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Iowa Women's Archives

The Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson

Mildred Augustine's yearbook photo from ....

The Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson

        

In April 1993, the University of Iowa made international headlines when it hosted a scholarly conference about Nancy Drew. Mildred Wirt Benson, a ghost writer of the Nancy Drew series and honored guest of the conference, appeared on newspaper pages and television screens across the country. Fans of the popular series were thrilled, but not because they recognized her name. Rather, the excitement stemmed from the fact that most people didn’t know Benson or her role in the creation of the famous teen sleuth. A decades-long mystery had been solved.

The writer behind the Nancy Drew series had always been an enigma. Readers assumed Carolyn Keene was a real person, not realizing the name printed on the book covers was a pseudonym. In 1937, the Library of Congress mistakenly attributed the entire series to Walter Karig. In the 1960’s, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the head partner at Stratemeyer Syndicate, began telling reporters that she was the true author. When Benson appeared in the spotlight in 1993, the mystery of Carolyn Keene deepened.

The question “Who is Carolyn Keene?” had been replaced with “Who is Mildred Wirt Benson?” Benson had led a private life as a newspaper reporter in Ohio, masked by her anonymity. Now that her identity was revealed, fans and researchers wanted to learn more about her. The Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson website is a resource for those intrepid sleuths, revealing information about Benson’s life and work, the Nancy Drew Sleuths and their connection to the Iowa Women’s Archives, the history behind the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference, and places to look for even more clues.

[Pictured above, left to right: Mildred Augustine with friends, 1910s; Showing off the day’s catch after fishing with Asa Wirt, 1930s; Mildred & daughter Peggy, 1950s.; A day of outdoor fun, September 1965;  A reporter’s photograph, 1990: Image courtesy of the Toledo Blade.]

The Tale of the Ghost Writer

Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was a prolific writer with a passion for adventure. Born in the small town of Ladora, Iowa in 1905, Benson would go on to write 135 children’s novels, work as a journalist for 58 years, become a pilot, and explore archaeological sites in Central America.

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The Case of the Cabinet

The Iowa Women’s Archives holds the personal papers of Mildred Wirt Benson and delighted to display her novels on a special bookcase. The cabinet, located in the Reading Room for all visitors to enjoy, contains 146 books but also has its own story to tell.

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The Clue at the Conference

The University of Iowa Nancy Drew Conference took place in 1993, but University librarians had been in contact with Mildred Wirt Benson since the 1950’s. Their correspondence, along with later detective work by other staff members, led to Benson’s public recognition around the world.

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The Secrets of the Archives

Looking for more clues about Mildred Wirt Benson and scholarship about Nancy Drew? The Resources page offers book titles, collection names, articles and links to the Iowa Digital Library that will help researchers continue sleuthing.

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Acknowledgements

The Mysterious Mildred Wirt Benson website was created by Rachel Black, Archives Assistant, Iowa Women’s Archives, University of Iowa Libraries and produced by Ken Clinkenbeard, Web Services Specialist, University of Iowa Libraries.

The Iowa Women’s Archives thanks Jennifer Fisher and the Nancy Drew Sleuths for financially supporting the creation of the website. Special thanks to Dan and Roxanne Bohlke, Paragon Cabinet Co., Iowa City, for building and donating the beautiful bookcase that now houses the Mildred Wirt Benson collection of published works in the Reading Room of the Iowa Women’s Archives. This generous donation is in memory of of their daughter Megan.

The published resources drawn upon for this website include works by Geoffrey Lapin, Frank Paluka, Julie K. Rubini, Melanie Rehak, Jennifer Fisher, Carolyn Dyer, and Mildred Wirt Benson. Images courtesy of the Toledo Blade and of Jennifer Fisher have been labelled.