By Jan Hoffman, New York Times, July 17, 2009
WHO was your Nancy Drew?
“She was a team leader,” said Susan Silbermann, 47, who, as a Baltimore tween, painstakingly collected the series about the Girl Sleuth and her sidekicks. Ms. Silbermann became a team leader herself — president of Pfizer’s pharmaceutical business in Latin America.
And who was your Nancy Drew?
“I didn’t connect with her,” said Sara Paretsky, 62, the crime writer, whose own female gumshoe is the cranky smart mouth, V. I. Warshawski. “She had so much domestic support and I grew up in a fractured household without support.”
But the imprint was inescapable, Ms. Paretsky said. In middle age, she gave herself a roadster “and I do feel so tough and a little Nancy Drewish.”
Nancy Drew was invoked last week during the Senate confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor. She has said that her Nancy Drew represented boldness and intelligence, the books a gift from a hardworking single parent. In recent years, Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gayle King and Diane Sawyer have described themselves as fans.
Touchstone, pole star, reflecting pool. Often what women remember about the books speaks to who they were — shy girls seeking inspiration; smart girls seeking affirmation. The series even gave voice to girls who rebelled against the Girl Sleuth’s pearl-necklace perfection.
All told, the women’s recollections capture the impact of a formulaic, ghostwritten series approaching its 80th year.
“I’m amazed by how people can read the same book and have different perspectives,” said Jenn Fisher, 35, an Arizona-based former lawyer who runs Nancy Drew fan conventions. “She’s a good role model and she brings the great nostalgia of remembering your childhood.”
Since its debut in 1930, the series has thrived in a germ-free bubble, scarcely brushed by time and social upheaval. Nancy Drew, 16 or 18, depending on the edition, is a daddy’s girl, living with her father, Carson, a lawyer — her mother conveniently died when she was 3 — and housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, in a comfortable home in River Heights where the words “Amber Alert” have never been heard.
With curiosity and confidence, she attacks mysteries and solves them, helped by her friends Bess, who is always “pleasingly plump,” and George, a slim tomboy. There’s a harmless boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, about whom the actress Ellen Barkin once snickered, “He was like her driver to me.”
An aggregate sales number is hard to come by; there are many editions, including two ongoing paperback series for younger readers. There is a thriving industry of Nancy Drew products and academic scholarship.
For girls coming of age in a pre-feminist era, Nancy Drew offered a hint at a horizon.
Last week, two high-profile Nancys wrote e-mails to The New York Times: “The only way I could get Nancy Drew mysteries was when the bookmobile (a library van) would travel throughout the farmland surrounding us,” wrote Nancy Grace, 49, the HLN talk show host, a former Georgia prosecutor and mystery writer. “Nancy Drew was seeking justice long before Nancy Grace was!”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 69, was also a fan. “I read many of the books when I was young,” she wrote. “I remember how proud I was that her name was Nancy.” From 1935 to 1960, Nancy was among the top 15 names for girls.
Former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, 68, lived in Des Moines, Iowa, in the mid-1950s. In home ec class, she was taught to make a white sauce. Tired husbands needed dinner on the table, children washed and wonderful.
“But I just wouldn’t darn a sock,” she said. “I had no use for it and the teacher failed me. My mother was devastated.”
Luckily an aunt, an archery champion who was on the board of the Girl Scouts, slipped her Nancy Drew books.
“I needed Nancy Drew,” said Ms. Schroeder. “She was smart and she didn’t have to hide it! She showed me there was another way to live,” added Ms. Schroeder, who would earn her pilot’s license at 15, and become a feminist politician from Colorado. For women like Ms. Schroeder and Judge Sotomayor, the acquisition of the books is central to their Nancy Drew narratives.
Pamela Beere Briggs, 50, moved from Japan to Napa, Calif., at 10 when her parents divorced. She was bright and lonely, suspicious of adults and their soothing half-truths. Nancy Drew confirmed that things were not always as they seemed. But the library did not carry the books.
The family joined an Episcopal church. “A mother from the church brought us a box of 25 Nancy Drews,” said Ms. Briggs, whose film, “Women of Mystery,” is about three crime writers whose detectives are, essentially, Nancy Drew’s granddaughters. “It was the first serious act of kindness I’d experienced in the United States.”
And then there are the un-Nancy Drews: Mary Jo White, 61, the former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and a top girl sleuth if ever there was one, was a Hardy Boys fan. So was the Fox News television interviewer Greta Van Susteren, who inherited the series from a brother in the mid ’60s:
“Families didn’t buy both sets,” said Ms. Van Susteren. So has she read Nancy Drew? No, Ms. Van Susteren replied. “You know how in New York there are Mets fans and Yankees fans?”
Nor do modern crime writers view Nancy Drew uncritically.
“Nancy is too perfect,” said Laura Lippman, 50, who writes a popular series about Tess Monaghan, a detective with questionable taste in boyfriends and an aversion to rules. Even Nancy’s father “is helpless in front of her perfection. She requires Bess and George to constantly talk about her perfection. Bess is fat and George is unfeminine and they are not as fabulous as Nancy.”
But she added, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, because I owe her everything.”
Nancy Drew’s popularity persists, even though the series has been rewritten, chopped and churned out with contemporary inflections — like cellphones — that make traditionalists quietly ill. Melanie Rehak, who wrote “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her,” said that the target age for readers has dropped since the series’ 1930 debut. Originally intended for girls ages 13 to 16, she said, the books are now read by elementary school-age girls.
Lisa Von Drasek, children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education, analyzed the series’ continuing appeal. “Familiar characters, cliffhanging adventures and predictability,” she said. “Everything will be explained in the end. Kids still gobble them like peanuts: they’re viral in the best sense.”
And let it not be said that Nancy Drew readers must be cut off when they reach 11. Roslynn R. Mauskopf, 52, a federal judge in Brooklyn, inhaled the books as a girl in Washington, D.C.
“I was a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and no one would ever let you out of the house with a flashlight and a roadster!” Judge Mauskopf said. Nancy Drew proved “you could go out, go anywhere, do anything and make a difference.”
After law school, Judge Mauskopf joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. A young Sonia Sotomayor was just down the hall. Ms. Mauskopf, a career prosecutor, became United States Attorney for the Eastern District.
Shortly after she was named to the federal bench in October 2007, she bought a set of classic Nancy Drew books, volumes 1 through 15. Age notwithstanding, she is in the middle of reading them now.
“They were such a part of me growing up, “ she said. “It’s always good to reconnect to the things that help make you what you are today.”
Not yet, she said, laughing. “I still don’t have that roadster.”