Change the World by Reading

Nancy Drew was my mentor. The 16 year old sleuth was everything I wanted to be—smart, independent, bold, and living life as an adventure. Because of Nancy, it was easy to imagine myself riding around in a blue roadster searching for clues to solve enigmatic crimes. Nancy expanded female awareness by proving that girls were just as capable as males in terms of affronting a problem and resolving it. So there was no need to be passive or subservient to patriarchal taboos. Nancy was a source of inspiration for many ex-little girls now successful women such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Barbara Walters, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ellen Barkin.

Nancy had many talents—she could pick a lock with a hair pin, tap Morse code with her high heels, and use bright lipstick to write SOS messages. Nancy, using her wits and resourcefulness to solve mysteries, searched for lost wills, hidden heirlooms, missing people, etc.—anything necessary to right a wrong or find the truth. Because that’s what female sleuths do.

For years it was believed that Nancy Drew stories had been written by author Carolyn Keene until it was discovered that Carolyn Keene was not a person but a group of ghost writers. One such writer was Mildred Wirt Benson (1905-2002).

Mildred, born in a rural farming community in Iowa, was an avid reader as a child but noticed that books written for boys were by far more exciting and adventurous than those written for girls. In contrast to her other girlfriends, Mildred’s parents encouraged her to go to university. After graduating, she moved to NYC to pursue a career as a journalist where she met Edward Stratemeyer, a prolific writer and publisher. Already having created popular series such as The Hardy Boys and The Bobbsey Twins, Stratemeyer asked Mildred to help develop a female character who was “an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy.” The result? Nancy Drew.

Mildred wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books leaving much of her personality imprinted on that of Nancy. For more than 50 years, Mildred help contribute to the success of the Nancy Drew series as well as developing her own independent novels. But she wanted to do more than just write about adventure, she wanted to experience it as well. So in the 1960s, she trained to be a pilot.

Mildred enjoyed travelling. She also enjoyed exploring archeological sites such as those of the Maya as well as canoeing in Central America’s crocodile infested rivers. Once in Guatemala, Mildred was locked in a room by Guatemalan drug traffickers.

Stratemeyer didn’t live long enough to see just how successful Nancy would become despite his belief that she was much too flippant. When he died, his daughters took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate and continued the tradition of hiring ghost writers, paying them a flat rate for each book and keeping the copyrights for themselves.

At the height of the Depression, Mildred was informed by Stratemeyer‘s daughter, Harriet Adams, that her wages would be lowered. Not pleased, Mildred took a hiatus from Nancy to concentrate on her own independent work (such as her Penny Parker Mysteries).

By the late 1950s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate transformed the strong willed Nancy into a “namby pamby” and diluted personality so much so that she no longer resembled the original Nancy. Harriet claimed that she had written all the Nancy Drew stories even though it is well established that Wirt and 28 other authors, following the Stratemeyer formula, did the actual writing. What Harriet did do was give Nancy a make-over by editing down Nancy’s persona and having her conform to the 1950s standards invented for women by men.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, age 89, died of a fatal heart attack while watching The Wizard of Oz. Mildred continued to work as a journalist by writing obituaries before dying herself at the age of 97.


Related: Nancy Drew’s Flashlight + The Traveller    Fellow Readers (favorite paintings of women reading) + Reading paintings on pinterest + LALI, blog with women reading books + The Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson + The Millie Benson Biography + Mildred Wirt Benson + Mildred Wirt Benson,The Ghost of Ladora + The Tale of the Ghost Writer + The Adventurous Writer Who Brought Nancy Drew To Life + Nancy Drew and the Mystery of Her Enduring Relevance  + Penny Parker + The secret book sweatshop behind Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys +

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