As a child, Mildred Wirt Benson was adventurous and independent, exploring the rural area and uncovering the mysteries in the fields and woods behind her family's Ladora, Iowa farm. It appears that, in many respects, Benson herself was the model for the qualities millions of young girls admired in her most famous character, Nancy Drew.
"Millie" began her writing career at fourteen, when she sold her first short story ("The Courtesy") to fiction magazine St. Nicholas. She continued her active childhood into adulthood, where she swam, played golf, and earned her aviator's license. In college, she studied journalism at the University of Iowa; in 1927, she was the program's first female graduate. The following year, Mildred married Asa A. Wirt, and they moved first to Cleveland, Ohio and later Toledo. In 1947, Asa Wirt died and Mildred married George Benson in 1950.
While in graduate school, she applied for a job with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a children's publishing company started by author and entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer published several mystery series, all written by many different authors under the same pseudonym. Impressed with her writing sample, he hired Benson to write a book in the popular Ruth Fielding series, one of the company's many young adult series. Benson wrote volume twenty-three, Ruth Fielding and her Great Scenario, and was hired to ghostwrite several other texts.
In 1929, Stratemeyer hit upon his next big idea -- a mystery series for young women, the counterpart to his already popular Hardy Boys series. Armed with a character and several plot outlines, he hired Benson to write the first books. The Secret of the Old Clock hit big with publishers, but Stratemeyer did not approve -- he found Nancy to be too "flip" and thought this new, aggressive heroine wouldn't be well received. Unfortunately, Stratemeyer died of pneumonia several weeks later; and Benson, at twenty-four years old, officially became "Carolyn Keene," author of the Nancy Drew books.
Over the next several years, Benson wrote twenty-three of the first thirty Nancy Drew titles; author Walter Karig (still under the name "Carolyn Keene") wrote the missing books. The Great Depression had forced Stratemeyer Syndicate authors to take a paycut -- and when Benson refused, she was quickly replaced. Problems began, however, when Karig leaked his name, and authorship, to the Library of Congress. His contract stipulated that he keep the identity of Carolyn Keene a secret, and when he didn't, Benson was rehired. But she didn't stay quiet either. In 1931, she gave an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, frankly admitting her role in writing the well-known series. Though no one knows whether her contract held the same secrecy rule, it is almost certain that the Syndicate did not see the interview; if they had, Benson would have been out of a job.
Writing kept her extremely busy; in addition to her work with Nancy Drew, she wrote news articles, columns, and other novels. Despite its fame, Nancy Drew was still a job; each book paid a flat $125, and Benson used other books and stories to earning a living. "I wrote from early morning to late night for a good many years," she remembers. "One year I wrote thirteen full-length books and held down a job besides. That takes a good deal of work."
Benson's last Nancy Drew title was the Clue of the Velvet Mask, number 30 in the series. Published in 1953, she later said it had been heavily revised and edited, and was very unlike her manuscript. Despite her sometimes-rocky relationship with the Syndicate, Benson appreciates her time with Nancy Drew. "I think Nancy was the character the girls were waiting for. They were just waiting for someone to verbalize it."
In 1980, a court case involving the Syndicate spread the true identity of Carolyn Keene. By this time, Benson was a prolific author. She had written over one hundred novels and had worked as Toledo Blade columnist since 1944. She had continued the ghostwriting tradition, writing under five pseudonyms in addition to her real name. Her favorite was the Penny Parker series, about a young journalist. Thirteen years later she was publicly acknowledged as the original author of the Nancy Drew stories; in 1994, the University of Iowa hosted a Nancy Drew Conference in her honor.
Most of Benson's original readers now have grandchildren, but that still doesn't slow the popularity. Nancy Drew has become a cultural icon, and was one of the few early heroines for girls. Although Mildred Benson died in 2002, she received fan mail up until her death, from old and young readers alike. For many, the books were just a good read; for some, they were the inspiration for new careers, or heroic acts. "I remember one girl," Benson said. "[who] said that she was actually locked in a trunk by a hold-up guy and she thought of Nancy Drew. She got out by her own efforts, which she attributed to Nancy Drew. That one surprised me."