Ode to Nancy Drew and Millie Benson…90 years later

We are destined to be forgotten within three generations, so the experts say. Our oral histories, our stories will no longer be told and will be lost over time, according to Aaron Holt of the National Archives and Records Administration.

So, all the more fascinating it is that a young, independent, and brave fictional female character remains as relevant 90 years after she dashed off in her little roadster to solve the first of many mysteries.

Yep, Nancy Drew is alive and well all these years later, and still ranks as one of the top fictional female sleuths in surveys.

But who wrote the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories?

The answer is much like one of the mysteries, filled with plot twists and turns.

Most young readers grew up believing that Carolyn Keene wrote the mysteries.

There was no Carolyn Keene.

Carolyn Keene was a pseudonym that was created by Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer created the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series, and hired ghostwriters to flesh out the characters and the outlines he provided.

There is only one woman who could rightfully proclaim that she was the original ghostwriter.

Her name was Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, known simply as Millie Benson later in life.

Toledo Times photo of Mildred Wirt, at her desk surrounded by her works on August 10, 1949. (Nancy Drew). BLADE ARCHIVE FILE PHOTO/

Millie began writing for Edward Stratemeyer in 1926, right on the heels of becoming the first person to receive a Master of Arts degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism. Stratemeyer appreciated her work on Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario, which he had hired Millie to write. In October of 1929, Stratemeyer sent Millie the outline for a new series, featuring a young female sleuth. The first book in the series was titled The Secret of the Old Clock.

Stratemeyer’s response to Millie’s work was typical of how an editor would respond to a new writer, offering both what he liked, and what he didn’t care for. He wrote, “I thought the first half of the story was a bit slow and that the characters were not sufficiently introduced.” He also offered, “but as soon as Nancy gets to New Moon Lake the story picks up very well indeed and the last eight chapters are particularly strong.”

The biggest issue though, was the vision that Stratemeyer had of the main character. “He didn’t think that I created the character of Nancy in the way that he anticipated,” Millie said.

The publisher however was more than enthused with Millie’s presentation of the character, the strong, smart, independent, and irreverent Nancy Drew. And so it was that Millie’s version of Nancy Drew remained, and continues to inspire young readers still, 90 years later.

Millie went on to write 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew Mystery Stories. Millie wrote over one hundred novels for children, most under short deadlines. And, Millie wrote many of them while nursing her first husband, Asa Wirt, who suffered a series of strokes, and caring for their young daughter, Peggy.

Millie’s story reads much like a Nancy Drew Mystery Story, fraught with challenges, conflict, loss, and shady characters trying to undermine her efforts. Millie was as plucky as her character, independent to a fault, and strong in her convictions.

Here is hoping that Millie’s light will shine just as long as Nancy Drew’s does.

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