The Secret of the Missing Author

 

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
Melanie Rehak
Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2005, 364 pp., $25, hardcover

I was lucky enough to inherit a few of the original 1930s Nancy Drews, with their blue covers -- the dust jackets were long gone -- and the orange silhouette of a girl peering through a magnifying glass on the front. The titles were wonderfully intriguing: The Hidden Staircase, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Secret of the Old Clock. Inside was a world of old-fashioned manners, clothes, and language, where women wore hats and gloves even in summer; live-in housekeepers provided lemonade and cookies; and convertibles were "œroadsters." The illustrations were strange and shadowy, and Nancy dressed like a flapper. I loved those books!

 

I was also fascinated by the author, Carolyn Keene. (Even the spelling of her name was interesting.) I knew from the advertisements in the back of the books that Carolyn Keene had written not only all the Nancy Drew mysteries but also a number of other series books. She was my first model of a professional woman writer, and I wanted to be her--even more than I wanted to be Nancy. Of course, in reality there was no Carolyn Keene--or was there? This is the mystery at the heart of Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, a wonderful dual biography of the women behind Nancy Drew.

 

The story is as convoluted and American as class, capitalism, feminism, and intellectual property rights can make it. For one thing, Nancy Drew was created by a man, Edward Stratemeyer. Born in 1862, Stratemeyer grew up on the stories of Horatio Alger and the other boys' adventure literature of the late nineteenth century. He became a successful and remarkably prolific children's book writer; in one eighteen-month period he wrote 42 dime novels. This virtual one-man book factory eventually realized he could make even more money by farming out the actual writing of the books to hired hands. Stratemeyer came up with the premise for each series and produced a plot outline for each book, which was handed over to a ghost writer who gave up all rights to the final product. In the same era in which Henry Ford envisioned the assembly line, and Frank Gilbreth did time and motion studies, Stratemeyer's idea of streamlining the writing of popular books was only slightly quirky. Thus in 1905 was born the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the most successful producer of children's books in the twentieth century.

 

Hit followed hit. Over the next two decades Stratemeyer produced the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Motor Girls, the Dana Girls, and the Hardy Boys, among others. Then in 1929, Stratemeyer had his best idea yet: a series of mysteries featuring an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy, to be called" the Stella Strong Stories." Or the Diana Dare Stories, Diana Drew Stories, Nan Nelson Stories, Nan Drew Stories, etc. The publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, chose the final name. Stratemeyer wrote three brief outlines and sent them off to a young, newly married graduate in journalism from the University of Iowa, Mildred Wirt Benson.

 

Benson would go on to write, by my count, 27 of the first thirty Nancy Drew mysteries. She made a wonderful Carolyn Keene. In many ways the model of the active, competent "up-to-date American girl," she was a champion swimmer, a tireless writer, and a died-in-the-wool reporter who filed her last story the day she died at the age of 96. The very undomestic mother of one daughter, she was also an adventurous spirit who became a pilot in her sixties, writing about flying and traveling for her long-time hometown newspaper, The Toledo Blade. So the mystery is solved. Mildred Wirt Benson was Carolyn Keene. Wasn't she?

  

Not so fast, girl detectives. The plot thickens. Only weeks after Nancy Drew made her first bow in 1930, Edward Stratemeyer died, and the business was taken over by his daughters, Edna Stratemeyer and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. From the beginning, Adams was the more active partner, coming into work every day, even though she was already a suburban homemaker with four daughters. It was Adams who shepherded Nancy Drew through all her growing pains, writing the outlines and working closely with Benson on editing. Adams took over writing the books herself in the early fifties. She wrote the last 26 of the 56 original Nancy Drew mysteries, and she oversaw the controversial revisions of the original series that began in 1959. The stories were shortened, the plots and language simplified, and the racism of the early books whitewashed.

 

The racism of the original series was undeniable. The few African American characters were caricatures. Villains were almost always foreign-born, often described as "swarthy" or looking like gypsies. There was thinly veiled anti-Semitism, too, with villains who were hook-nosed "misers," or "second-hand men." Nancy herself, though, had refreshingly down-to-earth values; she disliked snobs and understood that rich people were often bad, just as poor people were often good.

 

Adams championed the "nice" Nancy, enforcing the Stratemeyer Syndicate rules: no guns, no sex (not even a kiss), and no murders. Nancy Drew mysteries were always about lost wills, hidden treasures, and children separated from their real parents--never about dead bodies. More significantly, Adams regulated Nancy's manners and behavior, curbing her willfulness, especially around adults. She also disagreed with Benson about vocabulary, chiding her in a 1938 letter for using "a number of words beyond the comprehension of the average girl reader of our stories." (Of course, this was from a woman who apparently thought "the average girl reader" would understand that "titian-haired" meant red-headed.)

 

It's easy to like the adventurous, unacknowledged Benson, and to dislike the officious Adams, who took a lot of the credit and who reaped the royalties. Melanie Rehak is too nuanced a writer to villainize Adams, however. She gives Adams full credit for the difficult decision to take on a full-time career and for steering the syndicate successfully for five decades. Adams and Benson were of a generation who conducted all their business and much of their social lives by letter; in their 23-year association, they met in person only twice. Rehak makes good use of this treasure trove of correspondence, and she is brilliant at providing social and historical context for both Nancy and her creators. Rehak understands, for instance, the importance of a college education for women like Adams and Benson. Adams was a Wellesley College graduate, and she thought so highly of her alma mater that she once said that she thought Nancy Drew would have been a Wellesley girl if she had gone to college.

 

Melanie Rehak's research is exemplary and her writing is stylish and readable. In spite of the title, however, Girl Sleuth is not really a cultural history of Nancy Drew. Rehak only scratches the surface of cultural critique. She deals summarily with the racist content, as well as the remarkable fact that the revisions were apparently forced on the publisher by many letters of complaint, all before 1959. She does convey a nice sense of the intergenerational transmission of culture, with Stratemeyer's Victorian values lingering on in twentieth-century children's literature, and the feminism of Adams's and Benson's youth informing their portrayal of Nancy Drew, who actually belonged to the first post-feminist generation.

 

But the biggest mystery remains unanswered by Rehak: just what is the source of Nancy Drew's feminist mystique? For white women of a certain age, Nancy Drew was an almost universal influence, a precursor of girl power. Was it Benson's feistiness, or Adams's fierce determination? Is it simply that the original books were written by two women who grew up with the suffrage movement, and those books remained unchanged through 1959? Or could such a pro-active and independent girl character only have been created by a man? Stratemeyer had difficulty writing for and about girls, so Nancy is, in effect, modeled on the heroes of boys' adventure stories. Already out of school at 16, with a powerful, indulgent father and no mother, Nancy Drew has extraordinary freedom.

 

In fact, a lot of the appeal of the books lay in the solidarity between Nancy and her inseparable chums, sweet, feminine Bess and athletic, boyish George. As it turns out, Stratemeyer had an invaluable secretary, Harriet Otis Smith, who ran the business during his illness and just after his death. It was Smith who edited the fourth Nancy Drew book and who produced the outline for the fifth, The Secret of Shadow Ranch. Her legacy to the Nancy Drew legend is the introduction of the chums, Bess and George, in that fifth book. And we all know Nancy just wouldn't be Nancy without Bess and George.

 

Nan Cinnater is a former bookstore owner who has reviewed mysteries for Sojourner. and Feminist Bookstore News. Check out her mystery columns for Books to Watch Out For: The Lesbian Edition and More Books for Women at www.btwof.com.


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