Nancy Has Two Mommies | The Nation


Nancy Has Two Mommies

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Between 1900 and 1910, Rehak notes, publishers, having discovered a new demographic, introduced forty-six girls' series. Stratemeyer concocted the Motor Girls, a spinoff of the profitable Motor Boys, about young Cora Kimball, whose wealthy mother buys her an automobile. As Rehak astutely observes, Cora and company "differed enormously from the heroines of girls' books in the previous century, most of whom were locked in some kind of domestic drama involving death or hardship."

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Brenda Wineapple
Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth...

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It was after the amazing success of the Hardy Boys mysteries in 1927 that Stratemeyer envisioned more "bright, vigorous stories for older girls having to do with the solving of several mysteries." With his principal publisher, Grosset & Dunlap, on board, he sent a three-and-a-half-page outline of The Secret of the Old Clock, featuring a lone girl detective, to one of his writers, Mildred Augustine Wirt, a 25-year-old University of Iowa graduate and the first woman to complete its journalism school program. Given the pen name Carolyn Keene, Wirt dressed 16-year-old Nancy Drew for success: tweed suits, blue frocks, sparkling eyes (they matched that sporty roadster), and enough moxie to get the job--any job--done.

Released in a "breeder" set (three at once: another Stratemeyer innovation), the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were a hit. Smart, daring, curious, even a crack shot (yes, at least on one occasion she toted a revolver), Nancy lived in River Heights, somewhere in the Midwest, in a comfortable home with an unobtrusively patrician and doting father. Evidently she finished high school, but having no discernible ambition and no need for money, she never sought paid employment or even mentioned college. She had two loyal female sidekicks, the traditionally feminine Bess and the tomboy George; a dim but dependable boyfriend (Nancy is largely asexual); and a matronly housekeeper who cooked and cleaned. Naturally, Nancy was a cut above them all, for only she could right wrongs, restore order, pour tea and play golf, all for 50 cents a book.

The stock market crash, the death of Edward Stratemeyer, even the Depression did not dampen her spirits, which doubtless increased her appeal. When Stratemeyer's daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer, took over the Syndicate, they cut costs by moving its offices to New Jersey, canceling several titles and reducing the writers' fees. Not surprisingly, they lost several authors, among them the prolific Mildred Wirt. But not Carolyn Keene.

Even pluckier than Nancy, Wirt was a married woman with a daughter who could turn out half a dozen non-Syndicate books in a year, including the Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories, written under her own name for a change. These heroines were firm, frank and far more independent. But pinched by the Depression, Wirt soon returned to the fold--without, that is, giving up her other work. In 1944 she held positions as publicity writer for the Toledo Community Chest and as City Hall reporter at the Toledo Times. (Eventually, she went on to earn her pilot's license, and by the late 1960s she was writing an aviation column called "Happy Landings.")

In the meantime Adams, who was running the Syndicate almost single-handedly, had grown so fond of Nancy Drew--as a character and an asset--that her outlines and suggestions grew longer and more didactic. She smoothed Nancy's edges and kept her insulated from the world at large: during the war, scarcely mentioned, when women were entering the workplace in huge numbers, Nancy fretted over dances and dates. Soon Adams went so far as to assign Syndicate books to an in-house staff, which she could better control, and Mildred Wirt was summarily dropped.

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