There are many myths surrounding Nancy Drew, the most popular of the Stratemeyer Syndicate series. This article seeks to clear up many of the legends surrounding Nancy Drew and the series’ creation.
This article is adapted from: an earlier version presented in 2007 at the Nancy Drew Conference at Wilson College (PA) and an expanded version of the presentation published in Nancy Drew and her Sister Sleuths (2008, edited by Michael Cornelius). If you use any of it, please cite accordingly.
When a librarian from the University of Arkansas inquired about Carolyn Keene, the author of The Password to Larkspur Lane (Grosset & Dunlap, 1933), she received an extraordinary answer:
… In reply, I must bring to your attention the fact that there are many people in official, political, or professional life who have the urge to write books, especially for young people, but who for various reasons deem it inadvisable to attach their own names to their stories. Owing to a like situation, the real identity of Carolyn Keene must remain a mystery….
Very sincerely yours,
Secretary to Miss Carolyn Keene (17 Jan 1936)
The “Secretary to Carolyn Keene” demurred from providing biographical information.
The origins of the Nancy Drew series are, in many ways, more mysterious than the cases she solved, since the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and more recently Simon & Schuster, didn’t care to reveal too many details about the production of the books and the multiple identities of “Carolyn Keene.”
Articles and Books about Series Books: Myths Abound
In the more than seventy-five years since the series began, there have been a large number of articles published in newspapers and magazines about Nancy Drew and the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The majority of these contain factual errors, wishful thinking, or carefully-crafted stories for public consumption.
The purpose of this study is to provide a brief history of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the origins of the Nancy Drew series and help straighten out some of these myths along the way.
Myth of a Middle Initial
As with most stories, it is useful to begin at the beginning. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was founded in 1905 by Edward Stratemeyer. He was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to German immigrant parents on October 4, 1862. Relatively little is known about his childhood beyond a collection of often-repeated facts and brief statements, which appear in many articles that mention him, many of these contain errors. Repeated often enough, these errors take on the illusion of truth.
Many biographical dictionary entries produced after his death supply a middle initial of “L” (Masterson p. 5) or occasionally “T.” However, his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, wrote in a 1940 letter to the publisher L.C. Page, regarding a copyright renewal, that Edward had no middle name (12 Dec 1940). His older brothers all had middle names.
Harriet’s personal assistant, Nancy Axelrad, related that she did not have a middle name either and when she tried to add one as a youth, Edward scolded her for not being satisfied with the name she was given. The mistaken middle initial has continued to be used by some sources today (Commire; Burke).
Edward’s Family and Early Life
Edward’s father, Henry Julius Stratemeyer, according to some accounts, arrived in the U.S. in 1848 and soon afterward he went to California to participate in the gold rush. Genealogical records confirm that he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1848, but his obituary (“Henry”) says he came to the U.S. in 1837, the same year as his younger brother, George Ernest Stratemeyer.
He is listed in the 1850 U.S. census for El Dorado County, California as a miner, although his name is misspelled as “Stratmore.” Edward learned details of Sutter’s Mill and the Mokelumne River area from his father and worked it into his story called “One Boy in a Thousand” (“One”), which was published in book form as Oliver Bright’s Search (Merriam, 1895), as he mentions in the preface for the revised edition (Lee & Shepard, 1899) of that volume.
In conclusion, the author would say a word in regard to the scenes in the mining districts of California. These were drawn very largely from the narratives of a close and dear relative who spent much time out there, going as an Argonaut of ’49, and to whom the vicinity of Sutter’s mill and the Mokelumne River became as an open book, not only then but later on. To write down these descriptions was, therefore, not only a work of interest, but of love. (iv)
Some articles indicate that Henry returned to New Jersey unsuccessful in the gold fields (Masterson 5). However, he must have had at least some small success. The 1850 Census gave the value of his estate at $1,500, much higher than that of other people mentioned on the same page (United States Census). When Harriet Stratemeyer married Russell Vroom Adams, the “bride’s wedding ring was made from a nugget of gold dug in 1849 in California by her grandfather,” Henry Julius Stratemeyer (“Adams-Stratemeyer”).
Henry returned from California in 1851 and established a tobacco store in downtown Elizabeth, NJ, near one of the railroad stations. A short time later his brother George died in a cholera outbreak in 1854. Henry helped settle the estate and later married his brother’s widow with whom he had three more children, including Edward, a son, and a daughter, in addition to the three sons from her first marriage.
Edward attended the public schools of Elizabeth and is said to have been the valedictorian of his class. In fairness, it should be noted that there were only three students in the Class of 1879 at Public School No. 3. The principal of his high school, W.D. Heyer, guided Edward in some additional studies for a couple of years (“Life”).
Myth of the Brown Wrapping Paper
The beginning of Stratemeyer’s writing career is often summed up in the now mythical “brown wrapping paper” story: while clerking in his father’s tobacco store, he tore off a piece of brown wrapping paper and wrote a story in pencil that was sent into and accepted by Golden Days. When he showed the $75 check to his father, he was encouraged to write more of them. This became his first published story, “Victor Horton’s Idea,” serialized beginning in November 1889.
Like many stories told about Edward and the Syndicate, this idealized tale has several points in error. First, this story was written at home, according to his own literary account book, not in any of his family member’s stores. Several other stories he wrote afterward were written in his brother Maurice’s store (Stratemeyer Literary).
Second, a first draft was actually written in pencil on yellow paper with a pseudonym, “Arthur M. Winfield,” below the title. However, he set the manuscript aside for some length of time before it was revised and recopied in ink on good paper (Lawrence) for submission to James Elverson of Golden Days.
Josephine Lawrence, a reporter for the Newark Sunday Call who later became a Syndicate ghostwriter, interviewed Edward and preserved an early version of the story:
“It ran about eighteen thousand words,” said its author reminiscently, “and my father told me I was wasting my time and might better be doing something useful. I had to send that story out, however, and I finally selected the editors of Golden Days, a young people’s weekly published in Philadelphia, to judge it. When I received a letter telling me they were reading it and asking what I would take for it I was elated. I wanted more than anything else to see it in print! The editors of Golden Days sent me a check for $75 for the story.”
… “If I hadn’t wanted to use the money I would have framed that check!” he confessed whimsically. “Well, I took it uptown, where my father was in business, and found him reading his newspaper.
“‘Look at this!’ I said.
“My father looked at the slip of paper and pushed up his glasses.
“‘Why, it’s a check made out to you!’
“They paid me that for writing a story!’ I explained proudly.
“‘Paid you that for writing a story?’ repeated my father. ‘Well you’d better write a lot more for them!’” (Lawrence)
Stratemeyer Early Writings and Lessons Learned in Book Industry
While it is fair to say that “Victor Horton’s Idea” was Statemeyer’s first professional sale, it is far from his earliest writing, including writing for pay. Extant examples include stories typeset (if not published) as early as August 1876 (“Revenge”), when he was still 14 and before he graduated from high school. He was identified as the “publisher” of a booklet in 1878 called A Tale of a Lumberman. As Told by Himself. In the first three months of 1883 he published three issues of a story paper called Our American Boys.
There is also some confusion about his first published book. Edward had written a good number of long stories for Golden Days and for The Argosy along with some other publications. When he wanted to offer stories for book publication, he tried to buy back some of his serials. The editor of Golden Days would not sell Stratemeyer’s stories back but Frank A. Munsey, editor of The Argosy, did and several of these were published in book form. The first of these serials published in book form was Richard Dare’s Venture (Merriam, 1894).
After the experience in buying back stories from Golden Days, he was more careful to sell only first serial rights for his stories. It was one of several lessons that guided the policies he established for his Syndicate in later years.
Some of his stories were brought out in book form by the publishers to whom he sold the serials. For example, several books issued by Street & Smith in the hardcover Boys’ Own Library (later under the David McKay imprint) were not owned by Stratemeyer at the time. These were published using his personal pen names of “Arthur M. Winfield” and “Captain Ralph Bonehill.” The publisher advertisements associated Stratemeyer with these two pen names, causing him a great deal of frustration since he was trying to separate them in the minds of the public and the publishing industry.
Myth about Writing for Book Publication Rather Than Serials
Another lesson involved writing specifically for book publication. The first book Stratemeyer wrote specifically for book publication was not Under Dewey at Manila (Lee & Shepard, 1898) as reported in several sources. There were several stories he began writing before Under Dewey. For example, he wrote a story as “Lost in Cuba” on speculation in August 1897; it was later published in book form as When Santiago Fell (Mershon, 1899). He wrote “Young Gold Hunters in Alaska,” which was published as To Alaska for Gold (Lee & Shepard, 1898).
The first book he wrote under contract with a publisher was The Minute Boys of Lexington (1898) for Estes & Lauriat. This book and its sequel were sold outright, something Edward regretted later on when the publisher continued the Minute Boys series Stratemeyer began by using another writer, James Otis, to add several more volumes.
The publisher then advertised the series using both names, and Stratemeyer felt that this indicated that he cowrote the stories with Otis and thereby harmed his reputation. However, since the stories were sold outright, he had little recourse. He never had warm feelings for Otis as a result of this event.
Under Dewey is sometimes characterized as being written as a generic story of two boys on a naval vessel and rewritten in a rush upon the request of the publisher, Lee & Shepard (Brinser p. 206). According to his “Literary Account Books,” the story was written in June 1898, after the historic events of May 1, 1898, which are described in the story. The story was inspired directly by the events as described in the newspapers; it was not rewritten from an existing story.
Further, much is made about the sales success of this book. Under Dewey had good sales but not extraordinary ones. The February 1899 royalty statement, which included the holiday sales of this book in its first year, listed just over 6,000 copies sold in the six-month period. This was the highest figure for the extant royalty statements; sales quickly dropped to dozens of copies. The very specific setting for the story limited the period when it would be a strong seller. Edward seems to have learned from this since many of his other books tried to be somewhat timeless and many of these books far outsold Under Dewey at Manila.
Myth of Arthur M. Winfield: The Changing M
The Rover Boys series was, by far, the best selling group of books actually written by Stratemeyer. The early volumes were published by Mershon under a range of prices. When the series was published by Grosset & Dunlap, beginning in 1908, they hit their stride sales-wise and sold one million copies by 1912, as related in a letter to Grosset & Dunlap suggesting that a line be added to the dust jacket flap to commemorate this sales achievement for the entire series (19 Apr 1912).
This popular series was issued under Stratemeyer’s “Arthur M. Winfield” pseudonym. When describing the origin of the name, he gave credit to his mother for “Winfield” to describe his desired success and the name “Arthur” being similar to “author,” his chosen field.
In the account published in an issue of Grosset & Dunlap’s Business Promoter (Nov 1914) and reprinted in Life (9 Jul 1925) he said that he selected “M” as a middle initial and determined that it stood for “thousands” — the numbers he wanted to sell — since “M” is the Roman numeral for 1,000. Not long after telling this version, the cumulative sales for the Rover Boys exceeded 2 million, and later versions of the tale transfer credit for the middle initial to his mother, Anna, as well as indicating that “M” stood for “millions” (Lawrence).
When recounting this tale, most articles associate the creation of this pen name with the beginning of the Rover Boys series in 1899. However, it was used much earlier, including on the first draft of “Victor Horton’s Idea” on yellow paper (1888); on the poem, “He Will Remember Me” (1889); and on the manuscript for a short story “Crele” (Jan 1885).
Oliver Optic and Alger Completions
Around the same time that the Rover Boys series was begun, Stratemeyer was asked by Lee & Shepard’s editor to write the final volume in “Oliver Optic’s” Blue and Gray on Land series, An Undivided Union (1899) since the author of the other books, William T. Adams, had just died.
A contemporary of Adams, Horatio Alger, Jr., found that with his health failing, he was unable to complete some books he was working on. He wrote to Stratemeyer and asked him to finish up the stories.
I have been wondering if you can’t help me. I have a story two thirds written, but am in a state of nervous breakdown and not only can’t write, but can’t invent the rest of the story for some time to come. I think of all of the juvenile writers you can write most like me. (26 Oct 1897)
The story was split and issued as two different stories in 1900, after Alger died the previous year. After Alger’s death, the rights to his books and estate went to his sister, Olive Augusta Cheney, and Stratemeyer negotiated with her for use of manuscripts, plays, and short stories to be developed into books. Stratemeyer wrote a total of eleven “Alger completions,” so called because they were credited on the title page with Alger’s name above and the phrase “Completed by Arthur M. Winfield” in smaller type below. Edward also wrote a biographical article about Alger for Golden Hours Junior in October 1901 (“Gallery”).
In one of his letters to Cheney (22 Nov 1900), Stratemeyer described how he expected to act more as a literary agent, purchasing stories to be issued in book form, and spend less time writing himself. This was the germ of the idea that became known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate.
Why Form the Stratemeyer Syndicate?
Edward faced the problem that many nineteenth century authors faced: publishers wanted to be the sole source of a writer’s output, yet those same publishers could only comfortably issue a few books a year. In the periodical world, this was sometimes resolved by issuing some stories under the author’s real name and others, running at the same time, under pseudonyms.
This is a practice that carried well into the twentieth century. Robert Heinlein, for example, had some of his stories appear under the “Anson MacDonald” name when other stories under his own name were running in the same publication.
Around the same time that Edward was beginning the Old Glory series with Under Dewey, he began a somewhat similar series for a cheaper publisher, Mershon, the company that was issuing the Rover Boys series. This similar series was published under his “Captain Ralph Bonehill” pen name. This tactic was no secret to his main publisher, Lee & Shepard, and
Stratemeyer often complained when the sales of these expensive books did not earn him as much income as the cheaper books issued by Mershon. Prior to this, Edward sold most books on a 10% royalty basis. The royalties based on the Mershon retail prices were less than 10% and the books were cheaper but, since they sold more copies, Stratemeyer earned more.
These factors, along with changes in the copyright laws, created a confluence of events that made the time right to form the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Under the Syndicate, Edward would not merely buy stories on speculation and hope he could sell them to publishers. Instead, he would enter into an agreement with a publisher first for them to buy a series and select the initial titles from a list he provided.
How the Stratemeyer Syndicate Worked
With this contract in hand, he would define characters and create outlines for the stories. These outlines were turned over to ghostwriters who expanded the brief outlines into book-length manuscripts in 3-6 weeks.
For their work, the writers were paid something between $75 and $250, depending on the length and the writer’s skill. Upon payment, the writers signed a release certifying that the work was original and based on Stratemeyer’s outlines. It also transferred all rights for the story to Stratemeyer and the writer promised to not use the pen name for his or her own work.
In the early years, the publishers he worked with did not have extensive editing and proofreading departments. Stratemeyer copy-edited the manuscript and provided it to the publisher along with typed lists of suggestions for illustrations and advertising text to be used on the book and jackets.
In many cases he contacted the artists directly to inform them what was wanted for the illustrations. For a number of years he even paid for typesetting and leased the printing plates he owned to the publishers to receive an additional royalty payment per copy sold.
The first two books issued under this Syndicate system were the initial volumes in the Ralph series, Ralph of the Roundhouse (Mershon, 1906) and The Motor Boys (Cupples & Leon, 1906). They were ghostwritten by Weldon J. Cobb of Chicago and Howard R. Garis of Newark, respectively.
Between 1905 and 1985 the Stratemeyer Syndicate produced more than 1,400 volumes using this method. This included many popular series, the well-known Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, and, of course, Nancy Drew. As descriptions of the Syndicate began to appear in publications, the complex operations had to be simplified for the public. This led to a number of myths and statements that were taken out of context.
Myths about the Breeder Set
For several of the most popular series, three volumes were published at the same time in what collectors call a “breeder set.” The notion was that readers would be more easily “hooked” with several stories to read at once.
Many articles have assumed, incorrectly, that all series began with three volumes. However, some had a single volume in the initial year and some series, such as the Alger-like stories published under the “Frank V. Webster” name, had up to ten in the first year.
The Tom Swift series began with five new volumes each year from 1910 through 1912; fifteen volumes in three years gave it a very good start. It proved to be the Syndicate’s best seller for many years.
Myth about Edward Stratemeyer Writing Syndicate Books
Another notion, partially formed because Edward’s daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, was not fully informed about the early years of the Syndicate, was that Edward personally wrote the initial volumes of all of the series before bringing in ghostwriters to work on them.
Edward did write the first volume in the Bobbsey Twins series (Mershon, 1904) and he wrote the serial, “The Rival Ocean Divers” (Rockwood), which became the first volume in the Deep Sea series (Stitt, 1905). Both series were continued by other writers from his outlines. However, these are the exceptions. Most Syndicate series were produced completely under the outline system.
Fortune Magazine Article Myths: Book Prices & Ghostwriter Contracts and Pay
A famous article about series books and Edward Stratemeyer appeared in the April 1934 issue of Fortune magazine. This anonymous article was the source of many myths about series books and the Syndicate.
Edward’s daughters cooperated with the author, Ayres Brinser, somewhat by answering some of his questions in letters, attempting to correct errors in the manuscript, and loaning the magazine books and photos of their father. The latter were damaged by the magazine.
One of the myths established in the Fortune article was that Stratemeyer persuaded his publishers to sell the Syndicate books at 50¢ and this established the successful sales for these books (88). In 1934, series books did sell for 50¢.
However, in the period described in the article, the Syndicate series books sold for almost any price other than 50¢. For example, the Rover Boys sold for 60¢ and Tom Swift for 40¢. Often these could be purchased for even less in department stores. Series for Cupples & Leon ranged from $1 for the Musket Boys down to 35¢ for the Webster series.
Another important issue concerns the contracts signed by the ghostwriters. It is often said that the writers were “forced” to sign contracts and they were “legally sworn to secrecy” (Lapin 20). However, the releases (the only contracts for most writers) did not state this. Instead, they included a promise that the writers would not use Stratemeyer’s business property. This referred to the pen names.
In fact, Stratemeyer told some writers that they could tell publishers they were working for him or even name series on which they worked to help them land additional writing assignments. Some writers, like St. George Rathborne, were a little too free with this information. Rathborne provided long lists of the series on which he worked, including Syndicate series, to publishers.
Stratemeyer tried to rein these writers in, though, in truth, the only thing he could do was withhold future assignments from the writers. In later years, the contracts became multi-page legal documents and the writers were more specifically admonished to refrain from revealing their specific work for the Syndicate. This is an example of a typical long release signed by a ghostwriter for the first volume in the Hardy Boys series:
Newark, N. J., Jan. 6, 1927.
For and in consideration of the sum of One Hundred Twenty-five Dollars, ($125.00) the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I hereby sell, transfer and set aside to Edward Stratemeyer, Literary Agent, his heirs and assigns, all my right, title and interest in a certain story written by me on a title and outline furnished by said Edward Stratemeyer and named
The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure.
In making this transfer I hereby affirm that my work on the story is absolutely new, and I hereby grant to Edward Stratemeyer full permission to print the story under any trade-mark pen name that may be his business property, and I further agree that I will not use such pen name in any manner whatsoever.
(signed) Leslie McFarlane
Myth: Ghostwriters were treated unfairly and paid little
Edward Stratemeyer died on May 10, 1930. Most of the more modern articles claim that he paid the writers little and died a rich man. Some say that he made millions: “He paid ghostwriters $75 for each book and made millions” (Winship). However, this oversimplification misses many details of importance.
Edward’s estate upon his death was worth about $500,000 — a sizable sum in 1930. This came from the books but also from real estate and other investments he made (“Will”). Some writers seem to confuse the sale of millions of copies with the income they generated.
A typical book like the first volume in the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew series earned the writer $125 for the manuscript. The book itself sold for 50¢ and generated 2¢ royalty per copy sold for the first 10,000 and 2.5¢ per copy thereafter. The $125 was roughly equivalent to two month’s wages for a typical newspaper reporter, the primary day job of the Syndicate ghosts.
The work done by the writers was often moonlighting, done in their spare time, and typically lasted about a month between the time the outline was received and the manuscript turned in. Hence, writers would invest their spare time for a month and earn a sum equivalent to two month’s wages in their day job.
Although Stratemeyer had agreements with publishers to take a series, he normally did not earn money until the books sold; occasionally in the early years he secured advances on the royalties.
He paid for the manuscripts in full upon submission, something writers could not expect from publishers at that time. The amounts he paid for all rights were comparable to the amounts a publisher would pay for all rights to a story. Few of the mass-market publishers cared to issue books on royalty, especially to unknown writers.
With a 2¢ per copy royalty, the publisher would have to sell 6,250 copies to earn back the $125 Stratemeyer paid the ghostwriters. This was still less than the number that would cause the royalty rate to rise to 2.5¢ per copy.
Many series achieved this level of sales because Stratemeyer was very good at sensing the readers’ and publishers’ wants and selecting good ghostwriters to do the work. However, many other series failed to reach this sales mark and were a loss. Effectively, Stratemeyer took the risks, minimized them where he could, and reaped the rewards.
Many of the ghostwriters also wrote books on their own, often at the same time they were writing for the Syndicate, and yet they continued to write for Stratemeyer. In many cases, these relationships with the Syndicate spanned decades.
If the writers truly felt abused by the business relationship, they always had the option to decline an assignment or all future work. Although claims to the contrary are plentiful in print and on the Internet, there is substantial evidence to illustrate that the ghostwriters were not treated unfairly.
One of the last series planned by Edward Stratemeyer was the Nancy Drew series. There are a number of myths associated with the origin and early history of this important and popular series.
Nancy Drew surprised people in the industry when a series for girls outsold the most popular series for boys. Stratemeyer said a few times in interviews that girls often moved on to the “best seller” novels at a younger age than the boys. The boys stayed with books like the series books for a longer period of time (Lawrence). This meant that series for boys were more profitable due to larger numbers of readers.
Myth: Edward Created Nancy Drew Because of the Success of the Hardy Boys
One of the myths associated with the origin of Nancy Drew is that Edward began it because he wanted to replicate the phenomenal success of the Hardy Boys.
However, the royalty records show that the sales of the Hardy Boys was solid but less than half that of the other “Franklin W. Dixon” series, Ted Scott.
If Stratemeyer wanted to replicate a success, he would have created a girls’ aviation series following the patterns of earlier series such as the Motor Girls, Moving Picture Girls, Radio Girls, and the Outdoor Girls after their earlier male counterparts.
Naming Nancy Drew: Stella Strong and Other Early Ideas
Stratemeyer knew that he wanted a new series with a single heroine rather than a group, which was typical for his past series for girls (30 Sep 1929). He offered such a series to Barse but it was not picked up.
This was not specifically a mystery series. He proposed the “Stella Strong” series, suggesting a new pen name “Clara May Rosemont.” One of the stories was “Stella Strong at Mystery Towers.” In the proposal he stated:
“I have called this line the ‘Stella Strong Stories,’ but they might also be called the ‘Diana Dare Stories,’ ‘Nan Nelson Stories’ or ‘Helen Hale Stories’” (1 Apr 1929).
When Barse did not pick up the series, he made a similar proposal to Grosset & Dunlap (30 Sep 1929), this time adding the pen name “Louise Keene” and stating:
Stella Strong, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a District Attorney of many years standing. He a widower and often talks over his affairs with Stella and the girl was present during many interviews her father had with noted detectives and at the solving of many intricate mysteries. Then, quite unexpectedly, Stella plunged into some mysteries of her own and found herself wound up in a series of exciting situations. An up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy.
One of the titles on this proposal was called “The Secret of the Old Clock” which relates how “A large estate remains unsettled because of a missing will.” Although many names were offered for the main characters and pen name on these proposals, “Carolyn Keene” and “Nancy Drew” were not.
Today it is almost unthinkable for any names other than “Nancy Drew” by “Carolyn Keene” to be associated with this series. However, Stratemeyer referred to a proposed series called “Nellie Fay” in a letter to Grosset & Dunlap (19 Jul 1929). The series was not named in letters to Mildred Wirt (8 Apr 1929, 27 Sep 1929).
The series was next referred to as “Stella Strong” in one letter (30 Sep 1929) but was called “Nancy Drew” by “Carolyn Keene” the following day (1 Oct 1929). The outline was created and sent to Wirt a couple days later (3 Oct 1929).
It is possible that the publishers suggested the name in a personal meeting. In a similar situation, Laura Harris, a Grosset & Dunlap editor, suggested the “Dana Girls” instead of the proposed name, the”Manley Girls,” by picking a name from the Manhattan phone book (17 Dec 1932).
Stratemeyer wrote to his publisher that he had two young women writers on his Syndicate staff who might work on the new series, referring to Mildred A. Wirt and Elizabeth M. Duffield Ward. After writing the four-page detailed outline for the first volume, he sent it to Wirt who was living in Ohio at the time.
Wirt began writing for Stratemeyer in 1926 and was working on Ruth Fielding, a series for girls that had been begun by W. Bert Foster in 1913 and was continued by Ward. After several Ruth Fielding volumes, Stratemeyer felt that Wirt could provide him the stories he wanted for this new series. As with previous assignments, Wirt returned the completed manuscript in about four weeks working from Edward’s brief outline.
Myth of Disappointment in Nancy Being “Too Flip”
Writing more than four decades later, in 1973, Wirt (then Mildred Wirt Benson) states that Stratemeyer’s reaction was crushing.
She claims he was “bitterly disappointed” and that she had failed to follow his outlines (something that would bring quick censure from Stratemeyer if true, based on his reactions to other writers who wrote outside his guidelines) and that the character was “too flip” and the books would not be accepted.
Mr. Stratemeyer expressed bitter disappointment when he received the first manuscript, The Secret of the Old Clock, saying the heroine was much too flip and would never be well received.
On the contrary, when the first three volumes hit the market they were an immediate cash-register success for the syndicate.
Over a thirty-eight-year period, the series was printed in seventeen languages and, according to published report, achieved sales of more than 30,000,000 copies. As “ghost” I received $125 to $250 a story, all rights released. (Benson)
A writer who interviewed Wirt some fifteen years later added an extra element to this story: after Edward’s expressed disappointment, the publishers read the story and insisted that the same writer continue the series.
In effect, in this version the publisher was granted more control than Stratemeyer. After capitulating to the publisher’s request, Stratemeyer sent on the next outline and the rest was history.
Mildred Benson finished the manuscript for The Secret of the Old Clock and mailed it off to Edward Stratemeyer. She recalls his response: “I remember it very vividly because I was crushed. He wrote that he thought I had departed too much from the pattern of the old series books and made the character of Nancy too flip. He thought I had missed the market and the publishers would not be interested.”
For once Edward Stratemeyer was wrong. Publishers Grosset & Dunlap were interested in Nancy Drew. Stratemeyer wrote back to Mildred Benson asking her to write two more volumes to launch the series…. The three volumes were published on April 28, 1930, exactly as Benson wrote them. (Martin 17)
This description of events does not match the evidence contemporary with the events. The correspondence files for the Stratemeyer Syndicate are extensive. While it is certain that not all letters were retained, there is a continuous set of letters for this period of time indicating when Edward asked if Wirt could write stories in a new series (8 Apr 1929, 27 Sep 1929), sent the outline (3 Oct 1929), and received the manuscript (8 Nov 1929). Upon receipt of the manuscript, he immediately sent back some comments on the story and the outline for the next volume.
I have received the manuscript of “The Secret of the Old Clock” and have given it a first reading.
I thought the first half of the story was a bit slow and that the characters were not sufficiently introduced and also that the various incidents were rather loosely connected. But as soon as Nancy gets to New Moon Lake the story picks up very well indeed and the last eight chapters are particularly well done. We will go over the first part of the story carefully, and if we can intensify a few of the situations we will do so.
But please, Mrs. Wirt, in the future use a thicker and more substantial typewriter paper as the present paper hardly admits of any alterations and corrections.
With this I am enclosing a check for the story with the usual receipt to be signed and returned.
I am also enclosing with this the complete outline for the next story to be called
The Hidden Staircase
and with this I am sending the outline for the first story also so that you will have this to refer to. (8 Nov 1929)
There was no period of time when a Grosset & Dunlap editor could even see the story. He stated that the first part of the story was “a bit slow” but that could be improved by some editing in the office. His harshest criticism was that the paper she used was so thin that it did not afford editorial changes.
Stratemeyer conducted most of his business by correspondence. He retained a carbon copy of these letters. When he had a personal meeting at his home, office, a publisher’s office, or over the telephone, he would follow up the contact with a letter for later reference.
The phrase “too flip” was not used in any letters in the correspondence file by Stratemeyer or later on by his daughters. However, as his daughters later managed the business, they did advise changes in Nancy’s character that would afford more respect to the police and other authority figures (10 Jun 1938).
Similar changes were made in the Hardy Boys where the early volumes had particularly unflattering portrayals of the Bayport police force. Stratemeyer admonished Leslie McFarlane “Be careful to to make a characature of the chief and his head detective” (10 Apr 1928).
Harriet offered similar advice to McFarlane when he was writing the first Dana Girls volume (3 Apr 1933). For a writer who had a certain vision for a character, this sort of change could be seen as criticism. Wirt may have transferred these feelings to Edward over the decades between the events and writing and talking about them in the 1970s and 1980s.
Length of Outlines in Syndicate History: How Much Did Ghostwriters Control in the Story?
There are varying references to the length of the outlines, sometimes stating that long or brief outlines were a problem. Unfortunately, the outlines for the early Nancy Drew volumes are not part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records collection at New York Public Library (NYPL).
However, many contemporary outlines for other similar series are available in this collection. Some collector-researchers have obtained photocopies of the outlines for the first three volumes in the Nancy Drew series from a private source and they report the length to be between 1-1/2 and 4 pages. This length is consistent with or slightly longer than other Stratemeyer outlines of the period.
The Nancy Drew outlines for these first three volumes are very detailed, including quotations of dialog to begin the story; a detailed plot, including “holding points” for the chapter cliffhangers; and even indications of when to reprise the previous volumes.
Key elements of the series such as the “blue roadster,” the “small city of River Heights in the Middle West where the Drews lived,” secondary character names such as Helen Corning, and even the detailed description of the ending of the story, such as Nancy asking for the clock as a souvenir for her help in clearing up the mystery, are all detailed, by Stratemeyer, in the outlines he supplied to Wirt. The first outline is more than 2,200 words, about 7.5% of the length of the story if it can be assumed to be 30,000 words.
In one letter, Mildred wrote that she thought she could handle the story better if the outline were longer (11 May 1931).
After Harriet and Edna took over the business, they began to produce longer and longer outlines. In some cases, these sketched out the major scenes and even the chapters of the story. They left less room for a writer’s creativity and judgement about which scenes and subplot details to include. Later Wirt found these longer outlines to be too limiting (Grosset).
The sisters thought the long outlines, sometimes with chapter-by-chapter details, made the stories easier to write when, in reality, they had the opposite effect. In time they realized this and suggested making the outlines considerably shorter in the last few years Wirt, then Benson, was associated with the Syndicate.
Myth of Ghostwriter Life Influencing Plot
The length and detail of the outlines is important because it determines how much room there was for a writer to include scenes similar to ones with which they were familiar and select names for the secondary characters.
When editing one of the early volumes after his death, Edward’s assistant, Harriet Otis Smith, wrote that the name Wirt used for a character in Shadow Ranch was different from the one indicated in the outline but since it was not a name used in the series or another Syndicate series, Mildred’s selection of the name would be retained (12 Aug 1930).
A popular sport among Nancy Drew fans is to associate descriptions in the early books with Mildred’s experiences, including the states where she was born and lived.
When he was still alive, Edward wrote that the next story, referring to Shadow Ranch, would be set on a ranch and he wanted to know if Mildred had a preference if it was in the far or middle west (28 Apr 1930). Although she selected the far west for this story, it is possible that some scenes in other volumes resemble Iowa or Ohio in details but the ultimate choice of location, along with all other content, was always the Syndicate’s.
Myth on Why Mildred Wirt Stopped Writing Nancy Drew
While writing Nancy Drew, Mildred Wirt was also writing her own stories. This was not hidden from the Syndicate and in some letters they congratulated her on her success.
The routine when inviting her to write a story was to ask if she had time to do so. Most of the time she said yes. However, for a period in 1932 and 1933, spanning three volumes, she declined, and the Syndicate hired Walter Karig to write stories for this series and others.
There is a common notion that the specific reason Mildred Wirt stopped writing the stories during this period was that the payment per volume had dropped because of the Great Depression.
This is true to a certain extent and she chaffed at the lower price offered by the Stratemeyer sisters. However, during this period she did write other Syndicate volumes for low sums such as a Ruth Fielding volume published in 1934, for which she was paid $75.
Her non-Nancy Drew work for the Syndicate is sometimes overlooked. When she resumed working on the Nancy Drew series, the prices had not yet risen to their pre-Depression values. Wirt was paid $85 for the next few Syndicate volumes, including two Kay Tracey volumes and The Message in the Hollow Oak (1935). She was paid $100 for The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (1936).
Perhaps she was in greater need for income if her own books were not selling as well. Another theory is that price wasn’t the problem; it was simply a lack of time.
Myths About Revising Nancy Drew
By 1934 Nancy Drew was outselling all of the other series books. Perhaps this was due to the Depression reducing sales for all books. However, most fans will agree that a big part of this was that they are very good stories to read, particularly in the original-text editions.
The revision process for the Nancy Drew series spanned the first thirty-four volumes in a process which began in 1959 and continued through 1977.
The reasons for cutting the stories down and rewriting many of the early volumes is sometimes misunderstood. The most common reason given was that the stories were rewritten to remove racial stereotypes after complaints were received.
In fact, the Tom Swift series received a complaint from the Anti-Defamation League (Bogen) about Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures (1928) for potentially unflattering references to Jews in one scene at the end (180). The text was changed on that page for the next printing.
However, a larger factor influencing the change of the book length was manufacturing costs. Early books were printed from copper printing plates, which were expensive to make and store and were seldom changed. The plates could also be damaged during use and through improper storage. Both the cost of the metal and demand for it during World War II caused some plates for other series to be melted down for the war effort (Svenson).
New methods were available in the 1950s that used photo- offset printing. The masters were now plastic sheets, which were much cheaper to make and store and could be changed cheaply, as well. However, to move the old stories to the new method would cost the same as writing a completely new story that might be even more relevant to the modern readers.
The stories were evaluated for content that was racially insensitive or outdated. Tabulations were also made to the number of copies sold, the number of lines per page and total number of pages, and the quality of the printing plates. This enabled the Syndicate to prioritize the revisions.
Some of the revised stories which bearing old titles are simply abridged from the originals. Others are complete rewrites. A good example of a Nancy Drew volume with a vastly different plot is The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion (Grosset & Dunlap, 1941), which was originally a story about stolen heirlooms and becomes a 1971 story about stolen missile parts at Cape Canaveral and includes a scene with exploding oranges.
While making these changes in the period beginning in 1959 and spanning well into the 1970s, it was appropriate to make the books modern in every respect. The stories had more educational content, subplots, and the racial stereotypes were removed. It was a real result, just not the primary motivation for the rewrites, at least initially.
The Bobbsey Twins volumes were revised well before Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in an effort to keep the published versions of the early titles protected even though the first three were passing into the public domain. Many unauthorized publishers seized on this opportunity by publishing these volumes when the copyrights expired. The Syndicate considered issuing revised versions of the Rover Boys to maintain the copyright protection.
Although the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books were not facing imminent copyright expiration, new stories with new copyrights would have a much longer lifespan on the shelf.
Between 1909 and 1978 the copyright law afforded a first term for “works for hire” of 28 years with a second 28 years available if the holder cared to renew it. This made for a total protection term of 56 years, more than two generations.
The copyright act of 1976 (1 Jan 1978) extended terms to 75 years and the Sonny Bono memorial extension took these up to 95 years. Hence, it will be a very long time before any Nancy Drews are available in the public domain thanks to the infinite wisdom of our Federal representatives.
Conclusion: An End To Myths
The Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for so many popular series books that there is a natural curiosity about the people behind them and how the stories were created. In some ways, this was heightened by the secrecy they maintained.
When the Syndicate revealed anything about their work, it was often simplified into carefully-crafted anecdotes or misinterpreted by the reporters.
When ghostwriters like Mildred Wirt Benson and Leslie McFarlane began to tell their stories to the public, the events they described occurred decades earlier. Fading memories may have caused some details to be reported inaccurately.
Many articles tend to focus on the person being interviewed and this can lead to the activities and efforts of others being ignored.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate is amazing in both the variety of books they issued and the complexity of the process to produce them. Each participant should receive appropriate credit for their involvement in creating these popular series, including our good friend, Nancy Drew.
Works Cited: For More Reading
Abel, Trudi Johanna. A Man of Letters, A Man of Business: Edward Stratemeyer and the Adolescent Reader, 1890-1930. Diss. Rutgers, State U of New Jersey, Oct 1993. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1993.
Adams, Harriet Stratemeyer. Letter to Leslie McFarlane. 3 Apr 1933. Stratemeyer Syndicate Records Collection. New York Public Library. Rare Books and Manuscripts Division. (Hereafter NYPL.)
“Adams-Stratemeyer.” Unidentified Newark newspaper following 20 Oct 1915 wedding of Russell Vroom Adams and Harriet Stratemeyer.
Alger, Horatio Jr. Letter to Edward Stratemeyer. 26 Oct 1897. NYPL.
Appleton, Victor. Tom Swift and His Talking Pictures. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1928.
Benson, Mildred Wirt. “The Ghost of Ladora.” Books at Iowa (Nov 1973): pp. 24-29.
Bogen, Boris D., Anti-Defamation League. Letter to Grosset & Dunlap. 13 Feb 1929. NYPL.
Bonehill, Capt. Ralph. When Santiago Fell. Rahway, NJ: Mershon, 1899.[Brinser, Ayres]. “‘For It Was Indeed He’ The fifty-cent juvenile, which Anthony Comstock included his ‘traps for the young.’ The publishers (principally three), the authors (one in particular), and the profits (fabulous) of literature for adolescents.” Fortune Apr 1934: pp. 86+.
Burke, W. J. and Will D. Howe. Revised by Irving Weiss. American Authors and Books. NY: Crown, 1962. 716.
Chapman, Allen. Ralph of the Roundhouse. Rahway, NJ: Mershon, 1906.
Commire, Anne, ed. Something About the Author, vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research, 1971. p. 208.
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Grosset & Dunlap v. Gulf & Western and Stratemeyer Syndicate. United States District Court Southern District of New York. 27 May 1980. 79 Civ. 2242. 79 Civ 3745.
Harris, Laura. Letter to Edward Stratemeyer. 17 Dec 1932. NYPL.
“Henry J. Stratemeyer Sr. Another Old and Well-Known Citizen Passes Away.” Elizabeth Daily Journal. 23 Dec 1891.
Hope, Laura Lee. The Bobbsey Twins. Rahway, NJ: Mershon, 1904.
Keene, Carolyn. The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1941.
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“Life of Elizabeth Author Recalled.” Elizabeth Daily Journal. 25 Apr 1946.
Lapin, Geoffrey S. “The Ghost of Nancy Drew.” Books at Iowa (Apr 1989): pp. 8-27.[Lawrence, Josephine]. “The Newarker Whose Name is Best Known. Edward Stratemeyer, Creator of ‘Dave Porter’ and the ‘Rover Boy,’ Admired by Boys Wherever English Is Read—Nearly Six Million Copies of His Books Sold—Story of the Author’s Early Trials and His Later Success.” Newark Sunday Call 9 Dec 1917.
Martin, Linnea. “The Ghost in the Attic.” Hiram Magazine (Summer 1988): pp. 14-18.
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Reed, F.L., Grosset & Dunlap. Letter to Edward Stratemeyer. 29 Feb 1929. NYPL.
“Revenge! Or, The Newsboy’s Adventure.” Our Friend Aug 1876. NYPL.
Rockwood, Roy. “The Rival Ocean Divers.” Golden Hours 5 Jan 1901-23 Feb 1901.
Secretary to Carolyn Keene. Letter to Mrs. Jane Gavere, Secretary, Public Information Bureau, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas. 17 Jan 1936. NYPL.
Smith, Harriet Otis. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 12 Aug 1930. NYPL.
Stratemeyer, Edward. Letter to Grosset & Dunlap. 19 Apr 1912. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Leslie McFarlane. 10 Apr 1928. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Barse & Co. 1 Apr 1929. Outline for Stella Strong series. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Grosset & Dunlap. 19 Jul 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Grosset & Dunlap. 30 Sep 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Grosset & Dunlap. 1 Oct 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 8 Apr 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 27 Sep 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 3 Oct 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 8 Nov 1929. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Mildred A. Wirt. 28 Apr 1930. NYPL.
–––. Letter to Olive Augusta Cheney. 22 Nov 1900. Cited in Abel 249-250.
–––. Literary Account Book. NYPL.
–––. The Minute Boys of Lexington. Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1898.
–––. Oliver Bright’s Search. NY: Merriam, 1895; Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1899.
–––. “One Boy in a Thousand.” Argosy 12 Nov 1892-4 Feb 1893.
–––. “The Origin of the Rover Boys.” Life 9 Jul 1925.
–––. To Alaska for Gold. Lee & Shepard, 1898.
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–––. “Victor Horton’s Idea.” Golden Days, 2 Nov 1889-30 Nov 1889.
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–––. “He Will Remember Me.” Illustrated Christian Weekly 6 Apr 1889.
–––. “Victor Horton’s Idea.” Unpublished holograph manuscript. NYPL.
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