In Memoriam: Mildred Benson and Ilana Nash
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Writing under the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene,” Mildred Wirt Benson wrote most of the first 30 books in the Nancy Drew series. Benson died last night at age 96. She worked for 58 years as a reporter at the Toledo, Ohio, Blade and other newspapers, and wrote more than 130 books and short stories.
Her most famous creation, teenage sleuth Nancy Drew, captured the imagination of generations of girls and sold 200 million books. Benson played a key role in creating the character in 1930, making her athletic, adventurous, smart and relatively independent qualities other young heroines of the time lacked.
MILDRED WIRT BENSON: I just wanted to get away from the namby-pamby type of books that were being given to children in those days and give them something that would be a live, good story. I didn’t analyze things. I just sat down at my typewriter and put a piece of paper in there and let her roll.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining me now is Ilana Nash, an instructor in the American culture studies program at Bowling Green State University. Ms. Nash, tell us how Nancy Drew was born and what role Mildred Benson had in that birth.
ILANA NASH: Well, Nancy Drew started in the mind of Edward Stratemeyer, who ran a book packaging company– as we would call it today– the Stratemeyer Literary Syndicate, where he would come up with the ideas for series books and then farm them out to ghostwriters.
In the late 1920s, Mildred Wirt went to work with him beginning by working on another series, and he was pleased enough with her work so that when he invented Nancy Drew in early 1930, she was the person that he chose to write the books.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how did she create Nancy Drew? What sort of a character did she create and why?
ILANA NASH: Well, as you just heard her say herself, she was rather disappointed with what she calls the “namby-pamby” style of girls’ books in her own childhood. When she got the outline for this character, which was about four pages long, single spaced, she had the whole plot there, but she was given a great deal of freedom in making up the personality of Nancy Drew. And she decided to invest this character with all of her own beliefs about a woman’s capabilities, about the excitement for adventure, for sports, for accomplishment, for especially fighting wrong and helping right to prevail. And she made all of these things come alive in the character of Nancy Drew.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She could do this partly because this is the way she was, right?
ILANA NASH: Very much so. Very much so. She herself as a child was always struggling to make the world more accepting of girls in sports, of girls in competitive professions, and she herself, in fact, had a long and thriving profession as a journalist. She has always said that she was not exactly a feminist, but that she did believe that girls should be able to do anything that boys could do. And in 1930, that was a rather new idea.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Nash, why did she have to be anonymous until the ’80s, and why didn’t she make any money off this?
ILANA NASH: She did make some money. She was paid a flat fee. The way Edward Stratemeyer ran his company– he’s been called sort of the Henry Ford of children’s fiction– he would put all the financial risk into these books. He would hire the ghostwriters and the artists, and he received the profits if they were a success, and he took the losses if they were a failure. So he believed that you hire a ghostwriter to do a specific job, you pay them their one-time fee, and they’ve gotten acknowledgment for their work, and that’s all they need and he reaps the profits. He was a very smart businessman but in 19…
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m just curious. How much was the one-time fee?
ILANA NASH: $125 — which during the Depression was nothing to sneeze at although it wasn’t exactly a princely sum by any means.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe a scene for us so that people who might not have read Nancy Drew– and I have to say that I was a huge fan– can see Ms. Benson’s creation.
ILANA NASH: Well, a typical scene in a Nancy Drew book is that she either alone or with her sidekicks, her best friends Bess and George, will be defying somebody’s admonitions to stay away so that she can snoop and study and follow and put together clues. She will then confront the wrongdoer, who doesn’t appear to be a wrongdoer, and sometimes she has to overcome the suspicions of others.
She will confront him and declare his crime, and it’s usually a “he.” And then he will say, “impossible. I couldn’t be foiled by a mere slip of a girl,” which was part of the reason little girls loved this series, because when you’re 11 years old, nobody takes you seriously. And Nancy Drew was nothing if not an icon of being taken seriously. She was competent, she was forceful; very calm and collected. And little girls really loved projecting themselves into that personality.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re writing a Ph.D. thesis partly on Nancy Drew. What have you found out about how girls were influenced by her over the years?
ILANA NASH: Well, I’ve found mostly from reading firsthand accounts and interviews and hearing a variety of stories from people I’ve spoken to, that Nancy Drew has often been called an inspiration for women to become professionalized, but it’s more than that, because there were other book heroines who had certain types of careers during the ’30s or the ’40s.
What Nancy Drew really did is she inspired girls to believe that it was possible for them to have a really effective presence in the world, that they could have dignity and autonomy, that if they pulled themselves up to the full height of themselves and said, “I demand that you listen to my calmly stated correct facts,” that in fact the Red Sea could part. Now, that’s not exactly true in real life, but you learn how to think it’s possible by reading about a character who can do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ilana Nash, thanks for being with us.
ILANA NASH: Thank you.