Mildred Wirt Benson (aka Carolyn Keene, Alice B. Emerson, Frances K. Judd, Joan Clark, Mildred A. Wirt, and Ann Wirt) lived 96 years (July 10, 1905 – May 28, 2002, Cancer/Hera) and wrote 79 books, including the first 23 in the Nancy Drew series. She was married twice, the first husband Asa Wirt, brought her to Cleveland and this is where the Nancy Drew series began. Several years after Asa died, she met the editor of the Toledo Blade, George Benson, where she had begun to work as a journalist.
Growing up in Ohio, the books for teens to read in the 1970’s included the Nancy Drew series. They were either a Christmas or birthday present, I don’t know which but I devoured them. This series showed an independent young woman solving mysteries. Her dad respected her. Her friends looked up to her and she was beautiful and smart. It was as if there was nothing she couldn’t do.
What I did not know is that Nancy Drew was conceived of in 1929, the outline was created by a man, Edward Stratemeyer. This was a man who made his fortunes creating “dime store” novels with ghostwriters who took on various nom de plumes that he thought up as well. Nancy Drew was first released in 1930, at the beginning of the Depression but because they sold for 50 cents apiece and even during these bleak times, people found a way to get two quarters. Entertainment was what helped people get through these dark years. It gave them hope, something to dream about. Post World War I, women were beginning to have careers, living on their own and making their own decisions (rebelling against parent’s wishes).
Mildred, was a lot like Nancy Drew. She was born and raised in Ladora, Iowa and as a young woman went right to college, in 1922, without even considering a husband. Her parents were not pushing this either. Mom might have wished she wouldn’t leave though and wrote this really touching poem to her daughter.
So now your room is silent.
The whole house seems silent too;
Every object which confronts me
Seems incomplete without you.
Yes, your silent room, it haunts me
Every garment left behind
Have memories from which bring a tear
For the loved one I cannot find.
Lillian Augustine, “Mildred’s Room.”
In college, Mildred became a member and excelled on the swim team. Having already begun to write and win contests she majored in journalism. Naturally, she joined her colleagues and became a part of what is still the top college newspaper entitled “Daily Iowan.” This newspaper was the springboard for her future success with other papers and books. Mildred’s parents respected her lifestyle, just as Carson Drew respected Nancy. Being raised by parents who respect their daughter, this lead her to find partners who looked up to her and respected her as well. Again, a lot like Ned Nickerson, Nancy Drew’s boyfriend, both nurtured her profession and supported her achievements. Mildred did other odd feats for women at the time, also like Nancy Drew. She became an accomplished pilot too but not until she was in her fifties. Like Nancy Drew she had so much energy to burn and couldn’t sit still and be idle. Whenever obstacles hit her, she got involved in a hobby or book series and threw her attention into this.
The book I read was “Missing Millie Benson,” by Julie K. Rubini (2015, Ohio University Press) which is actually written for young readers – apropos to this woman’s life. Mildred had a daughter, Peggy Wirt and Ms. Rubini mentioned they had a challenging relationship. I notice her name is not acknowledged in the credits as to one of the people providing insight and wisdom for this book. Peggy, one would guess, took a back seat to Mildred’s life. Unfortunately, as successful as Mildred was, apparently she was unsuccessful in balancing motherhood with all the other amazing feats she accomplished. I am not surprised at this. Generally when women are like this, they have no children or if they do, their children suffer in the attachment process. I have seen this time and time again in my profession. You can’t do everything without something or someone suffering.
Some of the other books that Mildred was known for writing, none of which have merited the success today that Nancy Drew has, though they were well known in their time include: Ruth Fielding and her Great Scenario, the Dana Girls series, the Penny Parker series, Kay Tracy series, Penny Nichols series and more. It is interesting to note that most of these girls lived with their father because their mother had died. Why this was the case remains a mystery because neither Edward Stratemeyer nor Mildred lost their mother’s at an early age from what I have read. Mr. Stratemeyer developed the storylines and so my only thoughts on this are that 1. Mr. Stratemeyer did not have a close relationship with his mother or 2. Felt that a mother character in these novels would get in the way of the female characters development – a girl would subsequently strengthen as a woman by losing a mother because she would have to become the mother herself. We were such a naïve society back in the days prior to the sixties when college was more prevalent for both men and women and feminism had become an epidemic. While we do continue to pay money to see regurgitated stories in American pop theater culture, I believe readers are a lot more intelligent than this and demand much more. Not only did these series not have a mother, they were all independent young women who solved mysteries and had spunky attitudes.
Carolyn Keene’s identity ended up being three women toward the end of “her” career. This was not exposed until the 1980’s when two publishers were fighting to retain the rights of the Nancy Drew series. Mildred’s fame began at this time, because after appearing in court to prove her existence and how the stories came about, people suddenly became interested in her. Unfortunately the bigger publishing house won and as is typical in our society, instead of creating a new storyline they have turned Nancy Drew into a website and I suppose an “app” and re-did the stories to appeal to today’s culture. Nonetheless, the Nancy Drew series from the 1970’s can be found in many antique stores here in Ohio that I have been too. I haven’t purchased the set yet but I do intend to so that hopefully my granddaughter will be a fan of the story as well. I’d prefer she reads the original story rather than the modern version because I think it is more important to read it as it was written.
Of course I did watch the actress Pamela Sue Martin, in the TV series from 1977-1979 and the only reason I watched the Hardy Boys is that I was a great fan of Shaun Cassidy back then. From reading the book, I learned that the earliest version of Nancy Drew in the film world was in 1939 (both parts available on YouTube). As I look over this post, I wonder if I am writing about Mildred Wirt Benson or Nancy Drew. How can we possibly think of an artist without seeing their creations in our head?