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Local man’s mother was Nancy Drew ghostwriter

As vice president of the Kent County Youth Fair and a friendly, active fellow, if you don't personally know Bruce Doll, it's likely that you've seen him around town. What you might not know about Bruce is that his adoptive mother, Patricia Doll, spent over 10 years as a ghostwriter whose anonymous contributions to series such as Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys have sold millions of copies and are still in print today.

Now in his early 60s, Bruce was a little boy in 1966 when his mom stopped working for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. He says that Pat never hid her work, he was well aware of what she was up to and sometimes was personally involved in her adventures.

“I grew up with her, and it wasn't a big secret or anything,” Bruce Doll said. “I've read that some of the authors kept it secret and stuff. I was still young when she stopped doing it, I was nine then, so during most of my childhood she was doing stuff like that. I knew she was doing it because we'd get a copy of the book! She would bring home a bag of books once in a while, or we would get to do some research, like when she did 'The Bobbsey Twins and the Circus Surprise' we ended up going to the circus where we got the backlot tour to see what really goes on at the circus. That was awesome. I was probably six years old and getting to meet the circus people and the animals and all that. I remember standing next to an elephant, looking up at it like... 'Oh my God!'”

Patricia Adelaide Freggens was born in Orange, New Jersey on June 10, 1926. Intelligent, creative, ambitious and attractive, she got an English degree from Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts, then earned a BS in Business Education from Syracuse University in 1948, where she was active in the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

After college she worked as a service representative for Bell Telephone in Newark, NJ but left after one year to study shorthand. That certification got her a job as a legal stenographer in the Newark office of her father Carl at Public Service Coordinated Transport. After gaining some experience there, she moved on to secretarial positions with various companies in New York and New Jersey, including Schenley Industries, DuPont and Ciba Pharmaceuticals. She quit that job because of her opposition to testing on animals. Finally, in early 1953, she answered a newspaper ad for a secretarial position at the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a juvenile fiction company headquartered in Manhattan. Doll would spend the next 13 years there contributing to everything from simple typing to elaborate creative projects. During her syndicate career she ghostwrote, re-wrote and helped revise many Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins and other novels. Also, at some point she married Cliff Doll and they adopted a baby named Bruce Thomas. Bruce was reunited with his birth family recently, but that is a story for another day.

According to what she wrote in her 1966 resume, at the Stratemeyer Syndicate, Pat Doll was responsible for “secretarial and editorial work in the office of this literary organization, creators and owners of a dozen juvenile series including The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and The Happy Hollisters. Involved work of a highly creative yet technical nature. Range of required talents from proofreading to idea suggestions and rapid manuscript typing. Submitted original story ideas and wrote books, with release, under pseudonym. From 1958-1966, editorial work and ghostwriting juvenile fiction in my house. Proofreading galleys, research, did special typing projects, set up elaborate card system.”

They certainly kept their employees busy.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate was founded by Edward Stratemeyer, the son of German immigrants, in New York City in 1906. Stratemeyer, a prolific author himself, would come up with ideas and outlines for a book or a series, then he paid journalists and other writers to turn these ideas into full-length works of fiction. The writers were paid a flat fee, usually the equivalent of several weeks salary, while Stratemeyer kept the copyrights and the profits. The books were credited to authors that did not actually exist. Nancy Drew series author Carolyn Keene was actually over two dozen obscure people including Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (daughter of Edward), Mildred Wirt Benson, Patricia Doll, US Navy captain Walter Karig, George Waller Jr., Margaret Scherf, Wilhelmina Rankin, Alma Sasse, Charles Strong, Iris Vinton and Nancy Axelrad. Likewise, there was no Franklin W. Dixon, most of the original Hardy Boys novels were created by a Canadian journalist named Leslie McFarlane. Some other popular series the Stratemeyer Syndicate was responsible for included the Rover Boys, Tom Swift and the Dana Girls, and none of the authors of those series were real people either.

When Edward died in 1930, his daughters Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and Edna Stratemeyer Squier inherited the business. Edna dropped out to get married in 1942, so Harriet ran the syndicate for the next 42 years, keeping the characters active and relevant through the Great Depression, World War II and subsequent youth culture upheavals. Harriet finally retired and sold the company to Simon & Schuster in 1984 for $4,710,000.

“Harriet Stratemeyer Adams was a really, really, really nice lady,” Doll said. “She kind of was like a grandmother to a lot of the kids of the authors. She was always very nice, and she would send nice Christmas and birthday presents. Every summer she had a party out at her farm in New Jersey, and it was really, really cool. She'd have the entire company out there, a big company party with the kids and the parents and all that. I remember there were just a lot of people there. It was a hobby farm, but it was my first experience seeing animals. They had a pond, and you could take the little rowboat out on the pond. It's probably why I like to live in the country. Harriet always sent out a nice Christmas bonus too, a decent bonus for back then. She was a good person and an incredibly good businesswoman.”

The Stratemeyer Syndicate copyrights are now owned by Mega-Books, whose ghostwriters are churning out brand new stories to this day. Billions of Stratemeyer Syndicate books have been sold all over the world in dozens of different languages, and when you consider the various TV series, movies and other merchandise, the characters and their anonymous authors have generated billions of dollars in profits for whatever organization owns them.

Ghostwriting is a dirty little secret of the publishing industry that still goes on today. Books credited to celebrities, politicians and many popular mass-market authors such as V.C. Andrews or Tom Clancy are often the work of ghostwriters. Edward Stratemeyer actually had one of his first successes in publishing when he ghost-finished a few of Horatio Alger's uncompleted works and printed them as brand new books after Alger's death in 1899.

Nancy Drew expert Geoffrey Lapin, interviewed by telephone from his home in Indiana, was one of the first people to figure out that some of the authors of his favorite books were as fictional as the characters on the pages. Lapin eventually became good friends with Mildred Wirt Benson, one of the most prolific and well-known syndicate ghostwriters. Thanks to some clever lawyering, she is the only ghostwriter credited by name in the books where she was the primary author. Lapin said he got hooked on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series when he was in third grade.

“I grew up in Baltimore, and when I was a kid in the 50s my family had a summer home down at the seashore in Atlantic City, before it got destroyed,” Lapin said. “I was spending the entire summer there with my mom, and my father would come up on weekends. Sometimes I used to hang out in the public library there, which they still had because it was still a family town at the time. The neighborhood library had all the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, and I started reading them all. Then I was curious about who had written them, but it said in the card catalog, 'Carolyn Keene, pseudonym, real name unknown.' At first I was like, 'What is a pseudonym?!' then I just started checking it out. When I was back in Baltimore later, when I was like a sophomore in high school, I was researching it in the public library there. Someone had penciled a notation into a Carolyn Keene book that said, 'See Mildred Wirt Benson in 'American Women' by Durward.' That book had this little biographical sketch of her, it had her listed as living in Toledo, and I was able to trace her through that. In the reference department of the library they had phone books on the shelves, so I went in there and found her address in Toledo and wrote to her. I was the first person to contact her in many, many decades. This would have been in about 1969. She said she would be glad to talk with me, so I took a bus from Indianapolis over to Toledo and met her at the newspaper office where she worked, and then we got to be really close friends. This was an amazing experience!”

The first Nancy Drew novel, “The Secret of the Old Clock” was published in 1930 and has never gone out of print. However, the book that people loved in 1930 is not the same book you'll find in bookstores today. To update cultural references and slang and to remove a lot of terribly racist content, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams initiated a project in the late 50s to revise and reprint the whole roster of series. The updating process (called “cut-downs” in the industry) has been repeated occasionally ever since and is likely to continue as tastes evolve and technology changes. And most important, it saves the publisher money.

“That [updating the content] is the reason that was given for publicity,” Lapin said. “But the fact was that the printing plates were wearing out! And they wanted to save money, so instead of redoing them with the same printing plates, they wanted them to be updated. That's when they could take out the racism and the material about flapper dresses and roadsters. They also shortened them from 25 to 20 chapters, so that saved more money as well. And originally, the books would all have four illustrations on glossy paper that were all hand-glued to the paper. They cut that down over the years to just have the frontispiece - one main picture in the front across from the title page. So it was all done to save money for the publishers.”

According to Lapin, he has seen documents that prove Pat Doll had a major role in at least five Nancy Drew novels: The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, The Bungalow Mystery, The Mystery at Lilac Inn, The Sign of the Twisted Candles and The Password to Larkspur Lane. Various online sources also attribute The Hidden Window Mystery to her and Lapin said there are “three possible additional titles.” She also labored in some capacity on many other titles in many other series.

“One of her first jobs for the syndicate was to reread the books and take copious notes to decide what could be changed, rewritten or redone completely,” Lapin said. “Pat was instrumental in figuring out how to edit, completely change or rewrite all of these classic Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twins books. She did the very first rewrites for the very first Nancy Drew book, 'The Secret of the Old Clock.' She was fast at what she was doing and she was good at it. But chances are that when the syndicate was bought by Simon & Schuster, anything that was historically significant was probably just stored in a warehouse someplace, and nobody probably cares or knows about it anymore.”

The existence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's ghostwriters was first publicly revealed in the late 70s when Grosset & Dunlap, at that time the publisher of the syndicate's books, sued the company for “breach of contract, copyright infringement and unfair competition” when the syndicate wanted to reprint some series books in paperback and have Simon & Schuster print a few brand new titles. Until then the books had always been hardcovers and either reprints or revisions of existing titles.

While she did have plenty of creative input, Lapin said that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams eventually lost control of her ego and began to take sole credit for the work of her ghostwriters. And because the real authors signed non-disclosure agreements, nobody dared contradict her.

“Harriet Adams claimed to have written all the books, but she didn't,” Lapin said. “Eventually she may have actually believed that she had written all these books... I mean, she just was completely bonkers. There are all these gaps in the history of who actually wrote a lot of the titles, but it's obvious that Harriet did not write them. She definitely did write one original book that was not a cut-down, it was called 'The Hidden Window Mystery.' I got to see her at the trial in New York when Simon & Schuster was being sued by Grosset & Dunlap. I was there and saw Harriet on the witness stand, and she was a piece of work! Millie Wirt Benson was also there, and when the attorneys introduced them, Harriet said, 'Oh, I thought you died.'”

It is difficult to determine precisely what Pat Doll and the other ghostwriters did because the original contracts and records are inaccessible. Some documents are open to public inspection at the New York Public Library, but they have not been digitized and can only be examined by actually going to the New York Public Library.

“She signed a contract, and it was a kind of like a gag order,” Doll said. “All that was only made public not long ago. The information is still kind of hard to find, though. Probably on purpose, to keep the mystery going, so to speak. People knew mom was an author, people knew she worked for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, she had a resume that really vaguely alluded to having written books, but that was probably about the extent of it. It was a different world back then, everyone wasn't on Facebook!”

Bruce fondly remembers listening to the endless deafening mechanical clack of his mother's typewriter. Pat was incessantly working on novels, poetry and other writing projects at home throughout his entire childhood.

“She worked at home most of the time,” Doll said. “I remember hearing the typing constantly, and she would just chew through typewriters. I would say she'd probably go through a typewriter every year. When she bought the IBM Selectric, that was the one that lasted. They were basically built like a tank and it had the correction tape, she liked that! Both my mom and dad were really good parents. They always provided food and clothing and shelter. We didn't have every luxury in the world, we had a black and white TV until I was like 13 I think! But even though they both worked, they both were always there. Especially me being adopted, for them to do that just kind of lets you know what kind of people they were. And especially getting me!”

After her career with the Stratemeyer Syndicate ended, Pat Doll worked as a local TV correspondent and a newspaper reporter, primarily for the Long Islander News in Huntington, NY, a publication founded in 1838 by poet Walt Whitman and still in print today. Doll volunteered her time as writer and editor for various New Jersey non-profit organizations, wrote publicity and special bulletins for the Orange, NJ Red Cross chapter, was the assistant editor of View Magazine published by the "Junior League of the Oranges" in South Orange, NJ, and had original poetry and stories published in “Reader's Round Table” magazine and other outlets.

“She was always doing something, she never wanted to sit around and not do anything,” Doll said. “She did a lot of work with the Huntington Historical Society, which is based in Huntington, on Long Island where we lived. She wrote poems. At some point she started working for the Long Islander News.”

Bruce has in his possession an unpublished children's book called “The Forgotten Doll” and other unpublished stories by his mother.

“It's never been published, but 'The Forgotten Doll' is a darling Christmas story about a doll in a tourist toy shop that had been forgotten because it was falling apart,” Lapin said.

Tragically, Pat Doll passed away on Feb. 4, 1983, age 56, after battling various forms of cancer for over six years.

“I have several looseleaf books of unpublished works,” Doll said. “It's kids books, mostly. I could publish them if I wanted to, someday. I figure that's something I can do when I retire.”

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