This summer I read Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak about the women who wrote the Nancy Drew books, as well as the man whose original idea she was. Sort of double and a half biography.
What is it about Nancy Drew? For so many girls (including me) she was the introduction to chapter books and to mysteries. In an article on Nancy’s enduring influence, The New York Times reported that Sonia Sotomayor said Nancy Drew represented boldness and intelligence. Fans include Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gayle King, Diane Sawyer, Nancy Pelosi and Nancy Grace.
Nancy Drew is independent and self-confident. There are mysteries to be solved and she gets down to it. She has a boyfriend, but unlike so many heroines of her era, Nancy’s objective isn’t to get the ring. I think she offers the feistiness of Jo March without all the suffering. She has the perfect young-girl-fantasy combination of plenty of money, an indulgent father and no mother to nag her about practicing the piano or trimming her bangs.
She was the brain child of Edward Stratemeyer, the already highly successful book series creator of the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, among many others. He ran a book syndicate where he came up with the ideas, sold them to publishers and then hired writers to implement his vision, often from detailed outlines. Stratemeyer’s early efforts were all books for boys. He and a lot of the publishing industry believed that that while girls would happily read books about boys, boys would never read books about girls. (I think I just heard that one yesterday.) But by the time Nancy Drew arrived on April 28,1930 he had plenty of experience with girls’ books. He was a master marketeer, finding ways for the kids who got his catalogs in the mail to give him more and more names. His books were viewed with a jaundiced eye by many and were actually removed from the public library in Newark, New Jersey, his home town, which only caused more books to be sold. Kids loved the books and traded them over back fences and during school recess. It was said by one critic they were “like an insidious narcotic with the habit-forming properties of opium.”
The first author Stratemeyer chose to write Nancy was a feisty, independent woman herself. Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, born in 1905, was a high dive champion and the first female to get a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. When she was 59 years old she got her pilot’s license and she was a working journalist all her life, though never, ever for the women’s pages which she dismissed as “jams and jellies.” She wrote 23 of the first 25 books under contracts that paid her between $80 and $125 per book.
With a few unsuccessful writers in between, the next real author of the Nancy books was Edward’s daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. A decade older than Mildred, Harriet grew up wealthier and in a more socially constricted environment. She wanted to work for her father when she graduated from Wellesley, and though he gave her some work to do at home, he wouldn’t hear of her coming into his offices. When Edward died in 1930, his plan had been for the business to be sold to provide for his wife and daughters, but in that Depression era, there were no buyers to be found. Harriet, despite having four young children at home, took over the syndicate. She ran it for forty years and is credited with keeping it afloat during the Depression and then revitalizing it in the 50s and 60s. In the 1950s, she also began authoring Nancy Drew.
The full book tells a great story about writing and ego and the publishing industry, full of remarkable, flawed, very human people. The Nancy Drew books have been updated, rewritten and repackaged many times over the years. I inherited a few of my mother’s 1930s editions, and though the casual racism and ethnic stereotyping are stunning, the stories are also richer and more complex, as is the heroine.
In any case, I’ll be grateful forever to Nancy Drew, because with her I developed the habit of reading, which is one of the greatest joys of my life.