By Sara Jordan-Heintz
Clever. Plucky. Self-reliant. Stylish. Timeless. All ways to describe Nancy Drew, a literary phoenix who, 88 years after her creation, remains one of the most beloved heroines of detective fiction.
Jennifer Fisher of Queen Creek, Arizona spent the halcyon days of her childhood absorbed in the Nancy Drew books of the 1970s and ’80s.
“I read the books as a kid and always loved them, then when I was off to college, and then later law school, I was at an antique mall and discovered the vintage ones from the 1930s that I didn’t know existed,” she said.
Intrigued the tomes she cherished as a kid were rooted in the past, Fisher decided to research everything she could about the series, its ghostwriters and collectible merchandise, while connecting with fellow fans via the internet.
“I was burnt out after law school and took a break, then everything happened with Nancy Drew,” Fisher noted. “I haven’t practiced law.”
In 2000, she formed the Nancy Drew Sleuths fan group — which has 767 members — and has been able to turn a hobby into a profession, giving lectures, hosting conventions, penning articles and appraising memorabilia. Her personal stash of Nancy Drew collectibles exceeds 4,000 items, ranging from rare, signed first edition books, to dolls, diaries, board games, lunch boxes, advertisements, lobby cards, posters and Halloween costumes. Through her online store, she sells licensed merchandise including Nancy Drew-themed jewelry, calendars, shower curtains, handbags and stationery.
“About 90 percent of my collection I got via eBay in the mid-2000s — which was the heyday of finding classic Nancy Drew stuff. I’m glad I started collecting when I did. You can find some nice things now, but it’s not like it used to be,” she noted.
Fisher said she does not know the precise monetary worth of her collection.
“I’m not completely sure of value, as I’ve added a lot in the last several years and haven’t really given the collection a detailed and updated value, but I’d say it’s in the $20,000 range — possibly more,” she noted.
A staggering 600 plus Nancy Drew books have been serialized since the 1930 debut novel “The Secret of the Old Clock.” While Fisher admits she hasn’t quite read them all, she does own many rare editions.
“I have book club editions, library editions, foreign editions, spin-off books, first editions and ones signed by the ghostwriters,” she explained.
The item in her collection with the highest monetary value is a signed copy of the first Nancy Drew book.
“It sells for $4,000-$10,000 at auction; it used to always sell for over $10,000, but the value has gone down on eBay,” she said. “The only thing more valuable would be Russell H. Tandy’s Nancy Drew cover artwork – he was the first illustrator – and his painting for Nancy Drew book #21 ‘The Secret in the Old Attic’ recently auctioned for $35,000 in New York City at Swann Auction Galleries. That price included a buyer’s premium.”
Fisher published her first book in 2007 entitled “Clues for Real Life: The Classic Wit & Wisdom of Nancy Drew.” Also that year, she served as a consultant for the Warner Brothers film “Nancy Drew” where a large quantity of her books were used in an opening scene in the movie.
Meeting the first Carolyn Keene: Mildred Wirt Benson
A highlight of her Nancy Drew adventures was when Fisher met Mildred Wirt Benson in 2001, the Iowa native who became the most iconic of the Nancy Drew ghostwriters.
Fisher and her mother took a road trip out to Ohio to visit Millie at the Toledo Blade, the newspaper at which she still worked as a columnist into her 90s.
Fisher shares the story on her website: “She interviewed me for her article about our group’s visit, ‘Nancy Drew Sleuths Follow Trail to Author of Books.’ I also interviewed her for an article I was writing for a series zine and she signed some of my books including my first printing of “Old Clock” from 1930. It was such a surreal experience to sit down and chat with her. She was very intelligent and seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the group and what we did.
By this point in her life, after being revealed as Carolyn Keene in a big way at the 1993 Nancy Drew Conference, there was a lot of traffic that came her way — which often interrupted her work days — from fans and revelers. She’d take it in stride most of the time even if she didn’t understand sometimes what all the fuss was about. She was great about meeting with our group and signing our books the next day.”
Fisher stayed in contact with the beloved writer, speaking with her on the telephone to consult about various Nancy Drew articles she was penning. Millie encouraged Fisher’s budding writing career.
“I’m writing a book about Millie, tentatively called ‘Mildred Wirt Benson – The Real Nancy Drew,’” Fisher said.
With such compelling titles as “The Password to Larkspur Lane,” “The Whispering Statue,” “The Clue of the Tapping Heels” and “The Spider Sapphire Mystery,” it’s no wonder the books continue to entertain and inspire new generations of readers. In September 2018 it was announced the CW Television Network is developing a new television drama based on the book series.
The birth of Nancy Drew
Nancy Drew was the invention of Edward Stratemeyer, founder of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which also produced the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and Bobbsey Twins book series.
“In the beginning, Edward created the story outlines, then sent them out to ghostwriters (eight total for the Nancy Drew series) and they would write the books based on the outlines, then they’d send the stories back to him and he’d farm them out to publishers,” Fisher explained. “He passed away nearly two weeks after the first Nancy Drew book was published, and his daughters took over the syndicate.”
Carolyn Keene ghostwriters
Why use ghostwriters?
“He had a lot of story ideas, but couldn’t do it all, so he used the ghostwriters with the same pen name — Carolyn Keene — for more continuity.”
In 1984, Simon & Schuster acquired all rights to the Stratemeyer Syndicate and today it publishes the latest books in the series. Penguin Random House republishes the classics.
Being so well-versed in the plot lines of the books, Fisher is able to determine the ghostwriter who wrote a particular book. Mildred Wirt Benson authored 23 of the first 30 books in the Nancy Drew series, beginning at age 24, and she wrote 135 books total during her illustrious career as an author and journalist.
“I think Millie and Walter Karig blend well together, but once you get to the late ’40s/early ’50s when you have several different writers, you can see a difference. Once you get to the ones Harriet Adams (Edward’s daughter) wrote, there’s definitely a difference,” Fisher explained. “I love what I grew up with, but the books from the 1930s and ’40s are my favorite because of the way they were written.”
Fisher said that while she’s an avid collector of everything related to her favorite sleuth, she hasn’t read many Nancy Drew books published in the last decade.
The 'new' Nancy Drew
“I’d say since the early 2000s, Nancy hasn’t been the same we all have known and loved. They have tried to make her more realistic, and she’s almost too flawed now; some people thought maybe she was too perfect before, but now you might not aspire to be her as much today as you would have years ago,” Fisher explained.
What are her thoughts on the work of the books’ present-day ghostwriters?
“The books are also now written in the first person, and it’s not good for the character, and they’re making her too forgetful, and now she seems to rely on people too much, so it doesn’t seem like Nancy Drew,” she said.
Fisher said the hundreds of books in her collection — especially the aged, first editions — require special care. She puts curtains over bookshelves to block out sunlight, which can make old paper fade and deteriorate. Posters and other two-dimensional ephemera are stored flat in drawers. Lobby cards are organized in binders. Dust jacket protectors slip over the tops of the tomes.
Fisher is on the lookout for specific books she would like to add to her collection.
“I don’t have the first printings of books # 4, 6 and 7, but I do have versions of those,” she explained.
Fisher notes the text of the first 34 books in the series all have two versions: original and revised. Starting in 1959, books were tweaked over a period of time up until 1977 with a few goals in mind: remove dated terms or expressions, quicken the pace of the text and shorten overall length of the book. Therefore, a collector needs to look at a book’s publication date to know if the tome deviates from Millie’s original work.
Advice for new Nancy Drew collectors
Fisher has several pieces of advice for budding Nancy Drew collectors.
“Collect what makes you happy — if it’s missing books from childhood or everything Nancy — there’s a lot to collect. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on specific things in the Nancy Drew world — books from childhood, vintage ’30s, book clubs, spin-off series, book or movie collectibles, etc., and then build from there as you do things in stages,” she recommended.
What types of memorabilia should serious collectors try to obtain, and what kind of items should they pass up?
“I think starting with the books is always a great foundation, and then move out from there. There’s modern series and collectibles being produced too you can keep up with. Older collectibles are harder to find — so snapping those up when you see them is a must: ’30s movie collectibles to the 1950s board games, for instance, and ’30s and ’40s Nancy Drew books, too,” she said.
Why does the Nancy Drew character resonate with Fisher decades after reading the first mystery?
“I think what it is, is she was such an independent and bold character. She was inspiring. If she could do it, so could you. She’s always helping others and that’s a quality I aspire to because I was always interested in law and seeking justice and righting wrongs. Adults treated her with respect, and most kids reading those don’t get that kind of experience being treated like a sophisticated equal, so it is neat to read a character like that,” Fisher concluded.
For more information about Nancy Drew, visit Fisher’s website at www.nancydrewsleuth.com. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next Nancy Drew Sleuths convention will take place in Toronto, Ontario, Canada from June 19-22, 2019, with the second convention to be held in Savannah, Georgia in mid-October 2019, at a date to be determined. All convention details can be found at www.ndsleuths.com/ndsconventions.html
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press and in several newspapers and magazines including Classic Images, Collectors Journal, Farm Collector and Discover Vintage America. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at email@example.com.