Books October 2005

The Secret of the Old Saw

Nancy Drew has two mommies

It was a mistake his syndicate would not repeat. In September of 1929 Stratemeyer pitched a new series, featuring "an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy." Her name would be Stella Strong, Diana Drew, Diana Dare, Helen Hale, Nan Nelson, or Nan Drew (which the publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, eventually lengthened to Nancy). His first five plots were, to say the least, marvels of literary economy. For instance:

A thrilling tale of mysterious doings at various places in the valley. Many thought that robberies of rich homes were contemplated. It remained for Stella Strong to clear up the perplexities.

For $125 a pop (with the syndicate keeping all rights in perpetuity), ghostwriters would flesh out books in the trademark Stratemeyer style: "We do not ask for what is commonly called 'fine writing,' (usually another name for what is tedious and cumbersome) but want something full of 'ginger' and action." Although dastardly villains were important (a personal favorite, namewise: Zany Shaw), it was the "'ginger' and action" that made Stratemeyer children's books the reading equivalent of $5.00 crack bags. Rehak describes an illuminating find made by Stratemeyer's daughter Harriet.

Looking over a book manuscript one afternoon, she discovered an entire page of action that had been carefully written by a ghostwriter and then crossed out by Stratemeyer in the editing process. Instead, written at the top of the page was the single word "CRASH!" On another, the entire introduction had been replaced by the one emphatic "BANG!"

But where was the ghostwriter who could do justice to Stella/Nancy? Enter—CRASH!—Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson. Perfectly cast for this tale, Mildred was a true character, evoked by Rehak as a kind of Iowa-born Katharine Hepburn. A diving champion, xylophone player, and aviator, she was the first woman to get a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa, after which she refused to write for the women's pages, calling them "jams and jellies." Spry into her old age, described by someone who knew her as having "a tangle of white curls and the dismissive air of Robert De Niro," she reportedly once snapped to a fellow journalist, "I gotta go interview some old fogey." At the time, she was ninety-three.

One hesitates to say BANG! (never mind that it is habit-forming), but Nancy Drew's story did indeed then take a hairpin turn. Not only was the first Nancy Drew, published on April 28, 1930, an immediate success (the allure of River Heights strong even in—or perhaps because of—a depression), but Edward Stratemeyer died of pneumonia just twelve days later. The syndicate fell at once into the hands of his two grieving daughters, Edna and most of all Harriet, who continued to carry the Nancy Drew torch through the next five decades.

And thus begins the real drama of Rehak's book: the ensuing conflict between Harriet the boss and Mildred the ghostwriter. Together they made up the yin and yang, if you will, of the authorial ur-entity we've come to know as Carolyn Keene. Their disagreements were not so much about plot and character mechanics. No, as Mildred would remember it years later, what with Harriet's being more "cultured" and "refined" and Mildred's being more competitive and "rough and tumble," their most heated debates were over the very heart of the matter: "What is Nancy?"

Rehak tracks Harriet and Mildred's correspondence as they exhaustively parsed Nancy from one book to the next. While Mildred loved a raging-water rescue scene involving a horse (Bess: "You saved me, Nancy"), Harriet insisted on adding a typical chaser of modesty (Nancy: "All I did was to grab hold of the bridle"). Mildred's heroines had swaggering confidence; Harriet worried that this verged on officiousness. Carped she, "Once in a while Nancy or Kay [Tracey, from another series Mildred was writing] will get beyond the bounds of respectfulness for their elders. After all, they are a bit young to order around police officials and doctors!" Mildred's girls also "declared in a low tone," "grumbled," or "commented grimly" (and Nancy's chum George Fayne veered toward the "slangy"). In Harriet's mind, the necessary ginger should be conveyed through eyes that pleasantly "twinkle" and "sparkle."

Looking back, it's easy to dis the lace-doily primness of Harriet Stratemeyer. As a cultural arbiter she had failings. Grosset & Dunlap's rewriting of the Nancy Drew collection, begun in 1958, was due partly to a racial prejudice to which Harriet was blind, folks of color never being an easy fit for River Heights (those who did appear spoke in an uneducated dialect and were typically villains). In the politically charged 1960s the Stratemeyer Syndicate introduced a cheerful new series to America about the Tollivers, "a family of five Negro children who have fun and adventures." It died more quickly than Dorothy Dale. (Which is not to say that Nancy was untouched by the sixties. Sample dialogue from The Clue of the Dancing Puppet: "You're cool customers" and "That ghostly dancer is getting me down.") Nor was Harriet a master of media relations. When the TV series Nancy Drew tanked in the late 1970s, its star, Pamela Sue Martin, boomeranged right into a Playboy photo spread. Horrified, Harriet drained Stratemeyer Syndicate funds to run outraged ads in Playboy and beyond, with little practical gain.

But the beauty of this cultural biography is Rehak's admirable insistence on giving credit where credit is due. Yes, Harriet may sometimes have been shortsighted, but she knew that Nancy's magic was in the details (sample cover comment: "My idea is to have Nancy wearing a dress with an Inca design and I am attaching some photographs from the July issue of Vogue magazine"—absolutely). The real Zany Shaws of Nancy Drew's first seventy-five years, Rehak suggests, were the people emotionally distant from Nancy: the faceless marketing directors of 1980s Simon & Schuster, who, upon acquiring the series, saw a Jordache jeans—clad Nancy Drew as merely a launching pad for clothing, accessories, and cosmetics. Hiss!

As Arthur Prager wrote in Saturday Review, while musing about why even in the psychedelic 1960s girls were still mad about the well-mannered sleuth, "Apparently there is a rock-ribbed streak of conservatism in the nine-to-eleven group … They will participate in outlandish fads for the sake of show, but they like things simple, basic, well organized." True still today, and not just of the younger set. Think of all the women my age who've participated in outlandish fads (Jordache jeans come to mind) but who prefer the basic, well-organized simplicity—faux as it may be—of that Westport battle-ax, Martha Stewart. Nancy's essential Drewness, after all, lies in her ability to tie villains up and make tea sandwiches—the perfect legacy from her two very different mommies. Out of the fiery editorial marriage of rough-and-tumble Mildred and refined Harriet came a perfectly behaved, kick-ass goddess-sleuth—the Nancy Drew that girls (and grown women) have known, loved, and wanted to be for seventy-five years.

All hail Nancy Drew!

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. Her commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media's Marketplace, and her solo show, Mother on Fire, is currently running at the 24th St. Theatre, in Los Angeles.

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