Friday, July 17, 2020

A Salute to Mildred Wirt Benson, the first "Carolyn Keene"

by Shari Randall

When I was a little girl, I rarely noticed the authors’ names on the books I gobbled up like penny candy from the corner store.  The only exception was the author of my favorite books. Even though we referred to them as “Nancy Drews” my friends and I knew the author of the yellow covered books we traded was Carolyn Keene. 

Imagine my shock when I learned there was no “Carolyn Keene” and that it was a pen name for a stable of ghostwriters from the Stratemeyer Syndicate (is there a more terrifying corporate name?)

 As the years passed, I occasionally stumbled upon articles about the authors who made up that group, especially the first ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt Benson. Mildred and the other “Carolyn Keenes” inspired generations of young readers, especially girls. These authors gave us an independent female protagonist without parental interference or control, plus a jazzy blue roadster. I believe Mildred and her co-ghosts were one of the most influential groups of women in America (and if my FB feed is any indication, the world). Many women who broke glass ceilings have spoken of their hours reading Nancy Drew, women including presidential candidates and Supreme Court justices. My years as a children’s librarian have taught me that children’s world views are shaped by the stories they read.


Every July 10 on my Facebook author page, I commemorate Mildred’s birthday. As “Carolyn Keene,” she ghostwrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drews, creating the template for the determined girl detective who has inspired millions of young readers.

Here are five fast facts about Mildred:

  • Her typewriter is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.
  • She was an avid traveler and adventurer who trained as a pilot, traveling to South American archaeological sites before they were opened to tourists.
  • In 1927, she was the first student, man or woman, to earn a master’s in journalism at the University of Iowa.
  • She worked as a journalist for 50 years, mostly on the courthouse beat for the Toledo Blade.
  • Her role as Carolyn Keene was kept under wraps until researchers uncovered the story in the 1980s.


Raise a glass with me to Mildred. She opened the door for so many of us to the joy of reading mysteries. To Mildred!

Shari Randall is the author of the Lobster Shack Mystery Series. It's possible that her protagonist, Allegra "Allie" Larkin, and her chums, Verity Brooks and Bronwyn Denby, were inspired by Nancy, Bess, and George. You can see what she's up to on Facebook

1 comment:

  1. I imagine most female mystery writers and readers can trace their early inspiration back to Nancy Drew and Carolyn Keene's work. I'm glad to hear that she's at least memorialized in the Smithsonian and remains a cultural treasure. Thanks for the post. And kudos for the Claymore!

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