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Who Is Carolyn Keene? Meet Mildred Wirt Benson, the Original Author Behind Nancy Drew

Multiple ghostwriters penned cases about the iconic sleuth, but one author stands out from the crowd.

carolyn keene

Many a reader may have wondered while clutching a well-worn copy of The Hidden Staircase–just who was Carolyn Keene, the author of the Nancy Drew series? The truth is, there were several ghostwriters who labored under the Keene pseudonym. But the identity of those writers, and one in particular, reveals a thrilling story behind America’s most beloved amateur sleuth.

Writer and editor Edward Stratemeyer was fresh off the success of the Hardy Boys series when he had the brilliant idea of creating a female detective. But as the head of a large editorial company, Stratemeyer had no intention of writing the series himself. He hired a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson to write the first in the Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock. Benson was given a three and a half page outline to work from while she finished her graduate degree. In 1927, she became the first female student to earn a journalism degree from the University of Iowa. The Secret of the Old Clock was published to great acclaim in 1930, and Benson produced three more Nancy Drew books, all in that same year, at 24 years old. 

Related: The 30 Best Female Detectives and Amateur Sleuths in Mystery Fiction 

Benson went on to write 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries. For her efforts she earned between $125 and $250 per book, and one-fifth of the royalties that each book received. She had to sign a contract agreeing she had no right to use the Carolyn Keene name outside of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Benson wrote for other series with the pen name, such as the Dana Girls

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  • Mildred Wirt Benson.

    Photo Credit: Alchetron

It wasn’t until a lawsuit in the 1980s revealed Benson to be the author behind so many Nancy Drew titles that people fully recognized her contributions. Benson had written, among others, the earliest Nancy Drew books, establishing Nancy’s character and personality. In 2001, Benson was honored with a special Edgar Award for her contribution to the series. “I always knew the series would be successful,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people.”

Related: 8 Books for Fans of Enola Holmes Mysteries 

After Benson stopped working on the series, Edward Stratemeyer’s daughters wrote most of the outlines for the ghostwriters, including Walter Karig, a U.S. Naval captain who wrote three Nancy Drew titles in the 1930s, and Charles S. Strong, a ghostwriter for the Hardy Boys series. None of these male writers lasted particularly long–Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet Adams would go on to write most of the manuscripts for the series from the 1950s until her death in 1982. 

Harriet’s contributions remain unclear to this day. She often claimed to have written all of the Nancy Drew books during her tenure, while other writers say that she only had the final overview. 

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  • Photo Credit: Chris Lawton / Unsplash

The original Nancy Drew series contains 175 books, but would go on to spawn another 124 titles in the Nancy Drew Files series and Nancy Drew Diaries series. The earliest movie adaptations were made in the late 30s, and more recently, a Hollywood version starring Emma Roberts hit the big screen in 2007. Though the studio planned for sequels, those plans were shelved after the movie’s poor performance at the box office. 

As for Mildred Wirt Benson, her career wasn’t limited to Nancy Drew. She began working as a journalist in the 1940s, first as a court reporter for the Toledo Times and later as a writer for the Toledo Blade. “She was a real force to be reckoned with,” said one of her colleagues. “And she was one of those rare, enviable writers who can write in her own voice.” She wrote a weekly column for the Toledo Blade for 58 years, continuing to work full-time writing obituaries until her own death from lung cancer at the ripe old age of 96. Benson was in the office, hard at work the day she died.

Related: 11 Forgotten Female Mystery Writers from the Golden Age and Beyond 

Later in life, she traveled the world, making many trips to Central America “traversing the jungle in a Jeep, canoeing down rivers, visiting Mayan sites, and witnessing archaeological excavations.” She went on to publish numerous other books and series, some under pseudonyms and some under her own name. A personal favorite was another girl detective named Penny Parker, who was, in Benson’s estimation, more independent and more of a go-getter than Nancy Drew–in other words, more like her writer. When Stratemeyer’s daughters took over the Nancy Drew series, they rewrote many of Benson’s books, giving Nancy more of a submissive personality.

Though she voiced some displeasure at Nancy Drew being such a focus of her life, according to friends, Benson was always happy to meet the young fans of the series, especially the girls. And she loved autographing copies of the books, as long as they were the ones she had written. "Mrs. Benson is the quintessential feminist of the 20th century, and yet she's almost completely unknown," David Farrah, publisher of Farrah's Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles told The Times in 1991. But for Benson, ghostwriting Nancy Drew was just another gig. Just before she died, she told a local paper “I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk. I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.”

Featured photo via cover of The Secret in the Old Attic