Nancy Drew is iconic to say the least. She’s OG. She’s been a teenager way longer than Bart Simpson has been a ten year old and has been inspiring readers, boys and girls alike, for decades. She has a very deep bag of tricks at her disposal. Codebreaking? Nancy’s on it. Deductive reasoning? No problem. Tapdancing? Nancy’s a pro. Whatever the obstacle, Nancy can find her way around, over, or through it, always ably assisted by her friends, Bess and George, not to mention her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.
A lot of people remember when they first met Nancy Drew. I was a sixth grader–the first volume I read was The Scarlet Slipper Mystery–and I remember thinking the book seemed a little dry. I couldn’t get into it. My piano teacher at the time was a huge Nancy Drew fan, though, so I gave it another chance with The Secret Of the Old Clock and followed it up with The Hidden Staircase, which are still my favorites. Pretty soon about a dozen yellow-spined Nancy Drew books were propped up on my bookshelf.
Nancy Drew was conceived by New Jersey native Edward Stratemeyer, whose first professional story, Victor Horton’s Idea was published in 1889. A voracious reader, Stratemeyer had always had an affinity for writing and printing, even experimenting with typesetting machines as a teenager in the 1870s. Appropriately enough, Stratemeyer wrote “Victor Horton” under a pen name, Arthur M. Winfield.
Stratemeyer had so many ideas and stories floating around in his head that in 1905 he founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate and along with a sizeable team of ghostwriters, churned out various adventure serial novels under different pen names. Among them were the Rover Boys and Tom Swift, and later Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins. It’s said that Stratemeyer published over six hundred books by the time he died in 1930, and just the Rover Boys alone brought in $1.8M in sales.
Stratemeyer’s daughters, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Edna Stratemeyer Squier took over the syndicate after Stratemeyer passed, and despite various logistical hiccups from time to time, ran it successfully for fifty years. In 1985 the syndicate was bought by Simon & Schuster, which controls Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to this day under the Mega Books label.
Before he died, Stratemeyer outlined and edited the first four Nancy Drew books, which were to be written under the pseudonym of Carolyn Keene. However, it was Mildred Wirt Benson who first brought Nancy Drew to life.
Benson was an impressive lady. A native of Iowa, she outlived two husbands, had a pilot’s license, a working knowledge of archaeology, and wrote for the Toledo Blade for many years. Benson had two degrees from the University of Iowa–she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1925 and a Master’s in journalism in 1927. She started working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate right out of college and wrote numerous novels and short stories. Her first three Nancy Drew books were published in 1930, and according to the University of Iowa, were hugely successful right off the bat. Benson would continue writing Nancy Drew books until the 1950s.
Like many ghostwriters, Benson’s identity was meant to be kept secret, but ardent fans found her out later in her life. She was tickled pink when Nancy Drew conventions began taking place around the United States, some including a visit to Benson’s hometown of Ladora, Iowa.
Since Benson’s last book, too many writers to count have picked up where she left off, and much as I don’t care for Wikipedia, it’s one of the few sites to list all of them. It was also around the nineteen fifties that the books were updated, rewritten and condensed.
I don’t think this did the books any favors, to be honest, because on one hand, while there were racial slurs taken out, the stories lost some personality. They also got a little formulaic. I remember talking to some friends in high school once about Nancy Drew, and one girl remarked that Nancy blacks out in every book.
Yep. True dat.
Fortunately, the originals are still accessible, although often expensive, but if anyone wants a well-rounded view of Nancy Drew literary history and a bit of time travel, those books are the way to go.
For someone who’s so ubiquitous, Nancy Drew hasn’t come to the screen very often, but she’s no stranger to it, either. Here are a few of her appearances on TV and in features:
Nancy Drew, Reporter (1939)
Bonita Granville played Nancy Drew four times, but Reporter is probably the easiest of her films to find today, as it’s in public domain and can be seen on YouTube and Amazon Prime. In Reporter, Nancy is in a journalism contest held by the local paper and her school, and in the process helps a local girl who’s been accused of murder.
The movie is fun and Granville plays Nancy with energy and spunk, but it misfires a little bit. Ned becomes Ted, and his little brother and sister tag along while he and Nancy solve the mystery. Oh, these kids are annoying. Jack, the brother, imitates Donald Duck all the time, and Mary, the sister, was clearly meant to be a Judy Garland clone but doesn’t get there. They could have been left out of the movie and no one would miss them.
The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-1979)
This series was a fun one, and stars Pamela Sue Martin as Nancy. The episodes alternated between Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and really caught the flavor of the original books despite being throughly grounded in the seventies. The nostalgia is wall to wall and so are the surprises. And yes, there’s some crossover now and then. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries is available to see on YouTube or on DVD.
Nancy Drew (1995)
Here’s a brunette Nancy Drew with a dash of Canadian grunge, living on her own with Bess and George in a swanky apartment building. Starring Tracy Ryan as Nancy, each episode is a blink-and-you-miss-it clue-fest. It’s pretty enjoyable, but since episodes are so short it’s a little tough to build suspense. It’s got some great moments, though, and among the highlights are an appearance by one David Sutcliffe, and Scott Speedman of Felicity fame plays Ned. Like The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the show is easily available on YouTube.
Nancy Drew (2007)
This is probably my favorite screen version of Nancy Drew because they incorporated a little bit of everything. Set in the present day, Emma Roberts’ Nancy promises her dad she won’t sleuth anymore, especially while Carson is working in LA, but asking Nancy Drew to stay away from mysteries is like trying to keep a moth from a candle.
One of the things I like about the movie is that it does a really good job of making Nancy exceptional. She doesn’t live on her phone like her classmates and wears Peter Pan collars in gym class. She’s really good at being herself and she enjoys it. She comes prepared for every contingency, and she has a way of plying criminals and government workers with perfect-looking baked goods.
Nancy Drew (2019-?)
I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen this series, but I’ve heard good things about it. It seems to be worthwhile, though, so I’ll have to make time for it. Apparently it’s a tossup whether the series is going to be renewed for a fourth season, but here’s hoping. Also apparently, Pamela Sue Martin from the 1977 series makes a featured appearance.
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (2019)
Benson’s favorite of her books was The Hidden Staircase, and it seems to be the same for a lot of others. In this movie, we get an approximation of the novel, with Sophia Lillis playing a skateboard-riding Nancy. It’s not a bad time, but its strengths are also its weaknesses. It looks too bright and perfect, which makes it seem very low-budget and Lifetime-y. It’s going to date very quickly; there are so many mentions of Instagram and things going viral that it’s practically product placement. The movie also resorts to a fart joke in the beginning, which is understandable for today but really cliched and out of place.
As long as the movie keeps things relatively classic, it does all right, and it’s nice to see another new version of Nancy on the big screen.
There will, no doubt, be more Nancy Drew stories on the horizon, both on page and screen, and no doubt Mildred Benson would be delighted. She did, however, have a sobering warning for those who might decide Nancy needs to go in a new direction:
Women are entitled to their freedom, but they shouldn’t use that as an excuse for license. Some of them are mistaking freedom for license. I don’t think that should be. I’m a little bit old-fashioned in my thinking, I guess. I didn’t intend for Nancy to be a runaround. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to family. I think Nancy would have stood up for family rights.
A new post is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all…
The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (Seasons One, Two, and Three), Nancy Drew (DVD only) and Nancy Drew And the Hidden Staircase (DVD and Blu-ray) are available to own from Amazon. Nancy Drew, Reporter is available on DVD and is free to stream for Prime customers. The books can be purchased here.
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