Who Was Nancy Drew?

Who was Nancy Drew?  More to the point, who was
Carolyn Keene?

That’s the mystery that is solved in Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak.

It was published in 2006 and is a thoroughly engaging ride through
the history of Nancy Drew’s unbelievably successful popularity with
young girls over a generation of readers.

My review can’t possibly give you all the rich details, but I will try to
give you the gist of the important stepping stones along the way.

Edward Statemeyer started a children’s book company in Newark NJ, and from 1889
onward the syndicate published the likes of Uncle Wiggily, The Bobbsey
Twins, The Hardy Boys, Ruth Fielding, Doris Force, The Outdoor Girls,
Nancy Drew, and eventually the Dana Girls and Kay Tracey.

But Nancy was the sweetheart, the breadwinner of all the series put
together.  Who wrote them?  Keep a-goin’.

When Edward died, his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams,  in Newark, was married with four young children.  She and her sister,  Edna, took over the business.  Their publisher was Grosset & Dunlop.
She was a graduate of Wellesley College and from the 1950’s on, she was
Carolyn Keene, writing the Nancy Drew series.

But before the 1950s, ghost writers wrote most of the children’s books.  An outline of 3 or 4 pages would be drawn up by Edward, later by Harriet, and sent out to the “authors” to flesh out the story.

Mildred Wirt Benson was a young woman—a diving champion–who had graduated from the University of Iowa with a master’s degree in journalism.  She had admired Jo in Little Women and could respond in spirit to Jo’s independent streak.

She was hired to write the first Nancy Drew books–with Secret in the Old Clock first published April 28, 1930.  She was paid $125 per book, and signed away any rights to the plot or characters as soon as she sent in her manuscript.  She was honor bound to be a silent author.

Edward Stratemeyer, before he died, emphasized that the new Nancy Drew series would  usher in a new type of girl’s book.  These would not rely on social niceties of the past, but would feature a “modern girl” who was brave and adventurous.

Mildred Wirt ran with the ball.
The first three in the series were Secret of the Old Clock; The Hidden Staircase; and The Bungalow Mystery.   (Reread them tonight!)

After five years and thirteen books, Mildred was dropped from the company.  The Depression of the thirties had hit home for the Stratemeyer Company.  Harriet and Edna felt no ill effects, for they had always enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in Newark, but the syndicate was looking at its bottom line.  They told their writers that they must cut the going rate per book by $25.   Mildred refused to take the cut.

Harriet and Edna replaced her with Walter Karig for three titles:

Nancy’s Mysterious Letter
The Sign of the Twisted Candles 
The Password to Larkspur Lane     (reread these tomorrow night!)
  (*Double left-click to enlarge photos, hit ‘back’ arrow to return to text.)

Walter Karig's books

Are you still with me?  Do you wonder about Walter?

But Walter was no Carolyn Keene.  As it turned out,  Harriet had to do too much clean up work when he sent in a manuscript.  AND he was telling people that he was writing the popular Nancy Drew books!  That was a no-no with Harriet and Edna.

So in 1934, before you were even born, Mildred was re-hired (at $85 per book) and wrote The Clue of the Broken Locket.   Doesn’t the title alone evoke great memories?   A “Broken Locket” for heaven’s sake!   They pushed all the right buttons in their titles.

It is interesting that when Mildred was rehired, Edna wrote to her–
reminding her that Ned,  (who had first appeared in 1932 in The Clue in the Diary ) , who “may have been perfect husband material, a husband he would never be.”  The Stratemeyers had discovered over the years that girl books were popular until the girl got married!  It was better to keep the girl young and single!

Edna suggested that Mildred could use Ned for filler material if she needed to pad the story (Clue in the Broken Locket) but as it turned out, she didn’t include him at all.

If you can stay awake–you’ll see the difference in a newer book where Ned and Nancy are right on the COVER!!   Oh, I’ll put it in here.

Well, in the 1950’s the Nancy Drew series began its decline.  Several changes had been made over the years, but Harriet kept a tight fist over any major changes that would hurt Nancy’s clear/clean image.

Nancy was modernized, the old texts were cleansed of politically incorrect concepts or words, and girls continued to buy them.  But times had changed, as times do.

And Carolyn Keene was out of the closet so to speak.  What??  There WAS no Carolyn Keene?  Well, then who was she?  Actually there was a duel for the ownership of the title of author.  Mildred Wirt had spent almost a lifetime writing about Nancy, George and Bess.  And yet Harriet felt she herself was the founding author.

In the last third of the book, Ms Rehak goes into detail about the last years of both Mildred and Harriet.  In fact, the greatest value of the book, for me, is the in-depth study of those two women—who seldom met, but were “on the same page” when it came to Nancy Drew.  Both lived to be strong-minded, long-living, independent women.  Nancy Drew would have been proud to know them.

The last pages bring out the squabbles of Harriet and Edna,  and the murkiness of the true author of the valuable Nancy Drew name.  Lawsuits followed.   If it drags a little in the waning pages, we are still grateful for all the facts

Melanie Rehak has done a commendable work here—with everything we wanted to know  (and more!)—and with an index to boot.  I would and will read it again (and again).  I’ve only brushed the surface of all that she knows about the Nancy Drew series.  If you are like me, you can’t get enough of the history of Nancy Drew.

It is thorough writing, and thoroughly readable.   Bouquets to Rehak!
I’m going to buy it.

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