet Adams’ sweeping revisions, and that the truth of Nancy’s real origins has been covered up.

Applewood Books publisher Phil Zuckerman, a Hardy Boys fan in his youth, was reading a rewritten edition to his son when he discovered his beloved sleuths had taken a brisk beating. So he acquired the rights to the original text of the first three Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, and has published facsimile editions, complete with the original covers and illustrations. The Voice Literary Supplement noted that the reissued originals “reveal what us codgers are made of,” and dismissed the Harriet Adams rewrites as “wholesome, yes, and perhaps all the delicate constitutions of the present generation of lobotomized tykes can take.”

Indeed. For those of you with the right stuff, the facsimile editions are available. And, of course, watch at book sales for the worn but faithful originals. They still have a good read left in them, and when Nancy Drew is bound and gagged, she will untie the knots herself, thank you very much.

* * *

Published with the article above, a survey of childhood reading in Central New York revealed these formative preferences:

“My first great reading experience was a Hardy Boys, The Twisted Claw. I was home alone, terrified, and the idea that my imagination could scare me… it changed reading for me.” — Chris Zenowich, author of The Cost of Living and Economies of the Heart

“One day, I was looking for something to read and my sister had a Nancy Drew. I’d heard it was a sissy thing to do, but she was pretty good.” — F.X. Matt II, brewer, poet, gentleman

“I read Nancy Drew, but her map didn’t match my territory.” — Rhoda Lerman, author of Eleanor, The Book of the Night, God’s Ear and others

“The Hardy Boys. I was really psyched for them.” — Walt Patulski, Notre Dame All-American, Lombardi Trophy winner, NFL #1 draft pick, and businessman (Asked if he’d read Nancy Drew, he said, “I didn’t know we could.”)

“The Hardy Boys, at the Old Bedford Road School in Luton, England. I’ve never been as excited getting any other book out of the library. I’d see Franklin W. Dixon’s name and my hands would start to shake.” — Gordon Newton

“I read every single Nancy Drew. She had the kind of freedom that I wasn’t allowed. She was an independent, together young woman.” — Karen DeCrow, attorney, columnist and former president of NOW

“Nancy Drew. Every one of them, 50,000 times.” — Kathy Ott, elementary school teacher, Syracuse

“The Hardy Boys. They helped teach me the joy of reading and made Study Hall tolerable. I wanted to be a super sleuth, but I gave up on the idea when I was 50.” — Chancellor Kenneth A. Shaw, Syracuse University

“The Hardy Boys. I loved the way they saw something, followed it up, and turned it into an adventure that had importance to the adults around them.” — Tim Henderson

“The Hardy Boys, every one of them, and Tom Swift Jr. too. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV.” — Bob McDonough

“The Hardy Boys for sure. You had to read them before you could read James Bond.” — Todd Hobin and Doug Moncrief

“Nancy Drew, and my grandchildren read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.” — Judge Minna Buck

“Nancy Drew. If things are hectic, I’ll just take one off the shelf and read it again.” — Nancy Roberts, actress

“Donna Parker. Her name was Donna; my name was Donna. It was meant to be.” — Donna Imboden

“Cherry Ames.” — Joyce Bresnahan, senior primary nurse, Hospice of Central New York

“Uncle Wiggley.” — Fran McGrath

“Chip Hilton, the three-sports star of Valley Falls High.” — Mike Greenstein

* * *

Mildred Wirt Benson died May 28, 2002, in Toledo, Ohio. She wrote her last column for the Toledo Blade the day before her death. Praised, lauded and loved by Nancy Drew fans across the nation, she lived to see justice prevail.

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