An Iowan created Nancy Drew's character and personality in 1930 and placed her pretty clearly in Iowa. “Like a true daughter of the Middle West,” Mildred Augustine wrote in The Secret of the Old Clock, the first Nancy Drew mystery, “Nancy Drew took pride in the fertility of her state and saw beauty in a crop of waving green corn as well as in the rolling hills and the expanse of prairie land.” Augustine did more, though, across her long career in literature and journalism: she wrote 130 young people's books (under a number of pen-names).
Mildred Augustine was born in Ladora, Iowa, in 1905. She loved to read and to write, and by age thirteen she had sold her first story to St. Nicholas Magazine. Like Nancy Drew, Augustine had brains and daring. She began as an academic pioneer. She was the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree the from the University of Iowa School of Journalism. In 1927, she was the first person—male or female—to receive a master's degree from that Journalism School.
In 1926, with her bachelor's degree in hand, 21-year-old Augustine took the train to New York to meet Edward Stratemeyer, who, in 1906, had founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a “fiction factory” for juvenile fiction. Stratemeyer had advertised for ghost writers for his Syndicate. Augustine returned to Iowa, and the first book she wrote for the Syndicate was Ruth Fielding and her Great Scenario. Little did she know that she was soon to embark on a great scenario in American popular culture of her own.
Augustine wrote a number of other Ruth Fielding books and then, in 1929, Stratemeyer mailed her a brief outline for a new teen sleuth named Nancy Drew. In 1927, Stratemeyer had come up with the Hardy Boys, and they had proved such popular teen detectives that Stratemeyer thought America was ready for a female counterpart. Augustine wrote the first seven Nancy Drew mysteries—in fact, twenty-three of the first thirty volumes. She said that in the first three volumes she “concentrated hard on Nancy, trying to make her a departure from the stereotypical heroines of [her] day.” Augustine thought those girls were too silly, so made an effort to depict Nancy as intelligent, agile, and resourceful. Clearly she was on to something, for from her first appearance, Nancy was an immediate success, spawning four Hollywood films in the 1930s and one in 2007, a 1977 television series, plays, art work, merchandise galore, and an international organization called Nancy Drew Sleuths. Nancy Drew volumes have been translated into twenty-seven different languages.
In the early 1930s, Augustine married Asa Wirt, an Associated Press reporter. They had a daughter and moved to Ohio. In 1947, Wirt died, and, in 1950, Mildred married George Benson, the editor of the Toledo Blade. Along with her lifelong work as a journalist, Mildred wrote twelve Dana Girls mysteries, twelve Kay Tracey mysteries, six Brownie Scout books, five Honey Bunch volumes, and much more. Her favorites were two series she created herself: the Ruth Darrow Flying stories, for both Mildred and Nancy Drew were (and are) skilled pilots, and the Penny Parker mysteries, for Penny Parker is a journalist sleuth.
In 2002, Mildred was 96 years old. On the May day she died, she had just turned in her weekly column for the Blade—which she called “On the Go.” Throughout her life, therefore, Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson remained an inspiring role model. In her own life and in that of Nancy Drew she embodies girls and women who are keenly observant, fearless physically and mentally, determined, intelligent (in fact, excellent information gatherers, analysts, and problem solvers)--girls and women as natural leaders willing to break or bend the law for a higher good.