She's solved a lot of them, but the biggest Nancy Drew mystery is: How has a nearly century-old teen sleuth continued to thrive in a changing culture with such high-profile heroines as Katniss Everdeen, Bella Swan and Tris Prior? With a new Nancy Drew movie opening Friday, March 15, and a TV-series pilot going into production, some local Nan fans have some thoughts.
"The right answer and expected answer is empowerment and feminist power, but for me it wasn't really about that," says Michele Deegan, 50, of Huntington, a recruiter for architects and interior designers. "For me it was a certain timelessness in the sense of adventure that she was seeking" in uncovering evidence of people being swindled, exposing hoaxes and impostors preying on the helpless, and learning the tragic secrets of misunderstood recluses.
"She didn't shy away from getting into trouble and stirring up the pot," Deegan says, "and that was a little inspiring for me."
East Northport's Meredith Jaffe, a dentist in her 50s who owns perhaps the largest collection of Nancy Drew books and memorabilia in the Northeast, says she likes that Nancy is "strong, intelligent, solves mysteries, has friends, takes risks, but she's also practical. Readers can relate to her and feel empowered by her — like they might be able to achieve things, same as she can. Nancy has always been an inspiration to females and probably a whole bunch of guys, too," Jaffe believes.
Sophia Lillis can vouch for that. The 17-year-old Brooklyn native who plays the title role in the new film "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" marvels, "A lot of people who worked on that [movie], even the men, were obsessed with Nancy Drew. I didn't realize how much she influenced people's lives until after getting into this role and talking to people about her."
She isn't exaggerating: Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor grew up a Nancy Drew fan. So did current Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the latter of whom told The Washington Post in 1980, when she was dean of Columbia Law School, that Nancy "was adventuresome, daring and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was." Likewise Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Gayle King, Nancy Pelosi, Diane Sawyer, Beverly Sills, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey all were fans.
So was Howard S. Berger, 54, a Los Angeles filmmaker raised in Stony Brook. When he was a child, one of his older sisters would read him a Nancy Drew book at bedtime — verbally adapting the story to add horror elements that the movie-loving little boy enjoyed. "My sister did it to bond with me," he recalls fondly. "It was a treat before bed. I always pictured Nancy Drew as my sister, actually. I was a sucker for it — Nancy was constantly in peril but smart enough to turn tables on the villain or expose something as a coverup. She was on her own and I never knew if she was gonna come out OK. But she always did and always solved the case."
The case in the new film is that of the second book, "The Hidden Staircase," first published in 1930. Nancy, newly moved to River Heights, USA, with her widowed father (Sam Trammell), befriends Bess Marvin (Mackenzie Grahahm), Georgia "George" Fayne (Zoe Renee) and even mean girl Helen Corning (Laura Wiggins), and with them finds the truth behind purportedly ghostly activity at the home of an old woman (Linda Lavin) — leading to a larger, more serious conspiracy.
It’s not the first Nancy Drew movie by any means, nor is The CW's TV-movie pilot — starring Kennedy McMann in the title role and African-Scottish actor Tunji Kasim as Nancy's boyfriend, Ned Nickerson — the first Nancy Drew TV show. (See sidebar.) "Nancy has become part of Americana," says Jaffe, who notes that when a woman deduces something from clues, "Someone will say, 'Oh, you're a regular Nancy Drew.' " Unlike with some other girls’ series of the past, the publishers and other stakeholders, she says, "place a lot of emphasis on keeping her in the public eye."
"There were series for girls that predated Nancy Drew, but she was the first breakout character," says former attorney Jennifer Fisher, 45, the Arizona-based president of the publisher-authorized fan club Nancy Drew Sleuths, which produces two fan conventions a year. "She became a huge seller," with 1930s write-ups in the likes of Fortune magazine.
"Every generation has a childhood detective series," says actress Lillis, who notes that when Nancy Drew began in the 1930s, the character struck a chord at a time of "a lot of social restraints on women. But she did what she loved without asking for permission and without apology."
Nancy changed with the times, with the oldest books in the series revised beginning in 1959 to make her less haughty, to up her age from 16 to 18 — "so she could [legally] drive in all the states and also to give her more adult responsibilities," says Jaffee — and to remove racial stereotypes. For these and other reasons, the various Nancy Drew series have outlasted such similar ones as "The Dana Girls Mystery Stories" and "Judy Bolton Mystery."
"Her name endures," says Jaffee. "Mothers and grandmothers pass their books down to their children."
"It's not Faulkner or Pynchon," says avid reader Deegan. "But I love her books and to this day I tell people 'Mystery of the Glowing Eye' is one of my favorite books of all time. I'm not kidding."
NANCY DREW IS EVERYWHERE
The new Nancy Drew film is far from the only on-screen version of the indefatigable teen detective. From movies to computer games, Nancy has solved the mystery of media popularity.
It all starts with the books. The series "Nancy Drew Mystery Stories" was conceived and initially plotted by newspaper-syndicate founder Edward Stratemeyer, and first written by Mildred Wirt Benson under the house name used to this day, Carolyn Keene. "The Secret of the Old Clock" (1930) proved the first of 175 books through 2003 — with the first 34 revised and updated beginning in 1959. Grosset & Dunlap originally published the first 56 of these, with Penguin Random House now doing so. Various Simon & Schuster imprints publish the rest.
That includes the 36-volume spinoff "Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Super Mystery" from 1988 to 1998, as well as two spinoffs aimed at an older teen audience: the 124-volume "Nancy Drew Files" (1986-1997) and the 25-volume "Nancy Drew on Campus" (1995-1998).
The publisher's current series, "Nancy Drew Diaries," has run 18 volumes since 2013. There also have been spinoffs featuring a grade-school Nancy and other conceits. A host of ghostwriters continue to be "Carolyn Keene." A manga-style graphic-novel series from Papercutz, written by Stefan Petrucha and Sarah Kinney under their own names, with art by Sho Murase, was published in the 2000s.
Four 1930s movies starred Bonita Granville in the title role: "Nancy Drew: Detective (1938), "Nancy Drew … Reporter," "Nancy Drew … Trouble Shooter" and "Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase" (all 1939). The 2007 film "Nancy Drew" starred Emma Roberts.
On television, "The Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries" (ABC, 1977-1979) featured Pamela Sue Martin (and later Janet Louise Johnson) as Nancy, teamed with her popular male counterparts, played by Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson. Fun fact: Jamie Lee Curtis had auditioned to play Nancy. A 13-episode, 1995 series starring Tracy Ryan as a lush-lipped collegiate Nancy is available on Amazon Prime.
Nancy also stars in nearly three dozen popular and award-winning mystery-adventure computer games from Her Interactive. And The CW has a TV-movie pilot going into production. Nancy Drew? More like Nancy draws … an audience. — FRANK LOVECE