Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

Melanie Rehak


On the first page of The Clue in the Diary, perhaps the only Nancy Drew book I’ve ever read, there’s a mystery. And just in case some reader might miss it, Nancy says, “It’s very mysterious.” What’s mysterious is that her new friends, the poor but proud Mrs. Swenson and “that darling Swenson child” (whose clothes are faded but clean, of course), haven’t received money orders they expected from Mr. Swenson, who left home to find work. Nancy muses, “I wonder if his letters–containing money orders–were stolen.” Some 100 pages later–and only after Mr. Swenson’s been seen in some mighty suspicious circumstances to throw clueless readers off track–we find out that Nancy’s hunch is right.

In the introduction to her recent book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her Melanie Rehak writes, “Grab your magnifying glass, because this is a mystery story.” She too is right, but not in the way she means. The mystery is why this book was published.

Oh, I’m being disingenuous. The reason it was published is that Nancy Drew has become that overused word pair, an American icon. Even people who’ve never read a Nancy Drew mystery know who she is. Millions upon millions of books of her adventures have been sold, starting in 1930 and continuing through her retooling for successive generations, including the Campus series that debuted in 1995.

She’s even inspired parodies–the surest sign of ubiquity. There’s Mabel Maney’s 1993 The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, in which Nancy Clue makes love at first sight with Cherry Aimless in a San Francisco motel. (Maney also wrote A Ghost in the Closet, a Hardly Boys mystery.) In Chelsea Cain’s novel Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, published this spring, Nancy ages, drinks and drives, and falls for a Hardy. In the often-staged 1978 play The Clue in the Old Birdbath (which ran for six months at Stage Left in 1993) the characters drop double entendres by the pound. “Jeepers! Let’s go for some tramps in the wood,” Tansy True suggests.

(Incidentally, what is it about gays and Nancy, not to mention the Hardy Boys? According to Michael Bronski, writing in the Gay & Lesbian Review, it’s the bondage–the periodic tying up of the young sleuths by various bad guys. Bronski finds sublimated sex everywhere, especially in a 1932 adventure in which Nancy notices a “hair-like crack” in a table that leads to a compartment that’s six inches long.)

Nancy, the titian blond from upscale, homogeneous River Heights, doted on by her successful lawyer widower father, Carson Drew, and kindly housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, has also inspired conferences and scholarly articles–and not only because scholars will deconstruct almost anything. Nancy is fun! And studying her is such a fun way to help get tenure!

Anyway, what Rehak means by her reference to mystery is that no one’s delved into the true, secret history of the women behind the 56 original Nancy Drew adventures, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. You may recollect a long obituary a few years ago for an intrepid nonagenarian columnist for an Ohio paper who was the author of the Drew books. That was Mildred, the first person to write under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Rehak thinks we need to know more. We need to know about the chautauqua assembly in Mildred’s native Ladora, Iowa. We need to know her father’s favorite quote, read the headlines of the articles she wrote for the Daily Iowan as a student, read her application letter and miscellaneous other letters she exchanged with her employers. We need to know that–my goodness!–she was pregnant while pounding out some of Nancy’s adventures and never mentioned it. We need to know as much as possible, because, because–because the mountain of paper is there! As a friend once told me, anyone’s life is interesting if you know how to cut. Rehak doesn’t.

But I’m getting ahead of the story. In 1929 Edward Stratemeyer proposed a series about a girl sleuth to Grosset & Dunlap. He’d conjured up the popular Hardy Boys a few years earlier, and the publisher enthusiastically accepted his five plot outlines. He offered the writing job to Mildred. Less than two weeks after the first Nancy Drew book was published he died, and his daughter Harriet, a Wellesley-educated wife and mother, took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate. With the help of the company’s longtime secretary and her sister, she became a shrewd and successful editor and CEO and eventually took over the writing of the books.

Rehak details all this, step by plodding step, attempting to liven up the material by inserting a few paragraphs from Women’s Studies 101 about Rosie the Riveter, women’s college enrollment, the postwar societal return to domesticity, and the second wave of feminism. To her credit, she depicts the way the plots were developed by the Stratemeyers, reports on the outrageously low payment for the books ($175 each, lowered to $125 during rocky times following Edward’s death), and shows the writers signing away all their rights. She includes brief accounts of in-house critiques of Nancy and her friends: tomboy George is called too boyish by editors, Nancy’s language is seen as too adult, she becomes more of a “sissy” in a manuscript an exhausted Mildred wrote while her husband was suffering one stroke after another. Rehak also describes Harriet’s business disagreements with her sister and a court fight over who owned Nancy, and she briefly mentions magazine parodies and a 1993 University of Iowa conference on Nancy. But these are all just tidbits. As Gertrude Stein once said, “There’s no there there.” The truth is, Nancy, despite her lack of character development, is much more interesting than her ghostwriters, at least as they’re presented here.

Rehak isn’t even trying to shape all this information into some larger cultural thesis. She offers almost no analysis of the way race and class are portrayed in the novels, though she mentions complaints about racial and ethnic prejudice in the Hardy Boys books and describes an ill-fated Stratemeyer attempt to market a series about a black family in the late 60s. She quotes some feminists here and there, and we do learn that as Nancy was being revised in the 60s, the conservative Harriet made her more demure and modest, even in the illustrations.

This is not to say these bits of information aren’t sometimes tantalizing. In 1926, before becoming Carolyn Keene, Mildred had been hired to write a novel in a series about actress Ruth Fielding, a fictional modern go-getter. “It was no accident that Ruth Fielding was turning into a detective of sorts,” Rehak writes, “for a nationwide craze for mystery novels was on.” She cites the work of Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner. But why was there a craze? Were readers trying to escape the grim realities of the Depression? If so, why detective pulp and not, say, utopian fantasies? Did the popularity of PIs have something to do with the quest for individuality in an increasingly mass-produced world? The cynicism that followed World War I? Did these noir novels play into readers’ fear of cities, densely packed with immigrants and lowlifes? (Maybe, though that does nothing to explain small-town Nancy or the Hardy brothers). How were all these lone detectives different from the erudite Sherlock Holmes?

But larger cultural lessons aren’t the concern of Rehak, who’s peering through her magnifying glass at minutiae. She seems to have taken on her subject with a light heart, writing in the introduction about the pleasure she took in the mysteries as a child, reading them by the gleam of the hallway light outside her bedroom. She started with “alluring yellow [book] spines,” then apparently tumbled into the archives and was overwhelmed. That damned magnifying glass!

Melanie Rehak

When: Tue 10/11, 7:30 PM

Where: Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark

Price: Free

Info: 773-769-9299