How Mildred Wirt became Carolyn Keene – and changed the culture

If you were a young reader, you know that Carolyn Keene wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries. And if you remained aware of that into adulthood, chances are that you found out that Carolyn Keene didn’t exist.

So who was Carolyn Keene?

The creator of Nancy Drew was Edward Stratemeyer, about whom we have written before here, but the person who gave her life and pluck was an Iowan named Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.

And Benson’s life was as remarkable as anything Nancy did in her books.

Born in 1905, Benson showed up at the University of Iowa in 1922 as Mildred Wirt, and as an article in Iowa Magazine outlines, she was a force of nature from the very beginning:

Benson also made waves in Iowa’s newly formed journalism school. In 1922, she joined The Daily Iowan as a reporter at a time when a growing number of women were breaking into the field. Although future renowned pollster George Gallup (23BA, 25MA, 28PhD, 67LLD) was her editor and later her professor, the paper only four years earlier was the first college daily in the nation to operate under a female editor.

Active in many student organizations, Benson served as the sole female editor of the Hawkeye yearbook and as president of a women’s writing group. She wrote hundreds of short stories for national children’s magazines—a practice she started after publishing her first article at age 13. Most notably, Benson became the first woman to graduate from Iowa’s journalism school in 1925 and the first person to receive a master’s degree in journalism from Iowa in 1927. Source: How the University of Iowa Helped Solve the Greatest Nancy Drew Mystery – University of Iowa

During graduate school, Benson answered an ad from the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which wanted writers for their various series of children’s books. Stratemeyer had an idea for a new series that would appeal to girls, and — as was his usual procedure — sent Benson an outline for the first three books, beginning with The Secret of the Old Clock.

She was paid a flat $125 fee for each book — no royalties and no byline. In fact, part of the agreement was that she would not disclose that she was the author. It was a promise she kept for 50 years, even when others were taking credit for her work.

Stratemeyer wasn’t particularly happy with the character that Benson had created, complaining that she was too flippant, but his complaints subsided when the series became a big hit and the money rolled into his bank account. Nancy Drew was not only flippant, but she was also strong, bold, and independent-minded — something the culture of children’s literature had never seen before. If you knew the real author, you would have thought she based the character on herself, but that’s not what Benson had in mind.

“I didn’t consciously make her like myself. I made her good-looking, smart, and a perfectionist. I made her a concept of the girl I’d like to be,” Benson once told The New York Times. “Today that kind of woman is common, but then it was a new concept.”

Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries. She wrote dozens of other books as well, 135 in all. She worked as a journalist in Toledo, Ohio, where she met and married her husband, George Benson.

Nancy Drew became more than a character in a book. Within a couple of generations, she was a cultural phenomenon, inspiring young girls to go beyond what society expected of them or tried to restrict them to. Hundreds of women in the late 20th century attributed much of their ambitions and success to Nancy Drew.

For Benson, however, Nancy Drew was far from her favorite creation. She liked Penny Parker, a young newspaper reporter, much better. Parker starred in a series of 17 books that Benson wrote and published under her own name between 1939 and 1947.

Benson died at the age of 96 in 2002. She was still working as a newspaper columnist at the time. There is far more to Benson’s life than I have recounted here, and I highly recommend the Iowa Magazine article cited above for a more complete picture.

I owe a grand thank you to my good friend Peter Gross for pointing me to this article. Peter, among his many achievements, is a graduate of the University of Iowa.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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