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With a clue


Mildred Benson

Nancy Drew was cool. Period. She had it going on with her blue roadster and classy wardrobe of sweater sets, pencil skirts, and low-heeled Mary Janes. She had financial independence (thanks to her widowed lawyer father, who let her do whatever the hell she wanted) and two best girlfriends, Bess and George, along with boyfriend Ned Nickelson, as sharply sweet as the alliteration of his name.

But a big part of her appeal, so apparent in the plot lines and spunky dialogue, was also illustrated on each cover of the mystery novel series bearing her name, begun in 1930 by author Carolyn Keene. You see, for multitudes of young readers, Nancy Drew offered examples of both an intrepid girl sleuth and a woman writer. We imagined we could run around solving mysteries and write book after book about them.

Carolyn Keene was a pen name and the Nancy Drew Mystery Series the invention of Edward Stratemeyer, whose Stratemeyer Syndicate consisted of a stable of ghostwriters that churned out young readers' series like the Hardy Boys mysteries. Enter Mildred Augustine, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa. She answered a want ad during a trip to New York, and, following Stratemeyer's formula, revived a series of books about girl heroine Ruth Fielding. Stratemeyer then hired Augustine to write the first book in a new mystery series about a tight little bundle of brains named Nancy Drew.

Augustine's sassy, rule-breaking, whipsmart Drew was almost too much for Stratemeyer to take — he thought her smart-aleck ways needed to be toned down, but series publishers Alexander Grosset and George Dunlap saw what girls everywhere were soon to prove: Nancy Drew was the harbinger of a new generation of young women. Although she looked swank on every book cover, she wasn't all about fashion, boys, and domestic arts. She wasn't playing house before she got married — she was starting a career.

Just like Augustine herself, who got her first story published at age 13, finished high school in Iowa in three years, finished her English degree at the University of Iowa in as long, and become the first graduate — male or female — from the Masters Journalism program at the University of Iowa in 1927.

Under a contract the specified $125 a book, promised no royalties and made her swear her authorship to secrecy, Augustine wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries. She quit the gig in 1953, when Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet Adams, took over the company after her father died and decided to modernize the series with shorter books, fewer chapters, and a more demure Miss Drew. In short, the owners of Nancy Drew wanted the kind of character that Augustine had tried so had to avoid when she first gave her detective life on the page. Adams took over the writing and took all credit for the series itself until a court case in 1980 brought Benson nee Augustine (who had since been married and widowed twice, the last time to George Benson) and her role in creating Nancy Drew into the public's eye.

Benson may have lost a steady gig, but she never lacked for work. Over the course of her publishing career, she wrote a total of 135 books — all for young and juvenile readers — including the Penny Parker Mysteries series. But Benson was a journalist at heart, having gotten her start at the Clinton, Iowa, Herald in college. She went to work at the Toledo Times (later redubbed the Toledo Blade) in 1944. After reporting in Toledo for 58 years, Mildred retired in 2001, though she still wrote the monthly column "Millie Benson's Notebook" right up until she entered the hospital on May 28, the day she died at age 96. Her last column was published May 29.

Nancy Drew continues to solve new mysteries today, although she has changed over the years — she went to college, broke up with Ned, drives a Mustang, and wears tank tops. But no matter how modernized and Britney-ized Nancy Drew gets, her influence on generations of girls remains intact. Those of us who eagerly awaited each new title in the series years ago still remember the inspiration she provided to imagine we too could be independent and adventurous — anything but a housewife. Today the books have been reissued in their original sassy form by Applewood Books; whether they take a new place on our bookshelves for sentimental reasons or are shared with younger generations, Mildred Benson's Nancy Drew lives on.

Almost famous - Our Annual Salute to the Late Near-Great and Unjustly Obscure Wendy Ward writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to

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