Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson (July 10, 1905 – May 28, 2002) was an Americanjournalist and author of children's books. She wrote some of the earliest Nancy Drew mysteries and created the detective's adventurous personality. Benson wrote under the Stratemeyer Syndicate pen name, Carolyn Keene, from 1929 to 1947 and contributed to 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries, which were bestsellers.
Mildred Benson was born Mildred Augustine in Ladora, Iowa to Lillian and Dr. J. L. Augustine. Benson earned her degree in English from the University of Iowa in 1925 in just three years. She later returned to the University and in 1927, became the first student there to earn a master's degree in journalism. In 1928, she married Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. The couple had a daughter together, Peggy Wirt, who was born in 1936. After Wirt's death in 1947, she married George A. Benson, editor of the Toledo Blade newspaper of Toledo, Ohio. He died in 1959.
Benson worked for 58 years as a journalist, writing a weekly column for the Toledo Blade, and as a writer of many books. She continued to work full-time (mostly writing obituaries) until a few months before her death. She died from lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 96.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Benson wrote for the society pages of the Clinton (Iowa) Herald. In the spring of 1926, Benson applied to an ad posted by the Stratemeyer Syndicate looking for ghostwriters. After getting the job, her first assignment was to write text for the book, "Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario" under the pseudonym of Alice B. Emerson.
Benson's most famous project while working for the Syndicate was ghostwriting for the Nancy Drew series under the name "Carolyn Keene." In addition to the Nancy Drew mysteries, Benson also wrote The Dana Girls series using the same pseudonym.
Later, Benson also wrote many other series, including the Penny Parker books which were published under her own name. She often told interviewers they were her favorites. The books were about the adventures of a young newspaper reporter. Benson herself continued writing for newspapers until her death. She wrote under a dozen names and published more than 130 books.
One unusual series was the cluster of four "Ruth Darrow" stories (1930-1931). Written as "Mildred Wirt," the books relate the adventures of an air-minded young woman of the era. Taking flying lessons and flying her own aircraft, Ruth wins a national cross-country race, lands on an aircraft carrier, helps the Forest Service in fighting forest fires, and alerts the Coast Guard of an immigrant-smuggling scheme. The aeronautical lore in the books is generally authentic, but the series' greatest strength is its consistent and outspoken advocacy of women's abilities and mechanical competence.
While she wrote scores of books under her own and many other names, Benson 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.
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 months' 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 maintains the same system.
The character of Nancy Drew was conceived by Stratemeyer, who provided Benson with index card thumbnail sketches. However, she was the one who created Nancy's spunky, plucky personality, and her daring, adventurous spirit. Benson took the plots supplied by the Syndicate and created a character that is still loved today. Her texts were edited and rewritten as required, and the Syndicate published the books using the pseudonym, Carolyn Keene. Subsequent Nancy Drew stories (with some exceptions) that Benson wrote for, were all re-written by Edna Stratemeyer Squier and, primarily, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, after their father's death in 1930.
Benson never anticipated that the books would be so popular but she knew, as she was writing them, that she was writing something that girls were going to like because the heroine was unusual for her time. She said, "I always knew the series would be successful. I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people."
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. Since then, Benson has been acknowledged the creator of the original Nancy Drew fans remember and love. 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. Whenever asked she would gladly autograph copies of the Nancy Drew books, but only the titles she actually wrote.