Friday, July 10, 2020

Happy 90th to Nancy Drew & Real Life Nancy Drew Mildred Wirt Benson

2020 has been an unusual year to say the least. No matter what's going on in the world though, we all have those things that comfort us in times that are rough. Things we turn to, to escape. Our happy places. For Nancy Drew fans and collectors, that's Nancy Drew. This year is the 90th anniversary of Nancy Drew, the series being published beginning April 28, 1930 with the first three books. Plans were made to celebrate among fans - there were conventions and activities, but due to the pandemic, plans had to be changed. We'll all belatedly celebrate together in 2021. We've held celebrations online and in groups at sites like Facebook, chat rooms like Zoom and through podcasts and written zines like The Sleuth.

I would be remiss to let the 10th of July go by without dwelling on that infamous Carolyn Keene, Mildred Wirt Benson, whose biography I'm currently still plugging away on. Writing her biography has been much like solving a Nancy Drew mystery in some ways. Lots of puzzle pieces to be uncovered. I wanted to give an update and chat about some of the interesting things that have happened along the way in researching this biography. I am hoping to get it finished by the year's end. I was delayed for several months away from my research, unable to travel back to get to it - like a Nancy Drew mystery foible of sorts.

She was one of the most interesting women I have come to know in my research, highly intelligent, very tenacious, and a very good writer. She was born July 10, 1905 in Ladora, IA. She lived most of her life in Toledo, OH. She had many adventures, much like her legacy heroine Nancy Drew. Some wonder if everything that has to be said about Millie has been said in numerous articles or even in previously published books. But there is a lot more to Millie than just being the first woman to graduate the University of Iowa with the first Masters in Journalism degree. There's a lot more than just her legacy of having written some of the original Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. And her life is much richer than just being a journalist from Toledo, OH. There's a lot of interesting layers in there that haven't ever really been spoken about in regard to her life - early and later - in which she went on many adventures around the country and the world, much like Nancy Drew. There's a kidnapping that has never been fully revealed and told about. There's a mysterious hunt for her autobiography that ensued for over a decade - was it found? And what did she have to say in it? I have the answers.

My research has taken me to the rolling hills of Iowa farmland, a historic family home in Ladora filled with sentiments and memories of Millie from decades ago. Friendships with her family who continue to honor her and her legacy and memory. The Iowa Women's Archive where K√§ren Mason, curator, and her staff have kindly helped me research into Millie's archive of donated papers there on numerous visits. Former University of Iowa Journalism Professor Carolyn Stewart Dyer (Rediscovering Nancy Drew) has so willingly helped me and encouraged me on visits discussing Millie and the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference that brought Millie back to be honored and recognized. I've been to Toledo and welcomed into The Blade into the library to view their boxes of papers and articles on Benson. I've been to two of the airports where Millie flew and have spoken to those who flew with her when she was flying. I've been to her grave, which bears the original silhouette of Nancy Drew, a memorial her daughter Peggy had added to the stone, from a card that my Nancy Drew Sleuths members sent her years ago. I've researched at the Toledo Public Library downtown branch, in the Rare Book Room looking at flight logs from Millie's flying days and spent time going through microfilm looking up many of Millie's Blade and Toledo Times columns. My extensive collection of a few thousand Nancy Drew books, collectibles and related ephemera was recently donated to the library there. Everyone around Toledo seems to have a Millie story and I've spoken to so many people about her. Online research has led to many articles over the years, articles about her early writing and much more to fill in blanks. There was even an underground cave in Kansas that houses an archive of court materials where I poured over depositions, transcripts and court documents from the infamous 1980 trial between Grosset & Dunlap and the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Simon & Schuster. There's even a tale to be told about a map drawn by someone on the location of her missing autobiography, hidden away in her historic Old Orchard home in Toledo.  Not to mention my sleuthing around Millie's attic just like Nancy Drew in The Secret in the Old Attic looking for further clues...

The Stratemeyer Syndicate records in New York at the 5th avenue branch have been an amazing collection to research from - over 300 boxes. I'm still going through research I've amassed there since trips to the library back as far as 2003 and there's records in Yale's Beinecke Library as well. Collectors who knew her have been wonderful and those who have purchased original letters of Millie's over the years have been willing to share what they have with me, some letters I currently look for remain elusive. Another piece of the puzzle I hope to find one day. Her daughter's passing in 2013 led to a lot of research material being uncovered by her family in the Toledo home and I have been given access in the last several years to that material - none of this has been seen before by other researchers or writers. Millie's personal letters with her husbands, numerous letters to her daughter Peggy, and lots of other personal items -- all of which show that she was even more clever of a woman - very Nancy Drew like - that we even realized. Over the years, various fans and researchers contacted Millie. Fans hounded her at The Blade wanting autographs. It was often overwhelming. Letters to her daughter reveal interesting insight she had toward certain people who may have tried to take advantage of her and the Nancy Drew notoriety. She was no slouch, she had people's number, for sure. Her birthright to Nancy Drew, was achieved later in life, another intriguing aspect people don't know much about. Her friendship with collector and writer Geoffrey S. Lapin is one that I intend to focus on in the biography. Geoff Lapin discovered her in the late 1960s and spent decades helping her get recognition for her work on the Nancy Drew series. He was instrumental in her becoming well known as the first Carolyn Keene and that's a legacy he can be proud of today.

Like any good Nancy Drew mystery, there's the plot. There's some sort of mystery to be solved. There's the infamous sleuthing that goes hand in hand. Searching for clues, uncovering puzzle pieces, putting it all together. There's the usual suspects - villains who try to threaten you to stay off the case or else, who put up roadblocks and detours to throw you off track, use subterfuge to distract you, and outright lie and cover up their misdeeds. There's the overcoming of those obstacles and threats and rounding up the crooks and resolving the case and saving the day. In Nancy Drew's world, it's mostly always all tied up in a nice little bow at the end and order is restored. Mystery solved. Writing this biography has run the gamut of all of those things. I feel a little like Nancy Drew trying to piece it all together. And it's all finally coming together. My adventure - and misadventures - in writing this biography will be in the bio as well in small part. The main focus of course is Millie's fascinating life.

I spoke to Millie on the phone a month or two before she passed away back in 2002. I'd met her the year before she died when our Nancy Drew Sleuths group members came to meet her in Toledo. We'd interviewed each other for articles we were writing about each other. She'd signed my books. I'd told her I was so inspired to meet her. That it was an honor and that Nancy Drew had inspired so many women - and men - to do more in their lives. That was a legacy she was proud of, even if sometimes she didn't get what all the fuss was about. She asked for ideas for columns - she'd written so many for decades she was running out of ideas. She knew I'd recently earned a  law degree, but she encouraged me to write. She said maybe you'll become a writer instead. Little did she know...

As I sit here looking at images taken from a small notebook, with thankfully some of the most legible handwriting I've seen from Millie (that's another story!) - I feel relieved and more assured. This notebook, which I held in my hand several years ago, was full of notes from a trip to Guatemala in the early 1960s. It was the final piece of the puzzle I needed to tell a rich tale indeed, detailing Millie's infamous experience there in the 1960s. One that led to many follow up trips back to try and uncover what had happened to her and why she had been kidnapped. It's a story right out of Nancy Drew and she used her Nancy Drew-like wits to get herself out of the situation. It's something out of a Hollywood movie, really. I can't wait to tell you all about it and so much more. Stay tuned and Happy Sleuthing!