All about the ghostwriter who made Nancy Drew a feminist

Eighty-five years after the first Nancy Drew book was published, the series is still as influential as ever for girls across the globe. So I’m not surprised – but still pretty darn excited — to learn that Nancy Drew‘s original ghostwriter is every bit as kickass as the girl detective herself.

As I’ve grown up past the age where Nancy Drew lined my bookshelves, the people behind my favorite books have become just as important to me as the characters they write. This week, Slate profiled the fabulous Mildred “Millie” Wirt Benson, the first author who took on the pseudonym “Carolyn Keene” to write Nancy Drew.

Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, and is responsible for the smart, fierce attitude readers know and love. She made Nancy a 16-year-old prodigy who graduated high school early. A teen who not only had a mastery of psychology but also spoke French, drove motorboats and cars, rode horses and could play just about any sport as well as the boys. In fact, once later authors revised Nancy’s character to make her older, less reckless, and more wholesome, Benson was less than pleased.

“[They] made her into a traditional sort of a heroine,” Benson told Salon in a 1999 interview. “More of a house type. And in her day, that is what I had specifically gotten away from. She was ahead of her time. She was not typical. She was what the girls were ready for and were aspiring for, but had not achieved.”

It’s no surprise Benson was so determined to make Nancy as self-reliant and feminist as she did, because Benson herself made sure she achieved everything she put her mind to. She started her career in journalism in the 1940s, when enough male reporters had left for the war that the Toledo Times began hiring women. Once the war ended, the paper warned female reporters that they would likely lose their jobs, but Benson didn’t take no for an answer.

Instead of leaving, Benson gave her male colleagues a run for their money, often camping outside councilmen’s office doors to get her story. (According to legend, Salon says, one councilman even climbed out his office window rather than face her questions.) She did such a good job that she kept working at newspapers in Toledo until she passed away in 2002 at age 96. (Despite failing eyesight and occasionally taking unplanned naps at her desk, Benson even went to work on the day she died.)

Her extracurricular life was just as exciting. In her 50s and 60s, she spent her spare time exploring Central America, traveling through jungles in a Jeep, taking canoe trips, and observing archaeological digs. And after her second husband passed away in 1959, she even got her pilot’s license. Even gravity couldn’t keep this woman down.

Last week would have been Benson’s 110th birthday, and it’s a date worth celebrating, even though — or especially since — the author remains largely unknown. Benson had a hugely positive impact on young female readers, even if her name remains largely unknown. Nancy Drew, as she was first written, was a heroine who bucked convention and inspired greatness, just like her maker.


Why Nancy Drew is still an amazing role model

Real life lessons I learned from “playing” Nancy Drew

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