biography

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photos of some of the dolls who inspired Irene, and a couple of me.

Published September 8, 2016 by The Merida Review

 

 

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This is me, singing. (Duh.) Look how into it I am. Impressive.

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Me holding a guitar. This how I usually look when I’m just sitting around (not!) Ohio cornfield in background, so no one confuses me with a city girl.

 

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Me, again. In Merida, backstage, while we were doing a play. I was the assistant director. I am great at being an assistant director. You just run around doing things other people tell you to do. Why I look so calm there, I don’t know, because I don’t remember ever being calm during a performance.

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These photos are from a photo shoot for a video that my guitarist was less than impressed with. I thought it was absolutely awesome. I think it has a total of 49 views on youtube, so I guess I’m just not finding the right audience for it. Look up Keeping it All by Cher Bibler and Dave Harms. Warning: loud rock music. You have to keep it on for 30 seconds to have it count, so don’t turn it off right away! Anyhow, this is Penn, holding the cardboard guitar. He’s really a Tonner and has a Tonner name, but to me, he is just Penn.

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To the right, with red hair and a blue brocade dress, is Irene. The doll that started it all. I was sitting at my desk trying to figure out something to write, and she was on a shelf beside me, and I had just come back from a doll convention and my mind was all full of dolls, and I started writing a story through her eyes. She started out the protagonist, and then fantasy took over and the protagonist turned into a french fashion doll, who I unfortunately do not own, and never will own unless I find a really rich husband (anyone know of one?), but hey, fiction is fantasy, right? So this is Irene, the best friend.

These aren’t the way doll collectors normally treat their dolls, is it? But I swear no dolls were injured in the process. There was just some hair fixing and dress straightening when it was over. And the poor metal head who is the lead singer (metal head, how apt) had to get back into her horrid homemade 70s Little House on the Prairie type dress and bonnet. She is demanding a new outfit. She’s into punk. I’m pretty sure she’ll never enter a doll competition. She’s asking if she can get a tattoo and dye her hair purple.

 

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That Penn, he sure knows how to woo the ladies. She is a Gail Wilson kit that I made myself. Impressive, huh?

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Less impressive is the Betsy McCall rag doll on the right. It was my very first attempt at making a doll, though, so she has an honored spot on the shelf. She is standing by Irene, and in the background is the Peruvian witch doll.

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A close up of the Peruvian Witch doll. She doesn’t really appear in the book, but we talk about her; she’s the one who taught Kim what she knows about magic. I make her sound scary in the book, but she’s actually a happy soul. You can take all sorts of liberties with fiction, however. She was my souvenir from Machu Picchu. I found her in a grave. Ha ha, no I didn’t. I bought her from a craft vendor who claimed she was made of antique fabric, but I took that with a very large grain of salt.

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On the left is the doll who inspired The Grand Duke. I glamoured him up quite a bit, though. Made him less Little Lord Fauntleroy and more Clark Gable, I think. Again, poetic license.

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I also lusted after a Queen Anne, and while living in Mexico, I commissioned this (on the right) from a woodcarver who lives near Chichen Itza. I gave him a bunch of photos and told him to do his own thing. She turned out really awesome, I think. He doesn’t have any power tools, it’s all hand carving. She is my Madame Zamalka. Or as close as we get. She had to borrow a dress for the party, she had nothing suitable to wear. She’s in a Tyler Wentworth gown. She had to give it back after the shoot was over, she’s not happy about that.

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Not related to the book at all, but look at this drumset! I was so impressed with myself. I had so much fun doing this. My kitchen was covered with dolls for a week. Notice in the background a Tinfoil poster with my photo on it, not a great photo or anything but an actual Tinfoil poster for an actual date we played. This album was just me and Dave, so we didn’t call it Tinfoil. We’re working on a cd with the entire band right now, however.

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The after-party. Notice the little bottle of champagne and the champagne glasses. They all got absolutely wasted. Well, you would too, if you had to go back to quietly living on a shelf after this.

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Totally unrelated, a doll I just finished. All by me, no pattern, no kit. A photo for the dress. I’ve apologized to her for the lumpy misshapen legs, but she says never mind. She wants me to have another doll party so she can come, too. I think she needs a little color in her cheeks. And she doesn’t have a name yet. I’m not sure other doll collectors have as much fun with their dolls as I do.

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Donna Parker’s Marcia Martin

Published January 15, 2016 by The Merida Review

In 2009, I wrote a piece about Marcia Obrasky Levin, who wrote the Donna Parker series of girls’ books under the name Marcia Martin, for a short lived blog called Literary Zoo. Donna isn’t as well loved as other series book heroines, and there isn’t much information about Marcia Martin out there, as a result, so I got this out and blew the dust off and was going to update it, hoping there was more info out there, but instead there’s less! Some of my sources are gone! The website MarciaLevin.com is gone. What’s left is pretty much her obituary. So this information here is based on some sources that are no longer out there (why didn’t I print them out when I had the chance!?), and I guess you’re just going to have to trust me on it.

Donna Parker books were published by Whitman Publishing Co on pulp paper with ultra glossy shiny covers. They were sold very cheaply in dime stores and such. Whitman books didn’t hold up very well over the years, good luck trying to find some in good condition!

I read avidly as a kid (um, still do, actually) and my parents thought that was great, although they never seemed to pay any attention to what I read. I guess they thought if I read books, I’d be smart? At the very least, they figured if I read books, it kept me quiet and out of their hair for a number of hours. That much more time when I wasn’t getting into trouble.

We didn’t have a real bookstore anywhere near (I grew up in a small town), and I read tons and tons of Whitman books, cause they were cheap and available. Some of my favorite books were Whitmans, and I read them till the covers fell off, which, unfortunately, was not hard to do. And I loved Donna Parker. I guess, yeah, she’s boring, she didn’t have big adventures like Nancy Drew (who I also adored), her family was downright normal, she went to school, she had fights with her best friend, but I was fine with that.

In later years, when I belonged to some series book groups, I learned to just not mention Donna Parker, she was so reviled. Goody two shoes, they called her. Prissy. She never got conked on the head with a blunt object, waking up later tied up in a closet in a den of thieves, or anything like that. No, she worried about what to wear to the prom, yelled at her obnoxious younger brother, Jimmy, and stuff like that.

Anyways…

Born in 1918 in Philadelphia, PA, Marcia Obrasky (the real Marcia Martin) was the daughter of Abraham Nathaniel Obrasky and the former Elizabeth Lauter. At the time of her birth, according to Abraham’s World War One draft card registration, their residence was at 820 Moore, where he also maintained his dental office. Although born in Russia, he was a US citizen by then.

According to the 1930 census, which lists Marcia, aged 11, and her sister Louise, aged 6, living with their parents, Yiddish was the language spoken in the home. Elizabeth’s mother, Julia L Lauter, aged 64, made her home with the family. (She had also been born in Russia).

A website set up by Marcia’s family after her death, marcialevin.com, includes photos of Marcia and a tribute penned by her husband, Martin Paul Levin. It actually tells more of his story than hers, but we can glean bits of information about her from it. Martin and Marsha both grew up in Philadelphia, and met when they were 18. She was the daughter of a dentist and a schoolteacher, and he was from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Always ambitious, she made it clear to Martin that if he was to be taken seriously by her, he’d have to agree to submit to a makeover (he adds that at the time of her death, he was still considered a work in progress!). The immediate makeover must have been somewhat of a success, though, as they married two years after they met.

In 1940 he worked with the war department in South Bend, Indiana, and it was there that their children Jeremy and Wendy were born. During the war, the family trekked after his work from Philadelphia to Yuba City, California, and Olympia, Washington (Donna Parker alert! Olympia!). Then three years back in Philadelphia, where Marcia taught elementary school, and Martin worked for the Veteran’s Administration. By 1950, he was a major, and at this time he was offered an entry level position in publishing, at Grosset and Dunlap in New York City. They had two children, no money, and he had no experience in the field, but, with Marcia’s support, they took the plunge, borrowed money, and rented a house in Rye, NY. Martin embarked on a 33 year publishing career. They would spend 56 years living in Rye.

At some point hereabouts, the youngest child, Hugh, was born.

And in an episode straight from Donna Parker, Martin and Marcia lived in India for two months while he created their first paperback distribution program. (I forget what Donna’s dad’s reason was, but I know it was work related.) The children went to stay with her mother at this time. No exciting young teacher who made sandwich cakes with cream cheese frosting lived with them (ala Donna), but we don’t have to look hard to see where story ideas came from.

In 1966, he took a position with Times Mirror Book Publishing (he was its president for 17 years, obviously his Grosset and Dunlap time went well). He went to night school and managed to receive a law degree at age 65, and worked 20+ years as a lawyer, after the publishing career – can we spell overachiever?

Marcia wrote, as Marcia Martin, the Donna Parkers, and 22 children’s picture books, and some “new math” books under her real name. (I may be able to someday forgive her for the math books.)

She wrote on a yellow pad while lying in bed, indulging in clandestine cigarettes (secret, at least from her husband).

She was an avid supporter of Planned Parenthood (dating from her time in India), a staunch Democrat; she studied fine art, loved jokes and shopped via catalogs with great abandon. She loved Broadway shows. In later years when she could no longer walk and reading became too difficult, they purchased more than 150 Broadway shows on dvd, which she would watch, “eyes glistening with delight.”

The overachieving carried on into the next generation. Son Jeremy Levin is a novelist, screenwriter and film director. Daughter Wendy Newby is a psychologist and Associate Dean of Emory College (you can see a photo of her at Emory College’s website). The youngest, Hugh, was president of Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc, publishers of fine art and illustrated books, aquired by Rizzoli in 2007 (Hugh didn’t go with the deal, though).

At her death on April 18, 2006, Marcia left nine grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Her obituary (in the New York Times) brushed over her achievements and focused on family. In my research, I found this an oft repeated thing. Should we assume she didn’t think much of her own achievements? She seemed to be a consummate cheerleader, urging those around her on to bigger and better things. Her husband credited everything he did to her support.

And there you go. What I know about Marcia Martin. Just don’t ask me to prove it anymore….

Marcia Martin

Behind Nancy Drew: A Life of Mildred Benson

Published January 10, 2016 by The Merida Review

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.