Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2007 | Reviews

The Mildred Wirt Benson Collection, Iowa Digital Library

By Tina Owen
Pioneering author Mildred Wirt Benson with some of her beloved books.

So far, there are few clues as to whether this summer's Nancy Drew movie starring Julia Roberts' niece Emma will produce a new generation of adoring fans for the spunky girl detective. Guaranteed to be of interest, though, is the UI Libraries' digitized exhibit of the archives of Mildred Wirt Benson, 25BA, 27MA [deceased], pioneering journalist and original author of the best-selling Nancy Drew mystery series.

From July 10, 1905, when Benson was born in Ladora, the exhibit timeline traces the 96 years of her life, illustrated with original documents now housed in the UI archives, including Benson's UI master's thesis, plot summaries for the Nancy Drew books, personal correspondence, and short stories.

Collections of old photographs also showcase Benson's famed spirit -- the wit, intelligence, and courage that doubtless influenced the development of the fictional character she helped create. In a series of revealing images, Benson sits at a desk covered with books, executes a perfect swan dive into the Iowa River, jots in her reporter's notebook, and throws a triumphant grin from the pilot's seat of a biplane (she began flying lessons at the age of 59).

From such clues emerges a portrait of the trailblazing UI alumna (the first woman to earn a master's degree in journalism from the university) and prolific author who wrote 135 novels (including 13 in just one year), almost 100 short stories, and countless newspaper columns during her 58-year career with the Toledo Times and the Toledo Blade.

Numerous books, articles, and even conferences have celebrated Benson's life and work. It's fitting that this latest tribute should harness new technology to share her story. Even in a high-tech age far removed from the innocent, simple life led by Nancy Drew, it's no mystery why Mildred Wirt Benson continues to enthrall and inspire generations of young women.