The Benson Biography:
Nancy & Me
Like many Nancy Drew fans, there was just something about Nancy that kept me turning the pages! My zeal for mysteries and Nancy's smart capable adventuresome self were a match made in literary heaven. I devoured the books in the late 70's through the 1980s when Nancy Drew classic hardcovers spun off into paperbacks and also other series like the more modern Nancy Drew Files. There were plenty of Nancy Drew books to satisfy me. Between visits to the bookstore and my school library, I was beginning on a journey, that even then I had no clue I would be embarking on.
Within a decade of leaving my childhood books safely ensconced at my parent's home and taking off for college and law school, I would never have predicted that I'd end up rediscovering Nancy Drew and beginning a massive collection of all things Drew. Soon after the collecting bug set in, I began heading up a group of wonderful Nancy Drew fans, Nancy Drew Sleuths. Soon after came consulting with licensee companies creating Nancy Drew products, working at times with the publishers of Nancy Drew on books and merchandise, consulting on the 2007 Nancy Drew Warner Brothers movie, writing a book, Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit & Wisdom of Nancy Drew for a licensee, and licensing Nancy Drew for our own line of merchandise. I've been interviewed on the Today Show and other media outlets. I plan our annual Nancy Drew Conventions and other gatherings. Really, it never ends and it's been a wonderful diversion from a planned legal career.
When I first got on the Internet around 1997, there was an old now-defunct message board by publisher Applewood Books for Nancy Drew fans. I met other collectors and fans and started to learn more about Nancy Drew. I'd found a vintage 1930s version of The Hidden Staircase at an antique mall and I had become very intrigued at the difference between it and my childhood early-80s version of Hidden Staircase which was a yellow hardcover and had a much shorter story inside. Then there was eBay and now nearly 20 years later I have added to my childhood books to amass around 4000 books, collectibles, art, and other paper ephemera.
The Legend of Carolyn Keene
For as much fun as I have had delving into all things Nancy Drew, something even more amazing happened. I got to meet Carolyn Keene. THE Carolyn Keene. The original, Mildred A. Wirt Benson, who wrote The Secret of the Old Clock at age 24 in 1929. It was published along with the next two books in the series on April 28, 1930.
Growing up and reading these books, you picture Nancy Drew in various ways--often based on the book illustrations. You don't conjure up a picture of Carolyn Keene as easily. It's really easy to ponder the question of who Carolyn Keene is and what motivates her. Is she a magnet for mysteries, where does she get all her story ideas and is she some sort of detective when she's not hammering out new mystery stories? Just a few of the questions I routinely get asked by fans young and old alike. If these books were first written in the 1930s, then who is still writing them today, over 85 years later? The secret has been out for some time, but Carolyn Keene was a pen name for ghostwriters who have written these books and various spinoffs and continue to do so on the currently published series. The classic series of which most people are familiar - books 1-56 - had eight ghostwriters.
When I joined that online message board, I began hearing things about the woman living in Toledo, OH still working at the Toledo Blade, who wrote the first Nancy Drew books and was in her 90s! Millie was still working in her 90s with no plans for retirement anytime soon. I was amazed. And intrigued. Who dreams they'll get to meet a real Carolyn Keene - especially the first one?
Meeting "Carolyn Keene"
It was a spectacularly promising night one April 10, 2000, when another collector and I formed a discussion group online for Nancy Drew fans and we called it "Nancy Drew Sleuths" (NDS). We discussed books and collected and traded books back and forth. One of our members lived in Toledo and he had met Millie several times and had books signed by her. He encouraged me to come visit Millie. I suggested a trip to my Mom and explained the somewhat urgent matter--after all, Millie was 95 and as much as she never wanted to exit this world, time was of the essence, more than I realized. Later that year, our NDS group put together a scrapbook for Millie and expressed our appreciation of her writing and our love of Nancy Drew and we presented it to her through our local member during the holidays. She later wrote of it in "Basement Work One for the Books." She wrote about finding an old ledger in which she'd recorded every story and book she'd written which she gave it to another collector for safekeeping to "be preserved as valuable memorabilia." In its place was our scrapbook and she noted, "Replacing the space vacated in my collection is artwork presented to me as an honorary member of the Sleuths, an organization of Nancy Drew fans. This material, though only recently created is more interesting than any old record book, but it will undoubtedly become more valuable with each passing year." I would go on to bid on this same scrapbook over a decade later in December 2013 when Millie's daughter Peggy's estate was auctioned off. I was able to get back the scrapbook and the Honorary Sleuth Award we gave Millie summer of 2001 after our Toledo gathering.
Plans were made for a fun road trip from Texas to Ohio for spring 2001 and so my mom and I book hunted and antiqued our way to Ohio where 11 other members of the group met as part of our first unofficial at the time, convention. I met Millie at the Toledo Blade where she was working one day and she interviewed me for her article about our group's visit, "Nancy Drew Sleuths Follow Trail to Author of Books." I also interviewed her for an article I was writing for a series zine and she signed some of my books including my first printing of Old Clock from 1930. It was such a surreal experience to sit down and chat with her. She was very intelligent and seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the group and what we did. By this point in her life, after being revealed as Carolyn Keene in a big way at the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference, there was a lot of traffic that came her way--which often interrupted her work days--from fans and revelers. She'd take it in stride most of the time even if she didn't understand sometimes what all the fuss was about. She was great about meeting with our group and signing our books the next day.
While interviewing me for her article, she was rather intrigued about our discussion group and expressed consternation over my title of being the discussion group "moderator" - she didn't like it for her article, so she decided to appoint me president of the group, and the rest was history...
Millie & Me
After our first meeting, I spoke with her occasionally on the phone to check in with her. I was writing a couple of articles about her and Nancy Drew and also something on her favorite Penny Parker Mystery Stories. I sometimes just wanted to check on her and usually had a few questions. Sometimes she'd ask for story ideas for her column. There were some things she didn't want to talk about--like her involvement with the 1980 trial between the Nancy Drew publishers. There was also advice for me. I'd gone to law school to be a lawyer, but I had always loved writing and dabbled in that throughout my life. After graduating law school, I went in another direction with the NDS group and the consulting. One day she said to me, "Maybe you'll become a writer instead of being a lawyer," and she seemed to encourage it. That was inspiring and it has led to numerous articles, op-eds, and where I am today, writing her biography.
After having such a wonderful time in Toledo, members of the group decided we should do this yearly. So, we planned a second convention for spring 2002 in Iowa City, IA where the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference took place, and a visit to Millie's childhood home in Ladora, IA. Millie was interested in our planned visit to her childhood home and wrote about it in her column, "Nancy Drew Fans Search for the Details." Early 2002 had brought her retirement - a retirement she'd fought for years off and on - but it was a working retirement, for she was still coming in to write a monthly column. The media was parading through the newsroom rather regularly during the first few months of the year filming segments on Millie - NBC, CNN and so forth. One day, I called her and she was so professional and kept right on asking me questions for the article on our visit to IA - never letting on they were filming her at the time. Later when watching the news segment, they showed her on the phone and on her large monitor were parts of the article that would be published soon after.
By the time of my visit to Iowa and following in Millie's footsteps around her childhood and college day locations around the University of Iowa and Ladora, I was inspired to write a biography about Millie. However, I knew that it would involve a lot of research to get the story right. There's a lot of surface level research out there and basic facts that have been published for years with some exceptions like Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. For someone as hard-nosed as Millie, who also appreciated the honesty and integrity in journalism and writing, I knew I needed to really dig deep on this to truly do her justice. She wasn't a very open person when it came to her personal life, so discovering just who Millie was and unraveling her journey over the years has been a challenge, but one I've met with determination!
And then there's the whole "angle" issue. "You've got to have an angle on this horsey thing," she'd probably say, something she often said to interviewers. She never knew though, that I was going to embark on her journey, for she passed away shortly after our IA convention, May 28, 2002. News blanketed the country, sometimes inaccurate things have been printed, as there is misinformation out there about Nancy Drew's history, but Millie's legacy will truly always be Nancy Drew and she knew that before she passed. Truly though, her legacy is so much more than just Nancy Drew and I resolved then and there to tell that story too.
I was invited to Toledo in July 2002 when the Toledo Blade gave Millie a private memorial at the Toledo Club and our NDS group put on a Millie Benson day at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library that fall celebrating her life and all her books and series she wrote. Our local member had collected each of the 135 books Millie wrote and he set up a display at the library. Today, his collection now resides in The Blade Rare Book Room at the library.
Over the years since Millie passed away, I've written about her and Nancy Drew among other topics of interest, given presentations about her including our most recent set of three historic Nancy Drew mini cons that took place during all the anniversaries this year in 2015. That year it was Nancy Drew's 85th anniversary and the 110th anniversary of Millie's birth and the Stratemeyer Syndicate's forming. At our second mini con in Toledo in May 2015, NDS was a sponsor along with The Blade and The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library of a Literary Landmark that was unveiled at the library to honor Millie along with a town council resolution and Mayor's proclamation.
The Millie Bio
Since 2002, I have been able to play sleuth a little bit like Nancy Drew which I relish. Unraveling the adventuresome tales of Millie Benson has been a most fascinating experience. I have made numerous research trips to Iowa City, IA, Toledo, OH and NYC where the massive Stratemeyer Syndicate files reside at the NYPL. I've combined research trips with conventions and other events and fit in research when I could between projects and NDS events--the group has kept me quite busy as has the consulting and licensing. There have been numerous interviews with family, friends and co-workers. And, most importantly of all, I have been granted sole access to her personal archive of papers, to which no one else has ever been granted previously, so that I can write a truthful, honest but spirited and most importantly, the definitive biography on Millie.
Now, I'm finally categorizing over 10 years of research material. There are volumes of files including some original documents once owned by Millie which will eventually be donated to her archive at the University of Iowa. It wouldn't be a story about Millie if it wasn't a very intriguing tale--a very amazing life she lived and there are so many things I've unearthed that no one has a clue about - yet! For instance, in the biography you'll learn the true story about her kidnapping in Guatemala and how she used her wits to escape not unlike infamous sleuth Nancy Drew, how she really felt about Nancy Drew and all the fuss, and we'll dig into mysteries going back as far as her college days and her beginnings with the Stratemeyer Syndicate that have yet to be revealed. Her adventures to Central America and her flying escapades around the country will get special focus as will her favorite series, Penny Parker. We'll also delve into the mystery surrounding her missing autobiography and the map someone drew me to find it. It was never found, or was it? Stay tuned...
My autobiography, Millie Benson - The Real Nancy Drew, is in the process of being written. Interested publishers may inquire. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
I will be highlighting interesting things about Millie and my research as I write the book at my Nancy Drew Blog.
Do you own original letters or documents of Mildred's? I'd love to get photocopies for research - photo copies can be sent to me at Jennifer Fisher, P.O. Box 128, Higley, AZ 85236-0128. I'm happy to reimburse for your kindness in doing this.
Articles I've written on Millie include this LA Times piece and a lengthy essay in Firsts Magazine in the December 2006 issue.