Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, and Vicki Barr

Nancy Drew figured in the recent hearings for Sonia Sotomayor to become a judge.  It seems that Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor all read the series when they were growing up.  I have to say that I hated the Nancy Drew books.  Oh, I’ve read one or two when they were there and there was nothing else to read, but I much preferred Cherry Ames (the nurse who solved mysteries) or Vicki Barr (the flight attendant who did the same).

In her article in the New York Times, Jan Hoffman recounts the many successful women who read, enjoyed and consider Nancy Drew a role model.

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.

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.”

But others feel the way I do about Nancy

“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.”

In the very early days of the internet and email, I participated in a discussion group with a number of women.  The topic of Nancy Drew came up and I famously wrote that I didn’t like her because you never felt she ever used the bathroom.  This is the perfection Lippman is speaking about.

Vicki Barr and Cherry Ames were also mid-westerners with supportive families but they left those families to pursue their professions and dreams.  They had interesting friends and were not the center of their own universe although they were the center of their cicles. 

Cherry Ames became a nurse to serve during World War II.  The first six books, Student Nurse, Senior Nurse, Army Nurse, Chief Nurse, Flight Nurse, and Veterans’ Nurse specifically discuss the war, the war effort, and her role.  Her brother went to fight in the war.  I liked her because she actually did stuff. Instead of Ned Nickerson, Cherry had doctors and other professional men hanging around.  But Cherry also taught us that one has to study to achieve our goals.  The first two books are set during her nurse training days.

But my favorite is Vicki Barr.  The books are set just after the end of World War II when passenger flights were becoming more popular and less of a novelty.

She reads this ad and talks her way into the class as she in not quite old enough.  In fact, she has to get a letter from her parents giving permission.

“If you are twenty-one to twenty-eight, and single – if you are a registered nurse, or if you have at least two years of college or of business experience in dealing with people – then here’s the most appealing job in the world!  Apply tomorrow!”


Vicki Barr, like Cherry Ames. had a profession for which she had to be trained.  She lived in an apartment in New York City with other stewardesses as they were then called.  The first book is about their training which was quite extensive and talked about responsibility for passenger safety.  The women who were Vicki’s frends and roommates were diverse, if not racially than in background and even age.  She flew a lot of different routes and involved herself in the lives of her passengers which is how she came to solve mysteries.  Like Cherry, Vicki had cool boyfriends like the pilot, Dean, and newspaper man, Pete.  The boyfriends were always enlisted to help her solve the case, but not to rescue her.

I still read mysteries and I still prefer women sluths, but in response to Jan Hoffman’s question,  “And who was your Nancy Drew?”  I have to say Vicki Barr.  Besides, the first one was published the year I was born.