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]