Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Secret of the Old Clock or the Mysterious Case of the Nancy Drew Holy Grail

The Secret of the Old Clock or the 
Mysterious Case of the Nancy Drew Holy Grail
The Ghostwriter's Copy of Old Clock 
or How Nancy Drew Goes to Court and Gets Butchered

What do most Nancy Drew Collectors consider the "Holy Grail" of Nancy Drew collecting? Many consider a 1930 first printing of The Secret of the Old Clock with its original dust jacket to be that "Holy Grail." My journey to have a copy of Old Clock in original dust jacket took 20 years from when I officially started collecting. Along the way before getting mine, I got to see in person the "granddaddy" of them all - the copy owned by its original ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt Benson. So, it's time that I share my story of how I came to get mine and also see Millie's copy. And no, I didn't end up in an antique mall and stumble upon Old Clock for less than a dollar, though I certainly hoped that could happen. 

When I first began to seriously collect Nancy Drew books to add to my childhood hodge podge of various styles and formats and spinoffs, it was 1997. I'd recently gotten a computer - an old ACER from Best Buy, for those of you who remember those in the 1990s, and got on the big AOL - America Online. On the sloooooooooooow dial up Internet. Man do we have it easy today! It opened up quite a world of Nancy Drew collecting to me! Back at that time, and it seems like centuries ago when you think of how far tech has come since then, but there wasn't a lot of Nancy Drew stuff on the Internet at the time. Many of us who have been at it from that time or before, sort of paved the way with various websites, discussion groups and then onto social media. At the time I got on, there was just several sites and some that just focused on various series, not just Nancy Drew. I  began my Nancy Drew website around 2000 using the old AOL web pages at the time and then it soon morphed into what it is now. Before the Internet, collectors shared stories and traded and sold books in series book publications like Yellowback Library and through those would form groups who would get together for series book conventions.

There was one collector who I met first, who has remained a friend to this day and helped me get into collecting and so generously shared the ropes with me - and that was Gayle. I soon met her friend Vicki and then started making friends with others in the collecting community. Gayle told me all about eBay and boy was I hooked! Gayle and I started the Nancy Drew Sleuths discussion group which then soon morphed into the current Nancy Drew Sleuths fan group.

The brief history of how I got into this aside, I was on a quest to get a lot of vintage Nancy Drews because I only had stuff from the 1970s and beyond for the most part. One thing I kept hearing about was the first printing of Old Clock. How rare and scarce it was and there were only so many known copies. Collector Jennifer White has been keeping track at her series book blog and here's a link where you can check those out if you want to see how many have sold since the late 1990s. Mine is the 9th one to surface that she blogged about.

At the time I started collecting and up until around the early to mid-2000s, Old Clock was always known to sell for around $10,000 or more at auction. Then the values started coming down - economic issues were to blame, but also more were surfacing too. Many that have sold have had condition issues but after all, these are very vintage and that's the norm for a vintage book. Some sold were bought by resellers and then resold at eBay. Some sold were more pristine and minty.

I have always tried to not spend a lot on my Nancy Drew collection - with a few exceptions. In part because early on, I just couldn't afford to and also because it's fun to hunt for bargains too. But in more recent years I've been willing to spend a little more to get something I've looked for ages for. It's a matter of making it worth my time. The hunt is so much fun, but after 20 years, sometimes it's time! I recently purchased the Nancy Drew datebook and homework planner and I've only seen one sell in 20 years, it's very scarce and it will add to and enhance the Nancy Drew collection I donated to the Toledo Public Library and make it more complete, so I was willing to make that happen. The most I've ever spent on a collectible was my Rudy Nappi Hidden Staircase cover art painting and that's not a common thing for me to do. For me, getting a copy of Old Clock in dust jacket was always considered out of my reach due to how much it has always sold for. And how many times can one get it for the Super Sleuth-tacular Buy it now price of $100 like one of our Nancy Drew discussion group members did back in the early 2000s on eBay. I think many of us were crushed that day who didn't see it listed first, but she was able to sell it - for over $10,000 we think - to help fund some of her college, so that was a good ending to it. I have never heard who purchased that copy, by the way...

First printing Old Clocks with original dust jackets have been mired in secrecy sometimes. Yes, not all collectors have admitted to what they have and I can understand that. It took me awhile to post about mine. Not because I didn't want anyone to know, but more that life has just gotten in the way since then for me in a lot of ways.

But let's jump back just a little further into history before I tell you about my journey to get mine in 2017. All the way back to 1930. Picture it. Cleveland, OH, 1930. You're the first Carolyn Keene, Mildred Wirt Benson. The first book in a series you were hired by Edward Stratemeyer to write has just been published along with the second and third volumes. Soon after, you have in your hand a copy of it and you can see for the first time how Nancy Drew has come to life - thanks to the beautiful and sophisticated artwork by Russell H. Tandy. From Stratemeyer's brainchild to Millie's writing from the outline to the beautiful Nancy Drew, illustrated so aptly on the cover. You're 24 years old. You have no idea what this is going to mean 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 90 years from now. It's a book you take pride in, but you park it on your shelves in your writing room that you begin to fill with many more volumes in the series, books from other similar Syndicate series you're contracted to write and lots of other books you write under your own name and various pseudonyms, and the pile of books grows around you as you plug away on your trusty Underwood typewriter. No one had a clue what this would become, especially not Edward Stratemeyer, and certainly not Millie at the time. By 1980, it was more than clear what it had become. Mildred would be involved in a lawsuit between the two Nancy Drew publishers - Grosset & Dunlap and Simon and Schuster with the Stratemeyer Syndicate. She would get to testify for G&D and the lawyers for the trial would cut up her dust jacket for her first printing Old Clock which she had quite a time getting back from them after the trial. I do declare I feel all y'all's pain, at hearing that story of the cutting up of the dust jacket. It's possibly more titillating than a spine-tingling Nancy Drew cliffhanger! Read more about the biography I'm writing about Millie at this link to my website.


I'd heard stories about this dust jacket. I'd seen letters from Millie and references post-1980 trial, but I'd never seen it in person. Not until after her daughter Peggy passed away and all of Millie's authors copies were donated to the University of Iowa and are now housed in the Iowa Women's Archive there. If you want to read about how we came to help get a neat book case built to house the books - check out this blog posting I made about it.

I visited there soon after while planning our three mini conventions based on the 85th anniversary - one of which took place in Iowa City in 2015. I'm including pictures of Millie's copy above with the photos - you can see where she wrote inside it, "This was the first book ever written in the Nancy Drew series for Edward Stratemeyer by me." And signed it, "Mildred Augustine Wirt (Benson)." I also include pictures of the post-text ads to show this is a first - the first printing lists 8 Hardy Boys books on the first page of advertising after the text ends in the back of the book. You can also see where the spine is cut away, but the majority of the jacket is present. It was incredible to see this copy that was owned by Millie and that it's still preserved today for historians and for the fans.

Back to 2017. I was contacted in the fall by a man whose relative had passed away. He sent me some random photos of tubs filled with all sorts of Nancy Drew books. I didn't know who had passed away nor what was in those tubs to a great extent. The man was in the San Diego area and so I referred him to another area collector for help. As it turned out, there were tons of books and the biggest stack of blank endpaper format 1 Nancy Drew books I've ever seen in one place. This format was the original format of the books without the familiar orange silhouette in print from 1930 to 1932 and only the first seven books came in this format. Not all were first printings, but there were stacks of them! Many without dust jackets, some with reproduction dust jackets. Some are still being sold to this day on eBay.


There were some neat books that this collector had acquired. The story of my little misfit Old Clock, which has been through quite a journey, makes it kind of like those toys on the Island of Misfit Toys from the old Rudolph Christmas story. The book was in pretty darn good shape when it surfaced at eBay originally. But the seller's child - who I hope is still grounded to this day - tore the dust jacket. Then, once the collector purchased it from the reseller who originally bought it, he had a fire in his home. And some of his books had fire damage, including this book. It must have been heart breaking for him. I've shared an image that shows the spine of the book where you can see the darkening due to the fire. I've also included two pictures from the auction that were saved and posted in Jennifer White's series book blog of how it looked pre-fire. The collector had recreated the spine and had laid over the original dust jacket the recreated piece for it to look more pristine - he thankfully had not glued this piece on the original or I wouldn't have purchased it. It displays nicely and it's now got a home.

I went to the relative's house to check out other books that were for sale - some book club editions I was missing, library editions, two Harold Hill UK editions in dust jacket and some other UK editions, coloring books and the activity book and also some other dust jacketed editions. The collector had stacks of books with dust jackets - some dozens of the same. I didn't purchase a ton of books - around 40 books. I acquired some neat formats I was looking for. And then there was the Old Clock book. I really had no intention of purchasing that book when I headed to San Diego, but it was on my mind. But really, I kept telling myself, there's just no way...

Then I had the book in my hands, and well, the rest was history, I just couldn't leave it there. How many times do you come across your Holy Grail? Not very many. It wasn't in the pristine shape I'd prefer, however it can always be upgraded. So, after some going back and forth in my mind, it was decided. It's well protected in a beautiful slip case that a collector friend so generously sent me and it looks so pretty in its special box on the shelves.


Some of you may be wondering what I did with this book when I donated my entire collection to the Toledo Public Library last year. I kept it for now. I couldn't let it go - well I let part of it go. To explain, for nearly 20 years I had a version of this Holy Grail in my collection. I had the book itself without the dust jacket. I acquired it on eBay and was able to take it with me to Toledo in 2001 for our first unofficial convention where we met Millie. And I visited her at the Toledo Blade offices the day before the group's visit to meet her. I got to sit with her at her desk and she interviewed me for an article she was writing and I interviewed her for one I was writing. She signed several of my books including my Old Clock book. Gayle, who has a first printing of Old Clock, made me a wonderful repro dust jacket which remained on my book until 2017. Because they are a match, once I purchased my 2017 Old Clock, I took the book that was with that dust jacket and put the laser dust jacket on it and that book went to Toledo with the rest of my collection. I matched my signed Old Clock with the vintage dust jacket and that's what I have today in my much more meager collection of Nancy Drews. If you missed hearing about how that donation came to be and what's happening with the collection here's a link to my blog posting on it. 


So that wraps up how I came to find what I consider to be my Holy Grail of Nancy Drew collecting after 20 years of serious collecting. I didn't stumble across it in an antique mall or used book store, didn't find it for a song on eBay, though I dreamed of that happening. It came about sadly, due to the passing of a very mysterious and eccentric collector in the community and after a series of mishaps (wayward kids, fires) along the way. I'd love to know who owned it originally and how it lived it's life up until that time, but there aren't any real clues to determine that, except for an inscription in the book that is now in Toledo - "Bernice Jr, From Mother, Xmas 1930." If anyone has a few clues to the mysterious identity of Bernice, I'd love to hear from you. Mysterious history aside, I have given it a nice home and one that hopefully will preserve it for many years to come with me and then eventually Toledo with the rest of my collection.