{ Remembering Mildred Wirt Benson }
Jessica Mesman

the old clockEven though I hated her, Nancy Drew made me want to be a writer. I'd love to say that as a little girl, I curled up with the classics, the Brontes and Jane Austen. But in truth I was reading the The Clue of the Broken Locket (and the Sweet Valley High series in its entirety), one eye on MTV, my free hand in a bag of Doritos.
   In my mind, the author Carolyn Keene was Nancy Drew. Perfect, smart, beautiful, savvy. And a writer. Even more than detective work, this seemed a glamorous and brainy profession that demanded respect.
   Learning later that Carolyn Keene wasn't an author at all, but a pen name used by a series of ghostwriters, and that Nancy Drew was actually the creation of publisher Edward Stratemeyer—the literary entrepreneur who created the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins—rocked this illusion. But now it seems fitting, given the career path I chose (enrolling in an MFA program, writing stories for alumni magazines, screening slush piles for literary journals), that my first favorite books were written by hungry young writers trying to make quick bucks in the kid-lit market.
   Mildred Wirt Benson became the first Carolyn Keene in 1930 with The Secret of the Old Clock. Three years earlier she'd been the first person to graduate from the University of Iowa with a master's degree in journalism. She was still a working journalist when she died last week (28 May 2002) at ninety-six years old. She was sick at her desk at The Blade, the newspaper in Toledo, Ohio, where she wrote a weekly column, and died later that day in a nearby hospital.
   Millie Benson described her final job as writing fluff for The Blade. She was well-respected, but she seemed acutely aware that they kept her around on a pity stop. And though she probably enjoyed the attention of the television crews that sometimes gathered around her desk for interviews (Tonight at 11—the oldest working woman on earth!), I like to imagine that she secretly hated them, too. That she resented playing out a long life behind a desk at a third-rate newspaper. That she hadn't exactly hoped to be remembered as the author of mystery stories from the dawn of her career. But it's kind of wonderful—and kind of awful at the same time—that Benson secured her immortality with one of her first moonlight gigs.
   In a column she wrote for Books at Iowa in 1973, Benson looks back at her early fiction—more than 100 juvenile titles written under various pen names for a fraction of a livable salary, all rights released. "Much of my writing was based upon an unfulfilled desire for adventure," she writes. "Nancy had all the qualities lacking in her author. She was good looking, had an oversupply of dates, and enjoyed great personal freedom. She never lost an athletic contest and was far smarter than the adults with whom she associated. Leisure time was spent living dangerously." Benson, too, seems to have loved and hated her heroine.
   The Books at Iowa column is far more moving than any of the clichéd eulogies that have been running in the papers since Benson's death. In it, she reveals her frustration over the hackneyed plots and characters that her editors insisted she write. Like any burgeoning freelancer, she did the best with what they gave her, but she could only take the work so far. Eventually she started turning down offers to ghost books.
   She writes that as a child, she often proclaimed that she was going to be a "GREAT writer." But by the 1960s, "creative activity ceased." As she looks back over her work in this essay, she writes as if she's cringing from the embarrassment of her early work. She'd long abandoned fiction writing for flying and had since become a commercial pilot. She returned to her vocation, but as an aviation columnist at the Toledo paper where she worked until she died.
   In her later years, Millie Benson wasn't a cookie-baking kind of grandma. According to some of her co-workers, she was pretty blunt, even aggressive. And she never seemed able to fathom the influence her work had on generations of women, young writers who never suffered the influence of Austen or Dickens. Girls like me who'd be quite happy to make their living as ghosts. Girls who just want to get out of the slush pile. We don't have to be great writers. We just need to write. And in that respect, Millie Benson's, Carolyn Keene's, Nancy Drew's stories are even more relevant, more lasting.

back home.