The Secret Ghosts of Nancy Drew

silhouette of a woman with a tray and frameNancy Drew had a huge influence on my growth as a young woman, and something I’d totally overlooked until recently. A number of powerful and successful women have cited her as a role model, and in the 1950s, something we sorely needed. I can show you excerpts from Home Economics text books encouraging us to prepare the perfect dinner and meet our hardworking husbands at the door with a martini, dressed in a lovely frock, high heels, and too much hairspray spritzed on our perfectly coiffed bouffant. The shock of it still sends me reeling back on my heels, since I count myself in the Gloria Steinem camp of bra-burning feminists.

So, thanks, Nancy! But that shock aside, what really caught my attention was the fact that Carolyn Keene, the oft-noted author of the Nancy Drew series, didn’t actually exist. I had no idea! At all. The original book, THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK, was written from an outline conceived by a man named Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He created the Hardy Boys series in 1926, which had been such a success that he decided on a similar series for girls, featuring an amateur girl detective as the heroine. While Stratemeyer believed that a woman’s place was in the home, he was aware that the Hardy Boys books were popular with girl readers and wished to capitalize on girls’ interest in mysteries by offering a strong female heroine. (Wikipedia)

Stratemeyer wrote plot outlines and then hired a ghostwriter- often a man, to write the books under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. The series was an immediate success and Fortune Magazine featured Stratemeyer’s Syndicate in a cover story, singling out Nancy Drew for particular attention with the following quote: “Nancy is the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers. She is a best seller. How she crashed a Valhalla that had been rigidly restricted to the male of her species is a mystery even to her publishers.” I find this shocking because I can’t imagine that males are more prolific readers than females, now or then.

Subsequent titles were written by a number of different ghostwriters, all under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. Continuing down the pathway of Memory Lane, the original fee for ghostwriting a Nancy Drew book was $125, roughly equivalent to two month’s wages for a  newspaper reporter back in the day, the primary day job of most of the syndicate ghosts. The fee was lowered to $100 and then $75 during the Depression Years. Adding insult to injury, the “authors” were required to sign away the rights to ownership of the story and also royalties, and agreed to never use the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene to sell any future manuscripts.

All royalties went to the Syndicate, and all correspondence with the authors was handled through a Syndicate office. The Syndicate (starting to sound a bit sinister?) was even able to enlist the cooperation of libraries in hiding the ghostwriters’ names. When Walter Karig, who wrote volumes eight to ten of the original series, tried to claim rights with the Library of Congress in 1933 the Syndicate instructed the Library of Congress not to reveal the names of any Nancy Drew authors, and they complied. And I thought the Mafia was ruthless!

The Syndicate’s process for creating the Nancy Drew books consisted of internally creating a detailed plot outline, drafting a manuscript with a ghostwriter, then editing the manuscript. Edward Stratemeyer and his two daughters, particularly Harriet Adams, constructed most of the outlines for the original Nancy Drew series until 1979. Most of the early books were penned by a woman named Mildred Wirt Benson whereas other volumes were written by Walter Karig, Geroge Waller, Jr., Margaret Scherf, and a host of others. Harriet Adams edited most of the manuscripts until her death in 1982.

There were numerous lawsuits and countersuits filed and many of the ghostwriters, and eventually even Harriet Adams herself, fought relentlessly for rights and royalties. When Harriet Adams switched publishers, from Grosset & Dunlop to Simon and Schuster, the fight elevated to new heights as each fought over creative control. It’s enough to give you a headache.

The sad facts I’ve learned about how the Nancy Drew series was conceived and written serve to reinforce the horrid state of affairs in the publishing industry. We’ve all heard the sordid tales of how authors are robbed of royalties and manipulated by editors to write the stories the publishing house wants rather than the one the author wants to write. I was under the mistaken notion that the publishing industry had recently devolved into this terrible place. But now it seems that it’s always been this way. Maybe worse. The author is the red-headed step child* who gets abused and overlooked. It’s enough to give a writer a case of the heebee jeebees. Yes, an expression right out of the 1950s. Thanks for that, Nance!

We need to look out for our own interests, even with an agent. And some publishers do still write these sort of contracts for ghost writers. Look at the whole “I Am Number Four” scandal. The publisher preyed on recent MFA grads with huge student loans and got them to write those books for peanuts. Just make sure you know exactly what you’re agreeing to when you sign on that dotted line.

*Sorry, redheads…myself included. No ill-will intended.




Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

5 thoughts on “The Secret Ghosts of Nancy Drew”

  1. Wow, this was really interesting! I started reading, by going through the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. I knew that Nancy Drew was written by different authors, under one name, but I had no idea about all the drama that went on behind the scenes!

    Really great, informative post today 🙂

    1. I was totally shocked, having known nothing about this and thought Carolyn Keene was a real author and the only author. I actually feel pretty foolish, being the last kid on the block to know! Duh!

    1. Admittedly, I feel like the last to know about Nancy’s sordid publishing saga. But then I was even more shocked when I realized this still happens. I mentioned that I AM FOUR was written this way to my niece and she told me she’d tried to google the author but couldn’t find anything about him/her/it??? You’re right, indie is sounding better and better!

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