At age twelve, whenever I could not sleep, I read “Nancy Drew” novels. I would slip out of bed, walk over to my dresser and pick up whichever one of the novels I was currently reading. These included “Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Old Clock,” “The Hidden Staircase” and “The Mystery at Lilac Inn.” This experience is not unique to me. Nancy’s resourcefulness, intelligence and determination have appealed to young readers for generations. Nancy Drew has become a household name thanks to over 500 books, a 2007 movie starring Emma Roberts and an upcoming CW Series.
What many people do not know, however, is that the world-famous teenage detective got her start at Wellesley. The Nancy Drew series was published under the name Carolyn Keene, a pen name for Harriet Stratemeyer Adams ’14. While most people are familiar with Nancy Drew, the story of her creator is fascinating as well.
Harriet Stratemeyer was born on Dec. 12, 1892 in Newark, New Jersey. She was the eldest child of Edward Stratemeyer and Magdalena Van Camp. She enjoyed climbing trees and reading books. She is quoted as saying she did not want to be a “proper, young lady who should stay at home.”
Harriet entered Wellesley College in 1910 and was active artistically and creatively. While at Wellesley, Harriet played piano and wrote both fiction and newspaper articles, including some articles that were sold to the “Boston Globe,” according to her biography on Wellesley’s Alumnae Achievement Awards webpage. After graduating with a BA in English Composition in 1914, she was offered a position at the “Globe,” but her father wanted her to return home instead.
That did not stop Harriet from embarking on a literary career. After graduating, Harriet spent a year as her father’s apprentice at the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a group of writers who collaborated to produce not only Nancy Drew novels, but other mystery series for children, including The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, Jr. novels. Each series was published under a different pen name: for example, Franklin W. Dixon for the Hardy Boys and Laura Lee Hope for the Bobbsey Twins.
Just a year after graduating, Harriet married investment banker Russell V. Adams. They had four children, who they raised in Pottersville and Maplewood, New Jersey, both part of Tewksbury Township. Once she had children, Harriet recalls that her father did not think she should continue writing for money. Between 1915 and 1930, Harriet spent her time writing for local church papers and traveling to the countryside with her family.
This quiet life was not destined to last for very long. Harriet and her sister, Edna, took over the Stratemeyer Syndicate upon their father’s death in 1930. Harriet immediately committed herself to her work for the company. She wrote plot outlines for most of the original Nancy Drew series, oversaw ghost writers who filled in the stories and retained editorial control over the final published works. In 1942, Harriet became a senior partner in the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a position she retained for 40 years.
When Harriet’s husband died in 1965, a Wellesley professor wrote to her expressing sympathy, and Harriet responded with her thanks, adding that she and her husband had both hoped their granddaughters would attend Wellesley. In 1978, Harriet received an Alumnae Achievement Award from Wellesley College. Two years later, the film company Protean Productions, Inc. produced a 30-minute documentary titled “Harriet S. Adams and the Stratemeyer Syndicate.” The film incorporates archival photographs and illustrations as well as clips from movies and TV adaptations of Stratemeyer Syndicate books. The documentary includes footage of Harriet herself discussing her life and work. At the beginning of the film she describes growing up with her father’s stories.
“I grew up in a storybook house,” she recalled.
She also described her philosophy in writing the Nancy Drew novels, as well as the other series she was involved in.
“During the past several years, I have found it necessary to bring to people’s attention that the books are wholesome,” Adams explained. “My books are trying to prove to the young reader that life can be wholesome and beautiful.”
On March 27, 1982, while watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time with her family, Adams suffered a fatal heart attack. She was 89 at the time of her death. “The New York Times” ran an obituary on March 29, 1982, with the headline “Harriet Adams Dies; Nancy Drew Author Wrote 200 Novels.”
Even though Harriet Adams is gone, Nancy Drew continues to influence young readers. The Wellesley 100 now includes an entry calling Wellesley “the birthplace of Nancy Drew,” which students can write about in their admissions essays. When Harriet Stratemeyer Adams said that “Nancy belongs to her generations of readers,” she had no idea how right she was.