MILDRED WIRT BENSON died May 29 in her hometown of Toledo, Ohio. She was 96. Upon her death, Benson received more press than she ever had during her very long life. She was, as all her obituaries pointed out, the author of 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew novels. While the books were edited by other people and the series had a host of other writers (all of whom were called "Carolyn Keene"), it was Benson who set the tone and the style for the beloved girl sleuth. It was also Benson who — in a roundabout way that might have been called The Mystery of the Young Queen or The Clue in the Secret Closet — first got me started on the road to being the homosexual I am today.
In 1960, when I was 11 years old, my parents sent me to a child psychologist because they thought that I was homosexual. The reason they thought this was that I was an avid reader of Nancy Drew mysteries. The fact that I also read the Hardy Boys (which were also produced by a stable of writers, this time under the pen name "Franklin W. Dixon") didn’t seem to matter to my parents. I was quite fanatical about both series, but my parents — who loved me deeply and were only doing what they thought best at a time when therapy was viewed as the sensible, modern approach to "psychological problems," including deviant sexual orientation — were greatly troubled by what seemed to them my unnatural interest in girl detectives and their exciting escapades. (Interestingly, they did not tell me that this was the reason for my visit to the shrink until later in life).
I didn’t mind going to the doctor’s office. In fact, I looked at it as a sort of adventure — something sorely lacking in the New Jersey suburbs. The therapist was a nice woman, probably far younger than I am now. She asked questions and took notes. As far as I remember, the topic of sex never came up — although even at that age, I was well aware of my attraction to men and had explicit gay sexual fantasies. But apparently she wasn’t very perceptive (or I was an extraordinarily cunning young queen), because she assured my parents I was perfectly "normal" and that there was nothing to worry about.
And so I returned to my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, which provided me with endless and quite graphic sexual fantasies — all totally queer, and all involving, for the most part, attractive older men: Nancy’s father, the cultured lawyer Carson Drew; and Frank and Joe’s father, the keenly intelligent and handsome Fenton Hardy. While I enjoyed the plots of the books, I liked Carson and Fenton even more. I liked the fact that they were adult men who were worldly and unflappable. They were essentially single — Carson was widowed, and Fenton’s wife Laura was a near-cipher, not even present in many of the books. And they were obviously available for sexual trysts, as they spent much of their time sitting around while their children solved the numerous and often nefarious crimes besetting their small, upper-middle-class towns of River Heights and Bayport. With their WASP-y good looks and urbane sophistication, these men were far more sexually interesting to me than their children. As far as sexual activity went — well, I was 11 and brought up strictly Roman Catholic, so my imagination wavered somewhere between lounging naked in bed with Fenton or Carson and fondling one another while watching TV, to enacting various vivid, violent, and terribly exciting scenarios I had read and reread in The Lives of the Saints.
I DON’T BELIEVE that my story about sex and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books is all that unusual. The dirty little secret of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (as well as Tom Swift, Bomba the Jungle Boy, the Dana Girls, and even earlier series like the Rover Boys, Dave Fearless, Ruth Fielding, and the Speedwell Boys) is that they’re all about sex. Sure, it’s often sublimated sex aimed at an audience between the ages of nine and 15 — but they are, indeed, smoldering with unmistakable eroticism. That is why — surprise! — they are so popular. The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books have sold more than 80 million copies in various editions since the books were first published in 1928 and 1930, respectively. They were the basis for at least six different television shows, four films (for Nancy in the late 1930s), and various spinoff books, board games, and CD-ROMs.
The idea that series books for older children are bad for children is not new. (They first appeared in the late 1890s, and most were written by a stable of writers at a publishing syndicate founded and managed by the enterprising Edward Stratemeyer.) Indeed, most public and school libraries would not even carry them until after World War II because they were seen as junk writing, or worse, dangerous to children’s imaginations. In a 1924 article in the Boy Scouts magazine Outlook, for example, chief Scouts librarian Franklin K. Mathiews warned: "The fact is, however, that the harm done by [the series books] is simply incalculable. I wish I could label each one of these books: ‘Explosives! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy’s Brains Out.’ No effort is made to confine or control highly explosive elements. The result is that, as some boys read such books, their imagination is literally ‘blown out,’ and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion that had lost [them] a hand or a foot."
The "explosive elements" were simply the adventure and excitement of the plots. Every chapter ends with a startling mini-climax — "Nancy stooped to throw back the lid of the nearest box when a footstep suddenly creaked on the steps!" (from The Sign of the Twisted Candles); "Just then they heard heavy footsteps on the veranda. The boys looked at each other in surprise. ‘Now who could that be?’ exclaimed Frank" (from While the Clock Ticked, published in 1932) — that practically forces you to turn the page without thinking. Direct descendants of the illustrated penny novels of the 1870s, they were viewed as potboilers that had no moral worth (even though criminals are always caught and the "good guys" always win). And they were contrasted unfavorably with morally and socially instructive literature such as Horatio Alger’s "Luck and Pluck" series about tattered newsboys who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. (Of course, back then no one spoke of the fact that Alger was a boy-lover who was expelled from his Unitarian congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts, in 1866, for having sex with a 13-year-old boy and 15-year-old boy or that all his novels are protracted sexual fantasies of prepubescent and teen boys getting "help" from stately older men.)
But critics of these series were not concerned merely with their sensationalism; they also were on to something else. Aside from the fact that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have enormous freedom, not to mention their own cars and motorcycles, one of the most salient features of these books is that the characters’ adventures and mystery-solving are always tinged with sex. I certainly understood this on a semiconscious level when I was reading them as an 11-year-old. Sometimes the sexual messages are just barely concealed — shrouded in metaphor, double-entendre, or some such device that could not escape the notice of a fairly observant teen reader. In The Sign of the Twisted Candles (1932), for example, Nancy, looking for clues, notices "a hair-like crack" on a table:
"A secret compartment!" she exclaimed aloud. "Now, how to open it?"
Her fingers searched the surface of the table for a spring which might release the lid of the secret compartment but to no avail. At length, however, her patient and minute search was rewarded, when she found a slight indentation on the underside of the projecting edge of the table-top.
At the pressure of her fingers the secret compartment flew open, revealing a recess about six inches deep.
That must have been quite a revelation to many 10-year-old girls. The book was reissued in 1968, and this passage was essentially eliminated (if it had been retained, they might have had to retitle the book The Mystery of the G-Spot). Similarly, sexual innuendo streams through the Hardy Boys books. Here is the opening of Chapter One of While the Clock Ticked:
"That man leaving here is certainly excited," said Joe Hardy to his older brother Frank as they looked out of their second story bedroom window and watched a mysterious man leave their home.
"Yes. And he only visited with Dad for a few minutes," exclaimed Frank. "He certainly came and went very quickly."
While the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series almost certainly were not consciously written to be read in a sexual manner, you can find myriad passages like these throughout them; they're riddled with situations in which sex bubbles up close to the surface. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scenes of bondage that regularly turn up in so many of the novels. In fact, there seems to be more bondage in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels than in all the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who, of course, had other, perhaps more outré, charms as well). For young people who live in nice, wholesome neighborhoods, Nancy, Frank, and Joe seem to get tied up a lot. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels (1939), Nancy is bound and gagged in a stateroom on a ship and has to tap out an important message in Morse code (which of course she knows). The book’s frontispiece features a drawing of Nancy on her back, her hands bound behind her, her skirt falling above her knees, desperately kicking out code with her pert little heels. From the porthole above, two people watch her. The jacket art of While the Clock Ticked pictures a bound and gagged Frank and Joe — expertly tied to chairs — facing one another as a mysterious older man watches them from inside a grandfather clock. Frank and Joe are also often awakened in their beds by strange men who have entered their bedroom to leave threatening notes or to steal clues unearthed by the brothers; no men ever break into Nancy’s bedroom.
It is impossible to read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in their original versions and not be aware of the subliminal eroticism. Of course, all the books have been revised to remove not just the sexual innuendo, but the endless and quite explicit racist and class-biased characterizations (after Nancy accuses the African-American caretaker of not doing his job in the original version of The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), he exclaims, " ‘I was just fed up bein’a caih-taker. It ain’t such an excitin’ life, Miss, and while I’s done sowing all my wild oats, I still sows a little rye now and then.’ ‘Yes, Jeff,’ replied Nancy, ‘I can smell it on your breath right now.’ ") as well. But I was able to read them in their original versions. In a sense, they were my first pornography, and they taught me that I could have a mysterious, adventuresome, erotic imagination on my own. I knew that I wanted to be held, touched, and fondled by Carson Drew and Fenton Hardy. (Hell, in a pinch I would have taken Joe or Frank; but they were always tied up.)
Although my parents focused on the question of gender identification, it may very well have been these books’ sexual subtexts and erotic codings that really bothered them. But at the age of 53 — and having had quite a nice life as a homosexual, despite the child psychologist’s assertion that I was "normal" — I am happy to say thank you to Nancy, Carson, Fenton, Frank, and Joe. And thank you, Mildred Wirt Benson. I probably could have done it without you, but it wouldn’t have been so much fun.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org