Who was Carolyn Keene?

An interview with Mildred Wirt Benson, the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew mystery novels.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Who was Carolyn Keene?

In 1929, Edward Stratemeyer hired Mildred Wirt, a young journalist, to ghostwrite a new mystery series for young girls. The heroine was the wildly popular Nancy Drew, who continues to sell copies -- and generate new titles -- 70 years later. Today, Mildred Wirt Benson, the "original" Carolyn Keene, lives in Toledo, Ohio. Each workday, she reports to the Toledo Blade, the newspaper where she has worked full-time for the last 55 years; her weekly column appears each Saturday.

So you're a celebrity. Do people in Toledo know who you are?

Oh yes. I've had an awful lot of publicity. I don't want to sound boastful. I get fan mail from all over the country and from foreign countries. It never lets up.

From children or adults?

I'd say it's half and half. The original fans now are in their 60s and 70s. But they give them to their grandchildren and I hear from them; I hear from schoolchildren. Oddly enough, I hear from some about books that I never wrote.

They ask a million questions. The questions are all pretty much routine, but once in a while, they tell about experiences they've had and they think that Nancy Drew inspired them. I remember one girl said that she was actually locked in a trunk by a hold-up guy and she thought of Nancy Drew. She got out by her own efforts, which she attributed to Nancy Drew. That one surprised me.

I used to answer every letter. Now I answer most of them, but I don't answer all of them because my eyesight is not good enough now that I can do much writing.

How did you feel about being Carolyn Keene?

I didn't analyze it. It was just a job to do. Some things I liked and some things I did not like. It was a day's work. I did it just like I did my newspaper work. I wrote from early morning to late night for a good many years. One year I wrote 13 full-length books and held down a job besides. That takes a good deal of work.

What do you think of the revised versions written by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams?

I wouldn't want to comment on them, because I don't read them. She was the owner of the business, so it wasn't my place to think about it. I just accepted it. But some of the rewriting I did not particularly enjoy.

Do you feel that she changed the character of Nancy?

Yes, considerably. She made her into a traditional sort of a heroine. More of a house type. And in her day, that is what I had specifically gotten away from.

She was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She was what the girls were ready for and were aspiring for, but had not achieved.

Why did they become so popular?

The girls were ripe for a change in literature. They were way overdue for a good, entertaining story, that broke away from the old style of writing. I think Nancy was the character the girls were waiting for. They were just waiting for someone to verbalize it.

What do you think of people who recast Nancy as a feminist heroine?

I don't align her with the feminist movement at all. That was never in my mind. She was an individual, from start to finish. She was never a person to promote any kind of movement. She was just a person who believed in her own freedom.

What other books have you published?

I only published 23 Nancy Drew books, for which I am known, but I actually published over 130 books. Some of those have different types of characters. I wrote a number of series for the syndicate, but I wrote a great many individual mystery stories in my own name. I wrote a prize-winning book, "Dangerous Deadline." It won a national contest.

I had one series that was sort of like Nancy Drew. Only I thought it was better. Those were the Penny Parker books.They were under my own name. Only they never caught on like Nancy Drew did, because they didn't have the distribution. Distribution is everything in the publishing business.

What did your readers get from Nancy?

Most of them identified with her. In my fan mail that I receive, they say that they were inspired to go do things for themselves, to go build themselves careers. I think it was an incentive to go out into the world and to become someone as a woman, you know.

What lessons would you like your readers to learn from Nancy?

I think there's a lesson they all should learn. Women are entitled to their freedom, but they shouldn't use that as an excuse for license. Some of them are mistaking freedom for license. I don't think that should be. I'm a little bit old-fashioned in my thinking, I guess. I didn't intend for Nancy to be a runaround. I'm a traditionalist when it comes to family. I think Nancy would have stood up for family rights.

What is your favorite novel in the series?

I like "The Hidden Staircase." They made a movie of that one. A very bad movie. I don't think they read the book when they wrote the movie. Typical of the industry, I guess.

Do you read Nancy Drew books?

No, I never read them at all. I don't think I've ever read a Nancy Drew book since I wrote them. In fact, I'm sure I haven't.

Did your daughter read Nancy Drew?

She didn't ever read very much. She didn't care much for any kind of books. When she went to school, there was some doubt that I was the author. Some of the kids told her that her mother was not the author of Nancy Drew. She came home and she was upset about that. That was one reason I was glad that they acknowledged me as the author.

I just talked to my mother and told her that there was no Carolyn Keene. She had never known.

That's like saying there's no Santa Claus.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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