Guest Fox, the Late Mildred Wirt Benson

The Author Who Breathed Life into Nancy Drew

[But I’m reading her Penny Parker series]

By Jeff Salter

Over my 492 blogs at 4F1H, I have hosted many wonderful Guest Foxes… but this is my first time to host a noted author who passed away in 2002 at the age of 96 — Mildred Wirt Benson.

Mildred wrote under a dozen different names and published some 130 titles in at least nine series. My focus today is on the Penny Parker series, one of two written under Mildred’s own name and one in which she evidently had considerably more freedom to create not only the concepts and outlines… but the personality of the title sleuth and the entire cast of supporting characters in Riverview.

And yes — Penny is a sleuth, as much a Nancy Drew as ND herself. The way I look at it, Penny is the character that Nancy would have been if Mildred had not been harnessed by the contracts, outlines, and editorial oversight at Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Mildred came to my attention either in the 1980s – during the spill-over publicity about a trial involving Stratemeyer’s heirs and that syndicate’s publisher over the rights to the entire Nancy Drew series (among many other titles spawned by the Stratemeyer stable) – or in 2002, amid the publicity after Mildred’s death. Prior to that point, I – like any good librarian – was aware that Carolyn Keene was merely a pseudonym… but it never dawned on me how many ghost writers – 28 – actually participated in the Nancy Drew series under that name.


Before I further discuss Mildred Wirt Benson and her Penny Parker series, let me provide a bit of background on Mildred’s place in the more successful – and far more heavily promoted – Nancy Drew series.


As I recall the suit itself, the current ND publisher – Simon & Schuster, to which Harriet moved after the original publisher (Grosset & Dunlap) refused to renegotiate royalty rates – insisted they [S&S] ALSO now “owned” the books’ content, the extensive backlist, and the ND name… along with all the merchandising rights. Whereas, G&D sued Harriet (and other surviving Stratemeyer heirs) claiming that it was a breach of contract for them to lose rights to the ND titles they’d already published. Lost in that legal muddle was that ND was entirely the syndicate’s creative output and rightfully “belonged” to them. I suppose, somewhere down the line, several attorneys picked over those early contracts between Edward Stratemeyer and the publisher (G&D) with whom his syndicate produced all those series and titles.

[Note that while Stratemeyer received only 4% royalties on all those volumes, the actual ghost-writers – including Mildred Benson – received NO royalties. They were paid between $125-$250 per title… period.]

From syndicate outlines, Mildred wrote 23 of the first 30 ND titles and truly was the individual who “developed” Nancy into the popular figure who inspired generations of American females.

At some point in the ND timeline, however, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams [one of two daughters of the namesake founder] basically began publicly claiming that SHE was the sole, true “Carolyn Keene” — thereby ignoring those other 27 ghost writers, including Mildred. While it’s correct that Harriet did continue producing many (but not all) of the outlines – as her father had begun – and it’s accurate that Harriet did write a few of the ND novels on her own, it’s a far reach to claim that she was the sole author of ALL those other titles. And it flies in the face of well-documented fact that it was Mildred who initially fleshed out those earliest (brief) outlines and literally formed the personality and context details of the famous teen-aged sleuth.

After learning of Mildred’s ground-breaking involvement in the ND universe, I began reading those old titles from the 1930s and 1940s — the ones Mildred wrote. As a kid, I’d read a few of the Hardy Boys titles – also created by the Stratemeyer syndicate, with its own stable of ghost-writers – but never paid much attention to Nancy. After all, Nancy was a girl… and girls were widely known – by every elementary school boy – to have “cooties.”

So it was quite a surprise to find how enjoyable those early stories were… despite the fact that the original versions do contain occasional racial and ethnic stereotypes. Most or all of the ND series (and the Hardy Boys) were overhauled beginning around 1959 — to clean up those stereotypes and also to update their depiction of society and culture in general. Not to mention automobiles and other technology. [I’ll pause here to declare that I much prefer the earlier, original versions and consider the re-writes to be inferior abridgements.]

Penny Parker Series

This has been a long way around the block to get back to Penny Parker, but I wanted y’all to know a bit about Mildred and the ND series she helped create and launch.

Penny – like Nancy – lives with her successful father and a doting housekeeper. Her mom, like Nancy’s, is deceased. Where Nancy’s dad was a successful attorney, Penny’s father is owner and publisher of Riverview’s finest daily newspaper.

Like Nancy, Penny is attractive, bright, inquisitive, charming, charitable, and bold. But, like her better known counterpart, Penny is also privileged, indulged, spoiled, often quite aggressive (in pursuit of facts… whether or not they’re any of her dadgum business), and often tramples on the preferences and feelings of her closest friends.

Penny’s bestie is Louise, with darker hair and plumper figure, who dutifully follows Penny into any manner of ill-advised escapade. Penny often works closely with the newspaper’s ace photographer, named Salt. Another “friend” – with whom there is some latent romantic attraction – is Jerry, the newspaper’s star reporter. Over the course of the 17 volume PP series – published between 1939-47 – Jerry joins the Army Air Corps, pilots bombers in the European theater, and returns to his civilian job… presumably at least 4-5 years older. However, Penny remains about 17 in high school that entire time.

Roughly seven titles released during the war years reflect concerns of that period, such as rationing, black marketeering, civil defense blackouts, saboteurs, defense production plants, etc. But the (total) ten titles released before and after the war have a timeless sense to them… which helps explain how Penny doesn’t age at all. Ha.

I have three titles remaining in the PP series, which means I’ve already read 14. As I’ve done so, I’ve spent part of my time examining them with a critical (editorial) eye… noticing things like dangling plot threads, lack of motivation in characters, plentiful plot holes, etc. But the issue I’ve most noticed is the lackadaisical attitude of Mr. Parker – and, often, the housekeeper (though she expresses more concern than he does) – over the comings and goings of his young daughter. Sure, Riverview is a relatively “safe” community – compared, I suppose to NYC or Chicago (among others) – but it’s still a haven for rascals, criminals, and even saboteurs. Does that potential danger affect Mr. Parker’s parenting? Nope. There’s usually about one spot in each title where he says something like, “You know, I really shouldn’t allow you to go to that isolated place [fill in the blank] on your own.” But then he relents and Penny embarks on her dangerous escapade… sometimes alone, but often with a reluctant Louise or an indulgent Jerry. And frequently at night!

As I pondered this author’s mindset – circa 1940s – about Penny’s “freedom” to come and go, poking her perky nose into mysterious and often patently dangerous situations, I had to come to grips with the reason that it seemed so strange to me. That reason, I believe, is the gender gap. If Mark Twain had written these exact tales, featuring Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, I’m sure I would have simply “gone with the flow” — appreciating their adventure and discounting the whole issue of accountability and danger.

So it was truly ground-breaking for Mildred to create such a bold, courageous, independent, and head-strong young lady to investigate and solve all the mysterious goings-on in and around Riverview. I can’t picture myself being a pre-teen girl, but I can imagine reading such adventures was quite an eye-opening thrill for the young females of that era.

Oh, here’s one big difference between Nancy and Penny: at the end of Vol. 15 – Whispering Walls – Penny is KISSED by Jerry! Remember, this is the same Jerry who’s already been to war and back… and he’s at least 7-8 years her senior. How scandalous!


How about YOU? Did you ever read Nancy Drew stories? How about Penny Parker’s?

For a glimpse of the background and prodigious output of the fascinating author, Mildred Wirt Benson, check out this Wiki article.

Bio sketch of Mildred:

For an in-depth study of ND’s origins, Mildred’s background and contributions, the Stratemeyer sisters’ involvement, and the trial itself, consult this excellent work by Melanie Rehak — Girl Sleuth Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her [Harcourt, 2005].

If you’d like to read the Penny Parker tales, you can acquire 15 of her 17 volumes for 99 cents – that’s less than SEVEN CENTS each (in electronic format, of course).

NOTE: Nancy Drew turned age 80 in April, two months ago.

[JLS # 492]


About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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19 Responses to Guest Fox, the Late Mildred Wirt Benson

  1. Patricia Kiyono says:

    Great bio of a talented woman. Yes, I often wondered how Nancy and other favorite characters I read about (The Bobbsey Twins, The Boxcar Children, Ramona and the Henry Huggins gang) were able to come and go so easily. My parents never let me go anywhere unless they knew exactly where I was going, who I’d be with, and when I’d be home.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I — sometimes with my older brother but more often with my pals — was allowed considerable freedom of movement as a kid in the 1950s-1960s. I didn’t have many “restrictions” at all until I got my drivers’ license — LOL. That’s when I got hit with all the curfews, rules, requirements, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very in-depth inter/review, Jeff. So much fodder for discussion!
    I read one, maybe two Nancy Drews that were my sisters.She was very fond of her.I couldn’t get excited about them, but maybe I was too young to appreciate t hem. They went ‘new and improved’ with the Bobbsey Twins and (shudders), The Boxcar Children,(which became quite a popular series for my grandchildren to read in the last 10 years). I found both revivals wanting in substance, although they were now, especially in the Bobbsey Twins, less socially/racially more sensitive.
    Contracts! I suppose when one is dealing with other writers, ghost writers and production is w here an agent and certainly, lawyers, knowledgeable in the area are a necessary expense. And as far as being paid little for work that brings in a great deal, that happens in many creative areas. We watched a special on The Funk Brothers, a Detroit band who was the ‘sound’ of Motown, the great music backing up the singers in Motown’s sound from the beginning (until the company moved to LA.) The men made a few hundred for their work playing and often, arranging, while the singers, and Barry Godry,Jr., made millions.
    You have made me curious about Penny Parker.I don’t believe my sister was as fond of her, but she did h ave a few others, like “Cherry Ames, Nurse”.I think of the story in that book even now. Looking it up now t hat I mentioned it, Cherry’s books, (short for Charity), were written during WWII to encou rage girls to go into nursing for the war effort.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      There were several series — as well as individual titles — featuring nurse stories… aimed at the young female audience. Most of the stories aimed at boys during that same era were focused on sports. Makes sense, for that time, but there’s a lot more crossover now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think both boys and girls read The Bobbsey Twins , but many boys read The Boxcar Children as well, since they both featured as many boys in the lead as girls.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jeff Salter says:

          I’m pretty sure I owned (and read) at least one of the Bobbsey Twin stories… but I can’t even remember their names now.
          By the time I reached 4th grade, I was hooked on juvenile biographies in the Bobbs-Merrill “Childhood of Famous Americans” series. Loved those books.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was in grammar school, I read a couple of the Nancy Drew books. However, my preference was The Hardy Boys. It definitely was an accomplishment for her to write so many books. As an adult, I read as many of Grace Livingston Hill’s books as I could find. The copies now take up an entire shelf in our library. Grace Livingston Hill was an early twentieth-century novelist who wrote over a hundred Christian novels and short stories. I loved the time period in which she wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Grace Livingston Hill’s numerous novels were in high demand in the small library system where I first started work after grad school. There was another lady author who wrote similar books but I can’t recall her name at the moment. Those books circulated over and over and over.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I read a few Nancy Drews and Dana Girls but always found the mysteries too easy to solve. I moved on to higher literature like The Black Stallion series. When a 7th grade teacher said I was too old for horse books, even Marguerite Henry’s titles, I started reading nothing but classics. Just made a giant leap to Dickens and Jane Eyre. Saved War and Peace for my senior year though. Very interesting blog. I think I have earned less than $250 on some of my books. Nothing changes much. The publishers still make all the money.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      In at least one of the articles I read (about Mildred) it was pointed out that she earned — for each ghost-written title — the equivalent of roughly 3 months salary based on what she was making as a reporter in Iowa. That’s not chump change, by any means. But it pales in comparison to what standard royalties would have been on the ND series titles… most of which have been through a zillion printings.


  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    I read Nancy Drew, but I preferred the Hardy Boys. I’ve never read any Penny Parker books, but for .99 it might be time to check them out. Very interesting blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I think you’ll enjoy Penny.
      From what I remember of the Hardy Boy’s stories, Penny is every bit their equal in daring, resourcefulness, and adventure.
      In several of these titles I’ve read so far, Penny doesn’t hesitate to dive into rising water to rescue people who are drowning!


  6. trishafaye says:

    What a fun guest you’ve brought us this week!
    I devoured Nancy Drew when I was younger. I didn’t read the Hardy Boys, because…you know…boys – and cooties, like you mentioned.
    I haven’t read any Penny Parker books either, but they sound good. Especially the ones written during war time. I’ll have to go check them out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      Yes, it was SO important to avoid gender cooties at certain ages.
      Though, interestingly, for my 4th grade birthday party, I invited both boys and girls… and several of each gender attended. I’m not sure what my guy buddies thought about that, however. LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I did read a few Nancy Drew books when I was younger as well as some Hardy Boys books. They were well worn books by the time I got to them, having been handed down. I recently purchased a Nancy Drew book for our home library as Wyatt is getting into mystery books.
    After reading your post I purchased the megapack and am looking forward to reading about Penny’s adventures.
    It sounds like Mildred was a pioneer in her time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I think you’ll enjoy some of Penny’s titles. They are not uniformly “great” — some better than others. At the time I read # 7 — the clock strikes 13 — it was my favorite.
      I still have not read # 1 — omitted in the “megapack” I received.


  8. Pingback: Childhood Characters Whom I Like More NOW | Four Foxes, One Hound

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