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Happy birthday, Carolyn Keene!

July 10, 2012 |  6:00 am


Carolyn Keene, the author of the Nancy Drew mysteries, was not a real person. It was a mantle worn by 28 different women and men during the series' 73-year run. The first, most enduring Carolyn Keene was Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, who wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books. Benson was a stunningly prolific writer, publishing more than 130 books, mostly for children and young adults, frequently under pen names. She was born Mildred Augustine in Ladora, Iowa, on this day in 1905.

Girl detective Nancy Drew, as some of her fans know, was a 16-year-old with strawberry blond hair, a sky-blue roadster that matched her eyes, a rather boring boyfriend named Ned, and best friends tomboyish George and pretty, plump Bess. Other fans will be perplexed by this description because as the decades wore on, and the girl detective remained popular, she underwent some changes. Nancy Drew got older, her hair changed color, and she even got a new car. Although I haven't read the latest editions, I hear she now drives a Prius.

The editions I read, thanks to a sympathetic babysitter, were the originals written by Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. She wrote the first Nancy Drew book, "The Secret of the Old Clock," published in 1930; her last was 1953's "The Clue of the Velvet Mask." Many have connected Benson closely to Nancy Drew -- in our obituary of Benson, who died in 2002 at age 96, The Times wrote, "Benson and Nancy Drew shared many interests: Both flew planes, golfed, participated in archeological digs and radiated self-confidence in the man's world of the early 20th century."

Benson had conflicting feelings about the character she brought to life. "I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people," she told the Associated Press in 2001. Eight years earlier, on her way to the first-ever Nancy Drew conference, she had said, "I'm so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit."

Nancy Drew was part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a company that built character-based series for children and young adults: its books included the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift and the Dana Girls. Founder Edward Stratemeyer had his writers sign contracts committing them to invisibility behind the pseudonymous authors of the popular children's book series. Benson began writing Nancy Drew mysteries for $125 per book; later, she was paid as much as $250. She wrote many of the books in just six weeks.

More than 100 million Nancy Drew books have been sold; according to her contract, she recieved no royalties. It was a court case in 1980 that began pointing the way to Benson's authorship of Nancy Drew, which was officially acknowledged in 1993.

Young Mildred Augustine won her first writing award at age 14. "I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk," she once said. "I had no other thought except that I wanted to write." She went to the University of Iowa, which holds her papers; she was the first woman to earn a graduate degree in journalism there. Both of her husbands -- Asa Wirt and George Benson -- were journalists.

She stopped writing fiction in the mid-1960s, although she was approached to again put on her novelist's hat. Benson continued writing in a decades-long career as a journalist; she was working on a column at her desk at Ohio's Toledo Blade the day she died.

In 1999, Benson was interviewed by Salon.com. When asked, "How did you feel about being Carolyn Keene?," she answered, "I didn’t analyze it. It was just a job to do. Some things I liked and some things I did not like. It was a day’s work. I did it just like I did my newspaper work. I wrote from early morning to late night for a good many years. One year I wrote 13 full-length books and held down a job besides. That takes a good deal of work."


March 2: Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!

Feb. 22: Happy birthday, Edward Gorey!

Aug. 22, 2011: Happy 91st birthday, Ray Bradbury

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Nancy Drew mysteries. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg