Brief Biographical Timeline of Mildred Wirt Benson's life and career:
1905 - Mildred Augustine born in Ladora, IA.
1919 - Mildred's first published story, The Courtesy, published in St. Nicholas, wins her a silver badge.
1925 - Mildred receives a Bachelor's Degree in English at State University of Iowa.
1926 - Mildred meets Edward Stratemeyer, is soon contracted to work for the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
1927 - Mildred's first book is published, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario. Mildred graduates from State University of Iowa with a Masters in Journalism.
1930 - Mildred's first Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock, is published.
1939 - Mildred's favorite series, the Penny Parker Mystery Stories, debuts.
1944 - Mildred goes to work for The Toledo Times.
1953 - Mildred's last Nancy Drew book is published, The Clue of the Velvet Mask.
1959 - Mildred's last children's book is published, Quarry Ghost (1960 UK version=
Kristie at College).
1980 - Mildred testifies in court about being the original Carolyn Keene in a trial between the Nancy Drew publishers. Signed releases entered into evidence prove she ghostwrote 23 of the original Nancy Drew books 1-7, 11-25, and 30.
1993 - Mildred attends The Nancy Drew Conference in Iowa City, IA where she is honored.
1994 - Mildred is officially and legally acknowledged by Simon & Schuster and Grosset & Dunlap for her being the author of books 1-7, 11-25, and 30.
2002 - Mildred passes away at the age of 96, having just recently retired from The Toledo Blade, while still working in retirement on a monthly column. She was at work the day she died, doing what she loved best.
2013 - Mildred's Author's Copies of all her books and series are bequeathed by Mildred's daughter to the University of Iowa.
Biographical Article from the June/July 2001 issue of
The Whispered Watchword,
newsletter of the Society of Phantom Friends:
Mildred Wirt Benson’s Influence and Characterization of Nancy Drew by Jennifer Fisher
As the story in the first volume of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, The Secret of the Old Clock,
was coming to a close and Nancy Drew was given a reward for helping the downtrodden Horner girls, we find
Nancy wondering about her mysterious future, “Nancy Drew did not have the power of projecting herself into the
future, and yet as she looked down at the timepiece, she seemed to know that exciting days were soon to come.”
Written in 1929 and published in1930, The Secret of the Old Clock,
was the beginning of 71 years of continued popularity for the Nancy Drew series. Little did Nancy
realize how many mysteries, many far more baffling than the first, would come her way. Due to his
untimely death, Edward Stratemeyer never realized what his new series would become and evolve into.
Most importantly while Mildred A. Wirt Benson realized Nancy would be popular, little did she realize how
successful her Nancy would become.
I distinguish Millie’s Nancy from the Nancy of Harriet Adam’s molding and revising and from the more modern Nancy
we see today. Millie’s Nancy was a precursor and a strong continuing influence on the continuously popular Nancy of
later volumes. Millie’s association with Edward Stratemeyer of the Stratemeyer Syndicate began in the mid-1920's
when she was commissioned to write Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario,
published in 1927. She was asked to write Edward’s new series, The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories,
specifically to give a try at the first volume, Old Clock.
The outline for her first Ruth Fielding was two and a half pages long. Copies of the original outlines for the first three
Nancy Drew stories have now surfaced and provide more clues about the creation of this series. Compared to the first
Ruth Fielding outline she was given, Old Clock’s outline is about four pages in length.
Ilana Nash notes in her article for
the April 2001 issue of Dime Novel Round-Up entitled, New Evidence in the Authorship of Nancy Drew, that the
outline is roughly the equivalent of 10 book-sized pages of the final 210 page story. This works out to be about 4.7
percent of the completed book itself. From this outline, Millie took on the character of Nancy and the vapid social
climbing Tophams and created a memorable story and a beginning of the most popular girls’ series in publishing history.
It’s important to recognize those that helped bring Nancy Drew to life. Edward Stratemeyer created the character
of Nancy Drew and the plots of the first four books and he certainly deserves credit for that. We must give credit to
Grosset & Dunlap and the fact that they wholeheartedly approved of Millie’s take on Nancy, which Edward was
disappointed with. Had they not approved, I cannot fathom where the series would be today. And in the wake of
Edward’s death, had his daughters, Edna and Harriet not taken over the reigns and kept the business running as it had
been, it’s hard to speculate where the series would be today. It was under Harriet’s continued management of the
business that Nancy Drew continued to be written and published and this legacy continues today with Simon and
Schuster, Inc and Grosset & Dunlap. Most important, we must recognize the significant contributions Millie gave to
developing Nancy into such a popular and memorable character–a character of independence, strength, and endurance.
It was Millie who created the Nancy we all have come to know, emulate, and reminisce about.
Millie wrote in Books at Iowa, in the article, The Ghost of Ladora (1973), that there were hackneyed names and
situations that could not to be bypassed so she concentrated on Nancy herself. Millie wanted to make Nancy Drew
a departure from the stereotypical heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day. Stratemeyer expressed
bitter disappointment because Nancy was too flip and would not be well received, however Nancy was a success.
Millie remembered his disappointment quite vividly and discussed this in her testimony at the famed
1980 Grosset & Dunlap v. Gulf & Western trial. Edward thought she had departed from the pattern
of old series books that had been written and made the character too flip and vivacious–Nancy was not
the usual type of heroine. This was a part of Nancy’s success–a huge part–a departure from the stereotypical
heroine of the times. This success is due to the boldness of Millie when she created Nancy’s independent and
plucky personality and her idealism and the search for justice for the downtrodden. Nancy’s break from the
traditional came at the right time, Millie says, for girls were ready for something more, something they had aspired
for but had not yet achieved.
When meeting Millie for the first time this past March, I asked her if there was anything she would change about the
Nancy Drew stories if she could go back and do it all over again, and she said that Nancy was so successful, that she
not change anything but did note that the books had many plots and scenes poured in–too much excitement. A writer could
write an exciting story without that much plotting. In fact, she noted in her introduction to the Applewood Books reprint of
The Mystery at Lilac Inn, that if she were to recreate the character, she would make her the same carefree morally
well adjusted individual, able to cope with whatever came her way. “Hopefully, generations of readers will remember Nancy’s
philosophy and values long after her exciting adventures have been forgotten,” Millie stated in the close of that Applewood
In asking Millie what she thought made Nancy so popular from her perspective, she noted that Russell Tandy’s
superior illustrations were a factor. She discussed the publishers and the credit they are owed for keeping the books out
there on the market. She noted that the appeal of Nancy was that kids could identify with her–that Nancy is not one girl,
she is millions of girls. She has noted that the books came out at a time in which girls needed motivation. In The Ghost of
Ladora, she wrote that Nancy was popular primarily because Nancy personifies a dream image which exists in most
teenagers. And lastly, in her weekly column appearing in the December 23, 2000 issue of the Toledo Blade, she suggested
the group of women, now in their 70's and 80's who had passed down their love of reading Nancy and their books to their
children and grandchildren are largely responsible for the continuing popularity. In the book,
Rediscovering Nancy Drew, edited by Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, Geoffrey S. Lapin, notes in
his chapter titled Searching for Carolyn Keene, that anyone can come up with such a plot as that in Old Clock,
important thing is what is done with the outline. She wrote the books that sustained Nancy Drew all these years while
series have not lasted and the biggest reason is her writing style and characterizations in Lapin’s view. All of these factors
and likely many more have added to the success over the years of the series.
Millie’s favorite Nancy Drew story is The Hidden Staircase and she liked
The Bungalow Mystery as well. Of all the books she wrote, the series she has enjoyed the most is her
Penny Parker series of seventeen books published by Cupples & Leon. It was with these stories that she was able
to create the entire series without much editorial direction–titles, characters, plots, the whole story, unlike the
direction she received under the watchful eye of the Stratemeyer Syndicate over her Nancy Drew writings.
Millie is not as well known for her other writings. She wrote 23 of the original Nancy Drews, with
The Clue of the Velvet Mask,
volume 30 being the last one. This is a minor career accomplishment when compared with the 113 other books she has
written(total of 136), around 100 short stories, and thousands of newspaper articles. She is most remembered, however
for her Nancy Drew stories.
This was nearly not the case though, due to the long kept secret of who the real Carolyn Keene was,
closely guarded in the mainstream by the secretive Stratemeyer Syndicate, part of a successful ghostwriter policy.
It was through the work of fans like Geoffrey S. Lapin and David Farah among many others to follow, that
helped to correct some of the incorrect media accounts and contentions of Harriet Adams of the true authorship
of the books. Millie’s Nancy might indeed think something like this jest on the opener to Old Clock, "It would be
a shame if all the credit went to Harriet Adams! She'd fly higher than ever!" It was with the same zeal and quest to
right a wrong that compelled Nancy to thwart the Tophams, that fans of Millie’s strove to correct the inaccurate
publicity that had led to an inaccurate history of the series and its true authorship.
Today Millie is 95 years old and still writing a weekly column for the Toledo Blade in
Toledo, Ohio. She has lived quite a full life and maintained a long career of writing which she
began at a very early age and always desired to do. Among hobbies of golfing, swimming, flying,
and archaeology, she has led quite a busy life full of accomplishments. In The Ghost of Ladora,
she comes to the conclusion that her writing is based upon unfulfilled desire for adventure. I think
throughout her adventurous life, her widespread writings, and her love of flying, she has fulfilled many
of her cravings for adventure. In 1993, she was finally publicly acknowledged as the author of the early
Nancy Drew stories. She is still the same vivacious, charming, and forthright woman today that she was
many years ago, when she set out to create something new, hammering away at her old battered typewriter,
giving life and a passionate voice to Nancy Drew.