When she gets behind her French Provincial desk, Harriet Adams suffers from multiple personalities. She's Carolyn Keene, Franklin W. Dixon, Laura Lee Hope, Victor Appleton III and several others.
But none of these metamorpheses trouble the 84-year-old Adams.
She's been fragmented since 1930 when she started writing under all of those pseudonyms. Fortunately, however, most of the time Adams is either herself or Carolyn Keene, author of the 54 Nancy Drew mysteries, or, perhpas more accuratelyA, Nancy's mon, since Adams is fond of describing the teen-age sleuth as her "fiction daughter."
But Nancy Drew is more Adams' alter ego than her offspring.A couple of hours with the sprightly, curly-haired Adams - her home is this pleasant tree-shaded city a half-hours drive from Newark, which could double for Nancy's hometown of River Heights - and a visitor realizes that Nancy Drew leads the kind of life that Adams would like to have lived instead of the more traditional early-20th-century, upper-middle-class life that was her lot.
"Oh, I would have loved to be a teen-age detective and solved all mysteries," Adams says wistfully as her fingers bound booklets of unlined yellow paper on her desk. It is these booklets that Adams pencils mysteries and then unpuzzles them through detective Nancy Drew, "I can't abide a mystery, can you?" says the 1914 Wellesly graduate.
Obviously, several generations of 7-to-13-year-olds have that some insatiable curiosity. More than 60 million copies of the Drew books have been sold since her debut in 1930. And now with ABC-TV's Nancy Drew Mysteries series (it alternates with the Hardy Boys on Sundays), 2 million additional copies of the books have been printed.
It is no surprise to Adams that the golden-haired, blue-eyed, 17-year-old Nancy has voracious reader appeal even in today's world, a far cry from the simpler, less sophisticated era of her "birth" 47 years ago. She maintains that children are not interested in stories that reflect their own lives because they "are interested in being entertained and having some room for fantasy."
Thus, Adams says, "there is no big-city suffering, no sex and no violence" in the books. Also absent, however, are whole races and classes of American outside the genial, upper-middle-class milieu of Nancy and her friends. "They have tried to edit out the racism in the books but they just didn't succeed," said Brad Chambers, director of the Council on Interracial Books for Children.
With Adams, there is no desire to follow a recent trend for more realism in children books. And though Ms. magazine once touted Drew as "a role model for young feminists" because of her resourcefulness and independence. Adams says Drew is no women's liberationist. "She has great respect for her father and she would never overrule him," she maintains. Indeed, Nancy Drew has been polite, even proper young lady, since Adams began writing her stories.
For actually, Adams is not Nancy Drew's creator. Adam's father, Edward Stratemeyer, produced Nancy Drew along with the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift and a slew of others that added up to 17 different children's book series. Born in Elizabeth, N.J., in 18624, Stratemeyer started free-lancing children's stories while working in a stationery shop in Newark in 1886. When he sold his first story for $75, he quit the stationery business, joined a New York pulp publishing house where, among other projects, he completed the works of Horatio ALger Jr. after Alger death.
By 1898, Stratemeyer had created the Old Glory series, based on Dewey's defeat of the Spanish fleet at Manila.
He was so prolific at creating various series that he eventually ended up writing the outlines to them and farming them out to ghost writers to complete. In the process, he founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate, an empire that prompted The Wall Street Journal to declard in 1934 that "as oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer."
While her father labored from 9 to noon in his third-floor studio in their Newark home, Adams and her younger sister, Edna, led the conventional life of young women of that time. "My mother was never very well, but we were raised very strictly," she recalls. "My father was very strict. He thought I should stay home and learn to keep house. He never encouraged me in writing, even though the year between college and getting married. I worked in his office."
When Stratemeyer died in 1930 at the age of 68, he had written 200 books himself and presided over the writing of 800 others. In later years many librarians would bar the Stratemeyer books, charging they were badly written and repetitous, besides being out of step with the times. (They have since made a comeback, which worries people like Chambers because the racial stereotypes they contain "influence generations of young people.")
But no such bad tidings were augured 47 years ago, and Stratemeyer's publishers, Grosset and Dunlap, convinced by their financial statements that it was too early to let the empire die out, approached Adams and her sister to continue the syndicate.
"I had four children, the youngest not yet in school," recalls Adams. "But I asked my husband and he said to 'go ahead and try it." Adams and her sister, who retired from the business in 1948, headed up the syndicate. Adams took over the writing of the Nancy Drew series, wrote outlines for the other series and farmed them out to ghost writers.
Though her father had written three Drew mysteries before he died, Adams felt the heroine was too spirited and sharp-tongued. So when she took over, she toned down Nancy Drew. "She had been too bold and bossy," she says. "She treated the housekeeper, Hanna Gruen, like a servant. I made Nancy love her like a mother since her own mothe was dead. I made her (Gruen) a lovely, lovely woman who brought Nancy up."
Though Adams altered Drew, she didn't deviate from her father's winning formula for the stories. "Every chapter has o have a holdover, a cliffhanger at the end." True to the formula, various chapter endings in "The Clue in the Old Album" have Nancy knocked down, lapsing into unconsciousness, being warned against opening a package, hanging on for her life and seeing a friend struggling with someone in the back seat of a car.
When peril isn't threatening the heroine or her friends, chapters invarialy end with exclaimation marks. Again, from "The Clue in the Old Album": "Fearlessly, she hurried toward the tent!" "The chase was on!" The figure was as warm as a human being!" Abruptly the program was cut off the air!"
It's a formula that has kept children turing the pages for decades. And mothers and grandmothers who read the stories in their youths are likely to steer their offspring to the same books, often the dog-eared copies of their own childhood. Reading an old edition and faced with "She caught her pump in the running board of the coupe," one 9-year-old recently scurried off to her mother for a translation.
Adams, however, has modernized the old versions so that Drew now wears jeans and sheepskin jackets instead of white gloves, dresses and pumps of an earlier era. She's progressed with the rest of us from a coupe to a car. And her gold hair from 1947 is now 1977 strawberry blond.
Nonetheless, the stories continue to end with evil being vanquished. Adams would have it no other way because she feels that her readers want a sense of security. "They like to read about things they're not surrounded by."
That sense of security prevades the Nancy Drew books. Outside of the villians, the characters in all the mysteries are unerringly wholesome. They live in towns where time seems to have stopped, where old shade trees arch over streets and where there are city greens and parks.
There are no minorities or ethnics in the stories who aren't foreign, and therefore, exotically distant; they are usually encountered abroad when Nancy is solving a mystery. Adams avoids the tawdry, but also reality.
Stratemeyer Syndicate's one move to integrate the children's series was attempted in the late 1960s by Andrew Svenson, a former Newark reporter, whom Adams hired as a writer and editor.Until his death last summer at the age of 65, he wrote the Hardy Boys and several other series, including the Bobbsey Twins and the Tollivers, a series that featured a black pharmacist's family. "We feel that a bright, peppy, adventurous Negro family will be stimulating to readers of all races," Svenson said when the series was launched.
With the urban disturbance and the rise of black consciousness at full tide, there is little wonder that a story that reads like Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys in blackfare failed to capture wide interest.
"I was so sorry that it didn't go better," laments Adams. "It might have been too soon for such a series."
Adams is sincere when she says this. Though she has been in the writing business for almost half a century, she exudes none of the patina of a shrewd business or career woman. Instead she is full of the womanly virtues of an earlier, sheltered, well-off past. After all, she once wore the white gloves, pumps and dresses of her heroine, and she tells her visitors that she has tried to live her life by her Wellesley alma mater's motto: "Not to be ministered unto, but to minister." Though Adams says her fiction daughter would go to "Wellesley, of course."
Adams seemingly has no inkling of life outside that.
Trying to explain that the Stratemeyer Syndicate moved from East Orange, N.J., to Maplewood after the riots in the late '60s, Adams is uncomfortable. "We had to move," she says, hesitating. "A lot of people . . . not the best citizens . . . but they're trying to rehabilitate."
Adams' life, like her heroines and the rest of the Stratemeyer characters, has been a narrow but financially secure one.
She talks about her paternal grandmother who was "very strict" and "kept everything locked up and carried the key with her. She had a room where she kept all visited, she would open the door and we could have whatever we wanted."
She tells about her uncles who were "all musical. One composed and the other played in an orchestra. My aunt just got married."
When Adams got married in 1916, it was to a neighborhood friend. "He was in stocks and bonds," she says. "I knew him from the time he was a little boy. He had chickens in his backyard and we used to buy eggs and chickens from him. My sister and I used to tease him unmercifully. I don't know why he married me. He's been gone for 11 years.
When she began her married life and keeping house, Adams did so with the help of servants.
"No, there were no labor-saving devices," she explains, "but then everyone had servants. Or if they didn't there were always part-time people coming in to do the laundry or housecleaning."
So Adams spent her time going to or forming women's clubs, working with the Girl Scouts, collecting dolls and figurines and pictures of clowns. She formed the New Jersey Wellesley Club and a group called "Members Chat." Perfectly ingenious and seemingly unaware of the differences between her life and theirs, she tells a story of walking from her house to a women's club and watching black domestic workers on their way home.
"They had worked all day, but they weren't tired," she says. "They were singing as they went home. It inspired me to write a poem called, "And they crooned in the afternoon."
Poetry and women's club came to a halt when she took over teh Stratemeyer Syndicate. Instead, she spent the last 50 years scribbling away in the yellow paper notebooks.
She spends her days filling up the notebooks, often completing a mystery every two months. There are calls from copyright lawyers, from Hollywood agents interested in serializing other Stratemeyer series, and from her publisher wanting to know the general plot of the 55th Nancy Drew mystery. "The Mystery of Crocodile Island," which allows her to read up on submarines.
"I live like an actor or actress," she says of writing all the different characters. "I play different parts and as I write I visualize each charater."