b. 1905 d. 2002
As a youth she jumped off of bridges into the Iowa River
and became a championship diver
. She was the first woman to graduate from the School of Journalism at The University of Iowa
. She was the first - male or female - to receive a Master's Degree
in journalism from Iowa. One of her hobbies was Mayan
history and she took numerous trips to archeological
sites in Central America. At the age of 59 she went out and got a pilot's licence
- with ratings for both private and commercial planes.
Through eight decades as a newspaper reporter she would work for the Clinton Herald, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Toledo Times, and the Toledo Blade. She was still writing regular columns for the Blade when she died on May 28, 2002 at the age of 96. But while she touched many people through her newspaper articles, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson touched the world through a single character - Nancy Drew.
The heroines of girls' books back then were all namby-pamby. I was expressing a sort of tomboy spirit. - Mildred Wirt Benson
Benson wrote the first Nancy Drew book, The Secret of the Old Clock
, in 1930 for Edward Stratemeyer
. She was paid $125 and had to sign a release relegating to Stratemeyer all claims of authorship, plots
, characters, and the names of Nancy Drew
and Carolyn Keene
- the pseudonym under which all the Nancy Drew titles have appeared. She would write 23 of the first 30 Drew titles - for the same $125 per book.
Working from a single page outline provided by Stratemeyer, Mildred Benson imbued Nancy Drew with the confidence, intelligence, and character that would inspire girls around the world. Benson abandoned the idea that girls were only seeking romance. She gave Nancy Drew an adventurous streak. The books allowed girls and young women to dream of exciting careers at a time when females had few role models in print. Celebrities like actress Demi Moore and journalist Barbara Walters have said they were inspired by reading Nancy Drew:
I grew up on Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. The Bobbsey Twins were goody-goody, and Nancy Drew was fearless. I wanted to be somewhere between both. - Barbara Walters
The Nancy Drew Series would go on to sell over 200 million books in 17 languages. The identity of the original Carolyn Keene
was never divulged. In 1980, As Nancy Drew's 50th anniversary was being celebrated, Harriet Adams
- one of Edward Stratemeyer's daughters - was claiming and being publicly acknowledged as the writer behind Nancy Drew. The festivities received coverage from Time
, Newsweek, and the New York Times
. Adams was interviewed on National Public Radio
and the National Endowment for the Arts
was sponsored a film documentary made by her grandson, because she was a "national treasure." The name Mildred Wirt Benson
was never mentioned.
But in May of 1980, the United States District Court opened the case of Grosset & Dunlap versus Gulf & Western Corporation and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The publishing giants were fighting over the publishing rights to the Drew Series. Among the witnesses called were Harriet Adams and Mildred Benson.
During the trial, upon being introduced to Mildred, Adams first response was, "I thought that you were dead." While on the witness stand, Harriet Adams was presented with, and questioned about releases signed by both her and Mildred Wirt Benson. Even though she publicly acknowledged that Mildred was author of the books, Adams still insisted, "I wrote the books." Adams then became so unnerved by her cross-examination that she fell out of her chair in the witness box. For the first time, the world learned that the original Nancy Drew books were written not by Edward Stratemeyer or Harriet Adams, but by Mildred Wirt Benson.
The Nancy Drew stories were not the first, nor were they the last, books written by Mildred Benson. The former student, who one English teacher said had no potential as an author, wrote more than 130 books and published countless short stories. And while there appears to be much of Mildred Wirt Benson in Nancy Drew, Benson said that Nancy was not modeled after herself:
In writing I did feel as if I were she, but then when I created the Dot and Dash stories for younger children, I likewise felt as if I were Dot's obnoxious dog, Dash.
Mildred quit writing youth fiction in the 1950s, but in the late 1960s a publishing house asked her to begin writing youth fiction again. She declined:
The teenagers for whom I wrote lived in a world far removed from drugs, abortion, divorce, and racial clash. Any character I might create would never be attuned to today's social problems.
Throughout her life Mildred Wirt Benson
received numerous awards, honorary degrees, and citations. Her Underwood typewriter
, which she used to write the Nancy Drew books, now belongs to the Smithsonian Institution
Benson was predeceased by both her husbands, Asa Wirt and George A. Benson. She had one daughter, Penny Wirt.
Nancy Drew Titles by Mildred Wirt Benson
Series Contributed to in whole or part
- 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 of 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