The titian-haired sleuth all American girls love

An in-depth look at the mystery of how the Nancy Drew books were produced

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'Is it possible that there breathes somewhere a female between the ages of nine and 49 who doesn't know Nancy Drew?" asked one of the girl detective's adult fans.

Probably not. The titian-haired sleuth has left her mark on American womanhood for generations now. Bette Davis, Barbara Walters, Mary Tyler Moore, Joan Mondale, Fran Lebowitz, Beverly Sills, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are just a few of her avowed fans.

In translation, Nancy has gone global. The Swedish call her "Kitty Drew" and the French "Alice Roy." A member of the Hungarian resistance recalled consuming a Nancy Drew book each day while hiding in bomb shelters.

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So for her many fans, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak, will be of great interest.

It's long been known that - despite the name on the books' spines - there was no Carolyn Keene. In fact, it was a man who dreamed up the young detective. In 1929 Edward Stratemeyer - creator of the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins - pitched a detective series for girls to his publishers. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of the Bobbsey twins.]

Stella Strong, he suggested, "a girl of sixteen" would be "an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful and full of energy."

Stratemeyer's story is a fascinating one in its own right. He generated the ideas for his wildly popular children's books, but then created a syndicate, hiring others to do the writing based on plot outlines he sent them.

For his girl detective (her name later changed to Nancy Drew), he told his publishers he had his eye on a woman who "writes particularly well of college girls and their doings."

The writer was Mildred Wirt Benson, a plucky Iowan who graduated from the University of Iowa in 1925 and worked as a journalist. Benson read the outlines Stratemeyer had prepared for the first three Nancy Drew books and agreed to begin.

Nancy Drew was a success from the start but Stratemeyer didn't live to find that out. Twelve days after the series was launched he died of pneumonia.

This left his two adult daughters to head up his syndicate and keep Nancy alive. They continued to work with Benson, dreaming up their own outlines for the Nancy Drew stories and thus contributing to her character and style, up through 1953 (except for a period in the 1930s when a Walter Karig wrote three). Later, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, Stratemeyer's older daughter, became the writer.

The Stratemeyers strove for years to keep Carolyn Keene's identity a secret, which later opened them up to charges of exploitation. Harriet also, in her later years, became proprietary of Nancy (sometimes referring to her as her "daughter") and deliberately created the impression that the books were all hers.

But in truth they were a collaboration. Benson brought Western spunk and adventure to Nancy's style, but Harriet added to that a touch of East Coast refinement. A 1914 graduate of Wellesley College, she insisted that if Nancy had gone to college she would have been a Wellesley girl.

Whatever her imagined résumé, Nancy was clearly all-American, and her energy and resourcefulness has held its appeal for decades. If the new, updated versions are proving less popular than the classic Nancy Drews, it's a tribute to the enduring appeal of the formula created by the combined talents of Benson and the Stratemeyers.

For longtime Nancy fans who pick up Rehak's book, just one warning: You will not have read more than a chapter or two before you are filled with longing to return to the world of Riverside Heights. Don't begin this book unless you remember where you stashed your own copy of "The Secret of the Old Clock."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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