The adventures of Nancy Drew was a staple of children’s literature that spanned decades, from 1930 to 2003, only to be replaced by the Girl Detective series in 2004, which in turn was replaced by the current Nancy Drew Diaries. In the 88 years of Nancy Drew’s existence, the series has spawned over 300 books, five films, two television shows, a number of computer games, and a variety of merchandise around the world. That’s quite a career for series author Carolyn Keene. Yet, as reported by JStor Daily, Keene never existed.
Nancy Drew was first conceived in the 1920s by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer had made a career publishing a variety of children’s books. His company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, hired ghostwriters to bring life to the stories that Stratemeyer envisioned, publishing all of the books under continuous pseudonyms. The writers signed a contract that assigned all rights to the work to Stratemeyer Syndicate and swore them to secrecy regarding their involvement.
Stratemeyer pitched his idea for the series to publishing partner Grosset & Dunlap as a complementary series to Stratemeyer’s popular Hardy Boys line, and Grosset & Dunlap bought it immediately. Stratemeyer had placed an ad in Editor magazine for a young writer, and the ad was answered by 21-year-old University of Iowa student Mildred Wirt. Stratemeyer had Wirt in mind to write the first Nancy Drew novel when he pitched the idea to Grosset & Dunlap. Wirt was offered $125 per manuscript, which was equal to about two months wages for a newspaper reporter at the time. She turned in her draft for The Secret of the Old Clock, which would become the first novel in the Nancy Drew series in 1929.
Edward Stratemeyer would not live to see his creation blossom into a worldwide phenomenon and cultural icon. He died just 12 days after the publication of the first Nancy Drew novel. He left the Stratemeyer Syndicate to his two daughters, who were unable to find a buyer for the company in the early years of the Great Depression. Edna and Harriet Stratemeyer ultimately decided to keep their father’s vision alive and continue his work, and with the help of Edward’s former secretary, Harriet Otis Smith, they were able to continue and expand on the Nancy Drew legend.
Wirt wrote most of the early titles, while Harriet Stratemeyer — later Harriet Adams — wrote the lion’s share of the total number of volumes. Other volumes were written by a collection of nearly a dozen syndicate writers under the pen name of Carolyn Keene.
And through their work, Carolyn Keene lives on.