How a Fiction Factory Created a Classic
Originally published in the February 1993 issue of the Wastelands Review, here is an article I wrote that’s been unavailable for many moons. After Mildred read it, she declared it “pretty good” and said she only saw one mistake. She never told me what that was, unfortunately, so here it is, mistake and all. (If you know what it is, please do let me know!) I’ve corrected a couple typos (hopefully not replacing them with new ones) but refrained from doing any more extensive revision than that.
There is no Carolyn Keene. There never has been. Carolyn Keene is a house name owned by a publisher who farms out plots to different ghost writers who try to follow an established style, who write books on assignment. This isn’t a unique arrangement, many juvenile and adult books are written this way. They’re mostly cheaper, sensational material, where putting out as many titles of a popular series as possible is what counts. What’s unique about Nancy Drew is that these books, instead of dying away like most popular fiction, have endured, are indeed considered classics. And who should we give the credit to?
For many years this was a cloudy issue. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, longtime head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, claimed exclusive credit for Nancy. Yes, she said, the syndicate had used ghostwriters for many series, but she exclusively had written the Nancy Drew books.
In 1977, when the Syndicate switched publishers, from Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster, a lawsuit followed, and when testimony became public (authorship of Nancy Drew books was not the main issue of the trial, far from it, but the trial brought these records to the public for the first time), attention began focusing on a spirited lady from Toledo, Ohio.
Last summer the Smithsonian asked for her typewriter. The University of Iowa asked for her papers. Her name may never replace Carolyn Keene on the books, but Mildred Benson is nobody’s secret anymore.
Mildred Augustine, a 21 year old graduate of the University of Iowa, was in New York in 1926 looking for work in the writing field. She followed up an ad in a trade journal and landed in the East Orange, NJ, offices of Edward Stratemeyer. Mildred had been writing since childhood; her first published short story appeared in St Nicholas magazine when she was 12 years old, and by the time of her meeting with Stratemeyer, she had written and published many more. She had never wanted to be anything but a writer. She had come to New York with a degree in journalism and a year’s experience on a Clinton, Iowa newspaper.
Edward Stratemeyer was a man who had revolutionized the popular children’s book industry. As a boy he enjoyed books by Horation Alger and Oliver Optic, and when he began to write, he imitated and then improved on their styles. In 1889 his first story, Victor Horton’s Idea, was published in Bright Days magazine. In 1892 he sold 14 dime novels and 5 magazine stories, and this was only the beginning of an extremely prolific career. Stratemeyer himself wrote atleast 150 books (no one is quite sure). He wrote the Rover Boys series under the pseudonym Arthur M Winfield, and, as Victor Appleton, began the Tom Swift series. He convinced publishers to bring out cheaper editions that kids could afford, a successful scheme that sold huge quantities of books.
He completed an Oliver Optic title left unfinished at Optic’s death (really William Taylor Adams – Oliver Optic was his pseudonym), and completed (or totally invented) 11 Horatio Alger titles, at Alger’s death.
In 1905 or 6, he came up with a new way to get more books written, and the Stratemeyer Syndicate was born. He developed outlines for books and hired other writers to do the actual writing. The Stratemeyer Syndicate flourished long after Stratemeyer’s death and eventually put out 1300 books with several different publishers.
Syndicate ghost writers were sworn to secrecy, and there is much confusion as to who did the actual writing of many of the books. Research has been diligently done for many years by series book fans, but in many cases, it’s nearly impossible to discover who these authors were. Syndicate records are unavailable to researchers at this time.
The Bobbsey Twins (I believe the first title was written by Stratemeyer himself) was begun in 1904, and was one of Stratemeyer’s most successful series, certainly the longest lasting series. These books, written for very young children, were purportedly penned by Laura Lee Hope, a “house” name. Lilian Garis, wife of Howard Garis, who created the Uncle Wiggly stories, actually wrote many of these.
In 1927, after Stratemeyer noticed how popular detective fiction had become in the adult market, the Syndicate brought out the Hardy Boys series with Leslie McFarlane, a Canadian author, as the ghostwriter. These proved to be an immediate and enduring success, and the idea for a girls’ mystery series soon followed.
Mildred Augustine was born and raised in Ladora, Iowa, a tiny town of some 250 people. Her father (J L Augustine) was a doctor. Her mother, Lilian (Mattison), was from Vermont, “strict,” said Mildred in a recent interview, “and we often were at odds over what was proper for a girl to do.” Mildred was very much a tomboy, detested dolls and loved sports. She was an avid reader, but preferred boys’ books to girls’.
She wanted to be a writer (or journalist, which was then an almost unknown field), but was repeatedly warned that financially, writing would be an unsatisfactory field. (She adds, years later: “It was!”)
Millie attended the University of Iowa, graduating in 1925 and then working for a year at the Clinton, Iowa, Herald. She went to Europe, and then headed to New York City, where she was unable to secure a job in the writing field. She did, however, meet Edward Stratemeyer. At the time, he couldn’t use her, and she headed back to the University of Iowa to attend graduate school. She was the first woman ever to receive a masters degree in journalism there (in 1927).
Stratemeyer wrote to her during this time and sent her a plot for one of the books in the Ruth Fielding series. Ruth Fielding was a popular girls’ series that ran from 1913 to 1934. Millie wrote Ruth Fielding’s Great Scenario (#23, 1927) at her parents’ home in Ladora. Professors assumed she was hard at work on her thesis when she pounded out the next volume on a typewriter at the journalism school.
Shortly after receiving her degree, she married Asa Wirt, a technician for the Associated Press, born in Raymore, Mo. Millie worked briefly at the Iowa City Press Citizen during her graduate year and met Asa, who was assigned there at that time. After their marriage, they moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was transferred next.
In 1930, she was given the chance to develop a new series about a teenaged girl detective, Nancy Drew. Outlines that Stratemeyer provided his ghostwriters were notoriously brief. Millie tried to give Nancy more personality than the normal series book heroine. So successful was she at this that when Stratemeyer received the manuscript he declared that Nancy was too “flip” and predicted the series would not fare well. Luckily, he didn’t believe in wasting time revising the books submitted to him; The Secret of the Old Clock was printed in 1930 the way Millie wrote it, and the spunky character of Nancy Drew was launched upon an unsuspecting public.
The publishing industry has never been the same. Girls’ books heroines everywhere took the initiative, and became more aggressive, creative, less dependent. Nancy was intelligent and self sufficient; fair and thoughtful (though sometimes a little snobbish) without being sappy. Teenagers had a character they could admire, respect.
Parents might not take Nancy seriously, nor teachers and librarians (libraries were urged, in fact, to remove all Stratemeyer titles from their shelves), but Nancy’s fans were loyal and legion.
For her services as a ghost writer, Mildred was paid $125 to $250, and retained no rights. Indeed, she was forbidden to publicly state that she wrote them. She worte Nancy Drews (except for a few, when they tried to pay her even less) from 1929-1948, 23 titles in all.
She wrote many other books, as well, for Stratemeyer and on her own. 136 of them, all children’s books. Her first book under her own name (Mildred A Wirt), the Ruth Darrow flying stories, about a girl pilot (oddly enough, much later at the age of 63, Millie would herself take up flying) appeared in 1930 and 1931. One of her most popular series was the Penny Parker books, which were published from 1939 to 1947. Penny, daughter of a newspaperman, dreams of becoming a reporter herself, and solves mysteries as a matter of course.
Mildred wrote 12 of the Dana Girls books, 6 Brownie Scout books, 5 Dot and Dash books, etc, etc, etc.
In 1936 a daughter, Margaret, was born. In 1939 Asa Wirt was transferred to Toledo, Ohio. By 1944 Millie was reporting for the Toledo Times. She continued to write books in whatever time was leftover, producing them at a steady rate.
After a long illness, Asa Wirt died on May 26, 1947. In 1950 Mildred married George A Benson, then associate editor of the Toledo Times (he became editor in 1954), a widower known for his vigorous editorials. George Benson was a self-made newspaper man from Minnesota, who worked his way through every desk, assignment and position, until he became managing editor of the Grand Forks, ND Herald. He eventually became the head of the Minneapolis Journal’s Washington Bureau. He wasn’t shy about criticizing where criticism was due and government officials at all levels often found themselves his target. He came to the Toledo Times in 1948.
His education never went beyond high school but he had a vast library and a voluminous vocabulary. (Oddly enough, it’s been pointed out that early Nancy Drew books had a much higher vocabulary level than is commonly used, and could actually challenge young readers.)
He was an avid golfer and a creative cook. Millie’s life during this time was anything but boring. She was able to travel and developed a keen interest in pre-Columbian archaeology, eventually visiting 11 archaeological digs in Central America (even getting kidnaped once!).
Nancy Drew, in the meantime, was going through some changes of her own. In the 50’s and 60’s the whole series book market declined. Kids were turning on to television.
The Syndicate was unable to keep up with the tastes of new generations and after the death of Edward Stratemeyer in 1930, his daughters Edna and Harriet were able to maintain the Syndicate (Edna stayed involved with the Syndicate for only a few years. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams ruled with an iron hand till her death in 1982), but didn’t take many chances with inventive and original series ideas. The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins were able to hang on to a good portion of their popularity, but other series were retired from the market during this time.
The Happy Hollisters series was the Syndicate’s most successful new venture during this period.
Older books received facelifts, with early titles being revised (sometimes totally rewritten) to remove anything old fashioned; plots were simplified, streamlined, the books were shortened. Millie’s Nancy Drew was nearly eradicated. Nancy Drew purists must search Mildred’s books out at used bookstores, and their fervor has driven the prices high.
In comparison, to a devotee of the original books, the newer style Nancy pales, but since the series is still flourishing, the Syndicate must have known what they were doing.
George Benson died unexpectedly of a stroke Feb 27, 1959. Sometime after this, Mildred decided to take a rest from her exhaustive schedule. She completed a book called Quarry Ghost in 1959, and this was her last published title. The Toledo Times merged with the Blade and Mildred went with it. As of today she’s been with the paper for 48 years. She told me, however, that she never stopped her creative writing, even after she stopped publishing it.
She continues to travel. Golf is one of her consuming passions. Mildred got her pilot’s license when she was in her 60s and bought a Piper Cherokee. She did this because it was so difficult to find pilots to fly her to remote Central American locations to scout out archaeological digs. It was easier to learn to take the wheel herself and do her own flying.
Nancy Drew was never allowed to age. (She started out 16 and eventually drifted to 18 because they thought it was more believable that an 18 year old girl would be that independent). But I can’t help drawing parallels between the two. It’s not that Mildred is like Nancy. It’s that probably more of Millie’s personality rubbed off on Nancy than she is aware.
I first met Mildred at a luncheon organized by a group of Nancy Drew fans. Did she feel that creation of the Nancy Drew character was one of her major achievements? Not at all. Instead she was quite bemused at this group of grownups who were so awed to meet her, who were spending their time and tremendous sums of money tracking down her old books, who were wasting time when they could be out there DOING something, instead of paying homage to a dusty relic like Nancy Drew.