Mildred Wirt Benson, aka Carolyn Keene Biography

Writer for the First Nancy Drew Books

Underwood typewriter with photo of Mildred Wirt Benson at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History / CC BY-NC 2.0

Teenage sleuth Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson had a great deal in common, including very long and active lives. Nancy Drew books, in one form or another, have been popular for more than 70 years. Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote the text of 23 of the first 25 Nancy Drew books under the direction of Edward Stratemeyer, was still an active newspaper columnist when she died in May of 2002 at the age of 96.

Benson's Early Years

Mildred A. Wirt Benson was a remarkable woman who knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer. Mildred Augustine was born on July 10, 1905, in Ladora, Iowa. Her first story was published when she was only 14. While attending the University of Iowa, she wrote and sold short stories to help cover college costs. Mildred also worked on the student newspaper and as a reporter for the Clinton, Iowa Herald. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa. In fact, it was while she was working for a master's degree that Benson submitted a manuscript for the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Ruth Fielding series and was hired to write for the series. She was then offered the opportunity to work on a new series about teenage sleuth Nancy Drew.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was established by author and entrepreneur Edward Stratemeyer for the purpose of developing children's book series. Stratemeyer created the characters and developed outlines of the plots for a variety of children's series and the Syndicate hired ghostwriters to turn them into books. The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew were among the series created through the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Benson received a flat fee of $125 from the Stratemeyer Syndicate for each book for which she was the writer. While Benson never hid the fact that she wrote the text for the Nancy Drew books, the Stratemeyer Syndicate made it a practice to require that its writers remain anonymous and listed Carolyn Keene as the author of the Nancy Drew series. Not until 1980, when she testified in a court case involving the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its publishers, did it begin to become commonly known that Benson wrote the text of the first Nancy Drew books, following the outlines provided by Edward Stratemeyer.

title page and frontispiece of "Mystery of the Glowing Eye", 1974
"Carolyn Keene" is listed as the author of all books in the Nancy Drew series. Courtesy of Nicole DiMella

Benson's Career

Although Benson went on to write numerous other books for youth on her own, including the Penny Parker series, the bulk of her career was devoted to journalism. She was a reporter and columnist in Ohio, first for The Toledo Times and then, The Toledo Blade, for 58 years. While she retired as a reporter in January of 2002 due to her health, Benson continued to write a monthly column "Millie Benson's Notebook." Benson was married and widowed twice and had one daughter, Ann.

Like Nancy Drew, Benson was smart, independent, and adventurous. She traveled a good deal, particularly in Central and South America. In her sixties, she became a licensed commercial and private pilot. It seems fitting that Nancy Drew and Mildred Wirt Benson had so much in common.

What Makes Nancy Drew Books So Popular?

What is it that has made Nancy Drew such a popular character? When the books were first published, Nancy Drew represented a new kind of heroine: a bright, attractive, resourceful girl, capable of solving mysteries and taking care of herself. According to Mildred Wirt Benson, " seems to me that Nancy was popular, and remains so, primarily because she personifies the dream image which exists within most teenagers." The Nancy Drew books continue to be popular with 9-12-year-olds.

3 Nancy Drew books in a stack on a table
Nancy Drew books like "The Hidden Staircase" are still popular with young readers. Courtesy of Nicole DiMella

Some of the boxed sets you might consider are:

  • Nancy Drew Starter Set, which includes The Secret of the Old ClockThe Hidden StaircaseThe Bungalow MysteryThe Mystery at Lilac InnThe Secret of Shadow Ranch, and The Secret of Red Gate Farm 
  • Nancy Drew Girl Detective Sleuth Set, which includes Without a TraceA Race Against TimeFalse Notes, and High Risk.

If you like audiobooks, try

  • The Secret of the Old Clock 
  • The Hidden Staircase

Individual Nancy Drew books, such as The Case of the Creative Crime and The Baby-Sitter Burglaries are also available in hardbound and/or paperback editions.

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Your Citation
Kennedy, Elizabeth. "Mildred Wirt Benson, aka Carolyn Keene Biography." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Kennedy, Elizabeth. (2020, August 28). Mildred Wirt Benson, aka Carolyn Keene Biography. Retrieved from Kennedy, Elizabeth. "Mildred Wirt Benson, aka Carolyn Keene Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).