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Mildred Wirt Benson

 Mildred (Millie) Wirt Benson (1905-2002) was born on July 10, 1905 in Ladora, Iowa. Her father, the town doctor, Dr. J. L. Augustine, delivered Mildred at home. Benson spent her childhood playing outdoors, jumping rope and making mud pies in the summers, and ice-skating in Iowa’s cold winters.[fn]Rehak, Melanie . Girl Sleuth. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt inc., 2005.[/fn] At an early age, Benson found a passion for writing and had her first story published in June 1919. The story named The Courtesy appeared in St. Nicholas magazine. Benson graduated from Ladora High School in June 1922, and in September of that year began her studies at the University of Iowa.

Student at the University of Iowa

While she was a student at the University of Iowa, Benson lived in the Currier residence hall. She played basketball, soccer, and swam in the Seals Club. She was also a member of the journalism sorority Theta Sigma Phi, and wrote for The University’s newspaper, the Daily Iowan. As a swimmer, Benson was a great asset to the Seals Club; she even beat a man on the men’s swimming club, the Eels, in a mixed relay.[fn]Rehak, Melanie . Girl Sleuth. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt inc., 2005.[/fn] Millie also was a diver for the Seals Club and enjoyed diving off the various bridges in Iowa City into the Iowa River. Her passion for swimming overlapped with her love of writing.

During her work for the Daily Iowan, Benson wrote many articles, including her editorial, Our Sardines. The woman’s pool, then located in Halsey Hall at the University of Iowa, was too small for the fast growing popularity of women’s swimming, and Millie felt that the women deserved a larger pool, better equipment, and overall more recognition saying that, “Swimming records at the women’s gymnasium have been slashed in the last three years. This season an unofficial time for the free style establishes a pool record.”[fn]Mildred Augustine, “Our Sardines, Mid 1920s,” Mildred Benson Files, Iowa Women’s Archives, Iowa City, Iowa[/fn]

After only three years of undergraduate education, Benson graduated from University of Iowa. She later admitted that she wished she had not graduated early saying that, “I think you need the cultural effect of college just as much as you need the subject matter.”[fn]Rehak, Melanie . Girl Sleuth. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt inc., 2005.[/fn]

In the fall of 1926, Millie re-enrolled at the University of Iowa in their journalism graduate program and spent her time in the newsroom after hours to work on her assignments. After finishing her thesis, which she strongly disliked, entitled, “Newspaper Illustration: A Study of the Metropolitan Daily, the Small City Daily, and the Country Weekly,” Benson became the first woman to graduate from the Iowa School of Journalism in the summer of 1927.

The Chance of a Lifetime

After finishing her undergraduate education at the University of Iowa, Benson joined the “ranks of the middle-class working girl.”[fn]Rehak, Melanie . Girl Sleuth. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt inc., 2005.[/fn] She went to write for the society pages of the Clinton (Iowa) Herald. In the spring of 1926, Benson answered an ad that would alter her life; it was posted by Stratemeyer Syndicate[fn]Stratemeyer Syndicate was a publishing enterprise founded by the American author Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930), Stratemeyer published more than eighty juvenile fiction series under myriad ghostwriters and dozens of pseudonyms.[/fn] and they were looking for ghostwriters. Benson received a job and spent the following summer working on her first assignment Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario under the pseudonym of Alice B. Emerson.

After her postgraduate studies, just before she left Iowa City, Benson began her most famous project on the Nancy Drew series.

Family

Benson had loving parents who taught her the tools that they thought were important to living life. On March 4, 1928, Benson wed her former classmate Asa Wirt, who worked for the Associated Press. They eventually moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and then to Toledo. The couple brought their daughter Peggy Wirt into the world in November of 1936. Sadly, in June of 1947, Asa Wirt passed away. Millie then met George Benson, editor of the Toledo Times, and they married in 1950. George died in 1959. Millie lived and worked for another 43 years after his death.


Life-long Journalist and Children’s Writer

Millie's journalism career at the The Toledo Times, and later on The Toledo Blade began in 1944 and continued for 58 years. But after she moved with her husband Asa Wirt to Toledo, she continued to write also children’s books under pseudonyms through the 1930s and 1940s. Her own pseudonyms were Frank Bell, Don Palmer, Ann Wirt, Dorothy West, and Joan Clark, and her Stratemeyer Syndicate’s pseudonyms were Julia K. Duncan, Frances K. Judd, Helen Louise Thorndyke, Carolyn Keene, and Alice B. Emerson. She wrote one hundred and thirty five children’s books, including many in the Ruth Fielding and Nancy Drew series.

Benson did not fully create the series or the character of Nancy Drew--this was dreamed up by Edward Stratemeyer--however, she created Nancy's sparkling personality, plucky demeanor, and courage to succeed against all obstacles. With pen in hand, Benson created a legend in her own right. She took the plots supplied by the Syndicate and created an imaginative world of suspense that has thrilled readers for many years and continues to do so as the spirit of her Nancy lives on even in today's modern stories! Benson managed to churn out a mystery every couple of weeks to up to a month or six weeks depending on scheduling and how quickly the publisher needed the book. The irony is that Benson was at first paid $125 for some of the early books, yet by the time she wrote the last few Nancy Drew books, she got upwards to $500.

Benson was not allowed to reveal herself as the author of Nancy Drew under her contract with Stratemeyer, and this fact was not publicly known until she testified in a lawsuit in 1980, between Stratemeyer Syndicate and Grosset & Dunlap, who were the original publishers of Nancy Drew. Benson also published many other stories in magazines as St. Nicholas Magazine, Lutheran Young Folks, Our Boys and Girls, and Calling All Girls, using her own name.

In 1964, Benson began flying lessons when she was fifty-nine years old and went on to receive her pilot’s license. After the lawsuit between Stratemeyer Syndicate and Grosset & Dunlap, The University of Iowa decided to honor Benson by holding the first Nancy Drew conference April 16-18, 1993. Carolyn Dyer, a University of Iowa professor who presided over the conference, said “Nancy Drew was a revolutionary character when she started, one offering girls an adventuresome role model.” Nine years later, on May 28, 2002, Benson fell ill at home and died later that night.[fn]“Prolific author Benson, 96, dies,” Daily Iowan, May 30, 2002, Front Page, cont. 11[/fn]

 
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United States