Mildred Wirt Benson
Highlights of a Life
If the name Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson doesn’t resonate with lay readers, it’s not because she didn’t write much. To be sure, Benson was a prolific writer, having penned well over 100 juvenile series books between 1927 and 1959. Under contract with a syndicate for much of her career, she wrote many of these titles under pseudonyms. Benson’s fame is cloaked by the fictitious Carolyn Keene, a name used by Benson – and as many as five others – to write the original 56 Nancy Drew stories.
Mildred Augustine was born in 1905 in Ladora, Iowa. A self-professed tomboy, Augustine hated playing with dolls, preferring instead to play sports and write stories. In fact, at age 14 she sold her first story for two and a half dollars to a religious magazine.
Benson, who lived and worked in Toledo until her death at age 96, ghostwrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries. Despite the commercial success of Nancy Drew (it has sold 80 million copies in 17 languages), Benson reached old age before she was finally recognized as the writer who established the original Nancy Drew character and the formula that kept the teen detective ageless and popular.
After spending a year in New York trying unsuccessfully to secure a writing job, Benson enrolled in graduate school at the University of Iowa. In 1927 she became the university’s first woman to earn a master’s degree in journalism. Around that time she received her first book plot from a publisher she had met in New York. Edward Stratemeyer was in the process of hiring a stable of anonymous writers to feed his production of inexpensive paperbacks. He recognized Benson’s talent and hired her to revive the faltering “Ruth Fielding” series.
In the early 1900s, Stratemeyer broke ground in the publishing business by slashing book prices in half and selling them in paperback for 50 cents. The demand for adventure-filled series was so high that he created a book “mill” staffed by house writers.
In the 1920s American girls began rejecting the dull and old-fashioned characters that had dominated fiction. The culture was ripe for literary escapism that offered thrilling plots and fearless, independent characters.
Benson’s style was refreshing and new. The “Ruth Fielding” series bounced back, and Benson had launched a career as a teen serial writer.
Soon after graduate school, Benson married Asa Wirt, a technician for the Associated Press. He was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio around the time she was offered the chance to develop a new series.
The Hardy Boys was such a hit with young male readers that Edward Stratemeyer saw the chance to create a female counterpart. He named the character Nancy Drew and turned her over to Benson, who molded the teen detective into a sportscar-driving girl with a feisty attitude and street smarts. Benson was paid $125 a book, signing away all rights to royalties.
Provided with only brief outlines, Benson created a heroine for whom countless adventures were in store. Ironically, Stratemeyer was bitterly disappointed with her first manuscript, declaring Nancy too “flip.” But the armchair editor released the book to print with no changes, and Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock was sent to print. It was an instant success, and Benson had found the steady writing work she’d been seeking. What’s more, girls’ book heroines everywhere were transformed into more aggressive, independent and confident characters.
Benson wrote dozens more books, both on her own and for syndicates. Under her own name, Mildred A. Wirt, she authored the Ruth Darrow stories about a girl pilot, and the Penny Parker books, which were published from 1939 to 1947. One year, Benson wrote 13 books, all the while working full-time as a news reporter.
She continued to ghost write for the Stratemeyer Syndicate after Edward’s death in 1930.
His daughters, who were excluded from their father’s business during his lifetime, took over the syndicate. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams maintained that she alone was the author of Nancy Drew, on the basis that she provided plot outlines and edited manuscripts. To tighten finances during the Depression, Adams lowered her writers’ pay to $75 per book; Benson declined to write the next three Nancy Drew titles. She went back to work for the syndicate in 1934, accepting outlines for Nancy Drew and other series.
In 1936 a daughter, Margaret, was born. The Associated Press transferred Asa Wirt to Toledo in 1939, and when Margaret was eight her mother began working at the Toledo Times (since renamed the Toledo Blade). She remained at the paper for 58 years, covering virtually every news beat.
Asa Wirt died in 1947 following a long illness. His widow remained in Toledo and married again in 1950. George A. Benson was an associate editor at the Toledo Times, and later became editor in 1954. During her second marriage, Benson continued to write but followed other interests as well, including foreign travel, golf and aviation.
While Benson was broadening her interests, Nancy Drew was losing interest. In the 1950s and 60s television surged, while the market for series books declined. Kids were watching TV for the entertainment their parents got from Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. When Nancy did re-emerge, the syndicate dropped the original blue covers in favor of splashier graphics, and assigned its writers the task of “updating” the earlier books. Harriet Adams ordered plots to be streamlined for a modern audience, eliminating old-fashioned references. In 1953 Benson completed her final title in the Drew series, The Clue of the Velvet Mask.
In the 1980s the series was re-packaged as “The Nancy Drew Files” in an attempt to appeal to the “sassy generation.” Critics characterized The Files as a Gothic romance format.
George Benson died from a stroke in 1959. Except for her reporting job at The Blade, the twice-widowed Benson took on fewer writing assignments, but continued her passion for golf and travel. True to the adventuresome core from which she created her female heroines, Benson was flying airplanes at age 60. When she was 81 she saw Haley’s comet for the second time in her life (she was six when it first passed), and wrote about it.
All told, Benson wrote 130 books. “Writing is a way of life for me,” she said in a 2001 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “It’s like getting up and having breakfast.”
Benson never intended to stay in journalism for so long, but used to say it kept her young and well-informed. “When I was hired they said I’d be the first one let go,” she said in 1999 interview with Ohio Magazine. Despite lung cancer and failing eyesight, Benson kept showing up for work to write her column on the elderly. She wrote her last column on May 30, 2002. Later that day Benson was taken to the hospital and died. She was 96.