Through more than 600 books published from 1930 to today, the adventures of teen-age detective Nancy Drew were often repetitive. Yet Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor have all said she was a huge influence in their lives. She represented a kind of tough American woman who was smart — and fierce — in the face of injustice or violence.
Accompanied by her best friends Bess and George, she unearthed lost heirlooms, found missing people and fought to right various wrongs. She offered American girls a sense of resourcefulness. She taught us to signal S.O.S. with a tube of lipstick, to break out of a window using spike heels and to keep an overnight bag in our car — a girl never knew when she’d encounter a sleuthing adventure. Real-life kidnapping victims have said that Nancy Drew stories inspired them use their wits to escape.
Over the years many different writers worked on Nancy Drew’s stories, which were always published under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. But the very first books in the series, the ones that established her particular steely bravery, were written by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, who was just as bold and independent as her heroine.
Benson was born Mildred Augustine in 1905 in an Iowa farming community, where there were few career opportunities for women. But her parents encouraged her to get a college education, and to pursue writing. In 1927, she would become the first student, man or woman, to earn a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Iowa.
She traveled to New York City, where she met a businessman named Edward Stratemeyer whose company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, hired ghostwriters to write popular books. For a flat fee, these writers produced manuscripts based on outlines provided by the syndicate, signing away their authorship rights. Stratemeyer attributed the books to pseudonymous authors and farmed them out to publishers. The successful business model churned out series such as “Ruth Fielding,” “Tom Swift” and “The Hardy Boys.”
“As oil has its Rockefeller, literature has its Stratemeyer,” Fortune magazine wrote in 1934.
Stratemeyer hired Benson to work on the “Ruth Fielding” series, and then asked her to help launch a new series, about Nancy Drew.
Benson's original Nancy Drew, depicted in books such as “The Hidden Staircase,” was a brash, daring sleuth. The 1930s and 1940s, when this first Nancy Drew debuted, were a time of Depression and war, when parents didn't sugarcoat the world’s evil. Reading about an adventurous girl who faced down danger provided young readers an escape from the troubles of the day.
Nancy Drew was independent and not tied down by work, domestic pursuits or a fretting mother (hers had died.) She was treated as an equal by her father and by law enforcement, and she never gave up when the going got hard.
Benson eventually married, twice, and had a daughter. But her career always drove her. Between 1926 and 1959, she wrote 135 books, including 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books. She published some novels under her own name, including her favorite Penny Parker mystery stories and books in Stratemeyer Syndicate series like “The Dana Girls” and “Honey Bunch.”
Benson also worked as a journalist for more than 50 years, mainly at The Toledo Times and the Toledo Blade. She worked the court house beat, tenaciously shaking out the facts about crime and corruption. Later she wrote features, aviation columns and a popular column for active seniors.
Eventually, Benson embarked on real-life adventures. During the 1960s, she trained to become a pilot and traveled to Central America, alone, to view ancient Mayan sites before they were opened to widespread tourism. She was even once locked inside a room in Guatemala in the early 1960s by locals who thought she knew too much about their town’s criminal activity. Eventually Benson overpowered one of her captors and escaped.
It would be decades before most Nancy Drew fans learned that Benson was the original Carolyn Keene; researchers figured it out in the 1990s. In 1993 the University of Iowa held a Nancy Drew Conference that gave Benson the public credit she deserved.
Benson told ABC that she'd probably still be writing when the undertaker walked through the door. She was working on a column for the Toledo Blade in 2002 when she died at age 96.
And her character is still inspiring girls today.
Jennifer Fisher is president of the Nancy Drew fan group, The Nancy Drew Sleuths. She is currently writing a biography of Mildred Wirt Benson and originally wrote this essay as part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian, Arizona State University, and Zócalo Public Square.