Biography of Mildred Benson
Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson (July 10, 1905 – May 28, 2002) was an American journalist and author of children's books, in particular the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries. Writing under Stratemeyer Syndicate pen name Carolyn Keene from 1929 to 1947, she contributed to 23 of the first 30 originally published Nancy Drew mysteries.
While she wrote scores of books under her own and many other names, she is perhaps best known as one of 28 individuals who helped produce the Nancy Drew books. Edward Stratemeyer hired Mildred Benson in 1926 to assist in expanding his roughly-drafted stories in order to satisfy increasing demand for his series.
Benson was born Mildred Augustine in Ladora, Iowa to Lillian and Dr. J.L. Augustine. She married Asa Wirt, who worked for Associated Press, and, after Wirt's death in 1947, married George A. Benson, editor of the Toledo Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio three years later; he died in 1959. She earned her degree in English from the University of Iowa in 1925, returned and earned her master's degree in journalism in 1927, the first student to do so there. She worked for 58 years as a journalist, writing a weekly column for the Toledo Blade and continuing to work full time (mostly writing obituaries) until a few months before her death, from lung cancer, in 2002 at the age of 96.
Published book rights for the Nancy Drew series were owned by the Stratemeyer Syndicate and are currently owned by Simon & Schuster. As with all syndicate ghostwriters, Benson was paid a flat fee of $125 to $250 for each Stratemeyer-outlined text; the equivalent of three-month's pay for a newspaper reporter at that time. At Edward Stratemeyer's death, under the terms of his will, all Syndicate ghostwriters, including Benson, were sent one fifth of the equivalent of the royalties the Syndicate had received for each book series to which they had contributed.
As with all Syndicate ghostwriters, under the terms of her contract Benson signed away all rights to her texts and any claim to the Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene. She was, however, permitted to reveal that she wrote for the Syndicate. The Stratemeyers protected their Syndicate pen names to preserve series continuity as contributors to the series came and went. Simon & Schuster currently maintain the same system.
The character of Nancy Drew was conceived by Edward Stratemeyer who provided Wirt with index card thumbnail sketches. Wirt was the first ghostwriter to expand Edward's roughly-drafted Nancy Drew plots, writing the first five books. Texts were then edited and rewritten as required, and the Syndicate approved and had all final books published under the Syndicate's name. Subsequent Nancy Drew stories (with some exceptions), for which Wirt provided text, were all re-written by Edna Stratemeyer Squier and, primarily, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, after their father's death in 1930.
However, in 1980 Benson's testimony, which she offered in a court case involving the publishers, revealed her identity to the public as a contributor to the Nancy Drew mystery stories. With only this, and without access to the Stratemeyer Syndicate archives now held at the New York Public Library, the public presumed that she had a primary authorship claim to the Nancy Drew stories and pen name, Carolyn Keene, who also "wrote" the Dana Girls series. In 2001, Benson received a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her contributions to the Nancy Drew series.
Benson's favorite Nancy Drew story was The Hidden Staircase, the second mystery in the series.
Benson also wrote many other series, including the Penny Parker books, which were published under her own name and which she told interviewers were her favorites. They were the adventures of a young newspaper reporter, and Benson herself continued writing for newspapers until her death. She wrote under a dozen names and published more than 130 books, according to the Mildred Wirt Benson Works page at NancyDrewSleuth.com.