Since 1930 Nancy Drew has installed herself in the wayward hearts of young girls, heedless of the Depression, four wars (not counting the present one), civil rights, feminism, Gerald Ford and drugs, sex and rock and roll. Preternaturally bold, she takes action without suffering consequences: no mean feat to devoted girl readers sneaking, late at night, a few minutes more with the blue-eyed snoop. Journalist and poet Melanie Rehak was one of these girls, as she tells us in the opening pages of her jaunty Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Pretending to be afraid of the dark so her parents would keep the hall light burning, Rehak gobbled page after page of Nancy’s travails. And she was not alone. Andrea Dworkin once said she feasted on Nancy Drew, and Rehak delivers encomiums from Beverly Sills, Barbara Walters and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nancy, declares Rehak, is “as much a part of the idea of American girlhood as slumber parties, homework, and bubble gum.”
As a girl, I was lukewarm about Nancy–though I liked her roadster–and so I asked around. “I adored Nancy Drew,” said novelist Lily Tuck, “and I remember my English teacher telling me in fifth grade that if I read another Nancy Drew mystery instead of–what? I don’t remember–Shakespeare, there would be another murder and no mystery to solve.” Biographer Benita Eisler recalled that Nancy’s appeal was that any white, vaguely middle-class girl could identify with her not impossible brilliance–that, and the fact that she had no mother to thwart her (her mother had died when Nancy was 3). “The ‘crimes’ she solved were never threatening–neither violent nor sexual–always of a ‘white-collar’ character–fraud, financial chicanery–nothing really dangerous,” said Eisler, whose daughter also read the series.
The central mystery of Nancy Drew isn’t any of her capers: It’s her enduring popularity. In 2002 150,000 copies of The Secret of the Old Clock, her debut, flew off shelves, and Simon & Schuster is celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday this year by launching all-new stories with an updated, cell phone-toting Nancy, the fifteenth of which is due out in January. As many as thirty years ago novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, another Drew enthusiast, undertook her own investigation into Nancy’s allure in the delightful Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (still in print). Mason argued that Nancy represents a fading aristocracy whose property she defends but whose values she shrugs off. Rebellious adolescent and social maven, she is a paradox: “The girl sleuth is in pursuit of the very world–the happy ending, the mystery solved, the symbolic wedding–she seeks to escape.” If Nancy were to grow up, says Mason, she would have to turn into Mrs. Bobbsey, a dull woman, as reliable as plumbing.
Perhaps so. But Rehak is far less concerned with Nancy as cultural symbol than with Nancy as commodity created by the modern women who molded her in their image. For Nancy Drew had two mommies–and one inseminator. The latter, Edward Stratemeyer, was the powerhouse behind what became known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced beloved series such as Tom Swift. Born in 1862, the son of a middle-class German immigrant, Stratemeyer had been a scribbler since boyhood. He was working in his father’s tobacco store and selling Horatio Alger-inspired tales to the penny dreadfuls until his “Victor Horton’s Idea” was bought by Golden Days, a respectable boys’ magazine, when he was 26. He then went to work for Street & Smith, a New York publisher that churned out dime novels and formula fiction (under pseudonyms); according to Rehak, Stratemeyer produced as many as forty-two dime novels in less than two years.
In 1899 Stratemeyer unveiled his Rover Boys Series for Young Americans: tales of the middle-class Dick, Tom and Sam at a military academy. Though today it sounds rather unpromising, a reporter of the time claimed that “The Rover Boys broke out upon the country like measles.” Stratemeyer followed his Rover Boys with his bouncy Bobbsey Twins, launched under the pen name Laura Lee Hope. Hugely successful and bubbling with ideas, he decided it would be more efficient–and more lucrative–to provide outlines for his various series to a growing stable of authors who would write them under pre-established, trademarked pseudonyms. “We do not ask for what is commonly called ‘fine writing,’ (usually another name for what is tedious and cumbersome),” Stratemeyer told a prospective employee, “but want something full of ‘ginger’ and action.” He also mandated no deaths and no kissing–and what children wanted most: no finger-wagging. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was thus born in 1905, the literary equivalent, as Rehak points out, of Ford’s assembly line.
Paid a flat fee for each manuscript (circa $75 to $150), ghostwriters relinquished “right, title and interest” both to the books and their pen names. Anonymity was crucial to the Syndicate: One writer could replace another in midsentence without spoiling a given series. If children wrote their favorite author a letter, the Syndicate would, under the cover of other pseudonyms, reply as the famous author’s “secretary.” Yet despite the Stratemeyer books’ popularity, libraries refused to stock them. No problem. As Twain said on learning Huck Finn was banned in Concord: Good, that will sell more copies.
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.”
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.
In her evenhanded, sympathetic account of both Wirt and Adams, Rehak suggests that while each modeled Nancy Drew after herself, Adams, the female CEO, and Wirt, the tireless author, together produced a female character ultimately impervious to the progressive trends each woman embodied. After the war, for instance, the conservative backlash against Rosie the Riveter made for a tamer Nancy, and even though sales declined in the 1960s, Mademoiselle magazine gave her a twelve-page spread in 1964. Feminism too was good for Nancy. With women, as Rehak puts it, “on the move at last,” more than 30 million copies of Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were in circulation in 1969. And though Nancy was wearing loafers (no more high heels), spouting Shakespeare and driving a convertible (no more roadster), she managed to inhabit a world without hippies, protest, pregnancy or marijuana. “Nancy had successfully made the transition from the Atomic Age to the Age of Aquarius,” Rehak quips, “and she had done it her way.” Well, Harriet’s way.
What of Carolyn Keene? With Mildred Wirt banished and her identity the kind of dark secret only Nancy Drew could divine, Harriet Adams, nearing 80, took full credit for creating the popular detective. But when she signed a more lucrative contract with Simon & Schuster and Grosset & Dunlap filed suit, Wirt reappeared, dryly remarking, “I am the only remaining ghost still alive.” Going on the record for the first time, Wirt testified that she had written twenty-three of the first thirty Nancy Drews. Yet when Adams died in 1982, her obituaries claimed it was she who created the teen detective, and in a way that is true, too.
As for Nancy Drew, still popular, her continuing appeal is heartwarming and a little scary. Rehak exuberantly concludes that Nancy today still teaches readers “how to think for ourselves, how to jump eagerly into adventure and then get out of the scrapes it inevitably involves, how to get to the truth…how to dress properly for the events at hand, to make tea sandwiches and carry on polite conversation.” This suggests, of course, that the cultural shifts documented by Rehak amount to nothing more significant than the changing length of one’s hem. Tea sandwiches prevail. Rehak may be too stalwart a Nancy fan to trace the implications of her own argument: that Nancy Drew is Huck Finn in white-gloved drag. Never sad or wrinkled or fatally misunderstood, she “solves” our anxieties about womanhood by dodging them. And since she, unlike us, stays perpetually young, we tend to romanticize her maverick freedom, which otherwise might seem, alas, a quaint thing of the past, never realized, never real.