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The Case of the Missing Author

The following is a guest post is by Melanie Polutta, Librarian Cataloger in the Iberia/Rio Section of the African, Latin American, and Western European Division of the Library of Congress. 

A while ago, I wrote an article in the LCCN that described how Carolyn Keene, the author of the Nancy Drew series, was not actually a person, but rather a pseudonym for many different people, a pseudonym that continues to have a life of its own. My interest in it was purely from the standpoint of a cataloger and a reader. But an email from a reader of that article startled me – there was a lawsuit over Carolyn Keene? I had to find out more about this.

I started with the basics: I searched in the Library of Congress catalog to find out what there was about this. The best resource I found was Rediscovering Nancy Drew, the proceedings of a conference in 1993 that was all about Nancy Drew, the character. Buried in the text of the conference proceedings, there was apparently a controversy: who was Carolyn Keene?

By Carolyn Keene [Photo by Melanie Polutta]

Since the name of Carolyn Keene is actually a collective pseudonym for many different ghost writers, one of the issues that fans of the series hungered to know about was who actually wrote the books? The very first books, the ones that shaped the character of Nancy Drew and set the foundation for everything that was to follow, are of particular interest. Unfortunately, for a very long time, the answer was buried beneath the secrecy maintained by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the company that created the series. Every author who had participated in the series signed a contract that required them to stay silent about their work as authors. And most of them adhered to the contract.

So how did we find out for sure? Rumors had existed for a long time about the identity of that first writer. But in 1980, Grosset & Dunlap sued the Stratemeyer Syndicate to stop them from publishing the Nancy Drew books with anyone else. The original trial transcript is not available,  but an opinion from a related lawsuit regarding the lawyers’ fees is.

In the course of the trial, the woman who rightfully could claim to be the writer of 23 of the first 25 Nancy Drew books, Mildred Wirt Benson, testified on the stand that she had indeed been that writer. No one, not even the Stratemeyer Syndicate, could deny the truth. Of course, we need to remember that Mrs. Benson wasn’t the only writer, she was just the first. Many different people have contributed to the myth of Carolyn Keene and the character of Nancy Drew.

The ultimate consequence of this for those who are interested in the Nancy Drew series is we now know with considerable certainty that it was Mildred Wirt Benson who took the outlines sent to her by the Syndicate and gave life to the character that is still loved and read about today – the girl detective Nancy Drew.

Nancy has gone through quite a bit of change throughout her perennially young life, but she was then and is now still the spirited and intelligent girl who solves mysteries. And we can thank Carolyn Keene for that, whoever she was – and is.

2 Comments

  1. cheryl
    February 4, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    On every book shelf ….thats not a girl or a spirit or a ghost unless the ghost put the girl there what then has become of the mystery….her mom got her down well that is a true story . If you dont believe me I bet I could trak down the truth and you would have to pay me. What does a court do…decide who gets paid…ahhh sharp girl

  2. Susan Lewis
    February 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Thanks for your post about the Nancy Drew books. The author of most of the Nancy Drew books, Millie Benson, lived down the street from me when I was growing up in Toledo. She was a reporter for the Toledo Times, and later the Blade (Toledo’s daily newspaper). Not long before she died at 96, we would laugh about her “On the Go with Millie” column, which pictured the columnist in her 90′s. Only later did I learn that she had been a real feminist all her life, before such a term became popular, and exuded incredible energy up to the day she died. Millie Benson was, indeed, “on the go” her entire, interesting life. Her Blade obituary is at http://preview.tinyurl.com/a3p47o2 or at http://www.toledoblade.com/Books/2005/07/10/Millie-Benson-A-celebration-of-the-centennial-of-her-birth.html .

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