By Thomas Walton
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
The recent auction of Mildred Benson memorabilia touched me and stirred some wonderful memories of one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.
Mildred Wirt Benson was known to her work family here at The Blade simply as Millie.
It was only relatively late in her life that a hidden side of her became public knowledge: As writer Carolyn Keene, she was the author of the first 23 Nancy Drew mystery books, marvelous stories that have inspired generations of young women to believe and achieve.
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For much of her life, what nobody knew and she couldn’t say was that her connection with Nancy Drew was a secret mandated by her agreement with her book publisher.
When that veil finally was lifted, the recognition that had been denied her for so many years burst forth. She wasn’t always comfortable with it, but she accepted the applause with grace, no doubt aware that her fans needed to thank her for the Nancy Drew mysteries as much as she needed to write them.
Let me share some of those special memories of Millie. A few years before she died in 2002, at age 96, my wife and I visited a bookstore in Charleston, S.C., and found a copy of one of her many Nancy Drew books, The Bungalow Mystery.
Aware of Millie’s unhappiness with reprints of her originals, reprints that sometimes “modernized” her stories, I decided to call her to see whether this book was the real deal. She asked about the flyleaf and the illustrations. It was indeed an authentic first edition. We bought it for six bucks.
After our return I took it to her, and true to her word, she inscribed it to my wife. “To Dianne,” she wrote, “from Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote this book under the pen name Carolyn Keene.” Had it been one of the many reprints from later years, she would not have signed it, and she told me so.
Dianne wrote her a beautiful and touching letter of thanks in return, explaining what the Nancy Drew books had meant to her as a young girl growing up in a man’s world. It was a letter I’m sure millions of other American women would have written given the chance.
Our copy of The Bungalow Mystery is not in the best of shape. I hope that means that a lot of people, mostly young women, have read our book and enjoyed it. Its condition probably means it would not bring top dollar among collectors.
On the other hand, it’s signed by Millie, so we wouldn’t sell it anyway. If she were still with us, it would just upset her.
My favorite Millie memory is her selection to the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in the 1990s. The Blade nominated her. She was chosen, and it was my honor to accompany her to Columbus for the ceremony. Hundreds of people, mostly women, crowded into the Statehouse atrium to salute the winners.
When then-Gov. George Voinovich began outlining Millie’s long and distinguished journalism career, the crowd was respectful and quiet. But when he explained that she was also the original Carolyn Keene, author of the Nancy Drew books, the place erupted in enthusiastic cheers and a standing ovation that lasted several minutes.
Not long after that, the old Showcase Cinemas movie complex on Secor Road renamed one of its theaters for Millie. We rented a limo and took her to the dedication in style. They showed a Nancy Drew movie. Today, of course, the building is gone.
She was a woman of great achievement, not all of it crafted at a typewriter. She was a pilot for many years. She was an accomplished swimmer and diver in her youth.
Millie’s eyesight began to fail her late in life, but she still came to work every day in a taxi provided by Blade publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block, a gesture of affection and respect from a man who greatly values books and their authors. At the office, she would lean in toward her computer monitor and draft her stories and columns.
I recall a visit by Millie to my office to express her concern that The Blade might like her to retire. That came as news to me and I assured her to the contrary. Millie meant too much to us all. After all, she was only 90-something, and there was still much to do. She worked until the day she died.
There was a lot of the fictional Nancy Drew in the real life Millie Benson, and vice versa. Nancy could do anything. So could Millie. I’m lucky I got to know them both.