Mildred Wirt Benson
When I was about twelve or thirteen, my friend Peggy Cole introduced me to my first Nancy Drew book, either The Hidden Staircase or The Secret of the Old Clock-I don’t remember which. We belonged to a group of neighborhood kids in Detroit, leading the ordinary, average lives of middle-class people in the fifties. None of us had any idea what we wanted to be when we grew up; we were just beginning to explore the various avenues of life. It was a carefree, untroubled time of riding bikes, going to the State Fair, camping out in a vacant lot . . .. Drugs, sex, and urban angst were, for us, simply unheard of.
When I read my first Nancy Drew novel, I encountered a character unlike any I had ever come across in real life or fiction. I didn’t know about Jane Austen’s heroines. No one in my crowd had even heard of Jane Austen. We weren’t intellectually sophisticated like so many of the young are today. But that first Nancy Drew book set me off on a path that I still tread today. I read every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on and before long developed an incipient groupie’s desire to know more about Nancy’s author, Carolyn Keene. I dreamed of meeting her, or at the very least seeing a picture of her, to find out how much she, in real life, was like her character, Nancy Drew. I was confused and dismayed to find out from a friend’s mother that there was no Carolyn Keene. Furthermore, I discovered that there were no copies of these books I had so come to treasure in the school or local library because they were considered “trash.” What was literary “trash” and what was wrong with these books in particular? The process of finding the answers to these questions eventually turned me into an author and scholar of British and American literature with a particular emphasis on emergent literacy and the history and significance of popular culture literature-serialized detective fiction in particular.
CCS: Mildred we want to talk to you not only about Nancy Drew, but we want to know about how you came to be a writer, what you do here at The Toledo Blade, what you think about a career in writing, what you think about life-whatever you want to tell us.
MWB: That’s quite a general question! I always wanted to write. There was never a time in my life when I have the recollection that I didn’t want to write, and I’ve just kept at it all these years. Of course I still work almost full-time now at the Blade, and I have worked over 56 years here. I’m tapering off now somewhat. I only write a column here once a week now.
CCS: Tell us where you were born and when.
MWB: I always hate the “when” that they always tack on the end of that sentence! I was born in a little town with just a few hundred people called Ladora. It was named for the music: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. That was where Ladora came from. I was born in 1905.
CCS: And that was in what state?
CCS: Iowa-so you were a Midwestern girl.
MWB: Well, that’s what they say.
CCS: And that was 1905, so that would make you …
MWB: Ninety-five so far.
CCS: Now you once told me a little bit about your life growing up-about your dad. Tell us about your childhood.
MWB: I had a very happy childhood and it was very free from most restraints. The taboos that I faced were the ones that everybody had at that time-there was a different code of behavior for people than there is now-but other than that, I was given a great deal of freedom. I could go where I pleased, do what I pleased, and read what I pleased. I had a very free and easy childhood.
CCS: Did you have brothers and sisters?
MWB: I had one brother and he went into the army quite early in life so I didn’t know him too well.
CCS: Was that during World War I?
MWB: During World War I.
CCS: And your dad? What did your dad do for a living?
MWB: He was a surgeon, a doctor-a graduate of the University of Iowa. That’s where I graduated also.
CCS: Did you share any of your dad’s interests in medicine or science?
MWB: Well, I did. As a very young child I sort of talked like I wanted to become a doctor, but in those days there weren’t very many women doctors and it was a terrifically hard life for a woman doctor. And he discouraged me from doing that.
CCS: Doctors made house calls in those days. Did he take you with him when he went out on calls?
MWB: Oh, yes. I made them in a horse and buggy at first with him and then later in an automobile. I never went with him in an airplane though.
CCS: Did he talk to you about his cases?
MWB: Oh, yes. I rode with him in his automobile, over the hills there in Iowa, for several years. We were very close that way.
CCS: So you talked about cases. That might have been some initial sleuthing-trying to figure out why somebody got a disease?
MWB: I don’t remember specific cases.
CCS: Well, the scientific mind can be an enquiring mind, and I bet you and your dad had some things to share.
MWB: We were always very companionable. I was with my mother also but not as much, I don’t think.
CCS: What was she like?
MWB: She came from Vermont, which says a lot. She was rock-bound in her beliefs. She was a very trained person. She was not a registered nurse but she could do any kind of nursing. She assisted my father for many years, right up to his retirement.
CCS: Would you say she was a resourceful person?
MWB: Yes. She had a great deal of talent. She was very musical. She played the piano beautifully and she organized orchestras and that sort of thing, and she liked to write a little bit-dabble in it. I think that’s where I probably got my talent.
CCS: Did your parents read, and did you read a lot as a child?
MWB: I read everything I could get my hands on. We had no library in the town and of course I went through our [home] library like a shot. So I was always hard up to find reading material when I was young. Books didn’t come in in profusion or adequately until about the time I went to college.
CCS: So where did you get your reading material from?
MWB: Well, I borrowed every book there was in town, except one woman wouldn’t lend me any of her books, and I always did resent that because she had a whole set of fairy tales I wanted to read. And she never would let me have them for fear I’d soil the pages of the books. So, except for that, I think I read every book I wanted to read in the town of Ladora.
CCS: So what were your favorite books?
MWB: Oh, I don’t remember I had any. I read everything. It didn’t matter what it was-I read it.
CCS: Were you a fast reader?
MWB: Yes, I became fast. Probably too fast.
CCS: Well, that’s one of the skills that comes with practice, you know.
MWB: Well, they don’t practice it enough now. They don’t stress reading for children enough.
CCS: Did you live in Ladora all that time, or did your family move at a certain point in your life?
MWB: No, members of my family still live out there. My mother died out there just a few years ago.
CCS: When was the last time you were there?
MWB: I don’t know if I’ve been there since her funeral.
CCS: How do you feel about the town now? How big is it?
MWB: Just the same as it was when I was there. I don’t think it ever put on two people [since I left]. Probably when I left it lost a citizen.
CCS: Do they have a library there?
MWB: No, I don’t think so. They may have established a small library, but as far as I know they don’t have a library.