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Arts & Culture

Nancy Drew in Starlight

October 14, 2015 | by

Who is Nancy Drew, really? The instability of the girl detective.


An illustration from The Mystery at Lilac Inn.

The writer Bobbie Ann Mason once described the Nancy Drew novels as sonnets, or “endless variations on an inflexible form.” The same could be said of Nancy herself: though outfitted with a few baseline characteristics—her freedom, her wile, her supreme politesse—she’s perpetually shape-shifting throughout the series. Alternately sixteen and eighteen, Nancy Drew is a scholar of ancient languages and an amateur archaeologist; a flawless cook, an expressive painter, and a dynamite prom date. She can dance in a corps de ballet and scuba dive fathomless depths. On separate occasions, her friends have walked in on her tap dancing, learning Morse code, and tap dancing in Morse code. Even her hair color is famously inconstant—from book to book, it flickers from blonde to strawberry blonde to her most distinctive shade, Titian, so named for the rosy apricot color used in many of the sixteenth-century Italian’s paintings.

And yet, there are some things Nancy Drew simply does not do. In her decades-long original run of more than fifty books, she never once goes to the movies or mentions an actor by name. Her only brush with Hollywood comes in 1931’s The Mystery at Lilac Inn, where she meets the diabolical Gay Moreau, a washed-up actress who’s also a Nancy Drew impersonator, committing petty crimes to defame the detective. Nancy approaches the case with some amusement at her resemblance to a “blonde actress,” but things take a turn for the weird when the starlet kidnaps Nancy, binds and gags her, and, to Nancy’s horror, begins to act

“And now, meet your double, Nancy Drew!” [Gay] said dramatically. The captive sleuth watched as Gay deftly arranged her hair like Nancy’s. Then, with eyebrow pencil and other cosmetics, transformed her face. Nancy had to admit the resemblance was striking. 

In costume, Gay Moreau looks like prim Nancy Drew might if she ever came undone, relinquishing her identity as a sweet, elite WASPette to lead a life of crime. As Gay’s “captive sleuth” in a double sense—both held captive and captivated by the performance—Nancy regards her double with a mixture of revulsion, attraction, and queasy identification. After all, N. Drew is a prodigal girl detective, and she, too, excels at adjusting her identity to respond to the particularities of a case. In her starlet avatar she sees not only an uncanny image of herself, but a disturbing and heretofore unknown use of her powers of transformation.

By the end of the book, Nancy tracks down her imposter, has her arrested, and vows never to speak of her again. But their fleeting encounter may help to unravel the most enduring cipher of the whole series: Nancy Drew herself. If Gay Moreau acts as a perversion of our heroine, then how are the forces that animate a Hollywood actress comparable to those that move this girl detective? Put another way, why is it that when Nancy Drew looks in the mirror, she sees a star?

Nancy Drew’s hair color changed with the times.

The fundamental instability at the heart of Nancy Drew is a direct result of the production method that wrought her. Like the thirties starlets programmed by the Hollywood star system to radiate glamour, power, and searing perfection, Nancy is a fundamentally collaborative project who embodies distinct, often contradictory visions for how a super-girl should look and behave. The publishing tycoon Edward Stratemeyer created her in 1930 to capitalize on the girl consumers he knew were reading his popular Hardy Boys books. He hired a cross-country network of ghostwriters to write the series under the collective pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

Nancy’s original ghostwriter, Mildred Wirt Benson of Ladora, Iowa, was herself an amateur archeologist responsible for the most adventurous iterations of the sleuth. In her autobiography, she discusses the detective as a product of her “unfulfilled desire for adventure” who “embodied qualities that [she] wished [she] had.” Stratemeyer and his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, disapproved of this early characterization of Nancy: a boisterous teenager who drove a roadster and talked back to police officers, they argued, was “too flip.” Adams’s subsequent revisions began a gradual domestication of Drew that spans the series. Though Nancy still used bold words, she now did so with dainty adverbs—“Nancy said sweetly,” “Nancy said kindly”—adorning each line of dialogue like doilies.

If modifications to Nancy’s character reflected different ideals of femininity, tweaks to her appearance reflected ideals of beauty furthered by cinema and pop culture. Benson’s books called for “blonde” curls, but the illustrator Russell Tandy tinted Nancy’s hair a more voguish silver—just when the 1931 film Platinum Blonde premiered Jean Harlow’s famous, noxious dye-job, a cocktail of peroxide, ammonia, Clorox, and Lux flakes. By the end of the decade, writers reddened Nancy’s hair on a schedule roughly concurrent with the release of the Olivia de Havilland film Strawberry Blonde (1941). In later decades, the artist Rudy Nappi portrayed Nancy as increasingly glamorous and adult—on fifties-era covers she resembles Hitchcock’s blondes, immaculately dressed in Tippi Hedren–like suits and full-skirted, Grace Kelly gowns.

Two of the Whitman Authorized Editions.

Nancy’s creators looked to the movies for ideas on how a girl should look, and they cast a wide net; her character contains the shadows of a variety of Hollywood dream-girls, from Harlow to Hedren. In 1941, a sixteen-book series of mysteries completed the merging of starlet and sleuth. As an extended coda to Nancy’s worst nightmare—being impersonated by a glamorous, uncontrollable look-alikethe books, called the Whitman Authorized Editions, lifted entire plots and settings from the Drew series and replaced Nancy herself with different well-known actresses. Their titles alone betray the seductive synergy of Hollywood stardust and crime-novel intrigue: Shirley Temple and the Screaming Specter, Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak, Ann Sheridan and the Sign of the Sphinx, Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume.

Published by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin, the books were, as their name suggests, authorized by film studios to promote new talent to teen Nancy Drew fans. In certain titles, like Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume, the actress is depicted as her film-star self; on vacation at an exciting locale, she finds a mystery and simply deigns to solve it. In others, the actresses are modified versions of themselves, retaining their names and appearances but assuming working-class identities. Ginger Rogers plays a plucky telephone-switchboard operator; Dorothy Lamour, a secretary.

Like perfumes that draw their scent from a common source, each starlet carries the Nancy Drew essence, distilled. They share Nancy’s keen wit, her “twinkling” eyes, and her tendency to rely on “hunches” to solve a case. As a collective, they offer a startlingly literal counterpart to the multiplicities contained within Nancy herself—and draw closer attention to the colonization of children’s fiction by Hollywood cinema. Even if each star cultivated a slightly different persona onscreen—Dorothy Lamour the sexpot, Bonita Granville the girl next door, Ginger Rogers the elegant danseuse—each could easily lead a Nancy Drew story. In her many faces, the detective has always been both infinite and infinitely replicable, a paper-doll chain folded easily into a single entity, or expanded accordion-style into a string of captivating almost-duplicates. The studios capitalized on the flexibility of the Nancy Drew formula to sell movie tickets, marrying commerce and control and intensifying the star system’s power.

Reading the Whitman Authorized Editions today, it’s impossible to shake visions of their protagonists as they existed onscreen, and in flesh. The books’ flimsy, fictional starlets are so subdued that they remind us of how their real-life counterparts could, at least occasionally, resist the forces that bound them. The Deanna Durbin of Deanna Durbin and the Feather of Flame is meek and reserved, but the real Durbin was prone to tantrums: during a screen test, she famously shrieked, “I don’t want to be an actress! Stop torturing me!” Similarly, the Judy of Judy Garland and the Hoodoo Costume is relentlessly cheerful, in stark contrast to the real Garland, who once interrupted an interviewer to snap, “If I’m such a legend, then why am I so lonely?” Ultimately, the Whitman Authorized Editions entertain through the glitchy side effects of their central failure: as highly derivative, mass-produced formula fiction, they are nowhere near as compelling as the real-life stars that they feature.

Perhaps, within this flaw, the Whitman Authorized Editions can even suggest the most impossible and intriguing of Nancy Drew fantasies, that—just as actresses could walk off set, smear off their makeup, and fight back—Nancy Drew could have somehow rebelled against her makers. Though her true identity, beneath all of her veils, will always remain a mystery, we can still wonder if, deep down, she harbored a secret wish to be an exotic dancer slash spy a la Mata Hari, or to lock herself up in her study, Holmes-style, as a cerebral recluse. Personally, I like to imagine that Nancy Drew and her starlet archnemesis, Gay Moreau, had more in common than they thought. That someday, if only in her dreams, Nancy Drew could have sharpened her fangs, jumped into her bright blue roadster, and taken to the open road to become a bandit princess, forever on the run. There she goes, her friends would say, the Titian-haired viper herself; that bloodless coed, that WASP fatale—a dangerous, dazzling agent of destruction called Drew.

Isabel Ortiz is a writer living in Queens. Her work has appeared online in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, and Feministing magazine.