If you had asked me, when I was twelve years old, who I wanted to be when I grew up, I wouldn't have hesitated an instant.
"I want to be Carolyn Keene!" I would have said. "I want to write Nancy Drew mysteries!"
So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I picked up the phone one day in the mid-1980s and heard the question, like an echo of a nearly-forgotten dream, "Would you like to be Carolyn Keene?"
Would I like to be Carolyn Keene? Would I like to win the lottery, hang the moon, be queen for a day or a lifetime? Or as Nancy would say, "Now, that's the silliest question I've ever heard!" Of course I would love to be Carolyn Keene! I felt as if the universe had suddenly opened up and smiled straight down at me. I was about to join the magical, mystical, mysterious team of writers who created the most famous Girl Detective of all time. I was going to be Carolyn Keene!
The caller was an editor with Daniel Weiss Associates, the packaging company that was putting together the Nancy Drew Case Files for Simon & Schuster, the publishing company that had recently acquired the rights to Nancy Drew. As a result of that phone call, I went on to write five Nancys and a pair of Hardy Boys, working alone or with my husband, Bill Albert. (For titles, go here.) And as a result of that apprenticeship, I went on to be a writer of many other mysteries, a profession and a vocation that I am still happily pursuing twenty years later.
So it was as Carolyn Keene that I happily opened Melanie Rehak's biography of Nancy, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and Mildred Wirt Benson—and I wasn't disappointed. Rehak's book begins with the first chapter of Nancy's adventures, with the story of Edward Stratemeyer, boy literary wizard and his remarkable children's book syndicate, which got underway with the Rover Boys (1895), carried on with the Bobbsey Twins (1904), and produced the Hardy Boys (1927) and Nancy Drew (1930). Stratemeyer produced the concept, the plot outline, and the publishing contract (much of his work was published by Grosset & Dunlap), and hired out the writing to nameless authors who did the actual work for a flat rate of around $125, under a series pseudonym: Franklin W. Dixon for the Hardy Boys, Carolyn Keene for the Nancy Drew series.
Stratemeyer died just twelve days after Nancy's launch, and his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, took over the Syndicate. Harriet, who graduated from Wellesley and married a stockbroker, had been raised to enjoy life as a well-to-do socialite. She didn't find it easy to take over Stratemeyer's desk, for (believing that women's place was in the home) her father had kept all of his business dealings separate from the home he made for his now-ailing wife and two daughters. What's more, Harriet had young children at home, and had to juggle her work with her family and social obligations. She had a lot to learn, but learn she did, and under her direction, the Syndicate not only stayed afloat but prospered, even through the dark days of the Depression.
But it wasn't just Harriet that kept the Syndicate from going under; a young writer named Mildred Augustine Wirt (later Benson) played a major role in its survival and success. Mildred was a small-town Iowa girl with one compelling passion: "I . . . wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk. I had no other thought except that I would write." Her motto was "Thou shalt not quit." She didn't, either. Aiming for a career as a writer in a time when the words women, career, and writer were rarely spoken in the same sentence, she graduated from the University of Iowa's School of Journalism at the age of 20, got her master's two years later, and the next year, 1926, landed a job with Stratemeyer's Syndicate.
It is to Mildred Wirt that Nancy owes her original feistiness, pluck, and never-say-die determination, for Mildred wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancys: Books 1-7, 11-25, and 30. She would have written more, but when Harriet reduced the writers' pay to $85 a book, Mildred quit, and Walter Karig filled in the gap. Mildred returned for a second stint, then left for good in 1952. After that, Harriet assumed full responsibility for the series. She rewrote many of the earlier books and herself wrote most of the later ones, making Nancy into a rather different character, more tentative, more polite, a little less sure of herself. Harriet later testified: "I felt that she [Nancy, as Mildred had written her] was too bossy, too positive. . . she spoke to people too sharply" (Girl Sleuth, p. 296).
Mildred Wirt also recognized the conflict: "There was a beginning conflict in what is Nancy . . . Mrs. [Harriet Stratemeyer] Adams was an entirely different person; she was more cultured and she was more refined. 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 and trying to compete and have fun" (Girl Sleuth, p. 297).
None of this came out until much later, however (the spring of 1980, a scant five years before my incarnation as Carolyn Keene), when Harriet Adams tried to accept a lucrative offer from Simon & Schuster to publish all future books in the Stratemeyer list. Grosset & Dunlap sued, and the ensuing trial made clear to the public what the Syndicate had tried for years to conceal: that Harriet Stratemeyer had not written all the Nancys (as she attempted to claim); that Mildred Wirt (who like the rest of the writers in the Stratemeyer stable had signed a pledge not to reveal her authorship) had had the most enduring influence over the shaping of the character; and that if anybody was going to wear the title of the "real" Carolyn Keene, it ought to be Mildred.
Melanie Rehak's book is a fascinating study of the cooperation and conflict between the two women who shaped the most famous Girl Detective in the world—and who, in turn, shaped many of us. Speaking for myself, as a young reader I much preferred Mildred's Nancy to Harriet's, for I was growing up in a rough and tumble world where I (no socialite) knew I would have to make a living and compete: Nancy—self-assertive, self-confident, self-reliant Nancy—showed me how to do that. And speaking for myself as a writer, both as Carolyn Keene and as the author of my own three mystery series, I have to say that it would have been a lot harder to learn what I had to learn about making mysteries if it hadn't been for Nancy the indomitable, for never-say-die Mildred, and for Harriet, who saved the Syndicate and kept it going through the dark times.
Thank you, Nancy, Mildred, and Harriet, for making it all happen. And thank you, Melanie Rehak, for telling us their story.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of mysteries in the China Bayles series and the Beatrix Potter Cottage Tales, and a Victorian/Edwardian series written (with her husband Bill) as Robin Paige. After writing her first Nancy, she went on to write (alone or with Bill), sixty-plus books for young readers. You'll find a full list on the Alberts' website.
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