Benson, Mildred Wirt

Born: July 10, 1905
Died: May 28, 2008

Ohio connection: Former Resident


Mildred Wirt Benson, famously known as “Nancy Drew” mystery series author Carolyn Keene, was born July 10, 1905, in Ladora, Iowa, where, even as a child, she knew she would be a writer. While studying for her Master’s degree in journalism–the first woman at the University of Iowa to do so–Benson wrote and sold short stories and worked for the Clinton, Iowa, Herald to help cover her expenses. During this time she submitted a manuscript for the “Ruth Fielding” series to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a publishing business that developed such classic children’s book series as the “Hardy Boys” and the “Bobbsey Twins”. She was soon selected to write the first book of the new “Nancy Drew” mystery series, The Secret of the Old Clock (1930). However, her contractual arrangement with the Stratemeyer Syndicate required she use the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene, that she tell no one, and that she accept a flat fee for her work rather than earn any royalties on the soon to be successful mystery series. Despite these conditions, Benson wrote over 20 “Nancy Drew” mystery stories, giving millions of young girls from several generations a character they could relate to and who was, according to Benson, “a departure from the stereotyped heroine commonly encountered in series books of the day.” Benson did not limit herself to “Nancy Drew” or even the other series books she wrote, including the “Penny Parker” or “Dana Girls” mystery stories. By day Benson, who had moved to Cleveland and then Toledo with her first husband Asa Wirt, was a reporter and columnist for the Toledo Times, working there from 1944 until the paper closed in 1975. She then wrote for the Toledo Blade until 2002, reporting on court cases and local government while also penning weekly columns “Millie Benson’s Notebook” and “On the Go with Millie Benson”. She also found time to study the Mayan civilization as an amateur archeologist, and even became a licensed pilot at the age of 60. Benson died in Toledo, Ohio, on Tuesday, May 28, 2002.

Boys’ Life-Dodd, Mead prize, 1957, for Dangerous Deadline; Amos Ives Root Award, Ohio Aviation Trades Association, 1973, for articles on aviation; Ohioana Citation, Ohioana Library Association, 1989, for contributions to children’s literature; citation for feature writing, Ohio Newspaper Women’s Association; Agatha Award for Lifetime Achievement, Malice Domestic, 2000; Edgar Allan Poe Special Award, Mystery Writers of America, 2001.