Happy 93rd, Nancy Drew!
A brief look back at 1930s Nancy Drew and how her early success shaped a successful Sleuthing career for over 93 years…
She's been knocked unconscious numerous times. Chloroformed. Kidnapped. Threatened. Strangled. Tortured. Impersonated. Yet, nothing stops Nancy Drew. She always got back in the proverbial saddle, her infamous blue roadster, and eventually solved the case and rounded up all the crooks and saved the day. To some, this might seem like perfection, but to most, we wouldn't have it any other way. She’s Mystery’s IT Girl for the ages, after all.
When Nancy Drew debuted on April 28, 1930, she truly was in many respects a trailblazer of series heroines and by the end of the year, sales were going very well and steadily grew. Considering the time period was during the Great Depression when many series went out of print and faltered, Nancy was a hit and girls were insatiable for the daring sleuths’ exploits. It was a time when girls were dreaming of more and aspiring to be more like Nancy and have the same freedom and respect and ability to use their wits to save themselves and conquer the world. As melodramatic as that may seem, Nancy Drew was hope, one mystery at a time, delivered in beautiful blue book bindings, wrapped up with colorfully illustrated dust jackets depicting scenes of Nancy Drew in peril or sleuthing for clues.
Before she became Mystery's IT Girl, there was the "Dream Team" or "Drew Team" who guaranteed her success in life, as she morphed from "Stella Strong" to "Nan Drew" to "Nancy Drew" and then got right down to business solving mysteries in her first case, The Secret of the Old Clock.
Let’s remember today on her anniversary some of the interesting creators behind the famous amateur sleuth who helped make her such a rousing success by the end of the 1930s. The "Drew" Team, who helped create and produce Nancy Drew and who made her the success she would become, is who we owe a hearty thanks to, for without them, I don't think Nancy Drew would be the pop culture icon that she is today.
Have you ever heard of The Stratemeyer Syndicate? Let’s get to the bottom of this mysterious sounding syndicate. It consisted of a literary giant who is often forgotten to history or overlooked. His name was Edward Stratemeyer. Heralded as “Father of the Fifty-center” – in 1934, Fortune Magazine compared him to Rockefeller – “"As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer." He invented Nancy Drew and what an invention! Such a breakout character for someone who was rather Victorian in nature. Victorian or not, Stratemeyer had a very savvy ability to capitalize on current events, trends and culture in creating the many books and series he either wrote himself or employed ghostwriters to do the writing for. He formed The Stratemeyer Syndicate around 1905 and went on to produce such popular series including The Bobbsey Twins, The Rover Boys, Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Ghostwriters signed away rights to the series, character and pen names and Stratemeyer farmed the manuscripts out to various publishers for publication. As simple as that sounds, it would become the stuff of mystery decades later, when scholars and fans of the books began wondering just who was writing their favorite books. Who was Nancy Drew’s author, Carolyn Keene, really? Stay tuned for more clues…
Nearly two weeks after Nancy Drew debuted, Stratemeyer passed away from pneumonia and never got to see one of his biggest legacies become such an amazing success. By the mid-1930s, Nancy Drew was outselling the boys’ series. Stratemeyer’s assistant, Harriet Otis Smith, would help his daughters Edna Stratemeyer Squier and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams continue on in the business after they could not find a buyer suitable during the Great Depression. Both women would go on to run their father’s company for many years, Harriet for many more after her sister Edna mostly retired from day-to-day business. Both would weather the Great Depression and the resulting loss of some series, World War 2 and paper shortages among more challenges to come their way. Both were getting a foothold in a very male-dominated publishing industry and thanks to Stratemeyer’s business model, thrived and made it a continued success overall. Without the sisters and their dedication, many of these popular series might just be a footnote in series literature history.
An aspiring writer, native Iowan, and first person to graduate from the University of Iowa with a master's in journalism would go on to write the first three Nancy Drew mysteries at the age of 24 and continue to write 20 more of the first 30 volumes in the series. She breathed a most feisty life into Nancy Drew, whose personality and character in the 1930s especially was much more ballsy and brash than the Nancy Drew of later books. Her Nancy Drew spoke up to authority, often snooped and helped herself to evidence she needed to solve mysteries and sped like the wind in her sporty roadster often leaving villains in her dust. She wasn’t afraid to pack heat or sucker punch a villain. She was Sleuth-tacular. And she was very much like her real-life ghost, Mildred Wirt Benson.
Benson, in addition to the 23 Nancy Drew books she wrote, also wrote other books in various series for The Stratemeyer Syndicate and many of her own books and series – 135 published books in all by the end of her juvenile series writing career. She spent decades as a journalist in Toledo, OH and having real life Nancy Drew adventures which I am chronicling as I am currently writing a biography about Benson. If you’re wondering why she didn’t write all the volumes in the first 30 books, that’s a mystery that has interesting roots. Did you know a Navy man ghosted some of the Nancy Drew books? Who was this other 1930s ghost behind Nancy Drew? He was Walter Karig, and he stepped in to write volumes 8-10 when, as a letter in the New York Public Library’s Stratemeyer Syndicate Archives reveals, Benson didn’t want to take a pay cut during the Depression. His writing style, on par with Benson’s and often more humorous in nature, was a near seamless transition, fans most likely didn’t realize someone new was writing several of the books and that’s how the Syndicate liked it. A pseudonym provided stability and continuity, no matter what was going on behind the scenes of Mysteryville.
Working rather closely with Benson in the 1930s was Edna, who wrote most of the 1930s outlines for Nancy Drew books that Benson ghosted after Stratemeyer passed away. Harriet became much more heavily involved with Nancy Drew when Edna moved to Florida and left the day to day running of the Syndicate to her. Harriet would begin to tone down Nancy Drew’s more blunt character and by the 1950s, ghostwrite many of the books herself until her death in 1982.
Commercial illustrator and reported drinking companion on occasion to Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemmingway, Russell H. Tandy was the first to bring Nancy Drew to life and illustrated covers through the late 1940s as well as internal illustrations. His sophisticated style and fashionable covers were a hit with fans and are highly collectible and beloved still today. Between his depiction of Nancy and Benson’s excellent writing style, Nancy Drew was disappearing off the shelves into eager hands. Forget the fact that libraries often snubbed children’s literature like Nancy Drew! Fans of the books created their own libraries and shared them around to friends in the neighborhood and at school. Over the decades, generations of fans from moms to grandmothers lovingly passed down their books to their kids and grandkids, ensuring that Nancy Drew would endure through the ages.
Though no one knew it at the time by the close of the 1930s when Nancy Drew was an established success, looking back on this long running and very popular series still in print and new books, it’s phenomenal that books are still being reprinted and new ones published. Over 600 mysteries have been solved and counting. Numerous movies and TV shows have been made about her. We now have a company, Wandering Planet Toys, who is about to produce for the first time ever, Nancy Drew Action Figures! Get yours now while you can by May 17! The Nancy Drew Sleuths fan group holds annual conventions and publishes a zine, The Sleuth, about her. Nancy Drew has resonated with millions of fans over the generations and has inspired some of the most powerful women in America, including most of the female justices on the US Supreme Court. I think Stratemeyer would be most proud of that legacy and that his own daughters continued the business for many years after his death and made such a success of so many series books and characters we hold near and dear like Nancy Drew.