Snippet of History's Women: The Arts: Mildred Wirt Benson – Novelist/Journalist & Author of Early Nancy Drew Books

History's Women: The Arts: Mildred Wirt Benson – Novelist/Journalist & Author of Early Nancy Drew BooksMildred Wirt Benson
Novelist/Journalist & Author of Early Nancy Drew Books
1905–2002 A.D.

When readers of the Toledo, Ohio Blade newspaper in the 1990s read the regular column titled “On the Go”, they no doubt saw the columnist’s name of Mildred Wirt Benson.  However, many of them, particularly women readers, may also have read her earlier material—the early Nancy Drew girls’ mystery book series. Also, they may have noticed the heroine’s spunky assertiveness—a reflection of the author’s own life. Yet it’s likely they didn’t identify Mildred with Nancy Drew—after all, ostensibly the real author was the name on the books— Carolyn Keene.

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was born in Ladora, Iowa in 1905, the daughter of a local physician. After graduation from high school, she attended the University of Iowa and graduated in 1925, followed by a M.A. in journalism. She had long been submitting stories to the juvenile magazines of the time, and then in 1919 she won a prize for one of her frequent submissions. She also worked for local newspapers.  

Then came a life changing event. After graduation from college, she noticed an ad in a trade publication placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, seeking writers for their children’s book series. And it was because the organization actually began when about twenty years before best-selling author Edward Statemeyer had a problem.

It came about when around 1905 he found that he had more story ideas then he had time to finish them.  So he began the Syndicate where he would create outlines and plotlines for various children’s series books, then provide them to other writers for completion as novels. In return he paid a flat rate for the manuscript, intending to publish them under a pseudonym and also insisted the writers give up all claim to future royalties and publicity as to what they had done.

Mildred answered the ad, included some of her publishing credits, and then visited Stratemeyer in his New York office when she traveled to the East Coast. She was then offered a contract for the next book in one of the Syndicate book series and after she’d finished and the book published it did two things. First, numerous sales helped revive that particular series and it was also the beginning of Mildred’s association with the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Other book contracts followed.

Then in 1929 as the Syndicate developed a new book series of detective novels with a teenage girl as the main character and it was submitted to the publisher with several suggested names for the title character. Stratemeyer himself liked Stella Strong but the publisher chose another on the list—Nancy Drew.

As he did with most of the books written by the ghostwriters, Statemeyer outlined the first four books, sent them to Mildred and she set to work. Yet as she did, it was unlikely that she was aware then how her characterization of Nancy would be so important—and different. In short, Mildred’s Nancy was spunky, assertive and proactive, and unusually liberated while most series book heroines at the time were mousy and meek. Mildred later observed. “I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been.” Nancy’s character also proved to be an inspiration to her girl readers to meet whatever challenges they encountered.

However, Stratemeyer died in 1930 before the first Nancy Drew was published and his daughters Harriett S. Adams and Edna Stratemeyer took over the Syndicate. After they could not find a buyer, they began to operate it on their own.  For her part, Mildred completed the first Nancy Drew book assignments, did other Nancy books and also wrote books for other series for them over the succeeding years.

Meanwhile Mildred had married Asa Wirt, an Associated Press correspondent and they had moved to Cleveland, where their daughter Peggy was born in 1936. From there one time as Mildred wrote her latest Nancy Drew book, The Secret at Shadow Ranch, she found she had to combine duties as wife, mother and writer. This was evident in what happened one day. She had begun preparing a caramelized dessert and as part of the process was to heat a can of condensed milk on the stove. Meanwhile, she worked on the story at her typewriter, set up on an overturned orange crate nearby. However, she became so engrossed in her story that she forgot about the milk on the stove and it became so hot it exploded on the ceiling. She later recalled, “It splattered a huge blob of dark brown goo on the white wallpaper above my head. As a result of this mishap, we moved to a better apartment.”

However, they also later moved to a new city as Wirt was assigned to Toledo where Mildred continued to write for the Syndicate as well as other book series under her own name.  However, she encountered struggles as in 1940 Asa Wirt had a stroke—the first of several—and she added to her writer’s routine that of nurse. Then in 1944 she took on full time employment as she was first employed to write publicity for a local charity and then for the Toledo Times newspaper as a city hall reporter. This presented new challenges.

The idea of employed married women was still new so Mildred was determined to simply work harder and longer than anyone else. So on the night shift she made it a point to turn in six or seven articles each night, while at the same time her fellow male reporters were chain smoking and listening to the police radios to pick up article ideas. 

She would leave work really late—then headed home to relieve her mother who had moved in to care for the family while she worked. Once home, Mildred would set up her typewriter by her husband’s sickbed to complete her writing projects and to be available. She later recalled, “I was a tired writer. Lots of people think that Nancy Drew just came, but I’ve paid for that with blood, with real blood. I sweat when I wrote the books and I worked hard, unbelievably hard.” Then in June, 1947 Asa Wirt succumbed to his frail health. 

Mildred remarried in 1950 to newspaper executive George Benson but her Nancy Drew connection was soon to end. This was because economic problems at the Syndicate offices meant they had to make some changes. That meant all future books would be produced in house and no longer would they rely on outside authors. So as Mildred’s latest contribution, The Clue of the Velvet Mask was published in 1953, Harriett Stratemeyer Adams took over the Nancy Drew books and other series; but no one informed Mildred—they simply ceased sending assignments for new stories.  

However, Mildred continued her writing in other areas, including the Toledo newspapers, often contributing stories based on her travels by airplane, some of which she flew herself. She got her personal pilot’s license in 1964 at age 59 and continued to take adventurous forays into some remote areas of the earth. 

Yet over the years Mildred had become more outspoken about her contributions to the Syndicate and Nancy Drew and in 1980 this involvement took her to a courtroom. 

That year the Syndicate faced legal challenges in a case involving the publishers, and when Mildred was called to testify it brought out the questions, about who specifically wrote the Nancy Drew books. Thus Mildred traveled from Toledo to New York to testify about how she had written most of the Nancy Drew stories from 1929 to 1953, which contrasted with Mrs. Adams’ ongoing claim that she had written all the books. At one point Mildred and Mrs. Adams met for the first time in many years. As one author put it: ”Upon seeing Mildred, whom she [Mrs. Adams] was not expecting and did not recognize without an introduction, Harriett uttered a single, amazed sentence: ‘I thought you were dead.’”

Yet over the next few years it became evident that both Mildred and Mrs. Adams had made their own contributions to Nancy Drew and other book series. According to Mildred there were actually two Carolyn Keenes and Nancy’s character was different under both authors. She described how the differences possibly came from their backgrounds. “My Nancy would not be Mrs. Adams’s Nancy. Mrs. Adams was an entirely different person; she was more cultured and she was more refined. I was probably a rough and tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy… We just had two different kinds of Nancy’s.” 

During the 1980s and 1990s Mildred continued her newspaper work—and her Toledo Blade column, “On the Go” where she covered many activities of other seniors, especially those who had retired and led leisurely lives. However, Mildred was not one of those. One time in 1998 when she was 93 she told a much younger fellow reporter, “Well, I’ll see you later. I gotta go interview some old fogey.”

Four years later, in May, 2002, Mildred submitted her column and left by taxi to go home. Then just a few hours later she was taken to a local hospital where she passed away at the age of 96. Yet by that time her contributions to the Nancy Drew mystique had become so well known that one writer of obituaries mourned, “It’s hard to accept that Nancy Drew is dead.”


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak, Harcourt, Inc. New York, 2005

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