The mystery of the ghostwriter

Book looks at life of Iowan behind Nancy Drew series

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When Julie Rubini’s daughter died at age 10, Rubini and her husband searched for a way to honor their child’s memory. Knowing how much their daughter loved books, they settled on starting a children’s book festival in their hometown of Maumee, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo, in 2002.

Among the authors and illustrators of children’s books they invited to that first festival was Millie Benson, a local legend for her 50-plus years as a reporter and columnist at the Toledo Times and Toledo Blade. Benson was too frail to attend the May festival and died a few weeks later at the age of 96.

Twelve years later, Rubini found herself writing Millie Benson’s life story — “Missing Millie Benson: The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist” — a biography that will be of particular interest to Iowans.

Turns out, Millie ghostwrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries about the famed teenage sleuth. She breathed life into the independent, daring protagonist, so much so that her publisher initially feared Nancy Drew was too independent, too outspoken. But even though the series debuted in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, the books — selling for 50 cents each — were a hit.

In all, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, a native of the Iowa County city of Ladora, about 40 miles west of Iowa City, would write 130 “juvenile fiction” books. Most of those books — including titles in 18 series — were written under pseudonyms, including the “Carolyn Keene” you’ll find on the still-in-print Nancy Drew mysteries.

In 1980, Benson had to testify in a federal courtroom that she was the one who wrote those first Nancy Drew mysteries, and she had the proof. She wrote the books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate for a flat fee of $125, the equivalent of two months of a newspaper reporter’s salary at the time.

“She had no fear and demonstrated that at an early age,” Rubini said of Millie.

Rubini, 54, researched

the book on Millie during trips to Iowa, California, Arizona and New York City in 2014.

“I felt like Millie’s spirit was with me throughout,” Rubini said. “Things opened up, people were so willing to assist in my efforts to research and share Millie’s story. It was a joyful

experience.”

This is the first biography of Benson and the second book for Rubini, whose “Hidden Ohio” is now in its third printing. Rubini also serves on the city council in Maumee and is working on two more biographies for young readers for Ohio University Press.

In the book on Millie, Rubini shares how such famed series as the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Polly Parker and Nancy Drew were produced.

Those books and scores more came from the creative brain of Edward Stratemeyer, who started his career writing dime novels in the 1890s. He formed Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1905. He would outline books, with character names and plots, and then hire ghostwriters to produce the books.

Stratemeyer reaped the royalties and retained control of the characters and plots, enabling him to have several books being written simultaneously for the same character. The writers reaped no royalties but welcomed the flat fees he paid.

And though Stratemeyer’s sister, Harriett, tried to claim credit for having written all the Nancy Drew mysteries, the 1980 lawsuit cleared up that matter.

“It was really Millie,” Rubini said, “who fleshed out Nancy Drew and created this characterization that girls all over the world came to love.”

The series has been updated and shortened over the years, with the Nancy Drew character becoming less outspoken and more fearful — changes Millie didn’t like. There are now, unbelievably, 175 Nancy Drew mysteries, with 80 million copies sold and translations in 45 languages, plus offshoot book series, TV shows and movies.

In 1993, the University of Iowa honored its famed alum with a three-day Nancy Drew conference. More than 500 attended, including Millie, who was 87 at the time.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated the success that Nancy Drew” would have, Benson said at the time. “But I did know I was creating something that was an unusual book. I knew from the way that I felt when I wrote that it would be popular.”

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