Celebrating Nancy Drew’s Creator
It’s July 10, and today we celebrate the 115th birthday of one of Ohio’s greatest writers – Mildred Wirt Benson. Her name might not be as familiar to you as some noted Ohio authors, but you’ve certainly heard of her pen name and the beloved fictional character she created – Nancy Drew.
Yes, indeed, “Millie” was the first “Carolyn Keene” – the pseudonym given to all the many writers of the enduringly popular mystery series built around the mythical teen sleuth. And most importantly about Millie – she infused Nancy with many of her own personality traits, talents, and interests. You could almost say that Millie was the REAL Nancy Drew.
She was born Mildred Augustine on this day in 1905 in the small town of Ladora, Iowa. A tomboy from the time she was a child, she excelled at sports. She developed a lifelong love of adventure and travel and was a talented musician.
But writing was her passion. “I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk,” she said. “I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.” She began writing stories in grade school; she won her first writing award when she was 14.
At the State University of Iowa, she became the first person in the school’s history to earn a master’s degree in journalism. While there she met and fell in love with Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. They married in 1928 and settled first in Cleveland, moving later to Toledo. Millie would remain an Ohioan for the rest of her life. Her only child, daughter Peggy, was born in 1937.
In 1927, Millie was hired by Edward Stratemyer as a ghostwriter for his syndicate, which produced popular books for teens, including the enormously successful Hardy Boys series. Ghostwriters worked for a flat fee and did not share in royalties of the books they wrote, which were published under pseudonyms created by the syndicate. They had to sign a confidentiality agreement to not reveal their true identities as authors.
After having Millie write several novels for the Ruth Fielding series (under the pen name Alice B. Emerson), Stratmeyer gave Millie a new assignment: to create an original series about a girl sleuth named Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer provided her with titles and plot outlines for three books. But it was left to Millie to flesh out the character.
And flesh her out she did, creating a character that was smart, self-confident, fearless, and fun-loving. As Millie would say years later, she was trying to make Nancy Drew “a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day.” Edward Stratemeyer was concerned that Nancy “was too flip,” but when the three books – The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery – were published in April 1930, they were an immediate sensation. Young readers couldn’t get enough of Nancy Drew and “Carolyn Keene.”
Millie would go on to pen 23 of the first 30 Drew novels. And those were just a small part of a huge output that ultimately totaled more than 130 books produced for young readers between 1927 and 1959, both under pseudonyms and her real name. Other than Nancy Drew, Millie’s most popular character (and her own personal favorite) was Penny Parker, the heroine of a series that appeared under her own name, as Mildred A. Wirt.
As an Ohio author, Millie’s books under her own name had begun to be collected by the Ohioana Library almost from the time we were founded in October 1929. In 1957, Millie provided us with a completed biographical form that we could add to our collection.
Interestingly, Millie noted that among her writings were “mystery books published under various pen names.” Remember, as a ghostwriter for Stratemeyer, Millie could not disclose her authorship of the Nancy Drew series, or any of the other books she wrote for them.
That changed in 1980, when a lawsuit was filed over publishing rights to the Stratemeyer syndicate titles. The question of authorship of books came up, and Millie was called to testify. For the first time, 50 years after the first novels had been published, Mildred Wirt Benson was revealed as the original Carolyn Keene, the creator of Nancy Drew.
By that time, Millie had long ceased writing novels for young readers, concentrating instead on a career as a journalist that had begun in the mid-1940s, first for the Toledo Times and then for the Toledo Blade. Millie’s first husband, Asa Wirt, had passed away in 1947. Three years later, she married a second time, to George Benson, editor of the Blade. He died in 1959.
Together, Millie and George traveled a great deal. She particularly loved visiting the Mayan ruins in Central America. Once, while in Guatemala, she was briefly kidnapped. It was like a real-life Nancy Drew adventure! Readers of Millie’s column, On the Go, loved sharing vicariously in her exploits.
Millie loved to fly, earning her pilot’s license in 1964 at age 59. In 1986, she applied to NASA to become the first journalist-in-space. She was 81 at the time.
In 1989, the Ohioana Library honored Millie with a citation “for distinguished service to Ohio in the field of children’s literature.” Informed of the award, Millie said, “So many years have elapsed since I actively wrote children’s books that I doubt I deserve the honor.”
Unable to attend the award ceremony in Columbus because of an injury, Millie was presented her award in Toledo by Ohioana board member Ann Bowers, who fondly remembers Millie’s youthful outlook and optimism.
There would be many other honors in the following years, as more and more people heralded Millie’s achievements, especially in creating Nancy Drew.
Even as she entered her 90s and began suffering from failing health, Millie kept writing. On May 28, 2002, Millie was at her desk at the Blade when she fell ill. She was taken to Toledo Hospital,
where she died that evening. She was 96 years old. News of her death made headlines around the world.
By the time of her death, more than 70 years after the first novels had appeared, notable women in every field had cited Nancy Drew as a role model and inspiration. So much so, that it surprised even Millie, who in an interview the year before she died said, “I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I’m glad that I had that much influence on people.”
Dozens of writers followed Millie as “Carolyn Keene,” keeping the Nancy Drew series thriving for decades. And it expanded way beyond the books – films, television shows, games, coloring books, puzzles, and more. As Nancy Drew celebrates her 90th anniversary this year, one would have to say that, except perhaps for Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster’s Superman, no character created by a writer from Ohio has become such a pop culture phenomenon as Nancy Drew.
And now fans past, present, and future have a new place where they can celebrate Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson: the Jennifer Fisher/Nancy Drew Collection at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library. Fisher, a Drew scholar, is writing a biography of Mildred Wirt Benson. She also hosts the unofficial Nancy Drew sleuth website, a must for Drew fans worldwide. The exhibit at the library will feature several thousand items from Fisher’s personal collection.
So on this 115th anniversary of her birth, Ohioana salutes Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, the first Carolyn Keene and the creator of Nancy Drew. And on behalf of your millions of fans over the last 90 years . . . thank you, Millie! Further reading:
“Curating a Nancy Drew Collection,” guest blog by Jennifer Fisher, https://www.toledolibrary.org/blog/curating-a-nancy-drew-collection
Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Nancy Drew Ghostwriter and Journalist by Julie K. Rubini, Ohio University/Swallow Press, https://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Missing+Millie+Benson And visit Jennifer Fisher’s Nancy Drew website: http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com