Millie Benson with a mural of Nancy Drew at the Main Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library in 2001.
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Millie Benson's life reads like an adventure novel.
Determined, even as a child, to be a writer, Mrs. Benson sold her first story when she was 13. She went on to publish more than 130 books, and also spent 58 years as a newspaper reporter, much of it with The Blade.
Mrs. Benson, who was born on July 10, 1905, enjoyed sports, particularly swimming and golf, at a time when girls weren't encouraged in such physical pursuits. In her younger days, Mrs. Benson did swan dives off a bridge into the Iowa River, and she swam and played golf well into her 90s.
Married and widowed twice, Mrs. Benson learned to fly when she was 59 and traveled by dugout canoe to explore archeological sites in Central America. She loved doing loops in her plane and reveled in the time she flew at the edge of a tornado.
The peppery Mrs. Benson refused to retire from newspaper work, and had just finished writing a column at her desk in The Blade's newsroom on May 29, 2002, when she became ill and died several hours later in Toledo Hospital. She was 96.
Yet, as we celebrate the centennial of Mrs. Benson's birth today, many of the remarkable things she did during her lifetime fade into the background when compared with the enduring legacy she left behind - a fictional character named Nancy Drew.
In 1929, Mrs. Benson took a brief plot outline and some character sketches from book syndicator Edward Stratemeyer and - under the pen name Carolyn Keene - fashioned the gutsy, glamorous Nancy Drew. The first book in the best-selling mystery series, The Secret of the Old Clock, was published April 28, 1930.
Since then, more than 200 million copies of the books about the girl sleuth have been sold. Most importantly, the books, which have been translated into 25 languages, inspired several generations of women to emulate Nancy's independent spirit. At a time when girls were expected to become mothers and housewives, Nancy's life illuminated a different path, one filled with a combination of danger and self-fulfillment.
"Nancy Drews were no ordinary children's books. Reading Nancy Drew was a pivotal childhood experience for millions of girls,'' writes Carolyn Stewart Dyer in the introduction to Rediscovering Nancy Drew, a series of essays presented at the first-ever Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowa in 1993.
David Farah, publisher of Farrah's Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles, once called Mrs. Benson "the quintessential feminist of the 20th century'' for her creation of Nancy Drew. "Gloria Steinem is a pea compared to this woman,'' Farah told the Los Angeles Times.
In an autobiographical essay included in Rediscovering Nancy Drew, Mrs. Benson recalled how she first came up with golden-haired, roadster-driving sleuth. "The plots provided me were brief, yet certain hackneyed names and situations could not be bypassed. Therefore, I concentrated upon Nancy, trying to make her a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day.''
While many people came to believe that the adventurous Mrs. Benson created Nancy Drew in her own image, she said that wasn't exactly true. "Never was Nancy patterned after a real person. In writing, I did feel as if I were she, but then when I created the Dot and Dash stories for younger children, I likewise felt as if I were Dot's obnoxious dog, Dash.''
Mrs. Benson, who eventually wrote 23 of the first Nancy Drew books, never received more than $500 per book nor any royalties from the Nancy Drew-related movies, games, and other merchandise. She also was required to sign a contract forbidding her to reveal that she was "Carolyn Keene," and for years Mrs. Benson's close connection with the famous fictional detective was - suitably enough - a mystery.
Mrs. Benson kept her promise until a 1980 lawsuit between two publishers over the rights to the Nancy Drew books, when she testified that she was the original Carolyn Keene. Once her cloak of anonymity was removed, Mrs. Benson became something of a celebrity, deluged by fans who wanted to meet her and have her autograph their Nancy Drew books.
At one point, it all became too much for Mrs. Benson, who confided to a New York Times reporter in 1993: "I'm so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit.'' Yet Mrs. Benson also realized that Nancy had struck a chord with American women during the 1930s through the 1960s.
"I sort of liked the character from the beginning,'' she told the Times. "Now that kind of woman is common, but then it was a new concept, though not to me. I just naturally thought that girls could do the things boys did.''
Born in Ladora, Iowa, Mrs. Benson was the only child of Dr. and Mrs. J.L. Augustine. She "detested'' dolls, and often recalled that her earliest ambition was to become a writer. An early story was published in the St. Nicholas magazine in 1919; Mrs. Benson sold numerous other stories in the years following that first sale.
In 1925, Mrs. Benson received her bachelor's degree in English from the University of Iowa and worked for a year as a reporter for the Clinton, Iowa, paper before heading to New York City. There, a promised newspaper job fell through, but Mrs. Benson met Mr. Stratemeyer, head of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which published numerous series books for children, including The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift.
Mr. Stratemeyer offered Mrs. Benson a job writing a book in the Ruth Fielding series. She wrote that book, and another in the series, as she also tackled graduate work. In 1927, Mrs. Benson - ever the trailblazer - was the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.
Then came the offer to flesh out the sketchy idea for a series starring a girl sleuth. Mrs. Benson's creation was an immediate hit, and she went on to write 23 of the first books in the series.
Mr. Stratemeyer died suddenly, shortly after the Nancy Drew series was launched. His daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, took over the syndicate and, as the Nancy Drew books grew in popularity, she attempted to force Mrs. Benson to moderate Nancy's daring character.
Tired of battling with Mrs. Adams, Mrs. Benson eventually stopped working on the Nancy Drew series. Over the years, however, she wrote 135 children's books, many of them series books published under a number of pen names.
Mrs. Benson's personal favorite series was Penny Parker, which she wrote on her own, without being forced to follow a plot outline or use characters created by others. "I always thought Penny Parker was a better Nancy Drew than Nancy is,'' Mrs. Benson once said. In 1959, she published her last book, Quarry Ghost.
Mrs. Benson was married twice. She and Asa Wirt, a reporter for the Associated Press, were married in 1928 and had a daughter, Margaret (Peggy) Wirt. Mr. Wirt died in 1947, and three years later Mrs. Benson married George Benson, editor of the Toledo Times, who died in 1959.
The bulk of Mrs. Benson's career actually was spent as a newspaper reporter. She covered beats that few women did at the time, including courts and city hall. She began working for the former Toledo Times in 1944. She was famed for her work ethic, and explained in a December, 2001, column that it was due to the difficulty of getting hired by the Toledo Times during World War II.
"I was told after [the war] there would be layoffs and I would be the first one to go. I took the warning seriously, and for years I worked with a shadow over my head, never knowing when the last week would come.''
When The Toledo Times ceased publication in July, 1975, she became a reporter for The Blade.
In January, 2002 - at the age of 96 - Mrs. Benson reluctantly reduced her workload at The Blade, going to a schedule of one day per week. But she insisted on continuing to write a monthly column. Several months later, in May, Mrs. Benson had just completed her monthly column - about her love of libraries and books - when she began to feel ill.
Despite that, she began another column about the five greatest moments in her life, including her time as a pilot. Later that night, Mrs. Benson died.
An excerpt from that unfinished column was quoted in an article that appeared in The Blade with her obituary: "I found myself flying through a section of rainbow [in Colorado],'' Mrs. Benson wrote in that column. "Color completely saturated me - pink light flooded the cockpit - and I have never before or since ever experienced the same sensations. Scientists may try to duplicate this episode, but I never heard of anyone accomplishing it.''
Contact Karen MacPherson at: email@example.com or 202-662-7075.
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