Nancy Drew is more than 80 years old but she is still going strong. The titian-haired wonder has been the subject of movies, TV series, hardback books, soft cover, and even graphic novels. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Sandra Day O’Connor are among the many amazing women who have cited Nancy Drew as an early inspiration.
My mom bought me my first Nancy Drew—The Scarlet Slipper Mystery—and it didn’t take long for me to get through it. Next thing you knew I was doing odd jobs around the neighborhood to earn more books—collecting newspapers in my dad’s yellow wheelbarrow for the local pet shop, helping plant pansies, and walking dogs.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I loved reading these stories so much. I don’t think it was any one thing. I loved her because she was independent, loyal to her friends, smart, and she helped people. She relied on herself, solved mysteries and had fun while she did it. Nancy Drew could do anything and she helped me believe that I could too. Back then I only knew one version of her and it was actually the second version of the character in print. Nancy Drew, much like the character of Sherlock Holmes has been reimagined in multiple ways. Since we can’t possibly cover all of her incarnations, lets just visit a few.
Most Nancy Drew fans know that Carolyn Keene never existed, that it was a pen name for various ghostwriters, including Mildred Wirt Benson, who worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. What some fans may not know is that Nancy started out as a gun-toting, 16-year-old who treated the family housekeeper Hannah Gruen like a servant and wasn’t politically correct. This version has been reprinted by Applewood Books and these reissued books are available today.
Late 1930s Movies: Bonita Granville
In the late 1930s, Nancy Drew took to the screen for the first time in four movies staring Bonita Granville: Nancy Drew—Detective; Nancy Drew—Reporter; Nancy Drew—Trouble Shooter; and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase. As in the books, Nancy had her own car and while she was still a great detective, what I remember most about these movies was that she wasn’t such a hot driver.
1959: The First Rewrite
At this point the publishers, Grosset & Dunlap decided that Nancy needed a politically correct makeover to erase the racial stereotypes, age Nancy from 16 to 18, and to get rid of the gun. While this rewrite fixed some problems, it created another, because the writers just went through and removed most of the non-white characters. Some say this new Nancy Drew was not as independent and more demure.
1970s Television: Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries
Nancy Drew hits prime time TV and is played by Pamela Sue Martin, but the Nancy Drew mysteries alternated weeks with the Hardy Boys played by teen idols Shawn Cassidy and Parker Stevenson. After the first season, the shows were merged. Nancy became less independent with the boys around, and after Pamela Sue Martin posed for Playboy she was replaced. The show didn’t last long.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Nancy Drew had another makeover when she changed publishers to Simon & Schuster. Not only were her existing stories reissued in paperback, new ones started coming out with a more “updated” Nancy. This time Nancy was a little more romantically inclined, but she still solved the mystery.
Video Games: 1990s to Present
In 1998 Nancy became the star of her own interactive video game geared toward girls age ten and up with Secrets Can Kill. You get to move the Nancy avatar through her cases, some modeled after the book plots, some not. In addition to the PC, Nancy Drew games are available on Nintendo.
Nancy keeping up with the latest thing now has stars in two series of graphic novels. The first series already has 24 books out, including Nancy Drew: Vampire Slayer. The second series done in comic book style, called Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, features an 8-year-old Nancy in middle school. She is now a detective-in-training and the first book, Small Volcanoes, takes her through adventures of trying to figure out a science project. In true Nancy fashion, she decides to build a volcano.
This post is just providing an overview of a deep and rich history of one of America’s favorite characters. If you’d like to learn more, I’d suggest you pick up, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak or The Official Nancy Drew Handbook by Penny Warner.
Now I’d love to hear about your Nancy Drew memories. Who gave you your first Nancy and which one was it? Why do you love Nancy (or why not)? Have you ever played one of the computer games?
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Deborah Lacy likes speakeasies, yellow heirloom tomatoes, and crime fiction. She blogs at Mystery Playground. Occasionally she makes crafts out of ruined Nancy Drew books. You can find her on Twitter @quippy.