Nancy drew illustration
Book Review

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

Nancy drew book

When the libraries here closed back in March (and still haven’t really re-opened) my mom sent me a bunch of books from her personal library to satisfy my reading itch. I’ve been reading much more slowly than usual but I’ve finished a few of them, including the just-finished Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak. It took me a minute to really get into it but a few chapters in I became totally immersed.

Nostalgia: Nancy Drew

I will always have a special place in my heart for Nancy Drew. Reading the book, it became clear that many women across multiple generations have this same feeling.

“For three-quarters of a century, she’s been gathering up generation after generation of new readers. As one set of young fans grew up, another rolled in to take their place. But even growing up couldn’t erase the soft spot a lot of women kept for the dynamic sleuth.” – Sienna Powers, January Magazine

My mom always read to me a lot when I was a kid, but I especially remember reading these with her. I’d read to her sometimes. She’d read to me. It was long past the age when I was reading plenty of books on my own but it was a special thing to do, just me and her, a treat since I had two younger siblings that kept my parents busy.

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Who Created Nancy Drew?

The Nancy Drew series was written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The identity of the author(s) was kept closely guarded as a secret for many decades. In these days of social media it’s hard to imagine that such a secret could be kept for long but of course things were different for most of the twentieth century. This book tells the biographies of the two women primarily responsible for Nancy Drew, along with a really fascinating history of how Nancy changed (and didn’t) over time as the world changed around her.

Stratemeyer Syndicate: Part One

The beginning of the book is the story of Edward Stratemeyer, a young adult writer who went on to create an empire called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He would create series ideas and outlines, pitch them to publishers, write the basic plots of each individual book in the series and then have ghostwriters write the books. He would edit them himself in order to keep the storylines and characters consistent. Then they would be published under the pseudonym of the series. He was responsible for a great number of series, the most enduring of which were Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson

Stratemeyer hired Mildred to be the voice behind the Nancy Drew series. She wrote the first few books under his guidance.

“Benson followed, enlarged upon, and altered Stratemeyer’s outlines to breathe life into Nancy Drew and to set her to solving the mysteries in the first three volumes of the Nancy Drew series, volumes that, like the Hardy Boys books, proved immediately successful.” – Elizabeth Vander Lei, Project Muse

However, he then passed away. He hadn’t prepared the business to be readily understandable by someone else, so it wasn’t clear at first what was to happen to his empire. Thanks to the loyalty of a secretary that knew most of the business’s inner workings, and the dedication of his two daughters, Edna and Harriet, the business continued. Mildred wrote a bit of the series without a lot of guidance as the two sisters learned the business.

“In 1929, Benson was 24, had lived in Iowa her whole life and was the first woman to receive a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. She was paid $125 for each book.” – Kate AurthurNew York Times

Nancy drew illustration

“Rudy Nappi Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #25, The Ghost of Blackwood Hall book cover, 1967” by cartoonpinup

Stratemeyer Syndicate: Part Two

Edna and Harriet both contributed some book ideas and plot outlines to Nancy Drew. Then Edna more or less dropped out of the business while Harriet took over. In the midst of all of this, there was naturally change taking place. The sisters had a hard time working with Mildred. At one point a male ghost writer took over and penned three of the Nancy Drew books. Then Mildred came back on board.

Down the line, there would be another falling out with Mildred. Much later, Mildred accurately expressed that the difference was really that there were two Nancy Drews. There was the one that she had nurtured into being and there was the one that Harriet took control over. Harriet came from money, hadn’t had to work although she’d chosen to when her father passed away, and therefore had a certain perspective on independent women that different from that of Mildred, a working class woman. Mildred’s Nancy was a little bolder in some ways, Harriet’s a little bit more proper, and as Harriet took over more and more control of the business, she wanted more and more control over Nancy. As such, she ultimately ended up writing many of the later books entirely herself.

mystery books

Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash

Keeping Nancy Drew’s Author a Secret

The original working model for Stratemeyer Syndicate had been that all authors signed contracts relinquishing all rights, agreeing not to tell anyone what books they had worked on, and agreeing to a one-time flat rate fee for each book. For the most part, Mildred stuck to her agreement. But over the years, things shifted in the industry. Nancy Drew books kept getting reprinted, updated, sold anew; there were movies, a TV show, and merchandise.

While Mildred didn’t intend to take over any of the financial aspect of the books, she did eventually start letting it slip that she was the early author on the books. She seems to have done this mostly in reaction to Harriet starting to tell people that she was, and always had been, Carolyn Keene. Interestingly, for awhile Harriet was celebrated as Nancy Drew’s author … but she passed away before Mildred did and Mildred came into her own as being celebrated as the true author of the girl detective.

Nancy Drew: Girl / Woman

The book tells the history of Nancy Drew as well as the biography of each of these women. It’s set within the history of nineteenth century’s many changes. Through the book we get to see how women’s roles, children’s literature, and Nancy Drew herself changed again and again through the Great Depression, both World Wars, various stages of feminism, and changes in cultural paradigms. Nancy Drew continued to sell well to new generations of readers through all of these changes and she, herself, didn’t change significantly for a very long time. And yet, created at the beginning of the century, she had enough gumption (and there were concessions to enough modern changes) that women of every decade seemed able to hold her up as both a nostalgic part of their past and a modern contemporary that fit in with their pictures of womanhood.

Neither of the two main writers – Mildred and Harriet – identified as feminists. They questioned the movement at its various stages and were vocally from another era. And yet, they were both working women who challenge the stereotypes of what a woman could do. Harriet took over and ran her father’s business despite the fact that for decades letters to her office were routinely addressed to Sir and men in the publishing industry didn’t always take her seriously. Spunky Mildred, among other things, followed a passion for airplane travel and archaeology that had her getting her pilot’s license as an older woman and taking solo adventures to remote areas. Either one of them would have done Nancy Drew proud.

Read an excerpt of the book at NPR.

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