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Caroline Keene and Nancy Drew

Who Was the Real Author of the Nancy Drew Books?

By Cynthia Adams Lum

The scenario for this mystery is neither new nor original. In its details, it shares many aspects with those of its type; a puzzle, ignorance of facts leading to misconceptions, heroes or heroines, and villains. The mystery: who is the real author of the Nancy Drew books?

The answer to this question began in 1884 with my great grandfather, Edward Stratemeyer, a 22 year old aspiring writer. He committed to a piece of wrapping paper a draft of a short story he had composed while employed in his uncle's tobacco shop. He submitted his work to Golden Days, a Philadelphia weekly, and he was rewarded with its publication. This sparked the beginning of his new career.

Stratemeyer wrote more short stories. Books followed rapidly and he developed character based series. He only once used his own name, preferring to employ nom de plumes. With his growing reputation, he was asked by ailing friend, Horatio Alger Jr., to complete his works. Following Alger's death, Stratemeyer was permitted to continue writing stories under Alger's name.

By 1890, his ambitions for completed books were only limited by his own resources. In 1905, he conceived an idea to realize his aspirations, and by 1915 he officially founded the Stratemeyer Writing Syndicate. His concept was that, in addition to writing his own stories to completion, to hire a collection of ghost writers to flesh out text from his additional outlined plots. These 'textings,' performed under his direction, were returned to him for editing and necessary rewriting. All final versions were published under his Syndicate pseudonyms with Stratemeyer maintaining full editorial control and authorship of his stories.

Edward Stratemeyer was prolific. Syndicate output was astounding. By 1930, 150 highly popular series, under 100 pen names, were in various stages of production. Included in these were such notables as The Rover Boys, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Tom Swift, Ruth Fielding, The Barton Books for Girls and The Outdoor Adventure Girls. Not even young women who were at last able to read books depicting girls like themselves in exciting adventures knew that their favorite stories, under various pseudonyms, were being produced by one person, a man.

Over 46 years, Stratemeyer personally wrote some 1,000 texts and story outlines for series books. His imagination delved into every aspect of life, even to the future, predicting scientific advances in his tales for Tom Swift. His empire was vast. The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine declared that "as oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer." His passion resulted in the production of the most successful and widely read series of books for young men and women the United States and the world have ever known.

Suddenly, in 1930, the empire was threatened. Edward Stratemeyer died of pneumonia at age 68. His publishers were devastated. His wife, Magdalene Van Camp, was a semi-invalid and was unable to run the business, she had inherited. They could not find a buyer who was willing, or creatively able, to assume control. The responsibility, therefore, fell on his children, Edna and Harriet.

Harriet Stratemeyer entered the world in 1892 in Newark, New Jersey. She was highly intelligent and a bit of a tomboy. She excelled in school and has confessed to having been "the best one-handed fence vaulter" in her neighborhood. Raised very strictly by her parents, her earliest memories included admonishments concerning the quiet home atmosphere required for her father's work. Although Syndicate offices were located in New York, Edward Stratemeyer preferred to write from an office on the third floor of his home. He often 'descended' to test story lines on his family and delighted in posing riddles for his children at mealtimes. It was said that he could spin a bedtime story around any topic his children could imagine.

In 1910, Harriet entered Wellesley College. The college provided her not only with an excellent education, but also with the opportunity to indulge in the sports she loved, such as riding, sailing, tennis and swimming. She concentrated in Music (she was an accomplished pianist), Religion and English, and, not surprisingly, became interested in creative writing and journalism, editing the school newspaper. As college press correspondent, she sold articles to The Boston Globe, Newark Evening News and New Sunday Call. Harriet distinguished herself academically and personally. She was awarded a medal for bravery during the Tower Court dormitory fire, after reentering the burning building repeatedly to save her fellow students. In 1914, she graduated with honors.

After graduation, Harriet was offered three jobs: as pianist for a Boston church and as a journalist for newspapers in Boston and New York. Although her father depicted "modern" women in his books, he insisted that his own daughter's place was at home until marriage. Harriet was as strong-willed as her father, so a compromise was reached. Harriet went to work for the Syndicate from her home, editing ghost writers' fleshed-out text from her father's outlined stories.

Thus began Harriet's apprenticeship learning her father's formula for his books. On one such early occasion, she wrestled with a verbose description of a character's boating mishap. Realizing that the passage has to be trimmed, she consulted her father. He read it through, drew a line through virtually the entire text and simply wrote, "Suddenly, he fell overboard." This was Harriet's first lesson in the concise writing of adventure stories.

Harriet's writing for her father diminished following her marriage to Russell Vroom Adams and finally ended in 1915, after the arrival of the first of her four children, Russell Jr. (Sonny), Patricia (Patsy), Camilla, and my father, Edward Stratemeyer Adams. Harriet's father firmly advised that she should concentrate on her "babies." This advice she followed to a degree, finding time to found the New Jersey Wellesley Club and the Maplewood Women's Club's magazine, Members Chat. She volunteered for numerous organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, ran all the Sunday school lessons at the local Prospect Presbyterian Church and wrote poetry.

Although she was capable, therefore, it was with some trepidation that Harriet Adams contemplated herself and her sister's partnering in the running of their father's book empire following his death in 1930. Unwilling to disappoint the readers of Syndicate books, however, they rose to the challenge. They become legal partners, and Syndicate offices were moved to East Orange, New Jersey, to be closer to Harriet's family home. By 1942, after her sister's marriage, Harriet assumed full control and became senior partner of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams ran the book empire for 40 years. She wrote complete books and story outlines, and, like her father before her, had final editorial control over all manuscripts, in full command of all aspects of the business, until literally the day of her death in 1982 at age 89. It was an amazing feat for her time, as successful business women were virtually unknown. She steered the business through economic depression and World War, reducing the number of series and introducing new ones, altering the books and allowing film and TV versions to increase their popularity. She was vigilant and rewrote books to reflect changing attitudes to ethnic stereotyping and dialect and changes in federal and state laws.

In the 70's, pressure mounted from the media to expose the secrets behind popular series books. It had been discovered that series such as The Bobbsey Twins, Honey Bunch and Norman, The Happy Hollister, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Linda Craig, The Dana Girls and Nancy Drew were but a few of the 150 series produced by the Stratemeyer Writing Syndicate. Harriet eventually succumbed to their persistent requests and broke with her father's convention concerning anonymity. She revealed the current face behind the Syndicate pseudonyms, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. The resulting notoriety, however unjustifiably, but not unexpectedly, brought problems for the Syndicate's senior partner.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate's head had the full, legal, and moral right to claim ownership and authorship of Syndicate books, their characters and pen names. As senior partner of the Syndicate, Edward, and then Harriet, exercised final authority over their books' content, with the right to assert authorship of their stories. Some fifty ghost writers were, at various times, employed by the Syndicate. They were each required, as a condition of their employment, to sign an unequivocal anonymity contract. Any rights to their contributions to Syndicate stories were relinquished by legal contract after completion of each piece of their work. They were always extremely well paid for their writing relative to monetary values at that time, and happily sold their work, whether this involved Syndicate type, commissioned stories of their own, or fleshed-out Stratemeyer story outlines. Ghost writers were fully aware of the ramifications of the contracts they signed.

In order to understand the position taken by the Syndicate's head, an analogy can be drawn with historical grand master painters and their studios. Various apprentices and other painters, needing work, were hired to assist in the master painter's commissions. This was acceptable in order to increase his output. They studied the master's style, under his direction, in order to mimic his work. Their contributions to his paintings varied from a few brush strokes, detailing work, to complete copies. The paintings, in subject, concept, and detail, any work undertaken on the master's behalf and the final products were the property of the studio master. There was no question that he had the right to sign his name to his finished paintings. This concept and the details of the terms of employment in the Stratemeyer Syndicate of its ghost writers are salient in comprehending the puzzle of the "mystery" of authorship of the Nancy Drew books.

The Nancy Drew mystery stories were one of the Syndicate's most popular series. After its introduction in 1930, they soon began to outsell all other series books. As a result of their popularity and later media attention concerning Harriet Adams' authorship of Nancy Drew stories, Syndicate ghost writer, Mildred Benson, began to desire more recognition for her part in their production. Despite the fact that she had not written any of the actual story plots, had signed contracts relinquishing any rights or claims to authorship over her work and knowing that she had only contributed to Stratemeyer conceived characters and stories, she began to crave acknowledgment.

By 1979, many newspaper articles had appeared in praise of Harriet Adams as the author of the Nancy Drew books. This mounting publicity began to, in her words, "disturb" Ms. Benson. By the time of a 1980 court case between long time Syndicate publishers, Grosset & Dunlap, and new publishers, Simon & Schuster, and the Syndicate over publishing rights, her desire for recognition induced her to agree to appear for Grosset. Although the case legally established the fact that Ms. Benson did not have any right to claim ownership or authorship of the Nancy Drew books on which she had worked, her exposure caused literary debate. Because of secrecy surrounding the Syndicate and the contracted anonymity of its ghost writers, very few facts were known concerning its workings.

Ms. Benson's work on the Nancy Drew books was publicized by herself and others. Erroneous conclusions were drawn from the "evidence" and it was stated that Ms. Benson, the "true" author of the Nancy Drew books, had finally been exposed.

Encouraged by the media, despite legal findings to the contrary, Ms. Benson cultivated their attention as the books' author. She gave numerous interviews in support of her claims and did not object when these books were placed among lists of her literary works. The Smithsonian accepted her donation to their collection of the typewriter on which she had "written her" stories. Ms. Benson's statements to the press became increasingly broad, including that she had conceived Nancy's character as published and her work was cardinal to the entire series and not just the stories on which she had worked.

Ms. Benson's claims ignore the facts. The character of Nancy Drew, her literary family and companions, and the early mystery story plots were entirely conceived by Edward Stratemeyer. Before his death, he had written detailed story outlines and character profiles for the first three books for this new series. For the initial fleshed-out text, he gave his outlines to ghost writer Mildred Augustine (later Benson), whom he hired in 1926 to work on the Ruth Fielding series. Like other ghost writers for Syndicate book series, in the second stage of the books' production Benson was required to put narrative "flesh" onto Stratemeyer's story "skeletons", adding dialogue. As with other ghost writers, she was paid for her work. Benson legally, from the records of correspondence between them, sold her contributions to the Syndicate. Ms. Benson had nothing to do with the manuscripts after this stage and admitted in her evidence during the court case that she was never, or had only vaguely been, apprised of further editing and changes to her "texting."

Nancy Drew had its debut only two weeks after Stratemeyer's death in 1930. Shortly after, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and her sister became Syndicate heads. Final editorial control of these first Nancy stories, therefore, was Edward Stratemeyer's. Detailed story outlines for subsequent Nancy stories were all written by Harriet and Edna and given to Benson for similar additions of padded text, final content now under control of the sisters. These early books were then revised and modernized, beginning in 1959, by Harriet with the help of other syndicate writers and editors such as Patricia Doll, Grace Grote, Lynn Ealer, Priscilla Baker-Carr, Ann Shultes, Mary Fisher, or June Dunn.

Benson was only one of eight ghost writers to add second stage, grammatical 'texting' onto Stratemeyer family produced Nancy Drew story outlines. After her takeover, Harriet refashioned the character slant Ms. Benson's text had given her father's initial Nancy, as both she and her father had found her dialogue too arrogant and haughty. Hannah Gruen became a loveable housekeeper, instead of a servant, and Harriet eventually had to age her father's Nancy from 16 to 18, so that she could drive about in her sleuthing in her blue roadster, incorporating changes in some states' driving laws.

The actual Nancy Drew mystery stories, in detailed plot-outlined form, were written by the Stratemeyer family. The outlines consisted of Edward's two to three pages for the first three, followed by Edna and Harriet's more detailed ones, and eventually, Harriet's comprehensive, chapter by chapter, virtual rough drafts. The writing was always under Edward's direction, and later, under Harriet's, and at all times, composed in his style. All Syndicate stories, including Harriet's, were written to his formula. Ghost writers were hired for their ability to mimic Stratemeyer's style. Ms. Benson admits in her evidence in the 1980 court case that she had been an avid reader of this type of story, and had been strongly influenced in her writing by his style.

The records are clear. Stories 1 through 3 were written by Edward Stratemeyer. Edna Stratemeyer Squier, with Harriet Stratemeyer Adams' assistance, wrote stories 6 through 14 and 16, and with the exception of number 30, written by the talented Syndicate writer, and later partner, Andy Svenson, the remaining 43, out of 57 prior to her death, were written solely by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams. The characters, mystery plots, with all their complexities, initial story editing of ghost writer's padding of outlines, and final text of the Nancy Drew stories, with the stated exception of the outline for book 30, were all created, conceived, written, and performed by Edward, Edna and, primarily, Harriet Stratemeyer. At the time of Nancy's publishing, final book content was always under Syndicate control and by book 35, all outlines, texts and final editing's for Nancy Drew's were being done, solely, by Harriet Stratemeyer Adams.

Ms. Benson, herself, admits in various quotations and in her testimony in the 1980 court case to working from plot outlines. She acknowledges in her evidence that outlining plots is the most arduous component of story writing, as in her own published work, "the most trying part for me was the making of a detailed outline."

It is not surprising, therefore, that Benson states that she enjoyed her work with the Syndicate because the plots were "ready made," as revealed in a letter discovered by Timothy P. O'Herin for his 1999 article for Yellowback Library. Ms. Benson's claims, cited in an obituary article from The Boston Globe, May 30, 2002, on Ms. Benson, that Edward Stratemeyer's outlines consisted of "the character name and brief plot suggestions," and from The New York Times, May 30, 2002, obituary stating that "the plots provided me were brief" are, therefore, inaccurate and a clear misrepresentation. How could Ms. Benson possibly justify the connotative paradox between "brief plot suggestions" and "ready made" ones?

Mildred Benson states, under oath, that Nancy Drew story outlines, subsequent to Edward's, were even more complex. Edna's outlines were highly detailed and Harriet's were "voluminous" with chapter by chapter instructions. She further admits that she was usually ignorant of the content of finished texts of the Nancy Drew's on which she worked. In The New York Times obituary of May 30, the article's writer is confident in his surmise, from Ms. Benson's own words, that she sometimes discovered that final books bore so little resemblance to the fleshing-out she had done that "[Harriet Adams] had outlined the plot ideas, and then edited Mrs. Benson's manuscripts with a thoroughness that sometimes angered the author." In fact, in some of her letters to the Syndicate it can be deduced that she, herself, questions the value of her contributions.

The extent to which Ms. Benson's writing for the Syndicate had to be altered has been documented. As early as 1938, Syndicate letters have been found in the New York Public Library archives exposing Harriet Adams' control. They disclose for example, the chidings Ms. Benson received for leaving "gaps" in stories, despite detailed outlines. In Carole Kismaric and Marvin Heiferman's book, The Mysterious Case of Nancy Drew & The Hardy Boys, published quotes from letters, from Harriet to Ms. Benson, show that Harriet continually had to remind Benson not to deviate from the outlines. She had to instruct Benson to strive to be more descriptively colorful in her 'texting' and was to make Nancy more "sympathetic" and "kind-hearted" in her behavior, directing that the dialogue Benson was writing for Nancy should not be so curt and "abrasive." The 1980 court case transcript reveals that rewritings of Ms. Benson's texts had to be done and varied from sentences to paragraphs, to whole chapters.

It is noteworthy that it was only following Harriet's death, and the death of other Syndicate employees who could have refuted the claims, that Ms. Benson and others began to declare, unequivocally, that she was the "real" author of the Nancy Drew books. Ms. Benson clearly began to alter statements from her earlier interviews in her attempts to convince others of the significance and salience of her contribution. The New York Times, May 30 article, in its paraphrasing of earlier quoted information provided by Benson for a previous biographical essay, exposes her propagation of this perspective, declaring that "it was harder than it seemed, even if she did not have to come up with the plot."


The Stratemeyer family attempted to disseminate the truth, but to no avail. Responses to earlier articles, and Ms. Benson's obituaries, were ignored. As time passed and none of us was able to achieve publication of letters of clarification in newspapers making these claims, Ms. Benson's pretensions became more and more patulous. Other Syndicate ghost writers began to make authorship claims. Media disinformation and literary conjecture began to masquerade as fact. The importance of the actual authorship of Stratemeyer mystery story outlines, such as those for Nancy Drew, was diminished or forgotten. Harriet's editorial control over the content of Syndicate books was dismissed. In contrast, Ms. Benson's initial minor contribution to 23 of the 57 Nancy Drew stories was elevated to a status that apparently bestowed her with the historical right to claim full authorship. Numerous publication writers and literary pundits, convinced by their own conclusions and Ms. Benson's statements, began declaring that Benson was the true genius behind Nancy Drew. Some rhetoric has gone so far as to state that Harriet's "interference" was detrimental to the popularity of this series.

As a ghost writer, Ms. Benson does not have any legal or moral claim to authorship of Stratemeyer stories. She broke the legal contracts that she had signed as a mature, cognizant individual and sought publicity for herself, fully aware that her claims to authorship of Nancy Drew stories was fallacious. Imagine the dismay in literary circles if all ghost writers, such as Ms. Benson, were to similarly break their contracts, reveal their role in their collaborative assistance in the grammatical padding of the stories of others and claim them as their own. What reliance could those who wish to tell their stories in autobiographies, for example, then place on ghost writers whom they hire to help them tell their own stories? What credence could they place on their legally signed releases and contracted anonymity? Ms. Benson's behavior should be deplored by others, such as those in her former profession.

The controversy this "mystery" has created has been a source of consternation for the Stratemeyer family and Ms. Benson herself. In Douglas Martin's, May 30 The New York Times obituary on Ms. Benson, and in Patricia Leigh Brown's previous May 9, 1993 article concerning her "outing" as Nancy's author, Ms. Benson is quoted as confessing that "I am so sick of Nancy Drew I could vomit." Her discomfort is understandable with knowledge of the facts revealed and those yet to be discovered in the Syndicate's archives.

It is with dismay that the family has found itself in the position of having to defend its Syndicate against her claims. It is puzzling that Ms. Benson wrote under contract for the Syndicate for 26 years of her writing career, happily selling her work to them, content with the legality of her situation, and then, 64 years later, decided to announce this change in her position. Her name should have been placed correctly in context among other Syndicate ghost writers for Nancy Drew. Praise should have been appropriate to her work. In exaggerating the importance of her own contributions, she has made this defense necessary.

Harriet Adams, like her father, spent her writing career producing books of her own and outlines for Syndicate ghost writers as a means to facilitate the further production of herself, and her family's, prolific output. She traveled extensively, always taking copious notes for her stories, such as those for Nancy Drew. Nancy's adventures were based on her experiences, and not Ms. Benson's. She had editorial control over all "textings" for these stories, her own, her sister's and her father's. For 40 years, Harriet faithfully followed Edward Stratemeyer's convention in preserving the anonymity of the author of Syndicate books. She adhered to his desire for secrecy in order to preserve the innocent perception by its young readers that there could be single contributors to the Syndicate's enormous series output. She was modest and principled. When she yielded to persistent media pressure to reveal her identity as the Syndicate books' author, her authority to do so was correct and legal. Ms. Benson did not "write" a single Nancy Drew story. It is a travesty that literary "researchers" and publishers have supported this ghost writer's claims to authorship of Harriet Adams' stories.

In 1984, two years after Harriet Adams' death, our family and the remaining Syndicate partners were forced to sell the rights to Stratemeyer Syndicate books and characters to publisher's Simon and Schuster. Although three of us had become ghost writers for the Syndicate, no one in the family, at that time, was in a position, to take control of the business. The Stratemeyer family had finally lost control of its empire.

Harriet Adams had maintained strict and comprehensive authority over Nancy Drew and all Syndicate books and their content until her death. She was ardent in her opinion that children's literature should be innocent and educational. Ned Nickerson was never allowed more than a kiss on the cheek, while under my grandmother's control. By 1982, Nancy Drew, alone, had sold well over 100 million copies and was translated into 19 languages and distributed in 22 countries. Generations of children grew up with Syndicate characters, such as Nancy, as their role models.

The Syndicate's head was conscious of her responsibility in the influence her books had over the young people who read them. My grandmother's favorite fan letter concerned a child who had been kidnapped. The child managed to free herself and attributed her calm and calculated actions to the influence of her heroin, Nancy Drew. Similarly, a 12 year old child lost, then found in the Michigan wilderness credited the example of this literary heroin for her, professed, fearless endurance of her ordeal.

Nancy Drew had an influence in my own life. My early recollections of growing up in the family who created her include my own grandmother's amazing story telling abilities. Like her father, she too could invent an instant bedtime story for her grandchildren on any subject. My father and his sisters' favorite game was to challenge their mother to create a story around three topics of their choosing. Harriet never failed us in these games. Mealtimes with "Grandma" could often prove challenging as, like her father, she delighted in posing riddles for us to solve. So completely did she adhere to her father's concept of the anonymity of their stories' author that I was nearly 10 before I became aware that the books I so loved, and the character I so admired, were being written by my own grandmother.

Visits to "Grandma's" were often filled with fantasy and fun. Easter at her farm, where she loved to write, was an occasion for a Nancy Drew type 'egg hunt.' She would give us a clue on a paper, which if deciphered would lead to another clue, hidden on the farm. This would lead to another, and so on, until the hidden, chocolate prize was found. The only rule was that the clever finder had to share the treat with the other grandchildren. As I grew older, my grandmother would allow me to watch her work, asking my opinion of story lines and showing me how Syndicate stories and outlines were written. Harriet always wrote by hand, and then dictated her work for transcription by secretaries at the Syndicate. My greatest thrill was reading new, unpublished Nancy Drew manuscripts. My grandmother fostered my own love of literature and writing; Nancy Drew gave me my love of reading.

My grandmother was the living embodiment of the Nancy Drew character she so cherished. The list of her accomplishments is a testament to her achievements and her character. She was highly intelligent, morale and magnanimous. Her formative years were spent keeping her father's house due to her mother's poor health. She worked hard at school, excelling at her studies, and gaining distinction in three university level specialties. Harriet raised four children, enduring personal tragedy in the loss of her eldest son in WWII and then her husband in 1966. The courage and fortitude she demonstrated in assuming control of her father's book empire at a time when women were subjugated to far lesser roles is without question.

Harriet was a remarkable and exceptionally gifted and generous woman. She financially assisted her family and those in her employ, as with their children's education and other needs. Her work for charities and her assistance to those organizations she supported are too numerous to detail. She was a capable business woman of 52 years and prolific in her creativity, writing some 200 books herself and 1,200 outlines for others. Harriet was the recipient of countless awards and received a Congressional Citation in 1980. It is because of her influence and control that countless young readers in the Unites States and around the world grew up with positive literary role models from Syndicate book characters such as Nancy Drew.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams has the legal and moral claim to the authorship of the Nancy Drew books. As the Syndicate's head, she was the 'grand master' of it all and has the right to have her name placed in literary history as their author. There was no 'Kastabi-like' attempt by her to place her signature on the work of others, as she wrote the majority of the stories. There is no legal or conceivable rationale as to why Ms. Benson's name, unlike current Tom Clancy story writers, should be placed on these books. Those who would so charge are ignorant of the facts disclosed. People who profess to know the "truth" of the Syndicate's workings have been misled by their ignorance. Internet sites, for example, who claim to know the "real" facts are a reminder that trusting on information for research purposes in such data, particularly by children, who often do not use other sources, is problematic, at best.

There is no mystery to the authorship of the Nancy Drew books. She was a prolific writer, successful business woman, mother and beloved grandmother. For the inspiration and principles embodied in Nancy Drew, you need look no further than the life of Carolyn Keene, who was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams.

Written by Cynthia Adams Lum

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