Mildred Benson

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Mildred Wirt Benson
Benson in the late 1990s
Benson in the late 1990s
BornMildred Augustine
(1905-07-10)July 10, 1905
Ladora, Iowa, United States
DiedMay 28, 2002(2002-05-28) (aged 96)
Toledo, Ohio, United States
Pen nameCarolyn Keene
Alice B. Emerson
Frances K. Judd
Joan Clark
Alma materUniversity of Iowa
GenreChildren's fiction
Years active1925–2002
Notable worksNancy Drew
Notable awardsAgatha Award[1]
Asa A. Wirt
(m. 1928; died 1947)
George Benson
(m. 1950; died 1959)

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson (July 10, 1905 – May 28, 2002) was an American journalist and writer of children's books. She wrote some of the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries and created the detective's adventurous personality.[2] Benson wrote under the Stratemeyer Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene, from 1929 to 1947 and contributed to 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries, which were bestsellers.[3][4]

Early life[edit]

Mildred Benson was born Mildred Augustine on July 10, 1905, in Ladora, Iowa, to Lillian and Dr. J. L. Augustine.[5] Benson earned her degree in English from the University of Iowa in 1925 in just three years. She later returned to the University, and in 1927, became the first student there to earn a master's degree in journalism.[5][6]

Writing career[edit]

Benson began her career selling short stories to magazines such as St. Nicholas and Lutheran Young Folks. During her college years, she worked at The Daily Iowan under editor George Gallup, and after receiving her undergraduate degree, for the society pages of the Clinton Herald.[5][6][7]

In addition to her work with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Benson also wrote many other series both in her name and under other pseudonyms from the 1930s to the 1950s. She ultimately wrote under a dozen names and published more than 130 books.[8][9] In 1930 and 1931, Benson wrote the Ruth Darrow series. Taking flying lessons and flying her own aircraft, Ruth wins a national cross-country race, lands on an aircraft carrier, helps the Forest Service in fighting forest fires, and alerts the Coast guard of an immigrant-smuggling scheme. The series has been highlighted as unusual for its time, for both its generally authentic aeronautical lore, and the consistent and outspoken advocacy of women's abilities and mechanical competence.[10][11]

From 1939 to 1947, Benson wrote the Penny Parker books which were published under her own name. Parker was the daughter of a newspaper editor who sought to become a reporter herself, often becoming involved in mysteries and dangerous situations. Parker was modeled after both the Nancy Drew character and Benson herself, but also gave Benson creative control of the character and her stories that she did not have for the Nancy Drew series. Benson would later cite Parker as her favorite of the characters she wrote, and considered her to be "a better Nancy Drew than Nancy is."[2][12][13]

Benson began working at the Toledo Blade in 1944, and continued there for 58 years. After the death of her second husband in 1959, Benson focused on journalism. In the 1990s, she began writing a weekly column for the Toledo Blade titled "On the Go". She continued this and writing obituaries full-time until a few months before her death.[5][12]

Stratemeyer Syndicate[edit]

In the spring of 1926, literary publisher Edward Stratemeyer wrote an ad looking for ghostwriters for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Benson applied with mentioning that she had plans to move to New York City where Stratemeyer's offices were located. At his request, Benson sent Stratemeyer some of her work with which he was impressed. While vacationing, she met Stratemeyer in New York in July and was offered to undertake the Ruth Fielding series.[14] Under the pseudonym of Alice B. Emerson, Benson wrote Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.[6][15] Stratemeyer credited Benson's writing for reviving sales of the Fielding series.

Syndicate ghostwriters took the outlines supplied by Stratemeyer and wrote the novel based from an outline sent to them. After her initial meeting with Stratemeyer, Benson never saw him again; the work was done through correspondence. As with all Syndicate ghostwriters, under the terms of her contract, Benson was paid a flat fee of $125 to $250 for each Stratemeyer-outlined text,[16] the equivalent of three months' pay for a newspaper reporter at that time. Ghostwriters signed away all rights to their texts and any claim to the Syndicate pseudonym used. Writers were, however, permitted to reveal that they wrote for the Syndicate. The Syndicate protected their pseudonyms to preserve series continuity as contributors to the series came and went.

In 1929, Stratemeyer developed a new series of detective novels with Benson in mind as the ghostwriter. He initially titled the heroine "Stella Strong", though upon selling the series to Grosset & Dunlap, they chose the alternative name "Nan Drew" and lengthened the name to Nancy Drew.[17] While Stratemeyer supplied the outlines of the first four novels for Benson, she developed Nancy's spunky, plucky personality, and her daring, adventurous spirit. Benson sought to make the heroine an unusually liberated woman for her time.[18] She later said about writing the initial books, "I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people."[9]

Shortly after finishing work on The Mystery at Lilac Inn, and only a few weeks after the launch of the series, Stratemeyer died. Under the terms of his will, all Syndicate ghostwriters, including Benson, were sent one-fifth of the equivalent of the royalties the Syndicate had received for each book series to which they had contributed.[19] Stratemeyer's daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer, initially attempted to sell the company as per his wishes, but were unable to find a buyer due to the Great Depression. They ultimately continued their father's work, and kept correspondence with Benson. Though Benson briefly quit the Nancy Drew series, she continued writing the Fielding books until the series was cancelled by its publisher in 1934. Upon returning to the Nancy Drew series in 1934, Adams and Stratemeyer were able to convince her to also write the Kay Tracey and Dana Girls series they had developed. The Dana Girls, which also used the Carolyn Keene pseudonym, had been written by The Hardy Boys ghostwriter Leslie McFarlane until he quit following the initial four books.[4][20]

Benson continued writing for the Syndicate until the early 1950s, when the Syndicate underwent management changes. Beginning in 1959, Adams began revising and updating the Nancy Drew books written by Benson. Adams also made changes to Nancy's personality that had been crafted by Benson, making her less assertive and spunky. In 1980, Grosset & Dunlap called Benson as a witness during a lawsuit against the Syndicate for contracting new titles with their competitor Simon & Schuster. Benson's testimony revealed her identity to the public as a contributor to the Nancy Drew mystery stories. After the death of her sister in 1973, Adams claimed she had written the series since her father's passing; she had received considerable publicity for this especially since both The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were adapted for television in the late 1970s. Since the revelation and subsequent research into Syndicate files, Benson has been acknowledged the creator of the original Nancy Drew along with Edward Stratemeyer.[21][22] In 2001, Benson received a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her contributions to the Nancy Drew series.[12]

Benson's favorite Nancy Drew story was The Hidden Staircase, the second mystery in the series.[22] Whenever asked, she would gladly autograph copies of the Nancy Drew books, but only the titles she actually wrote.

Personal life[edit]

In 1928, she married Asa Wirt, a correspondent for the Associated Press.[15] The couple had a daughter, Margaret "Peggy" Wirt, who was born in 1936. Asa Wirt died in 1947, following a long illness during which Mildred took care of him.[23][24] In 1950, she married George A. Benson, her editor at the Toledo Blade newspaper. He died in 1959.[23][25][26]

Benson was also known as a great adventurer. She made numerous trips to Central America, witnessing archaeological excavations and visiting Mayan sites. After her second husband's death, Benson obtained her pilot's license, and continued flying for several years.[12][27]

Benson died in Toledo at the age of 96 on May 28, 2002.[5][12]

Selected bibliography[edit]


As Mildred A. Wirt or Mildred Benson:[28]

  • Sky Racers, 1935[29]
  • Carolina Castle, historical fiction within a frame story
  • Courageous Wings, 1937[29]
  • Linda, 1940
  • Pirate Brig, historical fiction, published 1950 by Scribners but written earlier.
  • Dangerous Deadline, published by Dodd, Mead & Co. in 1950, a winner of the Boys' Life—Dodd, Mead Prize Competition, and reprinted by Scholastic Book Services.
  • Quarry Ghost 1959, UK edition, 1960, Kristie at College

A Mystery Book/Story for Girls series, Cupples & Leon, as Mildred A. Wirt[edit]

  • The Twin Ring Mystery, 1935
  • The Clue at Crooked Lane, 1936
  • The Hollow Wall Mystery, 1936
  • The Shadow Stone, 1937
  • The Wooden Shoe Mystery, 1938
  • Through the Moon-Gate Door, 1938
  • Ghost Gables, 1939
  • Painted Shield, 1939[30][31]

Stratemeyer Syndicate Series[edit]

Nancy Drew (as Carolyn Keene)[edit]

Kay Tracey (as Frances K. Judd)[edit]

  • 3. The Mystery of the Swaying Curtains, 1935
  • 4. The Shadow on the Door, 1935
  • 5. The Six-Fingered Glove Mystery, 1936
  • 6. The Green Cameo Mystery, 1936
  • 7. The Secret at the Windmill, 1937
  • 8. Beneath the Crimson Briar Bush, 1937
  • 9. The Message in the Sand Dunes, 1938
  • 10. The Murmuring Portrait, 1938
  • 11. When the Key Turned, 1939
  • 12. In the Sunken Garden, 1939
  • 14. The Sacred Feather, 1940

Penny Parker (as Mildred A. Wirt)[edit]

  • 1. Tale of the Witch Doll, 1939
  • 2. The Vanishing Houseboat, 1939
  • 3. Danger at the Drawbridge, 1940
  • 4. Behind the Green Door, 1940
  • 5. Clue of the Silken Ladder, 1941
  • 6. The Secret Pact, 1941
  • 7. The Clock Strikes Thirteen, 1942
  • 8. The Wishing Well, 1942
  • 9. Saboteurs on the River, 1943
  • 10. Ghost Beyond the Gate, 1943
  • 11. Hoofbeats on the Turnpike, 1944
  • 12. Voice from the Cave, 1944
  • 13. Guilt of the Brass Thieves, 1945
  • 14. Signal in the Dark, 1946
  • 15. Whispering Walls, 1946
  • 16. Swamp Island, 1947
  • 17. The Cry at Midnight, 1947
  • 18. Unpublished Title, would have been 1948

Dana Girls (as Carolyn Keene)[edit]

  • 5. The Secret at the Hermitage, 1936
  • 6. The Circle of Footprints, 1937
  • 7. The Mystery of the Locked Room, 1938
  • 8. The Clue in the Cobweb, 1939
  • 9. The Secret at the Gatehouse, 1940
  • 10. The Mysterious Fireplace, 1941
  • 11. The Clue of the Rusty Key, 1942
  • 12. The Portrait in the Sand, 1943
  • 14. The Clue in the Ivy, 1952
  • 15. The Secret of the Jade Ring, 1953
  • 16. Mystery at the Crossroads, 1954

Penny Nichols (as Joan Clark)[edit]

  • 1. Penny Nichols Finds a Clue, 1937
  • 2. Penny Nichols and the Mystery of the Lost Key, 1936
  • 3. Penny Nichols and the Black Imp, 1936
  • 4. Penny Nichols and the Knob Hill Mystery, 1939

Connie Carl (as Joan Clark)[edit]

  • 1. Connie Carl at Rainbow Ranch, 1939
  • 2. Connie Carl on Skis, would have been 1939 (made into Penny Parker #4)
  • 3. Untitled Third volume, would have been 1939[32]

Madge Sterling (as Ann Wirt)[edit]

  • 1. The Missing Formula, 1932
  • 2. The Deserted Yacht, 1932
  • 3. The Secret of the Sundial, 1932

Ruth Darrow (as Mildred A. Wirt)[edit]

  • 1 Ruth Darrow in the Air Derby, 1930
  • 2 Ruth Darrow in the Fire Patrol, 1930
  • 3. Ruth Darrow in Yucatán, 1931
  • 4. Ruth Darrow in the Coast Guard, 1931

Dan Carter Cub Scout (as Mildred A. Wirt)[edit]

  • 1. Dan Carter Cub Scout, 1949
  • 2. Dan Carter and the River Camp, 1949
  • 3. Dan Carter and the Money Box, 1950
  • 4. Dan Carter and the Haunted Castle, 1951
  • 5. Dan Carter and the Great Carved Face, 1952
  • 6. Dan Carter and the Cub Honor, 1953

Ruth Fielding (as Alice B. Emerson), a 30-book series[edit]

  • 23. Ruth Fielding and her Great Scenario, 1927
  • 24. Ruth Fielding at Cameron Hall, 1928
  • 25. Ruth Fielding Clearing Her Name, 1929
  • 26. Ruth Fielding in Talking Pictures, 1930
  • 27. Ruth Fielding and Baby June, 1931
  • 28. Ruth Fielding and Her Double, 1932
  • 29. Ruth Fielding and Her Greatest Triumph, 1933
  • 30. Ruth Fielding and Her Crowning Victory, 1934

Doris Force (as Julia K. Duncan), a four-book series[edit]

  • 1. Doris Force at Locked Gates, 1931
  • 2. Doris Force at Cloudy Cove, 1931


  1. ^ Ed Gorman (October 18, 2002). The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories: 3: Third Annual Collection. Tom Doherty Associates. pp. 24–. ISBN 978-1-4299-9331-9.
  2. ^ a b "Original Nancy Drew Ghostwriter Mildred Wirt Benson Was A Feminist Badass Who Deserves to Be Championed As Much As Her Famous Sleuth". July 17, 2015. Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  3. ^ Martin, Douglas (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
  4. ^ a b "Nancy Drew and Friends Online Exhibit: The Mystery of Carolyn Keene". Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e "Nancy Drew's first author dies". USA Today. Toledo, Ohio: Gannett Company Inc. May 29, 2002. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  6. ^ a b c Martin, Douglas (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  7. ^ "The Tale of the Ghost Writer". University of Iowa. Retrieved June 1, 2023.
  8. ^ Fisher, Jennifer. "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website". Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  9. ^ a b OLIVER, MYRNA (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, 96; Author Gave Life to Nancy Drew". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  10. ^ Erisman, Fred (2009). From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls' Aviation Stories. Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press. pp. 84–92. ISBN 978-0-87565-397-6.
  11. ^ "Books at Iowa: The Ghost of Nancy Drew". Archived from the original on November 30, 2014. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  12. ^ a b c d e Visci, Marissa (July 14, 2015). "The Original Ghostwriter Behind Nancy Drew Was One of The Most Interesting YA Writers of All Time". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  13. ^ Mark Zaborney; George J. Tanber. "Obituary: Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson / Author of first 23 Nancy Drew mysteries". Philadelphia Post-Gazette. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  14. ^ Rehak, Melanie (2006). Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Mariner Publishing. pp. 101–107. ISBN 9780156030564.
  15. ^ a b "Mildred Wirt Benson | The Writing University". Archived from the original on December 17, 2015. Retrieved December 15, 2015.
  16. ^ Brown, Patricia Leigh (May 9, 1993). "Conversations/Mildred Benson; A Ghostwriter and Her Sleuth: 63 Years of Smarts and Gumption". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  17. ^ Rehak, Melanie (2006). Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Mariner Publishing. pp. 110–115. ISBN 9780156030564.
  18. ^ "Storied Life of Millie Benson -". WGTE Public Media. Archived from the original on March 14, 2016. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  19. ^ Johnson, Deidre (1993). Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. New York Toronto New York: Twayne Publishers Maxwell Macmillan Canada Maxwell Macmillan International. p. 11. ISBN 0-8057-4006-6. OCLC 27172193. Stratemeyer had arranged that each of his writers [be sent] a sum equal to one fifth of their earnings from the Syndicate
  20. ^ Fisher, Jennifer. "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website". Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  21. ^ Benfer, Amy (October 8, 1999). "Who was Carolyn Keene?". Salon. Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  22. ^ a b "Mildred A. Wirt Benson Author Profile | Biography And Bibliography | NewReleaseToday". Retrieved April 14, 2016.
  23. ^ a b "Nancy Drew author dies". BBC News World Edition. May 29, 2002. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  24. ^ Douglas Martin (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, Author of Nancy Drew Mysteries, Dies at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  25. ^ Douglas Martin (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson Is Dead at 96; Wrote 23 Nancy Drew Books". The New York Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  26. ^ Myrna Oliver (May 30, 2002). "Mildred Benson, 96; Author Gave Life to Nancy Drew". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 16, 2012.
  27. ^ Visci, Marissa (July 14, 2015). "The Original Ghostwriter Behind Nancy Drew Was One of The Most Interesting YA Writers of All Time". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved December 16, 2015.
  28. ^ "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website".
  29. ^ a b "Books by Mildred Wirt | Nancy Drew and Friends".
  30. ^ "The Mildred A. Wirt Benson Website".
  31. ^ "The Mildred Wirt Mystery Stories".
  32. ^ The end of the manuscript of Connie Carl on Skis hints at another adventure for Connie when she wins the contest, which is a modeling job. No further information on the title is available.

External links[edit]

Electronic editions[edit]