Carolyn Keene: The First Author Behind The Famous Pseudonym

Mildred Benson was the first author to use Carolyn Keene as a pseudonym but didn’t come forward to reveal her identity until almost 50 years later from the publication of the first Nancy Drew book.

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Woman detective shadow infront of a stack of books with a background of bare foot prints.

Did you know the iconic Nancy Drew series had multiple authors? The first author to use the famous pseudonym, “Carolyn Keene,” was Mildred Wirt Benson in the 1930s. She wrote 23 of the 30 original Nancy Drew books and is credited for creating Nancy’s adventurous personality. It wasn’t until 1980 that it was revealed to the world that Benson was the first author to use the pseudonym due to Edward Stratemeyer forcing his ghostwriters to be under an oath of silence. Edward was sued in 1980 for breach of contract with Grosset & Dunlap in which Benson then came forward about her mysterious secret.

The Secret of the Old Clock

Mildred Benson’s first book using the famous pseudonym was The Secret of the Old Clock published in 1930. The story follows a young Nancy Drew, a private detective who takes after her criminal defense lawyer father. After Josiah Crowley passes away, his fortune is left to the Topham family which surprises the family and friends of Crowley. Nancy finds an old clock left by Crowley and a clue hinting at a possible second will. It is up to this sleuth to find the second will using the clues Crowley left behind.

The secret of the Old Clock book cover. Nancy Drew sitting in the grass holding an old clock with a screwdriver in her hand.
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The Hidden Staircase

Benson’s second book in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series, The Hidden Staircase follows Nancy and her friend, Helen Corning, where Helen’s Aunt Rosemary has been hearing strange noises and seeing spooky shadows at night. This story also follows Nancy and her Dad in looking for the missing Willie Wharton regarding land rights for a railroad and a lawsuit. Nancy’s adventure in The Hidden Staircase is freaky as it is intriguing.

The Hidden Staircase bookcover with Nancy Drew going up stone stairs with a flashlight lighting her way.
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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Benson’s Nancy Drew books became immediately popular and the young detective became a common role model for young girls across America. Benson would go on to write 22 more Nancy Drew books following the mysterious cases that Nancy runs into under the name Carolyn Keene but those books would soon go on to be revised by Harriet Adams in the 1950s due to racist and antisemitic themes within these first 23 books.

Today, many places only sell the revised copies of the Nancy Drew series that Benson had written. It’s important to note that while a brave role model was provided for young girls, we cannot ignore the racist and antisemitic undertones written within the unrevised copies of the Nancy Drew series. Benson had created an outlet for many who were courageous and independent like Nancy, but the fact is that most of the criminals in the early books were modeled after people of color and in The Hidden Staircase the culprit is described as having shifty eyes and a hook nose.

Nancy Drew looking behind her infront of a background of a fingerprint.
IMAGE VIA BOOKSTR / PRITSON

We can recognize that Mildred Benson’s legacy with the first 23 books of the Nancy Drew series created a sense of determination within young women who realized it was okay to be an achiever and not just sit in the bleachers. I love Nancy Drew and this young detective has always been a role model to me in some form or another, but it is also important to realize the problematic side of the early stories of Nancy Drew and see how far our society has come in correcting behavior within writing and the publication of books.


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