Who made Nancy Drew?

Melanie Rehak investigates the origins of the world-famous girl sleuth and discovers two remarkable, revolutionary women.

Published September 19, 2005 8:18PM (EDT)

Since 1930, millions of girls (and boys) have spent countless hours buried in the Nancy Drew mysteries, accompanying their heroine to haunted mansions, spooky farms and foreboding caves in hopes of solving the latest mystery. Yet, throughout the several decades that Nancy has reigned as supersleuth extraordinaire (one who is also unfailingly polite, stylish and modest), devoted readers have been mostly clueless about the mystery lurking behind the stories: Who was Carolyn Keene, the author of the long-running series? In her new book, "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her," Melanie Rehak skillfully answers that question. In the process, she explains how the independence, intrepidness and drive of Nancy's creators seeped into their heroine, passing on to the girl detective some of her best qualities.

Although the Nancy Drew books were penned by women (more on that in a minute), Nancy herself was conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, the children's publishing titan of the early 20th century. (He was also the man behind the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins.) In 1929, he envisioned Nancy as "an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy." Yet he was too busy to write her stories on his own. By that point, Stratemeyer had authored many successful children's series, and his books sold so well that he couldn't keep up with demand. Eventually, he took to farming out the work to young writers he hired on the cheap, providing them story outlines and a modest paycheck in exchange for their writing the actual books. He called his company the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In 1926, Stratemeyer hired Mildred Wirt Benson, a hard-charging newspaperwoman from Iowa and recent college graduate to anonymously pen children's books; she was responsible for the first Nancy Drew novel, "The Secret of the Old Clock," and several mysteries that came afterward. Other writers followed Benson's suit and continued the popular line of Nancy Drew mysteries. But when Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Stratemeyer's oldest daughter, took over his company after her father's death in 1930, she created many of the plots and story lines of the Nancy stories, and in later years took over as the main author of the series.

The story of these two basically anonymous -- or, rather, pseudonymous -- women forging careers and juggling families in the first half of the 20th century lies at the heart of "Girl Sleuth." As Rehak writes, Benson and Adams "were pioneers during periods of both great progress and great regression for women in this country, examples of persistence and strength and a reminder that even at moments in history -- the turn of the century, the late 1920s, the 1950s -- that we tend to think of as sorry times for women's rights, there were women out there bucking the trends ... they both envisioned her [Nancy] as a girl who could do what she wanted in a world that was largely the province of men, just as each of them had done."

As Benson -- the first woman to earn a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa -- testified during a highly publicized 1980 court trial to determine copyright status and ownership of Nancy Drew, "I was probably a rough and tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living, and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy. Nancy was making her way in life." (Benson worked as a newspaper reporter for more than 50 years and, after being widowed a second time, took to piloting planes to Central America for solo archaeological explorations.) Adams was every bit as progressive. A woman running a company was practically unheard of then, and she managed to stand up for herself in the male-dominated world of publishing while raising a family -- long before there were many resources for working mothers.

Adams spent more than 40 years feverishly keeping up appearances that Keene was a real person, and Benson spent almost as long modestly avoiding the limelight. Today, of course, hardly anyone remembers the court drama and media speculation over the true author behind the girl detective series. The Stratemeyer Syndicate is gone; Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams are dead. Nancy, however, lives on. (The 1959 version of "The Secret of the Old Clock" sold around 150,000 copies in 2002, making it one of the top 50 bestselling children's books.)

Rehak shows that despite the original Syndicate concept to keep all versions of Nancy the same and lacking in any distinction from uncredited author to uncredited author, pieces of Benson and Adams wore off on the girl sleuth. In the end, those personal touches may be what made her so enduring. Though she is constantly updated for relevancy (the latest reincarnation has the detective driving a hybrid car), it's hardly her clothes or her hip slang that keeps subsequent generations reading. It's the perseverance, fearlessness and pluck of Adams and Benson that made Nancy appealing in the 1930s, as well as now.

Salon caught up with Rehak in her book-lined Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment to talk about the women behind Nancy Drew, the girl detective as feminist icon and the global reach of the famous sleuth.

How did this project get started?

I heard an obituary of Mildred Benson on the radio when she died in 2002. In retrospect it makes sense that I wrote this book, but at the time, it wasn't the kind of thing that I was thinking about at all. So I heard this obituary of her and I was interested in her for a lot of reasons. The Nancy Drew thing is obviously the big draw, but she grew up in Iowa, which is where my mom is from, and she sounded really fascinating.

I went out to the University of Iowa to look at her papers, and I spent a day in this archive. There's not that much stuff -- there's about three boxes of stuff, including her scrapbooks. And in with all her stuff were interspersed all these news stories about Harriet Adams from the '60s, when she went public. And it was literally one of these things -- I don't know if you've ever worked in an archive, but there's the morning, and then they close for lunch, and then there's the afternoon. By the time I got to lunch break, the whole thing had assembled itself in my head. There were these two women, and they were rivals, and they were also very similar, for all of their differences, because of what they faced. And then that together they created this character that was so pioneering and that later inspired so many women to go off and do what they wanted -- it literally all just came together.

It sounds like you found yourself more compelled by Mildred and Harriet and their stories than by Nancy Drew, the character.

Well, I think it was really all three. I think Nancy Drew is a great character, and her place in American culture is obviously really important. But she's a fictional, stock character. She's not that complicated. You couldn't really write a "biography" of Nancy Drew. To me, the appeal was that I could examine this character in a social context and then have behind her these real stories of real women who actually put into her all the experience and troubles and triumphs that they had had. As with every book or every movie or whatever, there's always a story behind the story. And had she been done by other people, she might not have been the pioneering character that she was.

So you read Nancy Drew books a lot when you were younger?

I did, yeah. I mean, they were not my favorite. But I had many favorites. I was just sort of a crazy reader. I loved mysteries. I read "Encyclopedia Brown" and I read Agatha Christie, and so, you know, I definitely read them all. And I read them all a thousand times. My sister had read them and my mother had read them -- and I think that that's a very common Nancy Drew feature. A lot of people get them from their mothers who remember reading them as a kid; they get handed on in that way.

How many Nancy Drew books did you read during the course of writing the book?

Well, I read all 56 of the original ones.

It sounds like you knew all the nuances and differences between when they were reworked ...

Right. So I read all 56 originals, and I've read a bunch of the rewrites of the original ones. I didn't read every rewrite, I don't think. And then I read some of the ones that came out in the '80s -- you know, the "Nancy Drew Files" and the ones where she goes to college. And then I've read some of the really new ones, the Simon and Schuster ones that just launched last year. So I don't know. A lot is the answer.

It's fun, though. One of the great things about writing this book is that on the really bad days that everybody has writing a book, it was like: "I'm just going to read some Nancy Drew today." And it counts. It's not like I'm secretly reading a romance novel and eating a chocolate. I can actually count this as two hours of work I did today.

What else was part of your research? You were obviously at the University of Iowa. And you had access to the Stratemeyer papers?

Right. The Stratemeyer Syndicate archive is at the New York Public Library, and it's huge. I would say the bulk of my research came from there. All the correspondence -- really between everybody -- came from there. Most of the early history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, like when Edward Stratemeyer started up, came from there. There have been a few books written about that -- academic books -- but those papers were only opened to the public in the late '90s. So actually, I think I'm the first person to really sit down and go through them box by box.

There are a lot of questions that had persisted amongst people who had studied series books for years that -- I don't mean to brag, but now, finally, I have answered [some]. Nobody was ever sure what year he started the Syndicate. But if you read through all these papers, it's very clear. I quote a couple of letters in the book about when he gets the idea and then when he writes to the first person that he wants to ghost-write [his books]. There's a lot of stuff like that that just was really exciting. And then there were some great things I didn't expect to find: the whole file of letters between Harriet and her sister, Edna.

Why do you think Nancy has remained relevant all these years? Does it have to do with the characteristics that Harriet and Mildred infused in her?

I think that they really put into her all of their drive and stubbornness. They were both unbelievably stubborn in different ways. Even though she is very superficially outlined in some ways, those qualities in her are very real. And those qualities are timeless. It's an earlier version of "girl power." One of the things I wondered about as I was writing this was what would have happened if Edward Stratemeyer hadn't died, and he had been the one editing the books, and Mildred was writing them. Would he have made her different? And would she have just been another one of his characters that had a good run and then died out?

I really think [the relevance has to do with] the fact that it's these two women who were both living that same challenge. Harriet was trying to run this company and she was surrounded by men. And Mildred was trying to become a journalist, which was also a completely male world. They both basically just busted their way in. They said, "I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere, and you're going to do it my way." Especially reading all the books over again, I think you get that from Nancy Drew, which is maybe not something people remember that specifically.

If you haven't read them in a while, I think you do tend to think of them as less complicated. But that was something that surprised me when I read them over: She is complicated. Even though the books always follow the same trajectory and even though she always gets away in the end, she's not without her moments of self-doubt and her moments of sentiment. They're never about Ned [Nancy's longtime boyfriend]; they're about other things. It was interesting to me to actually find in the book the reasons why the series lasted so long. It's not just hype. Even though the original ones have problems with racism and dated language, they're still just really good. They're really fun to read. And they're gripping. You want to know what's going to happen. That never died for me even though I was reading them constantly. It was, like, I gotta know, I gotta know.

There seems to be a little bit of an argument among the fans and critics of whether she's this strong feminist icon or this goody-two-shoes with a trust fund who is really annoying. Do you have an opinion about that?

I do. Yes, that's the sort of antifeminist argument that cropped up. "Well, how can we take her seriously as a feminist role model? She relies entirely on her father's money." But you've got to look at it in context. This is a fictional character being written for children -- not even being written for teenagers but for children. And it misses the point. The point is you're supposed to love Nancy for all of these qualities we've been talking about. For being intrepid, for being brave. They're not meant to be a template on how to live a specific life. They're meant to present ideals.

While you were writing this book, did you find that there were people coming out of the woodwork wanting to share their stories about Nancy Drew and how she affected them?

Yeah. I have to say, I was prepared for it, but I wasn't prepared for the level it reached. And it still happens now. I go to a dinner party and I get introduced, and everyone has something to say about it. And really unlikely people told me they had read all the Nancy Drew books -- like a lot of men, which you never think. I mean, certainly more women. Everyone has these really good memories, and they want to tell me how much they loved her. It's such a nice way to go through the world.

So did you encounter any fans who had particularly interesting stories or connections to Nancy Drew?

I didn't meet any personally. But there are a lot of stories -- a lot of which I put in the book toward the end -- about these women who read her in their underground bunkers during the resistance. And the really interesting thing is that it keeps happening. It just is reverberating ahead into the future.

I don't think this made it into the book, but when [Wall Street Journal reporter] Daniel Pearl was kidnapped, his wife wrote a book. And in a story I was reading about it in the Times, she and the woman that they were staying with in Pakistan talk about how he was kidnapped. They didn't think the Pakistani police were doing such a good job, so they undertook their own investigation. And the friend describes how they kept this log of everything they were doing and how she did it based on what she had learned from Nancy Drew books.

And it was like, "How could this be?" You know, at the moment I read it, there could not have been anything more up to the moment. So that's the really extraordinary thing to me: how many people in so many different parts of the world have read the books and the amazing consistency of what people get from Nancy. What they attribute to her about themselves is always things like these women in Pakistan. "I learned how to be intrepid and take good notes and follow my own path." It's this really incredible set of characteristics. I think the character's so cartoon-y, but that's what I mean about her being invested with Harriet and Mildred, who I think really were both like that. And that somehow manages to shine through.

So, can you recommend one Nancy Drew book? What would be your favorite, if you had to choose one?

My favorite? Or what would I recommend to other people?


Well, I'm really a fan of the old ones, which depending on how p.c. you are, you might not want to read them.

You mean the unrevised ones?

The unrevised ones. [Pauses to think for a minute.] Boy, this is hard. Well, actually, one of the earlier ones that I really love, which I talk about a little in the introduction, is "Mystery of the Tolling Bell," the revised one. There were certain ones as a kid I was obsessed with. I was obsessed with that one, and I was obsessed with "The Clue of the Leaning Chimney." Some other ones that I loved: "The Quest of the Missing Map" is a great early one.

It depends on what your taste is for. "The Secret of Shadow Ranch" is great because they go out to Arizona and they're on this ranch and they go riding a lot. There's all kinds of natural-world forces. And then there's a really creepy early one called "The Secret of Red Gate Farm" that has a cult in it. It meets in a cave and the three girls, of course, manage to infiltrate the meeting. But then, of course, they're discovered. I think the reason I love the early ones is that they're very atmospheric; the stories are really drawn out. Even the very first one is fantastic: "The Secret of the Old Clock." I think it's hard to go wrong.

By Emily Biuso

Emily Biuso is a Brooklyn, N.Y., journalist.

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