The woman who created Nancy Drew, the Ratline podcast, and reader reactions; newsletter, October 18, 2019

October 21, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,665) on Friday, October 18, 2019.



Rain finally arrived in East Tennessee this week after an absence of about 45 days. It was greatly welcomed. There wasn’t a lot of rain but enough to begin turning the ground from brown to green. The hope is that more rain will follow this week.

I hope that the weather for you this weekend is what you need.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,667 subscribers and had a 26.5 percent open rate; 4 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

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, really?

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 Peter Gross, a gentleman and scholar and my good friend, for pointing me to this article. Peter, among his many achievements, is a graduate of the University of Iowa.

Podcast recommendation: The Ratline from BBC Sounds, a gripping, intriguing tale

Hundreds of Nazi criminals escaped justice at the end of World War II through something called the Ratline.

But few were as high on the wanted list as Otto von Wächter, an Austrian SS officer whose administrative positions during the war had him overseeing the deaths of thousands of Jews, Poles, gypsies, and others who the Third Reich deemed unworthy.

Philippe Sands, a British barrister whose grandfather’s family was murdered in one of the towns that Wächter oversaw, takes listeners on a mysterious journey, exploring the strange collection of personalities and relationships — including some at the Vatican — who were involved with the Ratline that allowed Wächter to escape justice.

The Ratline’s website describes it this way:

The Ratline is a story of a curious death, political intrigue, spies, Nazi hunters, shadowy forces in the Vatican and a son grappling with the sins of his father. Source: Intrigue – Ep1. The Ratline – Secrets in the Castle – BBC Sounds

I listened to all 10 of the episodes of The Ratline in one weekend (they are 20 to 30 minutes each), and the series is all of the things the BBC says it is. In addition, you have the voices of Stephen Fry and Laura Linney reading some of the letters of Wächter and his wife Charlotte.

This series is part of the BBC’s set titled Intrigue, and the title is apt. The podcasts take on stories that are interesting, mysterious, and significant. The BBC’s press release for The Ratline is here in case you want to find out more about it.

If you have never listened to a podcast series before, this would be a good place to start.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Vietnam Combat Artists Program

Combat art has a long, distinguished, and often under-appreciated place in our historical record and in the history of American art itself.

George Washington and the Continental Army depended not only on winning battles (or avoiding defeats) but also on public opinion and the support of the American people to continue in existence. Consequently, artists drew and painting Washington as a quintessential icon of the character and ideas for which he and his comrades were fighting. Artists such as John Trumbull and Charles Willson Peale, who were eyewitnesses to several engagements, produced battle scenes of important victories that were reproduced and widely distributed.

Likewise, during the Civil War, combat artists took to the fields to record battle scenes, leaders, camp life, and a wide variety of activities and people involved in the nation’s internal conflict. Many of the artists were “Specials,” the special correspondents commissioned by the nation’s leading publications to give readers an idea of what was happening on a daily or weekly basis. People such as Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes recorded for us the only images we have of Civil War battles because photography at that time could not stop action.

When the United States became engaged in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army and the other services continued this tradition. Even though still photography and video were available, Army officials wisely believed that these tools would not leave us with a full visual record of the emotions and impact of that war.

Consequently, the Army created the Vietnam Combat Artists Program.

This program, begun in 1966, allowed soldiers stationed anywhere in the world to apply. Those selected would be detached from their units and sent to Vietnam for 60 days. They formed a team, usually of five artists. Once in-country, they could go anywhere they wanted and move about freely within a unit. They could accompany infantry units into the field, or they could ride helicopters or airplanes if they chose to. Their duty was to sketch, draw, and paint whatever interested them. The artists were encouraged to use whatever media (oil, watercolor, charcoal, etc.) they were comfortable with and were told to create within their chosen styles.

When the team was finished in-country, they were flown to Hawaii where they spent another 75 days finishing their work. At the end of that time, the artists left their work and returned to their individual units.

Between 1966 and 1970, nine teams were sent to Vietnam. They created a body of work that is remarkable for its variety of subject matter and media. The images today—many of which have been digitized and are available online —are a searing and emotional record of what soldiers and civilians in Vietnam experienced during that time. Many of the images can be seen on

Illustration above: Sketch of a Combat Artist at Work by Paul Rickert, Vietnam Combat Artists Program, CAT I, 1966. Courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Army.

Verse and Vision

An updated list of all of the Verse and Vision videos can be found at this link on I have not produced one for a couple of weeks now but will try to gear up again soon.


Cindy K.: I love animals. I’m truly a cat person at heart, but that doesn’t stop all kinds of animals from being drawn to me. People that know me often call me ‘The Animal Whisperer’, even the most difficult or shy animal is calm or loving with me. Photo at right: A little baby squirrel that was in a storehouse my cousin was cleaning out and fixing up. I talked to him and coaxed him out. Once he stopped shaking, he started chattering with me while I was talking to him. I eventually just took him to a tree and he climbed up and away.

Alice K.: Thanks so much for writing about Else Ury. I had never heard of her and was touched by her life story. It’s some comfort to know that her books were treasured by many children during such a horrid time in history and for generations after the war. Many years ago, I visited the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and I have never forgotten that place.

Peter G.: I’m awaiting the release of Metropolis (by Philip Kerr; see last week’s newsletter). I will miss Kerr very much; loved his sense of humor, among other of his attributes.

Kitty G.: I would call the watercolor picture The Fisherman. It is a beautiful picture. Thanks for sharing.

Frank C.: On last week’s item about revolutionary thought in America:
Just odd thoughts about the American revolt: I wonder how many of the European settlers were descendants of people who left Britain because of dislike of the Stuart monarchy, or experienced the republican interlude before the restoration of Charles 11? Also, the very act of emigration from Britain suggests a rejection of that country and its politics and culture. Were the people in a sense primed for revolution? Of course, you can ask why, if that were the case, the revolution did not spread to Canada.

The UK at present has devolved parliaments in three of its constituent countries. Does the experience of having a local parliament give rise to support for rejection of the central parliament? Of course, this has not happened in either the USA or Canada (apart from the attempted secession of the South).

I wonder that if George III had created the American colonies into a separate kingdom (as Ireland was at that time and Scotland had been in the past) rather than subjecting them to the UK parliament, would there have been any revolt? Essentially it was a revolt against the UK parliament and its taxing powers rather than against the king per se.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: The Musician

Best quote of the week:

“Words — so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, writer, (1804-1864)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Philip Kerr’s last book, the difference between dogs and cats, Else Ury’s books: newsletter, October 11, 2019



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