All About Millie:
The biographical information below are brief excerpts taken from my article on Benson from the December 2006 issue of Firsts Magazine. Click here to order a copy. If you are writing an article about Benson, you should check out my "just the facts" section which highlights often published misinformation about Benson and the correct information.
For publisher inquiries, media and interview requests or any other questions you have, contact Jennifer Fisher, click here. (email@example.com) Fisher is currently working on a biography of Benson.
She was “nobody’s sweet grandma,” a woman with the “dismissive air of Robert DeNiro”—as described by newspaper coworkers. She was thoroughly feisty and independent yet charming when she wanted to be. She was Mildred A. Wirt Benson—journalist, writer, adventurer and most widely known as the original Carolyn Keene, nom de plume for the popular Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.
Born on July 10, 1905 in the rural Iowa town of Ladora to Doctor J.L. Augustine and Lillian Matteson Augustine, Mildred Augustine was destined to become famous— the impact of which no one in the small town of Ladora could have fathomed. Days in rural Iowa were spent searching for excitement in the country and along rides with her father as he made rounds to his patients. It was no surprise she developed a tomboyish side—detesting dolls while pursuing athletic interests like winter ice skating and basketball. She could not see why girls couldn’t do the same things boys did. Reflecting on herself in an interview, she noted “I didn’t follow the pattern that normally girls followed. I was just myself always. And what I wanted to be or do or think, I did, and nobody opposed me on it.”
The mystery behind the ghostly pen name of Carolyn Keene and the legacy that Mildred Wirt Benson left upon the character of Nancy Drew began shortly after Mildred graduated from the University of Iowa. Having hammered out many short stories over the last couple of years to help with her college tuition, she had a nice portfolio of her work published in magazines like St. Nicholas and Lutheran Young Folks. The time was ripe for change as she chanced upon the April 10, 1926 issue of Editor in which the Stratemeyer Syndicate had placed an ad for writers. The ad noted that the Syndicate “can use the services of several additional writers in the preparation of the Syndicate’s books for boys, books for girls, and rapid-fire detective stories. These stories are all written for the Syndicate on its own titles and outlines and we buy all rights in this material for cash upon acceptance…We are particularly anxious to get hold of the younger writers, with fresh ideas in the treatment of stories for boys and girls.”
A young girl like Mildred with a fresh yet wholesome middle Western perspective was just what the Syndicate was looking for. Edward Stratemeyer was the genius behind the rather secretive Stratemeyer Syndicate. His was a “story-book” house, brimming with ideas and not enough time to bring them to life himself. An author of many stories and books, he formed the Syndicate in 1905 and set up a successful ghostwriter policy whereby he hired ghostwriters to complete full length works based upon his plots and outlines. Ghostwriters would sign away their right to the story and the pen name to the Syndicate which then farmed them out to publishers for publication.
Stratemeyer sent Mildred a two and a half page outline for the latest book in the Ruth Fielding series, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario. Never did she dream that she would have the chance to breathe new life into a series she read as a child. Writing a full length book did not come easily to her at first.
In The Ghost of Ladora, she wrote that Ruth’s character “fought me on every page, as I could gain no kinship with the main character.” Eventually as she labored on the story from her parent’s home in Ladora, the story came to flow more freely for her and under Stratemeyer’s tutelage, she turned out a good effort for a first book. So good in fact, that after this one book, Stratemeyer was already making exciting plans for Mildred.
(Shown above are images of Mildred's author's copies of the first Ruth Fielding book she wrote which now resides in good hands at the University of Iowa in the Iowa Women's Archive where Mildred's archive is.)
Stratemeyer had been inkling to start a new girls’ series and wrote to one of his publishers, Barse and Hopkins in June 1927 about a new series and his choice for a writer. Writing of Mildred, he noted, “She writes particularly well of college girls and their doings, both in college and out, and I feel that she could make a real success of this new line.” On September 20, 1929, more resolute about getting his new series off and running, he sent Grosset & Dunlap a series proposal for the Stella Strong Stories noting “they might also be called Diana Drew Stories, Diana Dare Stories, Nancy Nelson Stories, Nan Drew Stories or Helen Hale Stories.” He proposed 5 stories: Stella Strong at Mystery Towers, The Mystery at Shadow Ranch, The Disappearance of Nellie Ray, The Missing Box of Diamonds, and The Secret of the Old Clock. Grosset & Dunlap picked up the series, and fortuitously chose Nan Drew from the list—lengthening the name to Nancy Drew.
Writing to Mildred on October 3, 1929, Stratemeyer requested she write the new series in the style of Ruth Fielding with a more girlish tone. He advised that she develop quick action and strong holding points at the end of each chapter. Armed with Stratemeyer’s three and a half page outline, Mildred set out to forge Nancy Drew’s destiny in the land of series book heroines—and fatedly her own. Years later in a television interview, she noted that she did not analyze it, “I just sat down at my typewriter and put a piece of paper in there and let it roll.”
Fittingly on the day that the breeder set debuted—April 28, 1930—Stratemeyer sent the outline for the fourth volume to Mildred. It was to be the last volume that he would plot and outline for he died of pneumonia nearly two weeks later on May 10, 1930. The future of Nancy Drew was at stake and this could have been her demise were it not for the quick thinking of Harriet Otis Smith, Stratemeyer’s longtime assistant. She quickly got the ball rolling while helping out Stratemeyer’s two daughters Edna C. Stratemeyer and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams learn more about their father’s business. At the same time, the Syndicate was put up for sale but with the Depression, hope for a suitable buyer was all but dashed.
(Mildred wrote books 1-7, 11-25 and 30 in the Nancy Drew series from the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock and the final being The Clue of the Velvet Mask.)
Velvet Mask was to be Mildred’s last Nancy Drew book—the Syndicate was moving in a different direction and did not write to Mildred again regarding the writing of new manuscripts in the series. It was clear that her style of writing Nancy Drew was different in some respects from Harriet’s style. Mildred reflected upon these differences in a 1980 court case between the Syndicate and its two Nancy Drew publishers, Simon and Schuster and Grosset & Dunlap. Mildred was the main witness for Grosset and Dunlap. On the stand when shown letters between herself and Harriet regarding criticisms and difficulties, she recalled that this was “a beginning conflict in what is Nancy. My Nancy would not be Mrs. Adams’ Nancy. Mrs. Adams was an entirely different person; she was more cultured and 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.”
While Nancy Drew was enduring and evolving, Mildred began a new phase in her life that began after she married George Benson in 1950. He was editor of the Toledo Times where she worked. Up until this point, she had written over 120 children’s books and countless short stories along with her newspaper writing. She had become the writer she always dreamed she would be one day. In The Ghost of Ladora, she reminisced, “I cannot avoid the conclusion that much of my writing was based upon unfulfilled desire for adventure.” She began to seek out adventure when she took up flying and made numerous trips to Central America on archaeological expeditions by herself before these areas were widely opened up for exploration. She considered flying to be the most adventurous part of her life—save for a three day voyage alone with Indian guides down Mexico’s Usumacinta River. One of her finest adventures, the river trip took her to Yaxchilan—an ancient Maya Indian archaeological site. Once in Guatemala, she was mistaken for a princess and kidnapped. Interviewed for the article The Adventurous Millie Benson, she noted, “I used to hang my hammock in Mayan temples. Those were my more adventurous days. I’ve had quite an exciting life, but that’s the way I like it.”
In many articles that were written over the years until she died on May 28, 2002, Mildred reflected upon the popularity of Nancy Drew. To her, the most rewarding part of writing the Nancy Drew books was that Nancy Drew gave others confidence to be whatever they wanted to be. In a 1998 Newsday article, she stated that Nancy Drew “embodied qualities that I wished I had. I made Nancy perfect, and I was certainly a long way from that.” She wrote in an introduction to a reprint of The Secret at Shadow Ranch, that Nancy Drew was “Every girl’s challenge and dream for a better future.” Nancy Drew was a classy sleuth, bold, and defied wrongdoers in seeking justice for the downtrodden. She inspired children to do more in their lives and continues to do so today.
For all their differences over Nancy Drew, Mildred and Harriet’s contributions together along with Edna and Edward and many others helped produce a lasting heroine that readers fondly remember and still read about today. In an endearing introduction to a reprint of The Mystery at Lilac Inn, Mildred enthused, “Hopefully, generations of readers will remember Nancy’s philosophy and values long after her exciting adventures have been forgotten.” We do.
Brief Timeline of Highlights:
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.
2015 - Mildred posthumously receives a Literary Landmark designation at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. A ceremony is held during the Nancy Drew Sleuths 3rd Mini Convention which included a town council resolution and Mayor's proclamation
After she passed away in 2002, many fans sent in their thoughts and condolences and memories of Mildred, which I compiled into a memorial page. For the Millie Benson Memorial page, click