Her Own Woman
Mildred Wirt Benson is more than a bit impatient with the fuss everyone is making about her. “That was too many years ago,” she barks. “I never tried to influence anybody. I just tried to write a fast-moving story. I’ve heard all the different theories. They’re a waste of time.”
These days, at 93, Benson busies herself with her weekly column at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, “On the Go with Millie Benson.” But she can’t escape the fact that 68 years ago, as a young pen-for-hire, she wrote the very first Nancy Drew mystery, The Secret of the Old Clock—and 22 of the next 29 books in the series, which has sold more than 80 million copies since its inception. Now Benson is being celebrated as a trailblazing feminist author who, under the name Carolyn Keene, dreamed into being one of the early icons of modern womanhood. The fictional girl detective has become the subject of books and dissertations, and a 1993 conference at the University of Iowa, Benson’s alma mater, included as topics for discussion “Stereotypical Racial and Ethnic Images in Nancy Drew” and “Lesbian Code in Nancy Drew Mystery Stories.”
All of which makes Benson roll her eyes. But she does understand how Nancy, whose intrepid doings have been chronicled in over 200 books, could have inspired many girls. “She was ahead of her time,” says Benson. “She believed she could do anything. Then she’d do it.”
Just like Benson herself, points out Indiana writer Geoffrey S. Lapin. In the late ’60s, Lapin discovered it was Benson who had written the classic Nancy Drews. He drove to Toledo, where, he says, he found “this crusty old newspaper person” who drew on her own experiences to create the adolescent sleuth. “Even though she says she’s not Nancy Drew,” says Lapin, “the similarities are striking. Millie flew a plane until a couple of years ago; Nancy flew a plane. Millie is an avid golfer; one whole Nancy Drew book is devoted to golf. Millie went on archeological digs; Nancy also was an explorer.” In sum, “Nancy Drew was based on a real person: Millie Benson. Both were independent and wouldn’t put up with any [crap].”
The daughter of a surgeon and a homemaker, Benson, born Mildred Augustine, grew up in Ladora, Iowa (pop. 308). “I read everything in town, which wasn’t much,” she says. In 1925, with her university diploma in hand, she set out to be a writer. In New York City, she met Edward Stratemeyer, whose syndicate was producing children’s fiction series such as the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins. Stratemeyer kept her name on file. Meanwhile, she banged around journalism, wrote other children’s books and married newsman Asa Wirt, with whom she had a daughter, Peggy.
In 1929, Stratemeyer called about Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer developed the basic characters and the plotline in a couple of paragraphs; Benson put flesh on the bones. She made Nancy’s friend Bess into a chubby scaredy-cat, her pal George an athletic tomboy, and boyfriend Ned a handsome jock. She also made Nancy into a smart, adventurous heroine. “Women had little opportunity in those days,” says Benson. “Nancy came along when women were ready for a change.” Stratemeyer, though, clearly wasn’t. “He said the first manuscript was too flip,” Benson recalls. But the publishers loved it and ordered up two more, at $125 a book.
Benson cranked out a new 200-page Nancy Drew every six weeks for years. She also wrote the Penny Parker mysteries and many other books. In 1950, three years after the death of Asa Wirt, she married George Benson, editor of the Toledo Times; he died in 1959. Then 54, Mildred Benson focused on her news career, covering everything from the courts to sports, and putting her fiction behind her.
No matter. Even people who have never read a Nancy Drew mystery regard her as an inspiration. “She is such a spunky lady,” says John Robinson Block, her publisher at The Blade. Block recalls how Benson broke her leg last year in a fall—and how a week later she hobbled back into the newsroom in a cast.
Benson herself isn’t interested in discussing her injury. Nor is she all that taken with the subject of Nancy Drew. “I like to live life as it comes,” she says. “It’s a waste of time to dwell on the past. It’s fool’s prattle. Look at the present. Look ahead. I think that’s what’s kept me alive.”
John T. Slania in Toledo