Goodreads: Girl Sleuth
Publication Date: 2005
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.
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.