Books October 2005

The Secret of the Old Saw

Nancy Drew has two mommies
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Yes, I was one of the slightly vintage women who let out a shriek when we saw it at Costco: The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories, a complete boxed set, fifty-six familiar yellow spines, shrink-wrapped. I can't remember now if it was $100 or $200 or $500, but I immediately paid it, with shaking hands. Surely my six-year-old niece or my preschool-aged daughters would eventually enjoy—indeed, would require—this treasure trove.

But that night it was I who jabbed car keys through plastic, removing the first five Nancys, a big fistful of them, like a furtive Costco glutton. I bent open The Secret of the Old Clock, and there it all was—titian hair, blue convertible, River Heights. But what I was flashing on most from pre-adolescence was the addiction. One lucky snatch at the corner Bookmobile and there you had it, your personal inhalant, whispering to you through an otherwise tedious afternoon. The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Clue of the Tapping Heels, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell, The Secret of the Wooden Lady—Carolyn Keene's rhythms alone were hypnotic; I'd be clawing the shelves if she'd penned The Secret in the Old Hamper, The Clue in the Cat Box, or The Mysterious Handbag.

As I read, a calm came over me. Nancy Drew's household is such a perfect triangle. With Nancy at the apex, to the left is Hannah Gruen (chicken sandwiches, fresh apple crumble) and to the right is handsome, pleasantly distracted Carson Drew (always working, but never too busy to take a call). What post-feminist woman doesn't yearn for a Hannah and a Carson? In my own grimly equitable marriage I have a Hannah Gruen who disagrees with where I put the spatula and a Carson Drew who suspects that the professional quagmires I routinely wade into are all my fault. Worse still, unlike the titian-haired sleuth, I'm expected to earn money and do chores. Who can solve mysteries under these conditions? Who can hear herself think? Coordinated blue traveling suit plus heels? Forget it.

Nancy has beauty (which she expends little effort on), fame (which she impatiently brushes off), and a boyfriend, Ned (whose nuts, from lack of use, have long since dropped off). But the real allure of Nancy Drew is that, almost uniquely among classic or modern heroines, she can follow—is allowed to follow—a train of thought. The plot opens ever outward for her, her speeding blue convertible a metaphor for the sure-shot arrow of her intellect, the splendidly whizzing shaft of the maiden huntress Diana. For clever girls of all ages (blonde, brunette, or otherwise) it's a rare treat to read stories in which our heroine's emotions come alive not with the love of a good man but with the pursuit of a bad one. Who doesn't thrill to the adrenaline-charged arrival of a "hunch"—triggering Nancy's trademark excitement, her thoughts swirling, eyes sparkling, fingers deliciously drumming with impatience to get into the library and pore over long-forgotten River Heights records that might reveal a clue about some suspicious handyman with a name like Nathaniel Mordechai Crumbley? Who doesn't lust for a chandelier-filled Civil War—era mansion to tap, panel by panel, in search of a secret passage, or maybe jewels? I mean, think of having an unbroken week—seven whole days—to get up every morning with nothing more on your mind than roving along the balustrades of your very own mansion, tap-tap-tapping for swag.

Because forget sex and romance; the solving of puzzles, mental trial and error, the deeply pleasurable act of raveling and unraveling—therein lies a secret part of the female psyche. (Knitting, anyone? There ought to be a movie celebrating this complex craft, which, if you ever get hooked, can give you—as it did me and a surprising number of women I know—no less than an emotional foundation. I see it as a Henry Jaglom, Sundance Channel movie, all monologues straight to camera: Women Knitting.) I think of a girlfriend I ran into recently—a sometime playwright, sometime public-radio arts commentator. While we pondered life in our forties, she charmingly admitted, "I've given up on my artistic ambitions—nowadays my happiest mornings are doing the crossword." I knew exactly what she meant! How often do I long to just sit in my office and play computer solitaire all day, with as much intensity as I want, without having to make a living, feed my children, or converse with my husband? But no, these people I live with seem to do little more than encroach on mother's hallowed puzzle time. Full of needs, they don't seem to understand their Hannah/Carson roles. While their mistress is intellectually engrossed, with her keen, attractive excitement, they should unobtrusively be bringing her warm plates of food, sharpened pencils, fresh checkbooks.

Fantasy? Who wants to be Catherine Zeta-Jones (with high-maintenance Michael Douglas in tow) when you could be Nancy?

And now, for Nancy Drew fanciers old and young, comes Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. With her first sentence ("Grab your magnifying glass, because this is a mystery story") Rehak shows she has a finger on the pulse of the faithful. A proper sleuth for grown-up girls, Rehak—in prose steely, lovely, and precise—explores why Nancy Drew has remained so popular since her arrival, in 1930, and answers the question Who was the mysterious Carolyn Keene?

Given her brainy if virginal nature, it's perhaps fitting that Nancy Drew burst full-grown, Athena-like, out of a father's head. He was the children's-book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, whose expertise at the time—he wrote and published juvenile fiction for forty years, much of it under the auspices of his syndicate of writers and editors—was almost Alan Greenspan—esque. He'd discovered, for instance, that writing under pen names such as Arthur M. Winfield and Laura Lee Hope actually boosted sales. (For the curious, Stratemeyer's Carolyn Keene began life as Louise Keene.) Also, he was not averse to throwing ever new leading characters against the wall and seeing who stuck. Aside from the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, Stratemeyer's somewhat incestuous if lesser-known brainchildren included the Rover Boys, the Blythe Girls, the Outdoor Girls, the Motor Girls, Ruth Fielding, Doris Force, and Perry Pierce. As Margaret Penrose he had a promising start in Dorothy Dale, but upon Dorothy's engagement sales immediately tanked.

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:

THE MYSTERY AT SHADOW RANCH
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!

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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