Who is Carolyn Keene? Little-Known Facts About the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories

The mystery stories of Nancy Drew are one of the finest examples of a successful book series in the history of America. Publisher Edward Stratemeyer created the fictional character in 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression. Sadly, he passed away just two weeks later but Nancy Drew was already making history. The character was unlike anyone girls had read about before. She was smart, brave, adventurous and independent. Librarians and teachers tried to keep the books from reaching young girls, but they were hooked. Stratemeyer’s daughter Harriet kept the series alive, and today over 80 million copies have been sold. Here’s what you don’t know about Nancy Drew, the amateur sleuth and the writers behind the beloved series.

The writer behind the iconic stories isn’t who you think.

Changes Were Made to Modernize the Stories

girl-reading-nancy-drew
Instagram / thecalicobooks

It was back in 1930 when the Nancy Drew series was first published. Times have changed dramatically since then so editors decided to make the writing reflect modern times. Some of the changes include changing Nancy’s age from 16 to 18, to reflect the legal driving age, as well as changing her car from a blue roadster to the hipper, blue convertible.

When the series began, Nancy’s hair was described as blonde, which changed to strawberry blonde then different shades in between. While these edits varied throughout the series of books, the characteristics of spunk and adventure in Nancy remained consistent.

Nancy Drew Was a Spin-off of the Hardy Boys

old-nany-drew-book
Instagram

Edward Stratemeyer was the publisher behind the Hardy Boys book series, whichspans an incredible eight decades, beginning in 1927. The book series includes 190 volumes that have been translated to more than 25 languages. Kids were captivated by the action and adventures the American middle-class high schoolers got into around their town.

Quickly recognizing what a hit the mystery series was with young boys, Stratemeyer decided to create its female counterpart, Nancy Drew.

Why Nancy Drew Was Revolutionary for Girls

nancy-drew-inspires-girls
Instagram / lissalaneousdesign

When Edward Stratemeyer saw the success that the Hardy Boys series had with boys, he decided to replicate the storyline for girls. He created the character of Nancy Drew to be curious, adventurous, smart, and brave. The series was first introduced in 1930, and the character was revolutionary for young girls. She also wasn’t well-received by the public at large- including librarians and educators

They thought that it was silly for girls to want to be like Nancy Drew, but the readership proved them wrong and encouraged publishers to tap into this engaged audience of adventurous girls.

Who is Carolyn Keene?

nancy-drew-series-on-bookshelf-library
Instagram / pickerjoes

Carolyn Keene is the author who is named on each of the books in the Nancy Drew series. So who is she? The truth is, there is so Carolyn Keene. This was the name that the publisher chose to represent all of the ghostwriters who wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries.

According to Fortune, Stratemeyer thought it was important that readers had a name that they could put to their favorite author. When in fact, it was multiple writers who followed the same style of writing to complete the lengthy series of books.

Nancy’s Cars Symbolized Independence and Freedom

nancy-drew-driving-cultural-impact
Jason Merritt/FilmMagic

Every time Nancy Drew is portrayed, whether it’s in books, TV, or film, her car plays a prominent role. Nancy grew up without a mother, which allowed writers to create the character as a very independent teen who would often drive herself everywhere.

Being behind the wheel of a nice car gave a mature sense to Nancy’s character and symbolized her independence and freedom. She started out driving a blue roadster. The writers later changed it to a blue convertible, and when the Girl Detective spin-off series launched in 2004, she drove a hybrid electric vehicle.

One of the actresses who played Nancy Drew would later get into an accident while driving the car.

Ghost Writers’ Identities Were Kept Secret

nancy-drew-book-series-bookends
Instagram/juniperbooks

Ghostwriters of the Nancy Drew mystery series were under contract to not promote themselves as one of the writers. The publishers wanted readers to connect with the author, and thought that having several different authors over the decades would be confusing and take away from the authenticity of the series.

However, one writer let it slip to the Atlantic just how much he (yes, he) was paid. According to the source, as a ghostwriter, he was paid $2,000 up front and $2,000 upon completion of the book. This was back in the ’80s. There were 28 ghostwriters in total.

Another ghostwriter stepped up to reveal herself!

No One Knows How Her Mom Died

old-and-modern-nancy-drew-series
Julia Ewan/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Readers are told that Nancy Drew’s mother passed away, but they’re not told exactly what happened. In the series, Nancy is raised by her father, an attorney, and the family’s housekeeper, Hannah Gruen acts as somewhat of a female figure to the young girl.

In one of the books of the series, readers are told that her mother died from a “long illness” but the exact sickness is never revealed.

“Nancy” Became a Popular Name for Girls

nancy-popular-girls-name
Cloyd Teter/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The Nancy Drew series had a massive following. Young girls couldn’t get enough of the adventurous Nancy Drew, and they consumed every page. The character also represented a strong female figure that America hadn’t seen much of in the ’30s,’40ss and ’50s.

It isn’t hard to see why the name quickly became one of the top 15 most popular girls’ names in America during those decades. Parents wanted to empower their daughters by giving them a name associated with confidence, intelligence, and adventure.

Stratemeyer Never Lived to See Nancy’s Success

edward-stratemeyer
Wikipedia.org / Edward Stratemeyer

Stratemeyer developed several successful fictional children’s characters during his career as a top publisher. The Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew were all his creations. But it was Nancy Drew that became the most popular.

Sadly, the publisher never lived to see the powerful evolution of Nancy Drew. At the age of 67, Edward Stratemeyer passed away just two weeks after Nancy’s debut. He suffered from lobar pneumonia and died in his home state of New Jersey.

The Nancy Drew Series Was Banned From Public Libraries

nancy-drew-series-banned-libraries
Duane Howell/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Just how controversial was the Nancy Drew series? As it turns out, a lot. Librarians and teachers fought against exposing children to the book series. Some thought it was due to the characteristics of Nancy, being a bad influence on young girls, who would be inspired to take risks and disobey authority figures. Others theorized it was the racism and elitism it portrayed before later edits.

One of the arguments of librarians was that the literature was “unimaginative, formulaic – and a waste of time for children.” In 1975, a librarian was quoted as saying, “You’d be surprised how much heat you can generate by mentioning Nancy Drew.”

A Nancy Drew TV Series Was Cut For Being “Too Female”

nancy-drew-inside-cover
Instagram / vintagejunkinmytrunk

Even as late as 2016, there was backlash against Nancy Drew. CBS announced that it would air a pilot to a TV show based on the book series, starring Sarah Shahi as Nancy. But the network soon decided that although it had a strong female audience, there weren’t enough boys watching the show to make it worth airing.

The A.V. Club pointed out CBS’ mission statement, which made it clear that they declined the show because the male audience wasn’t interested. “CBS is aiming for the broadest possible audience, which means show that cut off male viewership limit the size of their audience.”

Nancy Drew Inspired Today’s Women in Power

nancy-drew-insired-todays-feminists
Gregory Pace/FilmMagic

The Nancy Drew series has been published for one decade shy of a century, which is quite incredible. Multiple generations of women were empowered and inspired by the character, including those in positions of power today. ABC Network even called her “the smart woman’s role model.”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was inspired by the book series, as well as former First Lady Laura Bush, Hilary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey.

Her Name Almost Wasn’t Nancy

Nancy-Drew-mystery-series
Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images

As mentioned, Stratemeyer never got to see just how big Nancy Drew became. When creating the character, he had a list of several names to choose from. Those include Nell Cody, Diana Dare, Helen Hale, Nan Nelson, and Stella Strong.

The other publishers on the project suggested he extend “Nan” to Nancy. It’s not clear what inspired the last name of “Drew” but it’s short and not too soft of a name for an amateur detective.

Nancy Drew Actress Poses For Playboy

actress-pamela-sue-martin-nancy-drew
Brad Elterman/FilmMagic

You can imagine the reaction when the actress who played Nancy Drew in The Nancy Drew Mysteries appeared on the July 1978 cover of Playboy in character. Yep, the character who became a feminist icon was flaunting her figure on a men’s magazine.

The actress was Pamela Sue Martin, and she didn’t check with the publishers before she posed in character. As expected, the late publisher’s daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was horrified. She wanted to sue the actress, but her lawyer advised against it, hoping to squash any bad publicity in the future.

A Car Accident Ended a Nancy Drew Series in 1989

Morgot-Kidder-car-accident-on-set
Paul Harris/Getty Images

In 1989, a Canadian production company named Nelvana greenlit a 13-episode TV series of Nancy Drew as an adult. The series would run on USA Network and feature Nancy Drew and her daughter as the main characters. However, the series quickly fell apart.

During the filming of the first episode, Margot Kidder, who was playing Nancy Drew was driving a car, when the brakes failed. The car crashed the actress was injured, unable to continue filming. The series was immediately canceled.

Similarities Between Nancy Drew and Taylor Swift

taylor-swift-nancy-drew-comparison
Alessio Botticelli/GC Images

When Taylor Swift launched into super stardom, many pointed out comparisons between the artist and Nancy Drew’s character. Both women are feminists with strong opinions and drive. And neither of their appearances or personalities are made to be catered to men.

Entertainment industry enthusiasts pointed out that Swift’s Bad Blood music video was reminiscent of Nancy Drew as she followed the clues to try to figure out what happened to her sister who mysteriously disappeared.

Ghostwriter Mildred Benson Inserted Herself

mildred-benson
Wikipedia.org / Mildred Benson

While all of the ghostwriters of the Nancy Drew series have not been revealed, we know that Mildred Benson was one of them. An author from the Midwest, Benson was even said to have inserted some of her own spunk and personality into the character while she was contributing.

Benson helped write 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew mysteries, from 1929 to 1947, which turned out to be some of the bestsellers. Benson herself was an adventurous world traveler and lived to be 96 years old. 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.”

What’s the Meaning of the Contradictions?

meaning-of-contradictions-nancy-drew
Instagram / shannonalban

Many readers and feminists have pointed out the many contradictions within the Nancy Drew series. Kathleen Chamberlain, author of The Secrets of Nancy Drew, wrote “For over 60 years, the Nancy Drew series has told readers that they can have the benefits of both dependence and independence without the drawbacks.

That they can help the disadvantaged and remain successful capitalists. That they can be both elitist and democratic/ That they can be both child and adult, and that they can be both ‘liberated’ women and Daddy’s little girls.” Ultimately, it seems as though the contradictions meant Nancy Drew “had it all.”

Nancy’s Wardrobe Changed

nancy-drew-wardrobe
Instagram / burke7vintage

When Nancy Drew was first introduced to readers, her outfits on the cover were described as fashionable, not practical. The 16-year-old character wore glamorous heels, nicely ironed and fitted frocks and other fashion pieces that would make it very difficult to do any sort of amateur detective work.

As the series progressed, they changed her wardrobe to fit her personality and lifestyle, dressing her in more street attire for the times, so she could climb trees, ladders, and things young sleuths do.

Edward Stratemeyer’s Daughters Took Over the Business

harriet
Wikipedia / Harriet Stratemeyer

When the publisher and creator, Edward Stratemeyer passed away, his two daughters took over the business, Stratemeyer Syndicate. Their father’s death took place just two weeks after Nancy Drew’s debut, and the sisters knew that they had to keep the series alive, along with their father’s other works.

Harriet went on to write the plot outlines for the Nancy Drew series, using her father’s characters and ended up publishing over 200 books in her career. She was also credited with keeping the family business afloat during the Great Depression.