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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Toledo's Millie Benson created the sleuth

The real Nancy Drew lived in Toledo.

For years she went about in relative anonymity - residing in Old Orchard, working as a newspaper reporter, and quietly breaking all kinds of stereotypes.

In 1980, though, the mystery was solved and the world learned that Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, author of 23 of the first 25 Nancy Drew mysteries under the pen name Carolyn Keene, was one of us.

What struck many were all of the similarities between the author and her gutsy, independent heroine. Mrs. Benson was a born adventurer who traveled by dugout canoe to explore archaeological sites in Central America. She started taking flying lessons at the age of 59. She was the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.

She always felt an affinity to her fictional sleuth, she once told a New York Times reporter.

"I sort of liked the character from the beginning," she said. "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."

In an article written in 1973, Mrs. Benson responded to the idea that Nancy was modeled on her author.

"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," she wrote.

Born July 10, 1905, in Ladora, Iowa, Mrs. Benson wanted to be a writer from an early age, and published her first book while she was a student at the University of Iowa. (In honor of the new Nancy Drew movie's release today, the university's libraries gathered her scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, and early writings into a single digitized collection at digital.lib.uiowa.edu/mwb.)

Blade staff reporter Millie Benson sits in the cockpit of ''The Pepsi Skywriter'' in this May 23, 1987 at Toledo Express Airport. Blade staff reporter Millie Benson sits in the cockpit of ''The Pepsi Skywriter'' in this May 23, 1987 at Toledo Express Airport.
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In 1929, Mrs. Benson took a brief plot outline and some character sketches from book syndicator Edward Stratemeyer and developed Nancy Drew. She never received more than $500 per book nor any royalties from the related movies, games, and other merchandise.

She was required to keep silent about her real identity, too. That lasted until a lawsuit between two publishers over the rights to the Nancy Drew books led to her testifying that she was the original Carolyn Keene.

But the life of Mrs. Benson - who donated her Underwood typewriter, which she used to craft the Nancy Drew books, to the Smithsonian Institution - wasn't limited to writing about a single character.

Mrs. Benson wrote 135 children's books under a variety of names, and the bulk of her career was spent as a newspaper reporter, where she covered beats that few women did at the time, including courts and city hall.

She started working for the Toledo Times in 1944, then became a reporter for The Blade in 1975 when the Times ceased publication. She had just finished writing a column at her desk in 2002 when she became ill and later died at Toledo Hospital at the age of 96.



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