Review: Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her - Melanie Rehak

It's been very hard to write about this book and not make it sound sound like it's The Story of Mildred Wirt Benson. That's my bias right there - after reading so much about her (and then reading more online) I'm now a huge Mildred fan, and in the rest of this I'll have to try and restrain myself from just quoting Mildred's words and background info.

Now that I've confessed that up front, let me reassure you, this is not a book about just one person. This is a book filled with multiple biographies and chunks of US history - all of which are tied together by the Nancy Drew books.

The most biographical information is shared about:

Edward Stratemeyer: publisher who organized a "syndicate of writers." Stratemeyer would come up with the character names and book concepts, and he'd write plot outlines which would be assigned to various authors. Authors were paid for each book they completed and signed a form which gave all the rights to Stratemeyer Syndicate. All the books were published under pseudonyms and the company collected the royalties and answered the fan mail. (To be clear, no further money went to the writers, and they were told never to seek any public recognition for their work.)

Mildred Wirt Benson - the book covers her education and early life, and how she gradually learned to make a living from her writing. Because she needed money to support her family Mildred wrote throughout her pregnancy, and then while her husband was ill and then dying. By authoring books as well as working at the Toledo Blade (an Ohio newspaper) she was able to support her child after her husband's death. Mildred continued writing for the Blade into her 90s, dying soon after she'd handed in (what she didn't realize was) her last column.

Harriet and Edna Stratemeyer: Stratemeyer's daughters. The book covers their education and lives up to their father's sudden death in 1930s, when they were forced to take over management of the Stratemeyer Syndicate when a buyer couldn't be found for the company. Eventually Harriet became the sole manager of the company, and she took over all the plot outlines and finally the writing (via dictation) of the Drew books.

Nancy Drew - Edward Stratemeyer sketched out all the outlines for her early books, and Mildred wrote 23 of the first 30 (numbers  1-7, 11-25, 30 - to be exact). After 1953 Harriet, who had been writing the plot outlines as well as editing the Drew books for years, started both writing the outlines and the books. In later years Harriet became more and more fiercely protective of the character's image, possibly because publishers continually pushed to modernize her.

Issues the book touches on:

- women and college education (it was just beginning to be more "acceptable" for women to seek out a degree when Mildred and Harriet got theirs)
- women in the workforce before and after WWII
-women trying to balance demands of work with family life (this is not a new thing)
- the rise in popularity of children's/young people's literature
- parents/society leaders fear of children's literature teaching them bad lessons (1920s worry that books were having too much influence on kids reading them- does this sound familiar?)
- the publishing industry and payment of authors, use of pseudonyms
- changes in the publishing industry from 1930s to present day
- post war baby boom that created a huge audience of young readers
- change of Nancy through the years mirroring changes in women's lives
- Nancy Drew as a feminist icon/symbol
- power of fandom in re-publication of early, unrevised Nancy Drew books
- power of fandom in uncovering/popularizing Mildred's story

There's more than that - these are the ones I quickly thought of.

All of that is a lot to pack into one book, and while I wouldn't say that the book covers any one exhaustively, it does a wonderful job with all that it takes on. It's also very readable. I particularly had a good time reading about Mildred and Harriet's relationships with reading and school - but then I always do enjoy a good Bookish Girl Who Loves Getting An Education story.

What I really liked most was that in the last few chapters the book could have followed a simplistic narrative pitting Mildred against Harriet for "the real author of Nancy Drew." But the book actually calls attention to this and then doesn't follow that route. Up to that point it's had a sympathetic take on both Mildred and Harriet's lives. But instead of forcing the story into a Mildred versus Harriet/Stratemeyer Syndicate fight, the author focuses on what each of the women said about the authorship and their feelings towards the Nancy Drew series/character. It particularly worked well that Mildred had a very practical perspective on the whole thing - authorship of just those books had never been the focus of her life, and it never was, despite all the attention paid to it in her last years. She had moved on to create other children's books under her own name, as well as working as a journalist for decades. Harriet had a more personal, proprietary feeling about the books - but then she'd also been running the Syndicate ever since she had to suddenly step into her father's place when he died unexpectedly.

The question "was Mildred treated fairly" was one I kept asking - it's definitely not quickly answered. Harriet walked into a company in 1930 that had been organized 24 years ago, at a time when authors often signed away their rights to certain work. (See also the history of the artists and writers in the early comic book industry, for another example.) And Harriet was not only new to business, she made multiple bad decisions - key among them never re-negotiating with her own publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, who refused to raise her royalty rate. In the 1960s she was still getting the same royalties that her father had made the contract for 40 yrs earlier. The Syndicate only got 4% royalty on the Drew books but no increase according to number of copies sold, which meant G&D was actually making all the money. Another blunder was that Harriet also sold the film rights to Warner Brothers - forever - instead of setting a time limit in the contract, as was usual, so the rights never reverted back to her.

In the end, despite the hard work she'd put into the Syndicate, I felt  Harriet was definitely not someone I want to absolve. I don't like how she dealt with Mildred at the end of her work for the Syndicate. In 1953 when Mildred wrote her last Nancy Drew book for the Syndicate she had no idea it was the last. Harriet simply never gave her any further assignments and ended all communication. That was the end of Mildred's authorship, and the point at which Harriet began to take credit for the books. Harriet was very aware that she wasn't being truthful when she claimed that she'd always been Carole Keene, and  that she'd created all the books herself. When G&D took the Syndicate to court (in 1980) for switching to publishers Simon and Schuster, Mildred was brought in to testify about her authorship. Harriet's first words to her after not having seen or spoken to her for years? "I thought you were dead!" So while I don't see Harriet as a villain, I certainly don't like her. Author Melanie Rehak was more than fair in the way she covered Harriet's life story and decision-making - she presents the facts and Harriet's actions, and allows the reader to make a judgement. (I could argue that some of that judgement is pretty clear due to sentence framing and word choices - but that doesn't change Harriet's own words/actions.)


As far as the Nancy Drew books and character - I think the reason why they're so beloved has a lot more to do with what other books of the time were doing in comparison to Nancy Drew. Nancy behaved just as the boys did in the boy's adventure series. She was allowed to DO something without having to wait for parents or a boy to help her.  Most of her appeal is that she made decisions and took action  - and she had confidence in her own decisions. Meanwhile Nancy's friends, her boyfriend, and her father (her only parent) all felt similar confidence in her judgement and abilities. It's not surprising many girls thought it'd be fun and exciting to be like Nancy, and to see her as a model for leadership. (Owning and driving her own car certainly didn't hurt either.)

If you're thinking you'll go back and read some of the old Nancy Drew books you remember - be sure you check what version you pick up. The publishers did serious revisions of the older books to make them more current and in doing so rewrite huge chunks of the books - not for the better, according to many fans. If your version has 25 chapters it's probably an original - if it has a publication date later than 1959 and only 20 chapters then it's a revised version.


This information is found on more than one fan site, one that sums it up:


Nancy Drew Sleuth: Millie Media:

"If any of the volumes you have of 1-7, 11-25, or 30 have 25 chapters and around 200 or so pages, you have an original text Nancy Drew book--the text version that Millie wrote. If it only has 20 chapters, and a date past 1959 on the copyright page, it is the revision. The revisions pared down the descriptive text, sometimes deleted scenes or added new scenes, and as Millie has said, "took the spice out of them." A lot of Millie's text is still in them however, except for volumes, 2, 4, 5, 11, 12, 14, 17, and 18. When these were revised, they became all new stories or had mostly new plots and characters. 2 and 4 retain more similarities than the others however but still have changed plots and character direction."

Scholarly Notations Quibble

Many times in the text there will be a reference that you're sure must have a citation tied to it. For example:

"...writes one historian of the period"

"A well-known child psychologist"

"According to one study..."

However finding the citation itself is difficult due to the format chosen: the first three to five words of the sentence are quoted, and then the text is cited, like so:

"A well-known child psychologist": G. Stanley Hall, "What Children Do Read and What They Ought to Read,” cited in Gwen Athene Tarbox, The Clubwomen’s Daughters: Collectivist Impulses in Progressive Era Girls’ Fiction, 1890– 1940 (New York: Garland , 2000), p. 46 (hereafter cited as Tarbox).

And then the notes are separated by chapter. It's not the author's fault that this method is harder to look up than others on an ereader, however it does seem odd to use "one historian" or "well known child psychologist" and not name the person, especially one that's supposedly well known.


Section in which I go overboard with quotes:
(And why I always love using a page break! Anyway this gives you an idea both of writing style and content.)


11% in - about Mildred's father, Dr. JL Augustine:

"He was a great lover of Shakespeare, a fact that had not always been appreciated by his wife. Instead of presenting her with a diamond ring when asking for her hand in marriage in the late 1890s, the exuberant young suitor had offerd a complete leather-bound set of the bard's works. She never let him forget it."

17% in - at Harriet's college, Wellsley's first dance where men are allowed:

"...In preparation for the big occasion, the faculty passed a rule that all dancers must maintain a three-inch distance from one another, so as to be "preventative of the 'turkey trot,' the 'bunny hug' and other recent substitutes for the staid old waltz and two step... Some of the girls are considering the availbility of crinoline gowns as a precautionary measure."

20% in - women and the vote

"...Having gained the vote at last in 1920 - what was the point of fighting for democracy elsewhere when they did not have it at home, that had demanded to know - they turned their backs on the previous generation's activism and began to sunbathe, wear makeup, and dress in short skirts. As Mildred herself put it, "I always voted and I just accepted that it is a woman's right, but I never became involved in suffrage at all. I just took it as it came... I just assumed that we would get it, which we did." All of this presumptuousness was distressing to the leaders of the recently victorious suffrage movement. Watching America's young women take their freedom and run with it was too much for the older generation.  ...Heralding a swing of the pendulum, by 1924, as one historian notes, "popular magazines were running articles (written by men) with such titles as 'Is Woman Suffrage A Failure?' and 'Women's Ineffective Use of the Vote.'"

23% in  - series books that Edward Stratemeyer worked with:

"...A spin-off (unsurprisingly) from a popular boys’ series called the Motor Boys , the Motor Girls books detailed the touring adventures of Cora Kimball and her chums the Robinson twins, Bess (plump, as Nancy Drew’s chum Bess would be, too) and Belle. In the opening chapter of the first title, Cora receives a car of her own as a gift from her mother, a wealthy widow. Further confirmation of Cora’s independent spirit is only a few pages away. Offered a driving lesson by one of her brother’s friends, she immediately retorts, "This is my machine, and I intend to run it.” Cars are a part of the matriarchal lineage in the Kimball family, a heritage that reflected the trends in reality."

24% in - worry about the lessons series books were teaching children, led to campaigns to keep certain books out of libraries, etc. (this should sound familiar!)

"...A decade or so later, a book called The Guide to Literature for Children opined that "much of the contempt for social conventions for which the rising generation is blamed is due to the reading of this poisonous sort of fiction." 1914, when Franklin K. Mathiews, chief scout librarian of the Boy Scouts of America...published a screen entitled "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains." In the language of the battlefield the widely circulated piece deemed series books nothing short of sinister, permanently life-altering forces. "The harm done [in reading them] is simply incalculable," Mathiews moralized. "I wish I could label each one of these books: 'Explosives! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boys' Brains Out.'"

47% - discussing the lead up to America's entry in WWII (later goes on to how war effect the Drew books):

"...Though Britain was America’s closest ally , the country stood by and did nothing during the London Blitz, which ran from September 1940 through May 1941, destroying entire residential neighborhoods and killing thousands . In just one week in mid-October, more than 1,300 Londoners perished. By August of 1941 Germany had taken over most of Europe and the British were fighting for their lives every day. Nevertheless, when Roosevelt wanted to extend the draft term, his proposal passed in the House of Representatives by only one vote."

[Adding this entirely because my high school history glossed over this, only focusing on "we won the war." So I'm always pleased when a US author makes this point clear.]

55% - quotes from a journalist's interview (couldn't find cite in Notes, and I was really curious to know if journalist or book's author used the word "boomed" - because Svenson wasn't shouting, or transformed into a cannon.)

..."'In the old days,' said Mrs. Adams [Harriet], 'we used to treat scientific data rather simply. Now a battery of specialists goes over everything to eradicate the slightest error.'" Her right-hand man, sitting in on the interview, confirmed the approach. "'Scientifically, the kids are hep,' Mr. Svenson boomed."

57% in, racism in the older books tolerated by fewer 1960s parents:

"...As far back as 1948, concerned mothers and fathers had been writing in to Grosset & Dunlap about the prejudice and racism they saw scattered throughout the Syndicate’s books, in the form of uneducated dialect for all the foreign or non-Caucasian characters and villains who were invariably from these same two groups. Harriet had been infuriated by the charges at the time, writing to her latest editor at Grosset that she and her employees had gone over the Hardy Boys book in question, The Hidden Harbor Mystery, "very thoroughly, to see what kind of a case your ‘conscientious objector’ might have on the subject of race prejudice. As to the ‘Jewish’ angle, I am sure the woman has no case at all. The word ‘Jew’ is not mentioned on Page 156 nor anywhere else in the book. A ‘second-hand man’ who says ‘Vell’ instead of ‘Well’ could be a German, a Scandinavian, or a native of any of various other countries.” Oblivious as she was to new sensitivities following the Holocaust, Harriet was even more naive when it came to racial prejudice closer to home. "On the subject of Negroes, the woman has more of a case,” she admitted, "but the whole story idea revolves around ‘Can’t a Negro be an evil-doer in the story?’” Of course, The Hidden Harbor Mystery did much more than just use a black man as its villain. In an act of misguided self-defense, Harriet herself listed the instances that "might have a bearing on race prejudice, etc .,” in a memo she mailed off with her letter. They included a "mention of a burly, thick-set Negro who puts his feet up on seat of a train car”; "mention of a young negro, badly dressed”; "more about the same Negro , Luke Jones. He is described in unfavorable terms”; "More about the nefarious colored man” and "scheming by colored folks.” Still, she insisted, none of these things added up to "give any child reader the idea all colored folks are bad.”

This was clearly a matter of opinion, and it was not the first time that Harriet’s genteel manners failed to cover the racism so typical of her generation and class...

[No racism was mentioned as being edited out of the Nancy Drew series. But then I've not read the whole series, so I can't say what was or wasn't there. I do know I'm always sort of shocked when modern reviewers of older lit don't mention the racism.]


61% - Mildred's travels and flying (she got her pilot's license when she was 59)

"When flying was not adventurous enough for her, Mildred went back to Mexico for what she described as "a three day dugout canoe trip down the crocodile-infested Usumacinta River in Mexico's most remote section of Chiapas." Even Nancy Drew could not have topped her adventures there, which included whirlpools in the river that were as large as houses, an unplanned plane crash in a swamp, a treacherous climb up a steep, mossy cliff, and having her wristwatch cut off by theieves in the middle of the night as she slept, unsuspecting, in a hammock. At sixty-two years old, Mildred was exhilarated by the whole experience, writing it up in a piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Sunday magazine called "A Woman Dares the Jungle."

65% - Nancy Drew tv series, aired in the late 1970s

"...The producers also ran into the same problem that had plagued the 1930s Nancy movies: No one wanted to accept another person's idea of what Nancy looked like or how she behaved. The show had made her a brunette, a huge mistake that was only one of many. "How could they take an untalented little snip who looks frighteningly like Patty Hearst and cast her as the 'red-haired' dectective of my youth?" snarled one embittered critic. She was equally harsh on George: "The television series only gives us George, but has provided her with Bess' timid personality."


68% - Mildred in court for G&D vs Syndicate lawsuit, describing character of Nancy Drew:

"Mrs. Adams’s style of writing Nancy is not the style I had, and I imagine that things I wrote in there did not hit her as Nancy. I mean , the Nancy that I created is a different Nancy from what Mrs. Adams has carried on,” she said. "There was a beginning conflict in what is Nancy. My Nancy would not be Mrs. Adams’s Nancy. Mrs. 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. We just had two different kinds of Nancys."

..."No, I’m not angry at them [the Syndicate],” she told the judge, falling back on the tenets of journalism that had served her so well. "I don’t resent anything. I think if there are misstatements of fact, they should be corrected. Because when a statement is made wrong and is repeated over and over and over again, it becomes firmly entrenched in the mind of the reading public as truth."

70%, Mildred on Nancy:

"She never lost an athletic contest and was far smarter than adults with whom she associated. Leisure time was spent living dangerously. She avoided all household tasks, and indeed, might rate as a pioneer of Women’s Lib. In a way, she started a movement.” But, perhaps because the word wasn’t coined until decades after she wrote the Nancy Drew series, Benson said she doesn’t consider herself a feminist. "But I do believe in equality,” she says emphatically . "Which, by the way, women still do not have!”

71% - press conference, Mildred now getting recognition as author of Nancy Drew

"At a press conference with Mildred, the star of the show, the venerated author refused to take the bait on a question about Harriet - "I think she took some of the spice out of them. But I don’t think... never mind, that’s enough" - and then denied that Nancy Drew had influenced her life in the way she had influenced so many other girls’. "No, I was the same. You can’t change me—that’s what they say at the office. They try. They’ve tried for a whole generation to change me and I am impossible. There’s only two things I believe in— well, a few more things than that—but I believe in absolute honesty and honesty in journalism...and I believe in integrity."

[I didn't abbreviate this quote with the ... and I'd be interested to know what the full quote was, especially the bit after the word journalism.]


p130- An interview Mildred gave while stranded in Chicago's O'Hare Airport:

"I'm so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit," at the New York Times reporter who was traveling with her. True to form, she then tried to get the facts on the record correctly yet again, telling her captive audience...that she had never been bothered by giving up her rights to the stories. "The only thing that did [bother her], she said, 'was a period when doubt was expressed that I'd written them.'" Then, in spite of her irritation...she offered some helpful advice about writing a good story: "To the woman who has written more than 120 tales, today’s plot was obvious," the reporter recounted. "'I'd tie this into being stranded here,' she said, ‘if you want some advice from an old hack.'"


Past Blog Posts of Mine on This Book

File This Under: Weird Moment - I Bet Others Will Recognize This

If You've Read/Liked Nancy Drew I May Have Some Ebooks For You


Nancy Drew in the 80s: Because I Can't Resist Quoting



Toledo Blade Articles


Last column reflects Benson's lifelong love of books

By Mildred Benson, Blade Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, 5/29/2002


"I consider it an honor to have been born near the turn of the 20th century, at about the time when public libraries were first coming into popular use.

I lived then in Ladora, Iowa, a small town of only a few hundred persons. It never was large enough to support a public library.

People read a great deal but families had their own libraries and traded with each other. I read constantly and quickly exhausted the supply of children's books available.

Public libraries were preceded in many communities by subscription libraries. Most of these charged a $1 fee per year and a contribution of one book. This entitled the borrower to only one volume at a time and was most limited in scope.


It was not until I entered college that I actually obtained enough books to satisfy me. ...


Millie's gone, but she didn't go meekly

by Roberta de Boer
Published: Thursday, 5/30/2002


"...During one of the journo group's gatherings, everyone passed around the microphone so they could identify themselves and their newspaper and say something about their work. As someone who was there tells it, here's what Millie said when her turn came:

"I'm Millie Benson, and I write junk for The Blade. But I get my pension and my salary, so I'm the highest-paid junk writer around.''

Aghast, a fellow Blade-ite urged her to disclose her other accomplishments.

"Oh, yes,'' Millie was reported to have said breezily, "and I wrote some books too.''

Warm and fuzzy? A cookie-serving, hug-dispensing adorable granny type?

Not Millie, who I'm certain would prefer to be remembered not as a sweet old lady but as the unstoppable trailblazer she was."

A tribute to Millie Benson, who gave Nancy Drew life
By Thomas Walton
Published: Monday, 12/30/2013


More Links


Mildred Wirt Benson Ebooks at Gutenberg

(These are some of the children's books she published under her own name.)


Mildred Wirt Benson fan site

(lots of good info here on the Drew books and her other work, do check out the Sources and Links page where I got a good portion of what I've linked here)


Ohioana Authors page Mildred Wirt Benson

The Ghost of Ladora
Mildred Wirt Benson
From Books at Iowa 19 (November, 1973), (The Univ. of Iowa Libraries Special Collections)

The Ghost of Nancy Drew
Geoffrey S. Lapin
From Books at Iowa 50 (April 1989) (The Univ. of Iowa Libraries Special Collections)


For those who've read all the way to the bottom - hey there! Yes, I do go a bit crazy with the links. But some of these I'll want to find again - especially those articles at the Univ. of Iowa, which I haven't finished reading, not to mention the other library collections.