Mildred Wirt Benson
July 10, 1905
Ladora, Iowa, United States
|Died||May 28, 2002 (aged 96)|
Toledo, Ohio, United States
|Notable awards||Agatha Award|
Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson (July 10, 1905 – May 28, 2002) was an American journalist and author of children's books. She wrote some of the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries and created the detective's adventurous personality. Benson wrote under the Stratemeyer Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene, from 1929 to 1947 and contributed to 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries, which were bestsellers.
Mildred Benson was born Mildred Augustine in Ladora, Iowa to Lillian and Dr. J. L. Augustine. Benson earned her degree in English from the University of Iowa in 1925 in just three years. She later returned to the University and in 1927, became the first student there to earn a master's degree in journalism. In 1928, she married Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. The couple had a daughter together, Peggy Wirt, who was born in 1936. After Wirt's death in 1947, she married George A. Benson, editor of the Toledo Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio. He died in 1959.
Benson worked for 58 years as a journalist, writing a weekly column for the Toledo Blade, and as a writer of many books. She continued to work full-time (mostly writing obituaries) until a few months before her death. She died from lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 96.
Benson was a great adventurer, making numerous trips to Central America, traversing the jungle in a Jeep, canoeing down rivers, visiting Mayan sites, flying airplanes and witnessing archaeological excavations.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Benson wrote for the society pages of the Clinton (Iowa) Herald. In the spring of 1926, Benson applied to an ad posted by the Stratemeyer Syndicate looking for ghostwriters. After getting the job, her first assignment was to write text for the book, "Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario" under the pseudonym of Alice B. Emerson.
Benson's most famous project while working for the Syndicate was ghostwriting for the Nancy Drew series under the name "Carolyn Keene." In addition to the Nancy Drew mysteries, Benson also wrote The Dana Girls series using the same pseudonym.
Later, Benson also wrote many other series, including the Penny Parker books which were published under her own name. She often told interviewers they were her favorites. The books were about the adventures of a young newspaper reporter. Benson herself continued writing for newspapers until her death. She wrote under a dozen names and published more than 130 books.
One unusual series was the cluster of four "Ruth Darrow" stories (1930–1931). Written as "Mildred Wirt," the books relate the adventures of an air-minded young woman of the era. Taking flying lessons and flying her own aircraft, Ruth wins a national cross-country race, lands on an aircraft carrier, helps the Forest Service in fighting forest fires, and alerts the Coast guard of an immigrant-smuggling scheme. The aeronautical lore in the books is generally authentic, but the series' greatest strength is its consistent and outspoken advocacy of women's abilities and mechanical competence.
While she wrote scores of books under her own and many other names, Benson is perhaps best known as one of 28 individuals who helped produce the Nancy Drew books. Edward Stratemeyer hired Mildred Benson in 1926 to assist in expanding his roughly drafted stories to satisfy increasing demand for his series.
Published book rights for the Nancy Drew series were owned by the Stratemeyer Syndicate and are currently owned by Simon & Schuster. As with all syndicate ghostwriters, Benson was paid a flat fee of $125 to $250 for each Stratemeyer-outlined text, the equivalent of three months' pay for a newspaper reporter at that time. At Edward Stratemeyer's death, under the terms of his will, all Syndicate ghostwriters, including Benson, were sent one fifth of the equivalent of the royalties the Syndicate had received for each book series to which they had contributed.
As with all Syndicate ghostwriters, under the terms of her contract, Benson signed away all rights to her texts and any claim to the Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene. She was, however, permitted to reveal that she wrote for the Syndicate. The Stratemeyers protected their Syndicate pen names to preserve series continuity as contributors to the series came and went. Simon & Schuster currently maintains the same system.
The character of Nancy Drew was conceived by Stratemeyer, who provided Benson with index card thumbnail sketches. However, she was the one who created Nancy's spunky, plucky personality, and her daring, adventurous spirit. Benson took the plots supplied by the Syndicate and created a character that is still loved today. Her texts were edited and rewritten as required, and the Syndicate published the books using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Subsequent Nancy Drew stories (with some exceptions) that Benson wrote were all re-written by Edna Stratemeyer Squier and, primarily, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, after their father's death in 1930.
Benson never anticipated that the books would be so popular but she knew, as she was writing them, that she was writing something that girls were going to like because the heroine was unusual for her time. She said, "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."
In 1980, Benson's testimony, which she offered in a court case involving the publishers, revealed her identity to the public as a contributor to the Nancy Drew mystery stories. Since then, Benson has been acknowledged the creator of the original Nancy Drew fans remember and love. In 2001, Benson received a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her contributions to the Nancy Drew series.
Benson's favorite Nancy Drew story was The Hidden Staircase, the second mystery in the series. Whenever asked she would gladly autograph copies of the Nancy Drew books, but only the titles she actually wrote.
Nancy Drew (as Carolyn Keene)
- 1. The Secret of the Old Clock, 1930
- 2. The Hidden Staircase, 1930
- 3. The Bungalow Mystery, 1930
- 4. The Mystery at Lilac Inn, 1930
- 5. The Secret at Shadow Ranch, 1931
- 6. The Secret of Red Gate Farm, 1931
- 7. The Clue in the Diary, 1932
- 8. The Clue of the Broken Locket, 1934
- 9. The Message in the Hollow Oak, 1935
- 10. The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, 1936
- 11. The Whispering Statue, 1937
- 12 The Haunted Bridge, 1937
- 13. The Clue of the Tapping Heels, 1939
- 14. The Mystery of the Brass-Bound Trunk, 1940
- 15. The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion, 1941
- 16. The Quest of the Missing Map, 1942
- 17. The Clue in the Jewel Box, 1943
- 18. The Secret in the Old Attic, 1944
- 19. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall, 1945
- 20. The Mystery of the Tolling Bell, 1946
- 21. The Clue in the Old Album, 1947
- 22. The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, 1948
- 23. The Clue of the Velvet Mask, 1953
Kay Tracey (as Frances K. Judd)
- 3. The Mystery of the Swaying Curtains, 1935
- 4. The Shadow on the Door, 1935
- 5. The Six-Fingered Glove Mystery, 1936
- 6. The Green Cameo Mystery, 1936
- 7. The Secret at the Windmill, 1937
- 8. Beneath the Crimson Briar Bush, 1937
- 9. The Message in the Sand Dunes, 1938
- 10. The Murmuring Portrait, 1938
- 11. When the Key Turned, 1939
- 12. In the Sunken Garden, 1939
- 14. The Sacred Feather, 1940
Penny Parker (as Mildred A. Wirt)
- 1. Tale of the Witch Doll, 1939
- 2. The Vanishing Houseboat, 1939
- 3. Danger at the Drawbridge, 1940
- 4. Behind the Green Door, 1940
- 5. Clue of the Silken Ladder, 1941
- 6. The Secret Pact, 1941
- 7. The Clock Strikes Thirteen, 1942
- 8. The Wishing Well, 1942
- 9. Saboteurs on the River, 1943
- 10. Ghost Beyond the Gate, 1943
- 11. Hoofbeats on the Turnpike, 1944
- 12. Voice from the Cave, 1944
- 13. Guilt of the Brass Thieves, 1945
- 14. Signal in the Dark, 1946
- 15. Whispering Walls, 1946
- 16. Swamp Island, 1947
- 17. The Cry at Midnight, 1947
- 18. Unpublished Title, would have been 1948
Dana Girls (as Carolyn Keene)
- 5. The Secret at the Hermitage, 1936
- 6. The Circle of Footprints, 1937
- 7. The Mystery of the Locked Room, 1938
- 8. The Clue in the Cobweb, 1939
- 9. The Secret at the Gatehouse, 1940
- 10. The Mysterious Fireplace, 1941
- 11. The Clue of the Rusty Key, 1942
- 12. The Portrait in the Sand, 1943
- 14. The Clue in the Ivy, 1952
- 15. The Secret of the Jade Ring, 1953
- 16. Mystery at the Crossroads, 1954
Penny Nichols (as Joan Clark)
- 1. Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, 1937
- 2. Penny Nichols and the Mystery of the Lost Key, 1936
- 3. Penny Nichols and the Black Imp, 1936
- 4. Penny Nichols and the Knob Hill Mystery, 1939
Connie Carl (as Joan Clark)
- 1. Connie Carl at Rainbow Ranch, 1939
- 2. Connie Carl on Skis, would have been 1939 (made into Penny Parker #4)
- 3. Untitled Third volume, would have been 1939
Madge Sterling (as Ann Wirt)
- 1. The Missing Formula, 1932
- 2. The Deserted Yacht, 1932
- 3. The Secret of the Sundial, 1932
Ruth Darrow (as Mildred A. Wirt)
- 1 Ruth Darrow in the Air Derby, 1930
- 2 Ruth Darrow in the Fire Patrol, 1930
- 3. Ruth Darrow in Yucatán, 1931
- 4. Ruth Darrow in the Coast Guard, 1931
- Ed Gorman (October 18, 2002). The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories: 3: Third Annual Collection. Tom Doherty Associates. pp. 24–. ISBN 978-1-4299-9331-9.
- "Original Nancy Drew Ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson Was A Feminist Badass Who Deserves to Be Championed As Much As Her Famous Sleuth". bustle.com. Retrieved April 16, 2016.
- Martin, Douglas (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
- "Nancy Drew and Friends Online Exhibit: The Mystery of Carolyn Keene". lib.umd.edu. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- "Nancy Drew's first author dies". USA Today. Toledo, Ohio: Gannett Company Inc. May 29, 2002. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Martin, Douglas (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- "Mildred Wirt Benson | The Writing University". www.writinguniversity.org. Archived from the original on December 17, 2015. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
- "Nancy Drew author dies". BBC News World Edition. May 29, 2002. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Douglas Martin (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, Author of Nancy Drew Mysteries, Dies at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Douglas Martin (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Myrna Oliver (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, 96; Author Gave Life to Nancy Drew". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
- Visci, Marissa (July 14, 2015). "The Original Ghostwriter Behind Nancy Drew Was One of The Most Interesting YA Writers of All Time". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- Visci, Marissa (July 14, 2015). "The Original Ghostwriter Behind Nancy Drew Was One of The Most Interesting YA Writers of All Time". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved December 16, 2015.
- Fisher, Jennifer. "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website". nancydrewsleuth.com. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- Fisher, Jennifer. "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website". nancydrewsleuth.com. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- OLIVER, MYRNA (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, 96; Author Gave Life to Nancy Drew". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- Erisman, Fred (2009). From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls' Aviation Stories. Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press. pp. 84–92. ISBN 978-0-87565-397-6.
- "Books at Iowa: The Ghost of Nancy Drew". digital.lib.uiowa.edu. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- Brown, Patricia Leigh (May 9, 1993). "Conversations/Mildred Benson; A Ghostwriter and Her Sleuth: 63 Years of Smarts and Gumption". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- "Storied Life of Millie Benson -". WGTE Public Media. Archived from the original on March 14, 2016. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- Benfer, Amy. "Who was Carolyn Keene?". Salon. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- "Mildred A. Wirt Benson Author Profile | Biography And Bibliography | NewReleaseToday". www.newreleasetoday.com. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
- The end of the manuscript of Connie Carl on Skis hints at another adventure for Connie when she wins the contest, which is a modeling job. No further information on the title is available.
- Works by Mildred Benson at Project Gutenberg
- Works by Mildred Benson at Faded Page (Canada)
- Works by or about Mildred Benson at Internet Archive
- Works by Mildred Benson at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Guide to the Mildred Wirt Collection. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
- The Mildred Wirt Benson Collection: digitized scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs and other artifacts donated by Benson to The University of Iowa Libraries.
- The Mildred Wirt Benson Website: biography, book lists, photographs and more, at the NancyDrewSleuth.com archive.
- Who was Carolyn Keene? An interview with Mildred Wirt Benson, the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew mystery novels. (October 1999)
- The case of the girl detective With the passing of Nancy Drew's first author, the mystery of the teenage sleuth's true identity only deepens. (June 2002)
- The Storied Life of Millie Benson at WGTE-TV
- Mildred Benson at Find a Grave