A May 30 Style article misidentified Applewood Books, the company now publishing reproductions of the original Nancy Drew mysteries. (Published 6/6/02)
Nancy Drew, girl sleuth extraordinaire: We loved her, we wanted to be her, we couldn't put her books down. Titian-haired (or blond, depending on the edition), Nancy was a wonder when she first appeared in 1930, in the beloved "The Secret of the Old Clock."
She was smart, she was attractive, she was quite capable of taking care of herself. We loved that she preferred to be called "interesting" over "pretty," and that she scoffed at her boyfriend when he declared that she'd make a good nurse. ("Very funny," she told that wet noodle Ned Nickerson. "I was thinking more about Doctor Drew.")
We loved that she survived anything -- kidnapping, poison potions, a slimy cistern trap -- and that she always outwitted the "shady characters," as the books referred to them, with some brilliant deduction at the end. We loved that she sometimes had to save Ned as well.
For generations of girls, Nancy has been a part of our lives, a heroine we felt we knew, starring in a series of adventures we hoped would never end. On weekly library visits, we'd scan the familiar shelf of blue- or yellow-spined books in anticipation, hoping against hope that the next volume would not be checked out.
Those books resided in the "K" section, for mysterious author Carolyn Keene, the one we never knew anything about. Who is she? we wondered. What magical adventures have taken place in her life?
And perhaps we were a bit disappointed to learn later, as adults, that Carolyn Keene was but a pseudonym, a name attached to a series of ghostwriters hired by the Stratemeyer Syndicate (which also produced "The Hardy Boys," "Tom Swift" and "The Bobbsey Twins" series) to churn out novels according to a preestablished plot.
But the original Carolyn Keene -- the first, and best, of the ghostwriters, the one who gave Nancy her personality and her keenness, her independence and her spunk -- is exactly what we'd hope to find. Her name was Mildred Wirt Benson, and she died Tuesday night in Toledo at the age of 96.
Benson went to work on the day that she died, sat at her desk, and went about crafting her monthly column -- "Millie Benson's Notebook" -- for her hometown newspaper, the Blade. She was feisty, Millie Benson. She had spunk. She had worked for the Blade -- and its predecessor, the Toledo Times -- for 58 years, and even in her nineties, she wasn't ready to give it up. "Call my lawyer," she'd grouse at anyone who would suggest, even gently, that it was time to retire. Even a technical retirement late last year could not keep her away.
Benson spent her last years writing about the active lives of local senior citizens -- though she never considered herself a senior, according to Luann Sharp, assistant managing editor of the Blade. She golfed up until a few years ago. Got a pilot's license at age 59. She wrote more than 120 books, and countless newspaper columns, including one that ran the morning after her death.
"She was feisty and acerbic, sometimes funny, and basically took no nonsense," says Caroline Dyer, a University of Iowa professor of communications who has known Benson through her work for nearly a decade. "If she had one, she would have worn a fedora with a press pass in the headband."
Long before she joined the then-Toledo Times as a World War II replacement, Benson started her career earning $125 a pop for the Nancy Drew novels. She wrote 23 of the series' first 30 volumes, including the crucial opening threesome -- "The Secret of the Old Clock," "The Hidden Staircase" (her favorite) and "The Hidden Bungalow." She was hired by Edward Stratemeyer, and, armed with a plot outline but little input on character development, Benson created Nancy and her friends -- slightly plump Bess, tomboyish George (short for "Georgina") and, of course, boyfriend Ned.
"She was sort of a full-blown character who had many different qualities that people could latch onto, that they could appreciate, emulate," says Dyer, who honored Benson at a weekend-long Nancy Drew conference at her university in 1993.
Writing between 1930 and 1953 (when her final Nancy Drew, "The Clue of the Velvet Mask," appeared), Benson abandoned the idea that girls were only seeking romance, and instead gave Nancy a yen for adventure -- along with a wealthy lifestyle, an understanding widower dad and a fabulous blue roadster. Still, Benson bristled when asked -- as she was, frequently -- if Nancy was a feminist. (The letters she received seemed to indicate that girls, and women, believed it to be so.)
Up until 1980, Benson's authorship of the Nancy Drew novels was a secret; she had been required to sign a confidentiality agreement by Stratemeyer. She was freed from that restriction after a 1980 court case, and as her name became more widely known, the attention swelled. Readers would come by the Blade offices, asking her to autograph their copies; letters poured in.
"There would be women in their fifties, sixties, who would write, 'You are what changed my mind and made me believe I could be more than a housewife,' " says Sharp, who helped Benson with some of her mail in recent years, when she lost much of her eyesight.
In the 1950s, Harriet Adams -- Stratemeyer's daughter -- took over the franchise, and rewrote the earlier versions, ostensibly to remove some language and references that had come to be considered ethnically or racially offensive. In rewriting, though, Adams not only removed the offending references -- she recast Nancy, who became less spunky and more traditional. And much of the beauty of Benson's writing was lost as well.
"She didn't break rules and she didn't violate the law like she originally had done occasionally, and with good reason," says Dyer, who quotes from letters exchanged between Adams and Benson on this issue in her 1995 book "Rediscovering Nancy Drew," which she edited with Nancy Romalov. "She was more respectful of authority and her elders and all those things."
Nancy went through further updates in the 1990s, when Simon & Schuster spun off parallel series called "The Nancy Drew Files" and "Nancy Drew on Campus," in which Nancy and Ned get a little more hot and heavy, and eventually break up. The original books -- the ones with the blue covers -- are collector's items now, though facsimiles of some early volumes, complete with early illustrations, can be purchased from Applewood Press of Bedford, Mass. Hardcover copies of the 1950s versions -- with the yellow spines -- also have been reissued by Grosset & Dunlap.
According to Sharp, Benson used to make autograph seekers read the first paragraph of their editions out loud before she'd consent to sign the copy -- she knew in an instant if the book was an update, and didn't want to autograph books that were not "hers."
But many of them were. Some were bought at used bookstores, or on eBay -- where originals sometimes go for more than $300, with dust jacket. Others, though, came out of attics or basements, where generations of mothers and grandmothers had packed away their copies, eagerly anticipating the day they could pass them along.
"Mildred Benson also known as Carolyn Keene," Benson usually wrote on the cover page. It wasn't, of course, the way she thought of herself. "I've written a lot more things than just Nancy Drew," she once told an interviewer, tartly.
But it was, she knew, the name that all the little girls would remember -- the little girls, and the grown-up ones as well.