Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Herby Melanie Rehak
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A plucky “titian-haired” sleuth solved her first mystery in 1930. Eighty million books later, Nancy Drew has survived the Depression, World War II, and the sixties (when she was taken up with a vengeance by women’s libbers) to enter the pantheon of American girlhood. As beloved by girls today as she was by their grandmothers, Nancy Drew has both inspired and reflected the changes in her readers’ lives. Here, in a narrative with all the vivid energy and page-turning pace of Nancy’s adventures, Melanie Rehak solves an enduring literary mystery: Who created Nancy Drew? And how did she go from pulp heroine to icon? The brainchild of children’s book mogul Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy was brought to life by two women: Mildred Wirt Benson, a pioneering journalist from Iowa, and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a well-bred wife and mother who took over as CEO after her father died. In this century-spanning story, Rehak traces their roles—and Nancy’s—in forging the modern American woman.
The New York Times
"Rehak chronicles a character who influenced at least two generations of women in a highly readable, exhaustive book."
PRAISE FOR GIRL SLEUTH
"[An] absorbing and delightful book."--The Wall Street Journal
"Girl Sleuth is an enjoyable, thorough piece of detective work. It would earn a nod of approval from Nancy Drew herself."--The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
Read an Excerpt
The Stratemeyer Clan
These suggestions are for a new series for girls verging on novels. 224 pages, to retail at fifty cents. I have called this line the "Stella Strong Stories," but they might also be called "Diana Drew Stories," "Diana Dare Stories," "Nan Nelson Stories," "Nan Drew Stories" or "Helen Hale Stories" . . .
Stella Strong, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a District Attorney of many years standing. He is 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.
IN SEPTEMBER of 1929 children's book mogul Edward Stratemeyer sent one of his inimitable typed memos to Grosset & Dunlap, his longtime publisher, describing a new line of books he hoped they would launch the following spring. Though he proved to have an uncharacteristically tin ear when it came to choosing a name for his heroine- any other option on his list of possibilities had a better ring to it than "Stella"-his sense of her life and her intrepid personality were flawless. While they had no way of knowing that Stratemeyer's girl detective would eventually become a celebrity not only in the children's book world but in the world at large, Grosset & Dunlap's editors certainly knew a good thing when they saw it. They accepted Stratemeyer's series on the basis of his memo, which also included brief plotlines for the first five books in the series, and his reputation, which, by the time "Nan Drew" burst on to the scene with her fashionable outfits and boundless intelligence, had been the source of admiration and envy-and a great fortune for Stratemeyer-for several decades. When his latest proposal reached their Manhattan office, he had been writing for children for more than forty years and was so steeped in the idiom of his chosen genre that he had given even the events of his own life-which were rather straightforward and businesslike when it came down to it-the sheen and thrill of a juvenile story.
This transformation had begun at the moment of his first serious publication in a children's story paper in November of 1889. It was a fanciful tale called "Victor Horton's Idea," and it told of a boy who went out into the world to live life-unsuccessfully, it would transpire-like the characters in his favorite dime novels.
Victor was fifteen years old, naturally bright and lively, and if he had not held so high of an opinion of himself, he would have been a first-rate lad.
Besides being conceited, Victor was dissatisfied with the quietness of country life. He longed to go forth into the great world and achieve fame and fortune.
Now, though this idea is often a very laudable one, it was not so in the present instance. Victor's idea upon the subject had been gathered wholly from the pages of numerous dime novels and disreputable story papers loaned him by his particular crony, Sam Wilson, and was, therefore, of a deceptive and unsubstantial nature, and likely to do more harm than good.
The details of Victor's exploits appeared in installments over five weeks, crammed into the narrow columns of a richly illustrated black-and-white children's broadsheet out of Philadelphia called Golden Days for Boys and Girls (subscription price $3 per annum). Alongside them ran informative articles with titles like "How to Make a Guitar" ("Those who have read the articles on 'Violin Making' and have succeeded in making one would, perhaps, like to make a guitar if they knew what a simple matter it is"); interesting trivia; and true stories about heroic rescues of humans by dogs.
Stratemeyer was twenty-six years old, tall, slender, and bespectacled, with a brushy mustache, dark hair combed back off a high forehead, and a preternatural instinct for the arc of a good tale for young people. He had, according to one news report, "a scholarly appearance . . . and his eyes are a trifle contracted from constant application to his work." Indeed, in person, Stratemeyer betrayed no signs of the flights of fancy that had produced Victor and would go on to invent countless other young scalawags, heroes, and heroines over the next forty years. As one reporter would later describe him, he was "a tranquil-faced man, with kind, good-humored eyes . . . [and] a curiously deliberate manner of speaking. One doubts if he has ever been hurried into a decision or ever given an answer to a question without earnest consideration." He also had a healthy sense of perspective on his chosen field. By the end of Victor Horton's travails, the young man announces to his hapless friend Sam: "Dime novels are a first-class fraud!"
Nonetheless, they were the field that Stratemeyer aimed to get into. Myth had it that he had written "Victor Horton's Idea" on a sheet of brown package paper during quiet moments while clerking at his brother's tobacco store in Newark, New Jersey. In spite of having recorded very clearly in his own notes that he had written the story at home, Stratemeyer, knowing better than most the value of a good yarn, repeated the entertaining falsehood about its conception whenever he was asked to. As one news feature of the era printed it, complete with the final triumph of will and self-knowledge over discouragement:
His initial long story-18,000 words-was written on store wrapping paper and later copied onto white paper. The author, who was then twenty-five, was not satisfied with it so he laid it aside. After a year . . . he revised the manuscript carefully and sent it to Golden Days. The check for $75 he received Stratemeyer bore proudly to his father, Henry J. Stratemeyer. "Look at this," he said. The father, who had told him he was wasting his time writing the tale and might be better engaged in a more useful activity, regarded the check, then jerked up his glasses. "Why, it's a check made out to you!" he exclaimed. Stratemeyer explained he had received it for the story the parent had tried to discourage. "Paid you that for writing a story?" his father repeated. "Well, you'd better write a lot more of them."
In addition to his paycheck, Stratemeyer received something even more valuable: some sage-not to mention prophetic-advice from the editor of Golden Days. "I think you would become a good serial writer if you were to know just what was required, always remembering that each 'to be continued' must mark a holding point in the story." The young author not only took these words fully to heart, but would incorporate them, practically verbatim, into his own advice to writers for years to come.
Born on October 4, 1862, Edward Stratemeyer was the youngest of six children, three of them half-brothers, and all of them musically or artistically talented. His father, Henry Julius Stratemeyer, had come to the United States from Germany in 1837, along with a wave of German immigrants that only got larger and larger as the nineteenth century progressed. Many of them, including Henry Stratemeyer, headed out to the California coast in search of the shiniest, most tempting American dream of them all: gold. By 1851, though, Henry had mined more fool's gold than the actual metal, and he headed back east to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to visit his brother, George, also an émigré; his brother's wife, Anna; and the couple's three sons. Surrounded by family, Henry decided to stay in Elizabeth and settled into shopkeeping, advertising himself as a "wholesale and retail dealer in tobacco, cigars, snuff and pipes."
Two years after his brother's arrival in New Jersey, George Stratemeyer was stricken during a cholera epidemic. Knowing death was near, he asked Henry to stay in America and look after his family. Henry agreed, and in 1854, not long after George's death, he married his brother's widow, making his three nephews into his stepsons. Henry and Anna went on to have three more children: Louis Charles, born in 1856; Anna, born in 1859; and Edward, born in 1862. The family was well established in the cultured, comfortable merchant circle of Elizabeth and was barely touched by the War Between the States. Neither a military man nor a willing volunteer, the elder Stratemeyer had no trouble staying out of it.
As they grew, the Stratemeyer boys were put to work in their father's thriving tobacco store, in order that he might teach them the basics of commerce and, especially, entrepreneurship. The children also received musical training. Edward's sister, Anna, who would become an accomplished pianist, received her entire schooling at a prominent conservatory in town. Edward, on the other hand, was educated in the public schools of Elizabeth, and though he had an ear for music, too, preferred language. "You ask when I first wanted to become an author," he wrote to an acquaintance in 1919. "I think I must have been about six years old when I attempted to write my first story." He displayed an early interest in publishing, as well, running around his neighborhood with a toy printing press-an accoutrement that was all the rage at the time-turning out items for the pleasure of his friends and family. He would interview local residents about the goings-on in their lives during the week, then print up their answers in a newspaper that he sold back to them, at the price of one cent, on Saturday mornings.
Two chapbooks followed, with the entertaining, inscrutable titles That Bottle of Vinegar (1877) and The Tale of a Lumberman as Told by Himself (1878). The latter included, in bold black-and-white, the confident statement "E. STRATEMEYER PUBLISHER" on its cover. Stratemeyer was just sixteen years old, but he had grown up reading the books of Oliver Optic (the nom de plume of William T. Adams) and Horatio Alger, the two predominant boys' fiction authors of the period, and the adventure-filled, rags-to-riches stories, as well as their action-packed dime-novel counterparts, left an impression on him that lasted well into his adult years. As he recalled fondly in an interview: "I had quite a library, including many of Optic's and Alger's books. At seven or eight, when I was reading them, I said, 'If only I could write books like that I'd be the happiest person on earth.'"
Stratemeyer graduated from Elizabeth High School, the valedictorian of his class of three. Afterward, as was the norm for even a middle-class boy-only 1 percent of Americans attended college in the 1870s-he received two years of private tutoring in rhetoric, composition, and literature. He continued to combine clerking in a tobacco store-his brother Maurice's this time-with writing, refining his stories, and selling them to the story papers that were appearing all over the country, like the Penny Magazine (which paid him $1 for "A Horrible Crime"), the Experiment, and the Boys' Courier.
Copyright © 2005 by Melanie Rehak
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Meet the Author
Girl Sleuth earned both Edgar and Agatha Awards.
Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic. A recipient of the New York Public Library's Tukman Fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, she writes for the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Vogue, and the Nation, among others. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Nancy Drew has been a household name for decades. In the novel Girl Sleuth author Melanie Rehak explains how Nancy Drew came to character and exactly why she is what she is today. This novel went into great detail about the women who created her and the struggles and hardships they faced throughout their lives and throughout creating the tales of Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was brought to life by the works of these ladies and became real to so many children not only then but now. Nancy Drew gave the inspiration and let every child believe that they could do anything they put their minds to. This novel took a trip back to the past and even as interesting as it was it was all the more educational, telling of the struggles that not only the creators of Nancy Drew faced but also the struggles of all women. This novel took a look inside many of the Nancy Drew tales and how they were created. There were many many women who influenced the creation of Nancy Drew and some men as well. This book was very well written and kept me engaged. It is also very impressive how well researched it is and how Melanie Rehak left no detail out. Though Nancy Drew may have been an extraordinary fictional character the tales of these women is nothing less than as real as real can be.
This was a selection of our book club and while I was interested (I loved Nancy Drew and can directly attribut my love of reading to her books), I was a bit concerned that it would be dull and dry. I needn't have worried.From the first page, the story of these remarkable women was interspersed with the history of their times and their lives. The early days of the fight for the right to vote, going to college at the turn of the century, making a living, holding down a job and taking care of a family.... does this sound old? I loved Nancy Drew as a child but the story of these woman was even more interesting than the story of Nancy. My one complaint would be that I would have like to see more pictures of these women adn their families and associates. Minor really. The book is well written, entertaining and well researched. My teen was writing a paper on the 19th amendment and found this book a wealth of info. Fascinating. Worth the read and more. Now I want to re-read those old Nancys!
This is an interesting biography in that Melanie Rehak looks into the creation of one of the most popular fictional detectives of all time, Nancy Drew and the creators who wrote the stories. As with the Hardy Boys, the Girl Detective story lines followed a precise formula to include fun but impossible twists and red herrings as well as escapes that MacGyver would have been proud to have made. Still Nancy Drew became and is an icon as the courageous teen willing to risk much for what she believes is right.................... Edward Stratemeyer, the genius who established the Rover Boys and the Bobbsey Twins novels, developed the formula (with help from his assistant) for a girl sleuth combining the Ruth Fielding tales with the boy detectives Hardy Boys. He hired journalist Mildred Wirt, who authored the Fielding books for him, to ghost write the Nancy Drew thrillers starting in 1930. She scribed the first dozen with an emphasis on an energetic never quitting Drew, who did not fear getting dirty. After Stratemeyer died, his daughter Harriet wrote the stories with a different but still energetic Drew that accentuated the teen¿s deportment as much as solving the mystery. Ms. Rehak provides a fun look behind the scenes that anyone who read (or watched the TV show) the Drew novels including this reviewer will appreciate................... Harriet Klausner
For the original baby boomers who turn sixty this year, 'Girl Sleuth' was a walk down memory lane. My mother's generation, my generation, my daughter's generation, and now my grandaughter's generation have loved and continue to love Nancy Drew. To finally have the complete story told in such a delightful manner has made the 'walk' that much better. I could share numerous stories connected with the reading of each book. The most important influence Nancy had on many of us was that we never doubted we could do or be anything! Long before the Women's Movement, I wanted to be a scientist (never a teacher or nurse). Unfortunately, I began my career in the sixties and that ment teaching not medicine. Thanks to Nancy, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Katherine Hepburn, I had the role models I needed and have had a successful career educating future female physicians and scientist. I am a sicence teacher. Next month I begin my thirty-fifth year of teaching. Thank you Melanie and Nancy for convincing me I lived up to the dream!