‘The girl sleuth is the supreme role given to females in juvenile fiction.’ (The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason.) And Nancy Drew is the supreme girl sleuth.
I’m not American, and while Nancy Drew was around in Ireland, she wasn’t an institution like she is in America. I’d seen the film starring Emma Roberts but I hadn’t read the books, and yet as soon as I announced that I’d be writing up posts about girl sleuths, people asked me ‘Will you write about Nancy Drew?’ She’s the go-to girl sleuth: she’s part of the lexicon.
So I decided I would sit down and read all the Nancy Drew books. FOR YOU GUYS. How deep is my love, y’all.
Then I read the Nancy Drew novel The Secret of Red Gate Farm, which begins ‘”That Oriental-looking clerk in the perfume shop certainly acted mysterious.” Holy God, I almost dropped the book. But I read the whole thing, in which Nancy suspects an Asian lady of selling her, um, Oriental perfumes at too high a price, and then Nancy’s suspicions are further raised by the sight of a man in a (horrors) foreign made car! Of course they’re all counterfeiters. Should’ve driven a Ford, buddy.
After reading that I knew that I could not possibly read all the Nancy Drews without going completely doolally. And yet Nancy Drew is still an important girl sleuth… some would say the quintessential girl sleuth.
So I thought I would concentrate on Nancy Drew in the real world. The elements of Nancy which have inspired and influenced people, and the world and the women who produced Nancy Drew.
Because Nancy Drew was chiefly the product of two pretty remarkable women.
So list to the tale of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. (Mildred was also remarkable for her truly terrible name, but she didn’t let it hold her back.)
Let’s start with Harriet.
Her father Edward Stratemeyer started the Stratemeyer Group, which was based on getting a bunch of writers to write up stories that Edward had thought up under several different pen names. One of his most popular serieseses was the Bobbsey Twins, which was a mystery series. (Many people thought of having factories of writers doing their bidding before James Patterson did it. In fact… excuse me, I have to go rent a warehouse…)
Edward said ‘Almost as many girls write to me as boys and all say that they like to read boys’ books (but it’s pretty hard to get a boy to read a girl’s book, I think).’ He wrote this in 1905, and in 2012 still nobody knows how to get boys to read ‘girl’ books as if girls are… also people. I FEEL U, ED.
By 1929 the Stratemeyer Group was so successful, and the ladies were so uncatered-to, that Edward decided he’d commission a writer to write a girl detective series he intended to be big. He planned to call her Stella Strong, Diana Dare or maybe Nan Drew. He hired a lady named Mildred Wirt to write the Stella Strong Stories. More on her later!
But Edward was not feeling quite the ticket, and the Nancy Drew stories (as they became) were much helped along by his secretary. Harriet Otis Smith (Different Harriet. Many Harriets were involved). In May 1930, twelve days after Nancy Drew’s first book came out, Edward died with no dude left to run the Stratemeyer Group.
THE WORLD: Bad news, your father’s dead.
HARRIET STRATEMEYER, HER MOTHER AND HER SISTER EDNA: Sucks to be us. Time to sell the company.
THE WORLD: Bad news, welcome to The Depression.
HARRIET: … What is a weak woman to do but…
HARRIET: RUN THE COMPANY HER OWN DAMN SELF!
Nancy Drew might have died there, except for Edward’s eldest daughter, Harriet. She was married, and she moved the company to New Jersey so she didn’t have to leave her kids too much, but she still had to sort out childcare issues in a time when people thought a crèche was a pastry.
She was a LADY CEO in the 1930s. That just did not happen.
‘Oh, it was a radical thing to do all right, and some of my friends didn’t think I should work. But my children turned out all right, so I guess I was right.’ (Harriet Stratemeyer Adams.)
With the help of only her sister Edna and her father’s super-capable secretary The Other Harriet, Harriet started writing blurbs, and reading about her father’s methods and implementing them, and introducing innovations.
One change these three women made right away was give Nancy Drew two girl friends, Bess and George, total opposites who were enormously loyal to Nancy.
In April 1934 there was an article about Harriet and the Stratemeyer Group in Fortune, which was a leeeetle condescending but had to admit that they were geniuses and that Nancy was an enormous phenomenon.
‘How she (Nancy) crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of her species is a mystery even to her publishers.’
Harriet wrote some of the later Nancy Drew books, and still more were written to her increasingly strict specifications. She spent decades fighting the press about her company and Nancy’s integrity, and referred to Nancy as her fictional daughter. She also believed Nancy would totally have gone to Wellesley, her old college.
Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was the woman responsible for Nancy Drew’s survival.
But Mildred Wirt, as she went by when she started the books, was the woman most responsible for Nancy Drew’s creation.
And Mildred Wirt was a genuine sassy girl reporter.
She was the first woman ever to graduate from the Iowa School of Journalism in 1927. She also answered an ad put up by the Stratemeyer Group, and wrote for Edward Stratemeyer a series called the Ruth Fielding series, in which a girl was torn between mysteries and marriage. So when time came to write Nancy Drew, it was clear who to call to write under the false name ‘Carolyn Keene.’ It was Mildred Wirt, legend has it, who put in the most daring things Nancy said and bold things she did.
‘While Nancy hesitated, uncertain which way to turn, her mind worked more clearly than ever before.’ (The Secret of The Old Clock.) No damsel in distress Nancy. As written by Mildred, she could arrange flowers, ace college tests, and be a bareback ballerina in a circus on demand.
Harriet and Mildred met maybe twice and totally seemed to like each other, but they had obvious conflicts.
HARRIET: Uh so we’re cutting wages because there’s this thing called the Depression, maybe you’ve heard of it?
MILDRED: Um as someone who is not a CEO and who is supporting her invalid husband… YES YES I HAVE.
HARRIET: While I like Nancy, she is a well brought up young lady! Walk softly and carry a big stick, know what I mean? Little less sass, what do you think?
MILDRED: I think I love sass.
Harriet and Mildred worked together for a while, then Mildred wouldn’t write at a reduced rate, then Harriet hired a dude to be Carolyn Keene for three Nancy Drew books, then Harriet got tired of rewriting the books to be less dudely so she re-hired Mildred. And back and forth they went, until Harriet mostly took over—but Mildred had a lot to do with the creation and evolution of Nancy Drew.
In 1944 Mildred joined the Toledo Times as a beat reporter.
EDITOR: That the war has brought us this low is a horror to me. As soon as the war is over you are super fired.
MILDRED: Yeah we’ll see.
EDITOR: You will be the FIRST ONE to be SO INCREDIBLY FIRED.
MILDRED: Fifty-four years later, when I am STILL WORKING FOR THIS PAPER, I am going to laff and laff.
When the war ended she was given a permanent post. She said it was because ‘I could always get the story.’ Mind you, she also said she was ‘running scared for about forty-nine-and-a-half years.’ So little job security for the ladies!
She supported her sick husband until he died, and then she married a fellow reporter.
HARRIET: Are you telling me you became a reporter and got married and had a baby and never said and met all your deadlines?! CHILL, LADY.
MILDRED: Mildred never chills.
HARRIET: Well as a lady CEO I guess I am in.
In the 1950s, however, Harriet just took the Nancy Drews into her own hands, and after twenty-odd years with Nancy, Mildred went on with her reportering, her own books, and her family. Her new husband was a whiz in the kitchen and liked going home to cook and look after the baby while Mildred always stayed late in the office.
Mildred also got her pilot’s license at the age of fifty-nine and began flying about the place for kicks. She only had two jobs: had to have something to occupy herself with! She wrote a column called ‘Happy Landings’ and wrote about competitions organized by Amelia Earhart’s women-only flying groups. Their motto was ‘We hope men will enter—but let the best woman win!’
In 1980, due to the Stratemeyer Group changing publishers amid a storm of publicity, there was a lawsuit over who had written Nancy Drew.
HARRIET: Well me obviously.
MILDRED: koff koff
HARRIET: My bad. I totally thought you were dead.
Harriet won the lawsuit, but Mildred survived Harriet and became the go-to for Nancy Drew knowledge and opinions from the ‘real Nancy Drew.’ In 1985 she gave an interview saying ‘I do believe in equality. Which, by the way, women still do not have!’
In 1998, aged ninety-three, Mildred breezed out of the office telling a fellow reporter ‘I gotta go interview some old fogey.’
‘They’ve tried to change me for a whole generation and I am impossible. There’s only two things I believe in—well, a few more things than that—but I believe in absolute honesty and honesty in journalism.’ (Mildred Wirt Benson at a press conference.)
In 2002 when Mildred died the Washington Post acclaimed her as ‘the original Carolyn Keene, the one who gave Nancy her personality and her keenness.’
So who made Nancy Drew? Well, both of them.
Mildred was the snazzier figure, with her lady journalism and being a daring pilot. But lady CEOs need love too: without Harriet’s business acumen Nancy would not have survived.
And the thing is… Nancy Drew is hugely compelling because she’s a lot of things at once. She’s conservative in some ways and privileged, the cosseted only child of a lawyer with her own car who dresses extremely well, but she’s also independent and curious and groundbreaking. She’s a lot of things because she was created by a lot of people. ‘Our heroine-gunning down the highway after a gang of crooks—is a sweet young lady who dresses nicely and enjoys having tea with little cakes… Nancy is a paradox, and she is also the most popular girl detective in the world.’ (The Girl Sleuth, Bobbie Ann Mason.)
She also started out as a blonde, but they quickly sassed her up to be a redhead. Has Nancy been dyeing her hair all these years, like Emma Stone? (Can Emma Stone play Nancy Drew in a 1930s-set movie? Please say yes.)
Mildred kicked off Nancy Drew and gave her derring-do and snappy repartee and discomfort with romance. Harriet made sure Nancy Drew continued, and always argued for her courage and firmness: possibly there was something of Harriet, surpassing her father Edward Stratemeyer who started the company, in Nancy’s relationship with her father.
‘ ”Dad, that man stole a purse!” Nancy whispered excitedly. “I’m going after him!”
Before Mr Drew could recover from his surprise, she scrambled past him.’
Too slow, Mr Drew!
Other dudes in Nancy’s life were mostly criminals who wanted to bop Nancy over the head, tie her up or mess with her car. Nancy had a boyfriend, Ned, but Mildred was always pretty against her being rooomantic.
“Anyway,” said Ned, “there’s one puzzle I wish you would solve for me.”
“Why you always change the subject when I talk to you about something that isn’t a bit mysterious!”
Nancy smiled and said, “Ned, someday I promise to listen.”
(The Mystery of the Tolling Bell).
I think Ned maybe wanted to talk about making out? And also, I think Nancy is in charge. She was also in charge in the 1938 movie Nancy Drew: Detective, in which she made Ned (called Ted in the movie) dress up in drag as a nurse to break into a nursing home. Nancy’s boyfriend Ned introduced himself in his very first appearance with “‘I’m Ned Nickerson,’ he declared with a warm smile. ‘Anything I can do?’” Here was a hot guy who was happy to be supporting.
You go, Nancy. Four for you, Drew.
In the Mystery of the Ivory Charm, Ned is like, Nancy don’t go to India, it’s so far, baby! And… ‘Perhaps,’ Nancy agreed, smiling. ‘But I would go to the very ends of the earth to find another mystery.’
Nancy was always smiling and being very polite. AND SUPER FIRM. ‘Perhaps it was a daring plan,’ Nancy admitted with a pleased little laugh… ‘but it worked, and that’s the most important thing.’ (The Clue in the Diary.) Nobody puts Nancy in the corner! She was able to sort things herself: at one point Nancy saves damsel in distress Bess from drowning and Bess hurls herself into Nancy’s arms. Ned tries to break out of a dungeon where he and Nancy are immured, and Nancy murmurs ‘Oh Ned… you’ll break a bone.’
Nancy is really feminine, and uses her femininity for her own devices. ‘Nancy did not want to answer questions. To avoid them she pretended to faint. The act was well timed, for the man, frightened, immediately rushed into the hall for help. The young sleuth smiled.’
You see? Always smiling, our Nancy. The Mona Lisa of Crime Solving!
It was 1964 when Nancy Drew was first recognized as an icon, in a nostalgic fashion shoot in Mademoiselle magazine. By then thirty million Nancy Drews had been sold: girls who read Nancy Drew as kids were all grown up.
In 1973 Ms. magazine ran a first-person essay discussing Nancy’s effect on women who would grow up to be feminists. ‘Even though Nancy Drew was sixteen and I was only nine, I knew we were kindred spirits.’ The New York Times covered Nancy, and sales boomed as more and more new books came out, changing slightly (never too much, as Nancy is about nostalgia) with the changing times.
In 1974 (maybe inspired by the Ms magazine coverage) Ned Nickerson got kidnapped in The Mystery of the Glowing Eye. Nancy, of course, was on the case and rescued her man. And in the Double Jinx mystery, a girl of Asian heritage Nancy is suspicious of (Nancy, Nancy why) turns out to be a cool lady and an awesome new friend.
A lot of people talked about how Nancy never made a fuss about being able to do anything—she just performed amazing feats and made them feel they could too. ‘I didn’t realize how feminist they were because I sort of figured that’s the way the world was,’ said a fan (Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak). 1970s singer sensation Janis Ian described Nancy as the epitome of self-confidence.
Two women who had worked their way up from secretaries to producers went on to produce Hardy Boys (also the Stratemeyer Group) and Nancy Drew TV shows. The TV shows weren’t successful, but for kind of awesome reasons—fans expected more from Nancy. For instance, they disliked Nancy’s boyfriend Ned and commented: ‘You don’t make a female character strong by playing her opposite a buffoon. You just make her strong.’
In 1980 Nancy Drew had a fiftieth birthday party attended by celebrities like Bette Davis (which I like because of the song Bette Davis Eyes: ‘all the boys think she’s a spy… she’s got Bette Davis eyes’) and Barbara Walters, who said ‘seems to me I read all of them (the Nancy Drew novels).’ Real-life lady journalist inspired by Nancy Drew!
While Mildred was mostly bothered by Nancy Drew fans in her later years, I hope Barbara Walters would have pleased her.
I was with Jennifer Lynn Barnes and Ally Carter, both writers of young adult fiction with very strong ladies, when I wrote this. Jennifer Lynn Barnes remembered her mother giving Jennifer her own old Nancy Drews, and Ally Carter remembered that the Nancy Drew mystery about a fake ghost on a ranch, The Secret of Shadow Ranch, was the very first book she ever remembered reading and wanting to never end.
Nancy Drew is still influencing and inspiring people. So, thanks for Nancy, Mildred Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. Thanks for changing the world.
One more thing about the girl sleuth–her world is populated by criminals faking supernatural phenomena, like the ghosts of The Secret of Shadow Ranch. I wanted to write a book in which a girl sleuth, and a fairly girly girl sleuth (loves great dresses, can still handle herself), actually had to deal with real supernatural phenomena in Unspoken.
How would Nancy have handled real magic? I bet real well. Sort of Nancy’s way.