Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

Girl Sleuth

Information

Goodreads: Girl Sleuth
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2005

Summary

A history of Nancy Drew over the decades, as well as the two women who brought her to life: Mildren Wirt Benson, a Midwestern journalist and Nancy’s first ghostwriter, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the head of the Statemeyer Syndicate and later ghostwriter of Nancy.

Star Divider

Review

In Girl Sleuth, Melanie Rehak brings to life the women who created Nancy Drew: Mildred Wirt Benson, Nancy’s first ghostwriter, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate after her father’s death, initially managing the ghostwriters of the Syndicate’s juvenile series, and then eventually taking over herself as “Carolyn Keene.” Though many believed (and still do) that Carolyn Keene was a real person, the book illustrates to what lengths the Syndicate went to keep the secrets of its ghostwriters, with Harriet even getting individualized stationery for the company’s various pseudonyms, creating fake signatures for them, and somehow getting the Library of Congress to agree to keep the secret, as well. As the popularity of certain series grew, however, the ghostwriters who had initially signed away all their rights to the books and the characters began to want recognition for their contributions. Girl Sleuth is a fascinating page-turner that delves into the mysteries behind Nancy Drew as it traces the detective’s enduring popularity in American culture.

In some ways, the story of Girl Sleuth can be read as a dark one. Readers who love Nancy with a passion, who believed that Carolyn Keene was a real person, or who believe that writing is a sacred art form that must be done only by an inspired individual, may feel like Nancy’s dirty laundry is being aired. The truth is that Nancy is the product of a syndicate, the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, a man who sold so many popular dime novels that he one day realized he did not have time to write them all–and did not have to. Stratemeyer formed a company where he would write the outlines for his juvenile series books (the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew etc.), send them out to a ghostwriter who would write the book to his specifications, then revise the drafts as needed to fit the company’s policies on what was “good” for children to read. After his death, his two daughters Harriet and Edna continued the company* until the day Nancy’s publisher demanded so many new books in such a short timeframe that Harriet decided it was best to drop Nancy’s then-ghostwriter (Mildred Wirt Benson) and just do the writing herself in-house. Thus began a sordid struggle over who had “created” Nancy Drew, who was her true author (the ghostwriter or the syndicate providing plot outlines), and who had the right to determine what Nancy would look like in books, films, TV shows, and more.

In this story, it is also easy to make Harriet the villain. She dropped Mildred Wirt Benson without any warning or notice, then eventually crafted for herself a story in which she was the sole creator of Nancy (once she was willing to admit that Carolyn Keene was not real, anyway). She neglected to mention that her father had come up with the series and plotted the first five books before his death, that her sister Edna had created outlines books, that her father’s secretary had helped with outlines and revisions (coming up with Bess and George), and that Benson and another ghostwriter had worked on the series at all. But perhaps this is no surprise. Even today collaborations are often revered less than products that spring from an “individual genius” and even today few recognize that it takes many hands to craft a book. But still, one can imagine the outrage Mildred Wirt Benson must have felt, as Nancy’s first writer. She had, in many ways, created Nancy, even if Harriet then recreated Nancy as a bit more polished.

However, the story is also about two women who fought their way to recognition and success in a man’s world. Both were trailblazers of their time, making careers for themselves even as they balanced being wives and mother’s. Harriet struggled to get respect as the head of her own company, and Mildred fought to keep her position as a journalist in a field dominated by men. Though Mildred was reluctant to call herself a “feminist,” both women were in favor of equality, and both demonstrated in their own lives that they believed women were equal to men in intellect and capability. Their determination no doubt informed the character of Nancy, who even today is recognized as a feminist icon, a woman who never backs down and always saves the day–even when the men cannot.

The book covers not only the biographies of both women, but also gives a fascinating account of the rise of Nancy and how she managed to feel fresh and modern as each decade passed. Even as other books struggled in the Depression, sales of Nancy were constant. At first, Nancy hearkened back to a better yesterday, when no one had to worry about money. Later, Nancy, with her cleverness and strength, anticipated struggles for women’s rights after WWII when the men came home and women proved reluctant to go back to the kitchen. Then, again in the 1960s, Nancy was ready to be claimed as a feminist hero. No matter what was going on culturally in America, Nancy seemed equal to it. Today, her popularity endures.

Avid fans of Nancy Drew will want to pick up Girl Sleuth and learn the incredible history behind one of America’s most-recognized literary figures. The story has just as much excitement as any one of Nancy’s own adventures.

*Edna eventually became a silent partner, solely concerned with the revenue being raised by the syndicate, to the extent that she became convinced Harriet wasn’t doing anything properly and refused to let Harriet have a raise for all her work.

5 stars

16 thoughts on “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak

  1. Hasini @ Bibliosini says:

    Wow! I never knew there was a book based on Nancy Drew’s history! I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew mysteries growing up and I used to read the books religiously. Can’t wait to get my hands on this one as well!

    Like

  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    Of all the conversations I have with my students about pop culture characters, Nancy Drew is consistently discussed and it’s always with love (unless the conversation is about the CW show and I’ve yet to find a student who watched it and didn’t think it was “ridiculous” at best and “sacrilegious” at worst). It is such an exciting testament to her relevance as she is the oldest pop culture character they talk about. No one mentions the Hardy Boys. But Nancy? She always comes up in conversation. And, while my students know Spider-Man and Wonder Woman it’s almost always from more modern incarnations whereas many of my students talk about reading the scope of Nancy Drew novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I was actually wondering how the CW show was faring because the book discusses how no incarnation after the original series managed to resonate with fans. The book suggests that Harriet Stratemeyer was seen as old-fashioned and maybe prudish, wanting to keep the Nancy who never even kisses Ned. And yet the movie adaptations and the books written after the series was sold made Nancy “sexy”–and fans hated them! They didn’t sell! So I immediately thought of the CW Nancy and how it was a continuation of this story. Do the adaptors never learn? People have very strong ideas about who Nancy is and she’s not sexy, I guess.

      The book also has some interesting takes on how Nancy managed to weather the decades. In the 1930s, she was reminiscent of the better days of the 1920s. In the 1940s, she was seen as a feminist icon for the women who took men’s jobs at home while they went off the war. In the 1950s, she was “feminized” a bit more, but she was still strong and radical enough to be appreciated in the 1960s. It’s fascinating because, in many ways, her character hasn’t really changed, but it always seems to be just want the moment needs.

      And part of that was intentional. Harriet, for instance, allowed oblique references to Ned being “in Europe” or Nancy flying a plane in the 1940s, but she instructed that there be no overt reference to the war, so the story wouldn’t feel dated. It was kind of genius?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        It was genius! To be able to craft a character whose core traits are able to speak to so perfectly to so many different eras without ever really changing is as unique as it is brilliant. In fact, I’m struggling to come up with more fictional/pop culture characters who you could say the same thing about.

        In a way it’s funny so many adaptors keep trying to change her in such fundamental ways because, clearly, they don’t sell as well. Shouldn’t that be all they need to know?? Most characters, I’d wager, are “updated” as much for creative reasons as to try and make them more marketable. So if the “sexier” versions of Nancy never sell as well…what motivates the continued attempts at change? Is it something about sexuality? Can adaptors only see “more sexual = higher selling character” despite the historical evidence to the contrary with Nancy? Come to think of it, Nancy Drew would prove quite the unique vantage point to examine our culture’s ever-changing-yet-always-complicated relationships to sex and sexuality.

        Even with my more limited reading experience of Nancy Drew, this book sounds incredible. I’d like to read it for my own knowledge and I also think it could add some important layers and points of reference to the lessons I teach about the presentation of women/female characters in pop culture.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          You reminded me of that 2019 piece that came out with the CW show, arguing that Nancy would become obsolete if she wasn’t shown to be having sex. The original Nancy Drews still sell phenomenally well, while sexier adaptations have typically failed, so why the focus on making her sexy despite the data?

          I have theories. I think maybe some adaptors forget Nancy is a children’s book character, especially since so many adults still resonate with her. People can feel protective of their childhood idols, however, and not want them changed. They may have grown up, but they don’t necessarily want Nancy to.

          I think some people also maybe forget that, well, people have different opinions! The article, for instance, argues that Nancy’s “traditional values” (whatever those are supposed to be) are outdated. Well, maybe in the circles the author frequents. But readers aren’t a monolithic group. I think there are a lot of people who think a character who can be polite, bake a cake, and solve mysteries isn’t outdated at all. A lot of people might actually agree with Nancy’s (unspecified) “traditional values.”

          (I feel like sometimes “traditional values” is used in this vaguely insidious way to…imply something? Like it’s intentionally left vague so we fill in the blanks with something nefarious, when “traditional values” could mean almost anything?)

          Actually, now I’m wondering. Are her “traditional values” the fact that she doesn’t do anything sexual with Ned? Is that seen as obsolete in some groups? Ned is always written as sort of a side character who shows up periodically to do vaguely helpful things like assist in carrying out boxes or feed captive mountain lions. I wouldn’t read much into Nancy’s lack of sex other than that she seems to care more about her “career” than Ned. I never thought it was a pointed commentary from the author about Nancy’s values. We get a lot more straight-forward lessons about the importance of random things like honesty and good sportsmanship!

          Anyway, here’s the article: https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/ustv/a29437183/nancy-drew-the-cw-mature-sex-tv-show/.

          And now I am intrigued about the points you raise. I think people often just assume that sexy=sales, but why not in this case? Very interesting…

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            Thank you for the link and thank you for adding fodder for my continued contemplation here. I’ve been thinking a lot about this – all it’s branches and the various presumptions, implications, and frames that go with each.

            I agree with all your theories. And, reading them, I have to wonder…are these adaptors (or at least most adaptors) equating “sexy/sexual” with “hypersexual”? Are we even given a realistic depiction of sexuality/sexual activity in some of these modern incarnations of characters? At times these “updated” versions of characters seem to make sex so central that it’s hard to imagine they could have time to think about anything else. Is that even relatable? Are people having *that much* sex all the time? Is a character who doesn’t have sex or whose sexuality is not on constant display sooooooo distant from any sense of relatability because of all the sex that is happening for everyone all the time? Because that sure doesn’t feel true to me.

            I think the sexuality – and certainly the hypersexuality – we see with so many characters can certainly feel uncomfortable when draped over a childhood idol, as you said above. And I think it can sometimes have the opposite intended effect in making them feel less relatable, too. They become less familiar when their character is wrapped in such a hypersexuality and it can become harder to connect to their perceived lived experience.

            Honestly, just from a creative standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Nancy and Ned handling things like carrying out boxes or feeding captive mountain lions and learning about honesty and good sportsmanship aren’t more interesting than another tired retread of the “friends with benefits” trope or the “will they/won’t they?” trope or the “together then broken up then together again” trope.

            I love (no pun intended) the exploration of human relationships and all the different dimensions of connectivity, sexuality, and love we can experience with each other. I would go so far as to say contemplating the question “What is love?” is the single most important question we have to answer for ourselves in our lives. But it’s not the only facet of our lives. It is one piece of the rich, vibrant, infinite tapestry of human experience! And love is certainly more than sex! So we’re right back to where we began…how can sex/sexy/sexual activity be the main point of “relatability” when it comes to adapting a character? Especially one who didn’t have that as part of their narrative/creative core to begin with??

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I think about Nancy Drew a lot (surprisingly, I know), and I think that part of her appeal is that she’s actually a bland character in the books. Yes, she’s pretty, smart, and rich, and perfect at almost everything. But you don’t really know what Nancy’s hopes or dreams are, whether she ever wants to go to college or travel or get married. She doesn’t have an interior life. Who even knows how she feels about Ned. (Except that it’s pretty clear she cares about mystery more than she cares about him, poor guy.)

              Some might call that bad writing, but I think it has allowed readers to project anything they want onto Nancy. She can be whoever they want her to be.

              And, it’s not really about relatability. It’s about aspiration. The reader doesn’t want Nancy to be like them. The reader wants to be like Nancy–smart, witty, and poised at all times. Making Nancy relatable messes with that dynamic. How can she be a super sleuth if she’s just like everyone else?

              Also interesting in Girl Sleuth is that Harriet made the conscious decision not to age up Nancy or have her fall in love, because the Syndicate saw another girl’s series crash and burn after the protagonist got engaged. So Nancy has always been more about the mystery and less about her love life.

              I think modern adaptors need to get into the mindframe of a dedicated reader. The reader who wants to be like Nancy. The reader who is engaged more in an independent woman solving mysteries no one else can solve. The audience for these books is probably very different from what adaptors are thinking the average movie/TV viewer wants.

              And I totally agree with you. Is a character’s sex life actually the most relatable thing about them? I would say no just for the obvious reason that everyone experiences sexuality differently. Nancy doing a friends with benefits thing doesn’t necessarily reflect some kind of modern consensus about what teens do. And it’s probably not more interesting than her solving an original mystery.

              I also think that sex sometimes becomes too central in stories to be believable. So…the world is ending, the sun is burning, the rebel rocket ships are approaching….and the characters are having sex? Not, trying to save the world? Or running away? Or…something? Sometimes, it’s just laughable. I’m sure they can express their undying love to each other in other ways while also getting in a rocket ship of their own to escape! Why not explore other ways to be and to love?

              Liked by 1 person

            • Michael J. Miller says:

              This makes PERFECT sense! If Nancy, as a character in her original/archetypal depiction, has no clear interior life and that allows readers to project their own onto her then OF COURSE adaptations that seek to develop her in a specific way will be rocky! Because no matter how they flesh her out with regard to specific hopes, dreams, or a sex life, it will come into conflict with the Nancy people have known and loved in their hearts – the Nancy they helped shape for themselves – since they were kids. That makes so much sense! You’ve blown my mind!

              From the way you’ve framed it, it seems like they navigated that relatability/aspirational line perfectly. Because a Nancy without a clearly defined interior life allows readers to project themselves onto her but when the main point is readers wanting to be like Nancy anyway, that excites and inspires readers, too. AND if a reader can see themselves in a character they seek to emulate, it gives them a model that shows them, “Yes! You can be like this, too!” So Nancy would then offer an aspirational goal that also feels achievable which is a beautiful, empowering thing, Nancy – as this brilliant super sleuth – is more than us but she subtly opens the door to invite us to believe we can be more, too.

              As far as Ned goes, Nancy caring more about mystery than about him isn’t the worst thing. I mean, I’ve had relationships fizzle and/or never fully takeoff for far worse reasons than the person I like being an AMAZING INVESTIGATOR who is busy SOLVING SUPER MYSTERIES. I think I would be ok with that if I were in Ned’s shoes :D.

              And you are so right about sex being too central in some stories! I won’t go into a long digression here but that’s what threw me while reading ‘The Mortal Instruments’ years ago. I was impressed with all the creative things the series was doing with ideas from ancient Judaism, ancient Christianity, and a whole slew of folkloric ideas…and then there was the most awkward world-ending-sexcapade-romp and it totally broke my suspension of disbelief. Now that’s what I remember most from the book – how ridiculous that was.

              Back to Nancy though, I think you’re correct with the adaptors being in the wrong mindset. First, there’s the obvious. This character has been around and has been popular for almost 100 years!!! Something works and tapping into that should be their first priority. As we’ve discussed above, just from a guaranteed sales point that makes sense. Second, if they were to appeal to the dedicated reader this brings an already solid, dedicated fan base. These fans will encourage others who will also fall in love with it. It’s an imperfect analogy but that’s kind of what Marvel did with the MCU. When ‘Iron Man’ came out in 2008 it felt just like the comics always did. The comic fans came out in droves but soon everyone was enjoying those movies, too. Some came with previous fans, others found it on their own. While the MCU has become a bit formulaic, the formula is still fairly anchored in who those characters always were.

              The exact same approach could work for Nancy Drew. And the audience is already there, too. Even beyond lifelong Nancy readers! We love true crime. We love mysteries and thrillers. The idea of an independent woman solving mysteries no one else can solve shouldn’t even be questioned as to how exciting and bankable an idea it is. I read Elizabeth Little’s ‘Pretty As A Picture’ not too long ago and I was impressed by how it was this modern, compelling, thoughtful mystery that didn’t need to rely on the unreliable narrator trope that’s been done to death over the last few years. I enjoy a lot of those novels but I don’t need another book or movie or TV show about a woman in the middle of some mystery who has a history of alcohol and/or drug abuse and/or mental health and/or emotional abuse problems. Just write a good mystery! You can trip me up without relying on making me questioning what the narrator thinks!

              Ok, rant over ;). But that’s exactly what Nancy Drew could be in a big modern adaptation as that’s what she’s always been in the books. It would appeal to lifelong Nancy Drew fans. It would appeal to people who love mysteries but are burnt out on the tired clichés we see all the time. It would appeal to people who want to see a well rounded female character since depicting an independent woman with well developed agency who can solve the mysteries no one else can is far more exciting and interesting than just saying she’s an “empowered modern character” because she has lots of sex.

              Also, if it’s not obvious it’s worth saying, your love of Nancy Drew is absolutely contagious. So thank you for that!
              Whenever I read your pieces about Nancy and/or we have these conversations I think a) I need to read more Nancy Drew, b) Nancy Drew is one of the most brilliant fictional characters of all time, and c) I want to know EVERYTHING about Nancy Drew! I come away from these chats thinking, “I need to take a Nancy Drew-focused sabbatical or something…” and I love it :).

              Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think I pretty much always knew Carolyn Keene was a ghostwriter, but it’s bizarre to think that there was a time when the syndicate was reeeallly dedicated to faking a whole identity for her!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. DoingDewey says:

    I’m so excited for you about this book! It seems like you really enjoy Nancy Drew and I love when I find nonfiction that intersects with one of my interests like this. What a fascinating story.

    Like

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