Thursday, May 30, 2002

The Thursday episode of (646) Guy will be up in a moment but first we have the news story of the day...

'Nancy Drew' Author Benson Dies

By JOHN SEEWER
.c The Associated Press

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) - Mildred Wirt Benson, the author who created Nancy Drew, girl sleuth, and inspired generations of young women with the teen-age heroine's spunk, independence and resourcefulness, has died at 96.

Benson fell ill Tuesday at The Blade newspaper, where she wrote a weekly column about daily life and the elderly. She died later at a hospital.

Using the pen name Carolyn Keene, Benson wrote 23 of the 30 original Nancy Drew mysteries about the stylishly dressed, golden-haired rich girl who tooled around in her own roadster and solved crimes.

Dozens of ghost writers followed Benson, and the Nancy Drew series is still in print. It has sold over 200 million books in 17 languages.

Benson was paid $125 per book and never collected royalties from the books, movies and board games. She was bound by an agreement with the publisher not to reveal her identity as the series author, but it became known in 1980 when she testified in a court case involving Nancy Drew's publisher.

``I always knew the series would be successful,'' Benson said in a December interview with The Associated Press. ``I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people.''

Benson was a journalist for 58 years and wrote more than 130 books, including the Penny Parker mystery series, and countless short stories. But she is best known for creating Drew, a 16-year-old with golden blond hair who was as smart as she was beautiful.

The always-perfect teen detective wore stylish cardigan sweater sets, white gloves and heels while climbing through attics and haunted mansions in search of clues. She caught jewel thieves, kidnappers and other criminals with the help of her River Heights pals, tomboy George and the pretty, plump Bess. Nancy's father, handsome attorney Carson Drew, praised everything she did.

In the first Nancy Drew book, in 1930, she uncovered the hidden will in ``The Secret of the Old Clock.'' Twelve books later she helped a retired actress recover her stolen Persian cats in ``The Clue of the Tapping Heels.''

Fans say the books allowed girls and young women to dream of exciting careers at a time when females had few role models in print. Celebrities like actress Demi Moore and journalist Barbara Walters have said they were inspired by the daring detective.

``I grew up on Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins,'' Walters said in 1998. ``The Bobbsey Twins were goody-goody, and Nancy Drew was fearless. I wanted to be somewhere between both.''

``Every woman wanted to be her,'' said Suzanne Meglan, who was shopping at a suburban Columbus bookstore Wednesday. She read the books and bought them for her daughter. Now her grandchildren are reading them.

Harriet Adams, daughter of original publisher Edward Stratemeyer, took over the Nancy Drew series and directed writers in the 1950s to make the stories shorter and faster-paced.

Adams died in 1982 and Nancy Drew was sold to Simon & Schuster, which uses a number of ``Carolyn Keenes.'' Nancy evolved into a halter-top wearing, roller-blading high schooler who hung out at the mall. She traded her roadster for a convertible.

Benson never cared for the ``modern'' Nancy and refused to sign her name on any of the new books. In a way, she was like the character she made famous - independent and adventurous.

She loved swimming and diving, and remembered jumping from bridges into the Iowa River during her college days. She learned to fly at 59 and traveled around the world, flying to archaeological digs in Central America.

Benson began writing in Ladora, Iowa, where she was born July 10, 1905. She wrote children's stories when she was in grade school and won her first writing award at 14.

``I had no other thought except that I wanted to write,'' she said.

Benson was the first person to receive a master's degree in journalism at the University of Iowa in 1927, according to the school.

She was introduced to journalism through her first husband, Asa Wirt, who worked with The AP. In 1944, Benson began working at the former Toledo Times and later at The Blade.

Despite failing eyesight and diminished hearing, she continued to write. The day after she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997, she was back at her desk working on her next column.

``She was gutsy and daring, a living embodiment of her Nancy Drew heroine,'' said John Robinson Block, publisher and editor in chief of The Blade.

Benson recalled her lifelong love of books in her final column, published in The Blade on Wednesday. ``I consider it an honor to have been born near the turn of the 20th century, at about the time when public libraries were first coming into popular use,'' she wrote.

The Nancy Drew books now compete with ``The Royal Diaries,'' a historical fiction series by Scholastic Books, and the American Girl series.

Beth Puffer, manager of the Bank Street Bookstore in New York, said the original Nancy Drew books are a bit outdated for today's young readers.

``In other ways, they're universal - a good mystery, good character, a good female protagonist,'' she said. ``They sell kind of slowly but steadily. My sense is it's more parents buying them out of nostalgia.''

Wirt died in 1947. Benson's second husband, George Benson, editor of The Toledo Times, died in 1959. She is survived by her daughter, Peggy Wirt. The funeral will be private.
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