Benson, Mildred (b. 1905)

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Benson, Mildred (b. 1905)

American author, pilot, and journalist who, under the name Carolyn Keene, effectively created the character of "Nancy Drew." Name variations: Mildred Augustine; Mildred Wirt Benson; Mildred A. Wirt; Ann Wirt; (pseudonyms) Frank Bell, Joan Clark, Don Palmer, Dorothy West; (collective pseudonyms) Julia K. Duncan, Alice B. Emerson, Frances K. Judd, Carolyn Keene, Helen Louise Thorndyke. Born Mildred Augustine in Ladora, Iowa, on July 10, 1905; daughter of J.L. (a doctor) and Lillian (Mattison) Augustine; University of Iowa, A.B., 1925, M.A., 1927; married Asa Alvin Wirt (d. 1947, affiliated with the Associated Press); married George A. Benson (d. 1959, editor of the Toledo [Ohio] Times), in 1950; children: (first marriage) Margaret Wirt.

Selected works:

(under collective pseudonym Alice B. Emerson) "Ruth Fielding" series (eight titles); (under Mildred A. Wirt) "Ruth Darrow Flying Stories" (four titles); (under collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene) "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories," including The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), The Hidden Staircase (1930), The Bungalow Mystery (1930), The Mystery at Lilac Inn (1930), The Secret at Shadow Ranch (1930), The Secret of Red Gate Farm (1931), The Clue in the Diary (1932), The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), The Message in the Hollow Oak (1935), The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (1936), The Whispering Statue (1937), The Haunted Bridge (1937), The Clue of the Tapping Heels (1939), The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk (1940), The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion (1941), The Quest of the Missing Map (1942), The Clue in the Jewel Box (1943), The Secret in the Old Attic (1944), The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (1945), The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (1946), The Clue in the Old Album (1947), The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (1948), The Clue of the Velvet Mask (1953); (under collective pseudonym Julia K. Duncan) "Doris Force Mystery Series" (two titles); (under Ann Wirt) "Madge Sterling" series (three titles); (under collective pseudonym Frances K. Judd) "Kay Tracey Mystery Stories" (12 titles); (under Mildred A. Wirt) "Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories" (seven titles); (under pseudonym Joan Clark) "Penny Nichols Mystery Stories" (four titles); (under collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene) "Dana Girls Mystery Series" (12 titles); (under Mildred A. Wirt) "Trailer Stories for Girls" (four titles); (under pseudonym Dorothy West) "Dot and Dash" series (five titles); (under Mildred A. Wirt) "Penny Parker Mystery Stories" (17 titles), "Brownie Scout" series (six titles), and "Dan Carter" series (six titles); (under pseudonym Don Palmer) "Boy Scout Explorers" series (three titles).

Between the years 1927 and 1959, author Mildred Benson, using her own name and a variety of pseudonyms, wrote over 100 series books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a writing house that produced juvenile fiction, including the popular "Tom Swift," "Bobbsey Twins," and "Hardy Boys" series. Her most popular creation, the girl sleuth Nancy Drew, has endured for over 70 years of printed life and has entertained more than three generations of young girls. Between 1938–1939, several of the Nancy Drew stories were even made into feature films, starring Bonita Granville . Benson was as spunky and daring as her intrepid heroine. Well into her 80s, she piloted her own plane and, in her 90s, continued holding down a job at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, writing a weekly column called "On the Go."

The daughter of a surgeon and a homemaker, Mildred Benson was born and raised in the small town of Ladora, Iowa. In 1925, after distinguishing herself as the first woman to receive a Master's degree from the University of Iowa's journalism school, she left for New York City to become a writer. While making the rounds in the city, she met Edward Stratemeyer, who put her credentials on file. Benson eventually returned to

Iowa where she dabbled in journalism, wrote some children's books, and married newsman Asa Wirt.

In 1929, she received a call from Stratemeyer, offering her an opportunity to work on the Syndicate's established "Ruth Fielding" series. When her work proved more than satisfactory, Stratemeyer tapped her for his new "Nancy Drew" mystery series, which he viewed as the counterpart to his successful "Hardy Boys" mysteries. After receiving a brief plot and character outline for the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, Benson crafted a smart, adventurous heroine, one she hoped would break the stereotypical mold. "Women had little opportunity in those days," she says. "Nancy came along when women were ready for a change." As it turned out, Stratemeyer thought the first manuscript was "too flip," but the publishers loved it, and Benson was signed for two more books. Her contract was standard for the Syndicate at the time, paying a flat fee of $125 per manuscript, with no royalties, and demanding that she not use the Syndicate pseudonym for any of her own books.

For years Benson, under the name Carolyn Keene, produced a new 200-page Nancy Drew story every six weeks or so, writing 22 of the next 29 books in the series, and frequently drawing on her own experiences for inspiration. "Even though she says she's not Nancy Drew," says Indiana writer Geoffrey S. Lapin, who in the 1960s tracked down Benson as the writer of the series, "the similarities are striking. Millie flew a plane until a couple of years ago; Nancy flew a plane. Millie is an avid golfer; one whole Nancy Drew book is devoted to golf. Millie went on archeological digs; Nancy also was an explorer."

In addition to Nancy Drew, Benson also worked on several other Stratemeyer projects, including the "Doris Force," "Kay Tracy," and "Dana Girls" series. She also published volumes under her own name, or variations of her own name, including the "Ruth Darrow Flying Stories."

After the death of her first husband, with whom she had a daughter, Margaret, Benson married George A. Benson, editor of Ohio's Toledo Times. Following his death in 1959, she put her fiction career behind her and embraced the newspaper business, covering everything from court trials to sports. In the late 1960s, when she was approached by an editor to start another series for young people, she was initially tempted. "Plots began to percolate," she said. "Then fog settled over my typewriter. The teenagers for whom I wrote lived in a world far removed from drugs, abortion, divorce and racial class. Regretfully, I turned down the offer. Any character I might create would never be attuned to today's social problems."

The Nancy Drew series continued after Benson left the Syndicate and has sold more than 80 million copies since its inception. Of late, the fictional girl detective has become the subject of scholarly studies and dissertations, and Benson has been hailed as a trailblazing feminist author. In 1993, the University of Iowa, Benson's alma mater, hosted a conference at which the topics under discussion included "Stereotypical Racial and Ethnic Images in Nancy Drew" and "Lesbian Code in Nancy Drew Mystery Stories." Benson simply rolls her eyes at all the hullabaloo, denying that there were any hidden motives in her work. "I never tried to influence anybody," she snaps. "I just tried to write a fast-moving story. I've heard all the different theories. They're a waste of time."


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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts