Millie Benson aka Nancy Drew

I know it's a misstatement to say Millie Benson was Nancy Drew even though the late Ms. Benson did create the spunky girl detective. I guess I just feel that Millie patterned Nancy after herself. When she was a child, she didn't like playing with dolls. She liked sports, especially swimming and golf. Back in the early part of the 20th century, that kind of behavior was considered odd.

Cleaning Out Files = Procrastination

Why my sudden interest in Millie Benson? As usual, my interest was sparked by cleaning out some clipping files. I came across an article published in June of 2002 when Millie Benson died. She was 96 at the time and had just finished writing her weekly column for the Toledo Blade newspaper.

I reread the article. (That's why it takes me so dang long to clean out files!) I decided it didn't tell me nearly enough about this remarkable woman so I did a little research on the Internet. (What a great way to procrastinate on a tedious job.)

Millie had to have created Nancy as a reflection of herself. When she was young, Millie often had dived off a bridge into the Iowa River. She never gave up adventuring or sports. She continued to swim and play golf even past the age of 90 when most people are thinking a rocking chair on a porch is physical activity.

Millie outlived two husbands. She was the first person to receive a Master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Iowa. When she was 59, instead of retiring, she learned to fly and traveled to archeology digs in Central America. She never retired from life, especially never from writing which she'd been doing consistently since she was 14. She made her first sale in elementary school and earned the grand sum of $2.50. From 1930 to 1953, she wrote 130 books as well as writing for newspapers.

Under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, Millie wrote 23 of the first 30 original Nancy Drew books for Edward Stratemeyer, the book publisher behind the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys too. She signed a non-disclosure agreement and kept her word, never revealing to anyone that she was Carolyn Keene. The contract was a work for hire meaning she had no rights to the books. She never made a dime on them other than the original $125.00 fee paid to her. All those books, movies, and TV shows. She got nada.

Lawsuit Reveals Truth

In 1980, she came forward and testified in a lawsuit about the matter of who wrote those first Nancy Drew books. Millie believed strongly in honesty in everything, especially in journalism." The Stratemeyer Syndicate had celebrated Nancy Drew's 50th birthday that year. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams claimed that she and her father, Edward Stratemeyer, had written those early. The information was reprinted everywhere.

That's what got Millie involved. She set the record straight and discussed the style, tone, and voice of the early books compared to the later ones created by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. In her testimony, Millie said that the newer books removed the "spice." She said: "I was probably a rough-and-tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living, and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy."

Finally, she began to get the recognition she so richly deserved. In the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowa honored her achievements. Today's girls probably don't know why Nancy Drew was so important to previous generations of women. Nancy was a hero in an era when heroes were men, not girls. She took on crooks, explored secret rooms, and always solved the mystery.

Millie Benson said it best herself. She wrote about her memory book from high school and college. It was a reflection of youthful career ambitions in an age when girls weren't supposed to have any. From her memory book itself: Give life your best shot - if achievements fall short, the satisfaction of having tried will be its own reward.

Takeaway Truth

Your life cannot be separate from your writing. Each is a part of the other. Write what you know, and you'll find out you're writing about yourself, your life, and your times.


  1. If some offers me a spaceship I'll write what I know. Between now and then my imagination will have to work with what it's got.

    She sounds like a fascinating woman. I remember my friends reading Nancy Drew when we were younger. What she did was amazing.

  2. Ah, but we know more than our physical experiences. We know our attitudes, our interests, our emotions, and we know what we are passionate about. All that falls under the heading of write what you know.