|Your account||Today's news index||Weather||Traffic||Movies||Restaurants||Today's events|
Saturday, March 13, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Nancy Drew, starring in an updated book series, has a fascinating past
By Kari Wergeland
The story of how Nancy Drew, girl detective, became a new vision of what a female American could be courageous, resourceful, independent is fraught with mystery, politics, legal battles and a thinly veiled rivalry between two astute American women. It's a story worth the retelling, now that a new version of Nancy is on bookstore shelves.
The original Nancy Drew books were published during the 1930s. But contemporary sales of these titles, which now number in the hundreds, show their enduring popularity. And publishing giant Simon & Schuster has launched a new line of Nancy Drew books, which give her a new look, a new car and a new attitude.
"The strength of her character is timeless, and we look forward to introducing her to the new generation," said Jennifer Zatorski, Simon & Schuster spokeswoman.
The named author of the series, Carolyn Keene, was a pseudonym for a number of ghostwriters who worked on the series, including a plucky journalist named Mildred Wirt Benson.
Nancy's other "mother" was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. Over the years, Adams put together many plot outlines for Keene ghostwriters. After Benson stopped writing the series in 1953, Adams began creating a number of manuscripts herself.
The idea for Nancy was actually that of Edward Stratemeyer, Harriet's father and owner of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which eventually launched as many as 100 book series, including those featuring Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins and the Hardy Boys. Ghostwriters earned a flat fee of about $125, giving up all rights to their work, including the right to publicly reveal themselves as the author of any Stratemeyer title.
The original idea
Edward Stratemeyer was especially happy with the Hardy Boys, so he decided to create a similar series for girls. He put together an outline of "The Secret of the Old Clock" and hired Benson to write it.
He sent the manuscript to his publisher anyway. In the end, Grosset & Dunlap was so enthusiastic about the story, Stratemeyer decided to go forward with Benson's vision of Nancy. He quickly hired her to write the complete "breeder set" for the series.
Sadly, he only lived to see the first title published. After he died in 1930, his daughters Harriet and Edna took over the business.
In retrospect, Stratemeyer's initial hesitation can be seen as a harbinger of the ongoing, albeit cloaked, struggle that would ensue between Benson and Adams.
Adams, a 1914 Wellesly graduate, lived a refined life in the upper echelons of society. She wanted her own values reflected in the series. She felt the original Nancy was "too spirited and sharp-tongued," and she said as much in a 1977 Washington Post article.
In contrast, Benson lived a life that rivaled Nancy's fictitious existence. In "Rediscovering Nancy Drew" (edited by Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov; University of Iowa Press) Benson said that "I was probably a rough-and-tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living, and I was out in the world. That was my type of Nancy." But she, too, bristled at any suggestion that Nancy was a feminist.
Adams eventually got her way. When it became necessary to revise some of the older stories in 1959, she decided to oversee rewrites of the first 34, which included Benson's volumes. She claimed she intentionally scratched any stereotyping, especially racial stereotyping. She removed most characters of color, who were originally portrayed in a manner that would make today's readers wince.
She also gave the setting and characters a more contemporary look and feel. And she changed Nancy occasionally known to break the rules into a by-the-book sort of citizen. This revised Nancy became more reliant on outside authority, not to mention her boyfriend, Ned. In Benson's stories, Nancy often brazenly takes over for the police, even driving them around on occasion, while boyfriend Ned is a handsome face who shows up occasionally.
Many critics feel Adams removed much of the flavoring that made Nancy Drew so appealing. In an introduction to a facsimile edition of "The Secret of the Old Clock," published by Applewood Books, acclaimed mystery writer Sara Paretsky, creator of the feisty Chicago woman detective V.I. Warshawski, defends the earlier stories.
"Going back to the original Nancy Drew, as Applewood Books has done, is to take a revealing journey into our nation's social history. The books we relished as children dished up some dreadful racial attitudes. Hopefully we have outgrown those views, but we shouldn't forget how pervasive a part of American culture they were for many decades.
"At the same time Nancy Drew offered girls of 1930 an amazing alternative to the career choice of secretary and milliner that other children's books provided."
To be fair to Adams, the series probably would not be popular today if it hadn't been for her business acumen. Adams cherished Nancy above all the other Stratemeyer creations. Like many mothers, she wanted her "fiction daughter" to behave in a certain way. But that doesn't mean she wasn't dazzled by the idea of a female sleuth.
This struggle was eventually aired in a 1980 lawsuit between Grosset & Dunlap and Gulf & Western, then the parent company of Simon & Schuster. At the time, Adams was trying to move the syndicate to Simon & Schuster, but Grosset & Dunlap felt they had a stake in the series. As the trial progressed, both women testified.
In the end, Grosset & Dunlap retained the rights to the first 56 titles, which they are still selling today (the revised editions). Simon & Schuster was allowed to take control of the character.
Meanwhile, Benson got her due. For years Adams claimed to have written all of the Nancy Drew books, except for the first three which she insisted her father penned.
After the trial, Benson was given permission to claim authorship of 23 titles. While she was never able to command any royalties, she is credited in any new editions of these books.
Goodbye roadster, hello hybrid
Now that they are both in the grave, perhaps Benson and Adams can finally agree on something. For though the newest Simon & Schuster Nancy Drew series with its hip characters who say "cool" and "whatever" is sure to appeal to girls, neither woman would've completely recognized Nancy.
The new Nancy is vaguely reminiscent of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone. Her blue roadster had already morphed into a Mustang GT convertible some years back. Now she drives an "environmentally friendly" hybrid car. Sidekick Bess is beautiful, and handy with tools; George is lean, athletic and a computer whiz. Ned stays out of the way.
While these new books aren't poorly written (not always true of the earlier titles), they just don't have the same pizzazz as the original, unvarnished Nancy Drew.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company
Back to top