The Newspaper Reporter as Fiction Writer: The Tale of "Franklin W. Dixon"
When the young Canadian newspaperman Leslie McFarlane saw the ad for
"experienced fiction writer" in the newspaper trade publication Editor &
Publisher in 1926, he didn't know many details about it, but he decided
to answer it anyway. The ad was surrounded by the usual ads for editors,
reporters and other newspaper types, but its uniqueness – and brevity
-- caught his eye: "Experienced Fiction Writer Wanted to Work from
Publisher's Outlines." The address was the Stratemeyer Syndicate in New
York City. 
1 McFarlane had never heard of such a syndicate, but, he thought, he
certainly was "experienced" and was a writer of fiction, so he dashed off a
quick letter from his desk in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican's newsroom
and enclosed a story of his that was published in the pulp magazine,
Adventure. At the time, it was one of his few clips as a freelance writer.
The first was published in 1919, when he was 17 years old. He had also sold
a short story to the Sunday Toronto Star Weekly magazine. 
McFarlane didn't know it at the time, of course, but he was less than a
year away from embarking on a 20-year ghostwriting career as the fictional
author "Franklin W. Dixon." As millions of youngsters throughout the 20th
century know, Dixon wrote about the exploits of two of the most famous
"sleuths" of all time: The Hardy Boys.
Like many newspaper reporters of his era, McFarlane worked ten- and
twelve-hour days, and he enjoyed the drama and fast pace of newspaper work.
He worked on newspapers during an era when they served as the only source
of news for readers, and during an era when "beats" were almost
non-existent: good reporters covered several beats, and became experts at
all of them. And most newspaper editors relished those stories that were
dramatic and provocative. But McFarlane knew that he did not want to be a
reporter for his entire life. He saw his years in newsrooms as a way to
earn a living, learn about people and governments, and get experience in
writing quickly and well. 
3 What McFarlane dreamed of, ultimately, was writing the Great Canadian
novel. In the short run, he wanted to write magazine fiction for some of
the many well-read and well-respected slick magazines of the era --
magazines that included Maclean's (in Canada), Harper's Weekly, Smart Set
and others. At this point in his life, McFarlane, who grew up in the
northern Ontario town of Haileybury, about 300 miles north of Toronto, was
working fulltime on his fourth newspaper. At the young age of 25, he was
ready to make a change; but he could not afford to quit his day job until
he could establish himself as a successful freelance writer.
It would be a fateful day when he answered the ad seeking fiction
writers, although McFarlane acknowledged much later that within days of
mailing his reply, he had forgotten all about it. Three weeks later,
though, came a neatly typed response from Edward Stratemeyer , offering a
brief description of the syndicate and informing him of the rules for
ghostwriters of the group. Stratemeyer paid ghostwriters about $100 per
book to write series juvenile books from a specific plot outline he
provided. The ghostwriters, upon completion of the books, would receive the
lump sum after they had signed away all rights to the books and after they
had promised, in writing, not to reveal that they wrote for the Stratemeyer
Literary Syndicate. 
As a test, Stratemeyer asked McFarlane in the letter to read two
of the syndicate's typical books as examples, and then decide if he wanted
to try his hand at writing a few chapters of one of the series books, based
on an outline which would be provided. If the sample chapters were good, he
could become a Stratemeyer ghostwriter. McFarlane laughed, he said, when he
realized that the authors of some of the books children loved were not
even flesh-and-blood men and women. "Roy Rockwood," for instance, who
"wrote" the well-known Bomba the Jungle Boys series, was a pseudonym
created by Stratemeyer. The same phony "Roy Rockwood" had written the Dave
Fearless deep-sea adventure series that served as a practice book for
McFarlane. (All the confusion about who was real and who wasn't triggered
his feelings of inferiority as a Canadian -- and his wit. In America, he
noted dryly in his autobiography, anyone could grow up to be president of
the United States, but since he was Canadian, all he could hope for was
that he could still grow up to be Roy Rockwood.)
5 Stratemeyer, of course, wanted children to believe that the authors of
his series were real people, and he never revealed in rare interviews that
he did that they were simply pen names attached to a variety of different
writers. It was part of the mystique of the books.
Ultimately, Leslie McFarlane did become a Stratemeyer ghostwriter -- one of
the syndicate's most famous and prolific ghostwriters, and, for that
matter, one of the most famous "authors" in the history of children's
literature. Leslie McFarlane passed the test that Edward Stratemeyer gave
him, and he wrote a few more books about the exploits of underwater
diver Dave Fearless.
As he read the practice book, McFarlane learned firsthand about some of the
strict formulaic aspects of syndicate books: all were 214 pages in final
book form, and all had the equivalent of "commercials" imbedded in them.
The second chapter of the books began with a quick break from the action as
the author summarized the activities of the protagonist in previous
volumes. At the end of each book was another plug for the exploits of the
hero or heroes in future volumes. Both tactics were designed to get
youngsters running to buy more books in the same series. Within a few
months, though, Stratemeyer asked him if he wanted to try his hand at a new
series the syndicate was launching. It was about two bright and resourceful
brothers who were amateur detectives. Their names were Frank and Joe Hardy.
Stratemeyer told McFarlane that he would "become" the ghostwriter Franklin
W. Dixon if he agreed to launch the new Hardy Boys series. McFarlane said
he'd give it a try. With that, he began what would be one of the most
enduring and frustrating relationships of his life.
After this first experience with the Stratemeyer Syndicate, McFarlane
was able to quit his newspaper job and become a fulltime freelance writer.
He had it all planned - he learned he could write a Stratemeyer book in
about three or four weeks, enabling him to earn a little more than $100 a
month, a figure equal to what he was earning as a reporter. According to
his plan, though, he could work on syndicate books for only a few hours a
day, allowing him to do serious freelance-writing in the remainder of his
But things didn't work out quite as planned for McFarlane. He
remained a Stratemeyer ghostwriter for nearly twenty years, writing
twenty-one of the first twenty-six Hardy Boys books.
7 And the writing did pay many of the bills and did allow him to write on a
freelance basis for many magazines of the era. But the moniker of Franklin
W. Dixon would also become an albatross of sorts around McFarlane's neck,
and writing the Hardy Boys books -- or "the Hardy Brats," as he sometimes
referred to them -- would become a chore for him. 
8 Their novelty soon wore off, and for a variety of reasons -- his
marriage, the birth of three children and abysmal economic times in the
early 1930s -- he continued writing them long after the thrill was gone.
McFarlane would live well into his seventies, long enough to know that the
agreement he signed with the Stratemeyers in 1926 kept him and his heirs
from sharing in any of the millions of dollars generated throughout the
20th century by Hardy Boys books, lunch boxes, films, television shows,
audio tapes and other artifacts stemming from their creation. McFarlane was
not bitter about the fact he earned only several thousand dollars for
writing some of the most widely read and successful children's books of the
twentieth century. But, as he would note many times after revealing his
"identity" Franklin W. Dixon, he soon tired of explaining to people how he
managed to write so many books and make so little money.9
Leslie McFarlane was of course not the first newspaperman to have
visions of becoming a well-known writer of fiction. At the end of the 19th
century, a young New York Evening World reporter named Albert Payson
Terhune found his niche not in writing news, but in writing longer
fictional pieces for the paper's magazine department. One of his jobs was
ghostwriting fiction serials for the paper's magazine section. He found it
to his liking and eventually set aside five hours a day to write stories
for pulp magazines such as All-Story and Argosy, and, before World War I,
for the slick Smart Set. Terhune honed his craft as a writer of fiction,
eventually writing the immensely popular Lad a Dog, based in part on the
knowledge he gained raising collies with his wife.10 He first wrote
about Lad in an article for Redbook.
Early in his career, Terhune had asked advice of another
newspaper-reporter-turned-author: Sinclair Lewis, who, after graduating
from Yale University in 1908, began working at the Waterloo Daily Courier
in Iowa. Lewis then went on to other papers, including the San Francisco
Evening Bulletin. He, too, found it difficult to work fulltime in a
newsroom and write fiction on the side: "Gee! Newspaper work is plumb
hard," he once complained. 11
Of course, the "grandfather," so to speak, of all newspaper reporters
turned fiction writers is Ernest Hemingway, whose romantic image as
sportsman, war correspondent and writer of fiction endures today. Leslie
McFarlane once met Hemingway in the early 1920s when they were both
reporters in Canada -- McFarlane on the Sudbury (Ontario) Star, and
Hemingway during his last fulltime newspaper job on the Toronto Star. As
McFarlane described it five decades later, he was not impressed at this
initial meeting, although Hemingway's later success would certainly provide
a model for aspiring fiction writers of his era. McFarlane met Hemingway
in Sudbury when the Toronto Star had sent him up to cover what turned out
to be a bogus story about a man who said he discovered a huge coal deposit
next to a nickel mine. (Sudbury and nearby parts of northern Ontario were
then rich in silver and nickel mining). The story turned out to be false,
but Hemingway did do a profile of Sudbury. The worldly Hemingway had seen
many young girls walking in the streets of Sudbury, McFarlane remembered,
and implied erroneously in his story that they were literally
"streetwalkers" -- prostitutes in training. McFarlane was amused by the
characterization, but many in Sudbury were not: indignant citizens wrote
letters to the editor, denying the allegation. 
Hemingway may have become one of the most famous former newspapermen to
become a writer, but plenty of unknown journalists, including McFarlane,
followed in his footsteps in the 1920s. The idea that reporters were
thought of as intelligent and shrewd, combined with the fact that their
jobs often led to travel, worldliness, and a familiar byline, made them
respected by the editors who published the many magazines of the early
twentieth century. By the mid and late 1920s, magazines and newspapers were
beginning to grow and flourish and writers for them were in demand. The men
and women who would become known as some of the greatest fiction writers of
the century -- Virginia Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein,
Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and others -- all had books published in 1925.
To some of those writers, experience on newspapers was a blessing and a
curse. In his history of writers of the first half of the twentieth
century, Ronald Weber quotes Willa Cather, who denounced newspaper
journalism as "the vandalism of literature," and a phenonenon that made
"an art a trade." Similarly, Gertrude Stein once warned Hemingway, "if you
keep on doing newspaper work you will never see things, you will see only
words….and that will never do….if you intend to be a writer."13
It is easy to see why many hard-working newspaper reporters of the
1920s were lured to fiction writing. As Terhune and others found out, it
was more fun to do and less time-consuming than newspaper reporting. And
the time was ripe: thanks to many cultural, societal and technological
changes of the early twentieth century, American magazines were at their
peak. Magazine publishing got a shot in the arm in 1879 when the
government passed legislation resulting in lower mailing rates. This came
on the heels of a spirit of expansion in the country and technological
advances in printing. The number and types of national magazines began to
grow. In the latter part of the 19th century, a privileged class of
educated readers could afford high-brow magazines such as Harper's,
Scribner's and Century, leaving the market wide open for a less-genteel
14 As Edward Stratetemeyer helped fulfill a need for less-expensive
juvenile books, several pioneers in magazine publishing recognized and
helped fill the need for magazines that had wide appeal. Like most
successful entrepreneurs, these men -- Frank Munsey, S.S. McClure, John
Brisben Walker and George Horace Lorimer, for example -- took advantage of
the times and of the chain reaction that resulted from rapidly increasing
factory output. Improvements in technology led to the growth in output of
goods, which coincided with rapid improvements of railways and
transportation systems. Consequently, advertising and promotion of goods
changed and the local orientation of newspapers would no longer get the job
Magazines were ready-made vehicles to take advantage of the
explosion of retail goods at the turn of the century. And printers could
now work faster and turn out magazines with higher quality graphics at a
lower price per copy. Enterprising magazine editors now found themselves in
an advantageous position. By 1893, S.S. McClure could lower the price of
his new magazine, McClure's, to 15 cents, a dime or more lower than the
25- and 35-cent magazines that were currently on the market. Other
publishers followed his lead. Ultimately, a large, untapped audience of
readers could afford the magazines and more advertisers could advertise at
lower rates, since circulation was now larger.
Some magazine publishers were also clever enough to understand
changing cultural values and take advantage of them. For instance, when
Cyrus Curtis, publisher of Ladies Home Journal, bought the dying Saturday
Evening Post in 1897, it had a circulation of 2,231 readers and
advertising revenue of $6,933. Thanks to several factors -- Curtis' faith
that he could revive the declining magazine, his willingness to sink money
into it and the hiring of a talented editor -- the magazine rebounded. By
1912, circulation was 1.9 million readers and advertising revenue was $7.1
million. By 1922, circulation grew to nearly 2.2 million and advertising
sales were $28.2 million. 16
So the magazine market was ripe in the mid 1920s when McFarlane and
other newspaper reporters quit their jobs to write fiction fulltime.
Fiction was the bread and butter of most of these magazines, and it was an
absorbing story -- rather than the writing itself -- that publishers and
editors sought. As magazine publisher Frank Munsey said, "We want stories.
That is what we need -- stories, not dialect sketches, not washed out
studies of effete human nature, not weak tales of sickly sentimentality,
not 'pretty' writing…Good writing is as common as clam shells, while good
stories are as rare as statesmanship." 
It was this potentially lucrative magazine market that McFarlane entered
in 1926 when he quit his newspaper job and moved to a rustic cabin in Lake
Ramsey in northern Ontario. By 1927, he had written three Hardy Boys books:
The Tower Treasure, The House on the Cliff and The Secret of the Old Mill.
(Stratemeyer launched most of his series by issuing three "breeder"
books: books that were published simultaneously to generate interest in
the new series). His first year and a half at Lake Ramsey was slow -- he
received plenty of rejection notices from magazines but had written seven
Dave Fearless books for $100 apiece, and had a 25,000-word work of fiction
about a prospector accepted by a magazine called Everybody's. By 1928,
though, his career was coming along. His success with the Stratemeyer
Syndicate meant he could pay the bills, he thought, and the birth of the
Hardy Boys series -- and early moderate success of the series -- meant he
could continue with that series as well as some others. That year he wrote
two more Hardy Boys books. His fiction sales totaled $3,928 in 1928, more
than he would have made on a newspaper, and he won second place in a
national fiction writing contest sponsored by Maclean's magazine. 
18 The award gave him a tremendous morale boost and a few hundred
dollars. Further, he believed that after nearly two years as a fulltime
freelance writer, he had become a "professional:" As he notes in his
autobiography, he got in to a writing groove after the fourth Hardy Boys
book, The Missing Chums: "Without realizing it I had acquired systematic
work habits and a professional attitude," he wrote. "The morning chapter
rolled out of the typewriter every day until the book was done, the order
filled, the merchandise delivered."
19 He enjoyed his new life at Lake Ramsey as soon as it began. He loved
the cabin, the clean air and water, the woods and nearby beach with its
birds and ducks. He loved the slower pace of his life that allowed him to
enjoy a cup of coffee and some bacon and eggs before he began his work. In
short, after working nearly six years on newspapers, he loved his freedom:
"Never again would I work for a master, by hour, by day, by week or by
year. Perhaps I had neither the talent nor the ability to make a living by
writing, but such freedom was worth any sacrifice until I found out." 
By May of 1928, in fact, he must have been so encouraged by his new
career that he married his longtime sweetheart, Amy Arnold of New Liskeard,
Ontario, a few miles from his hometown of Haileybury, and the two lived
briefly in Montreal before moving back to McFarlane's hometown of
Haileybury. But thanks to an upcoming economic depression that swept North
America, McFarlane's longtime dream of becoming a successful writer of
adult fiction would never really materialize. But he would obtain fame in a
way he never dreamed of.
McFarlane was not the only former newspaper reporter to sign on with the
Stratemeyer Syndicate. The bare-bones syndicate, which employed only a
handful of fulltime employees, was actually an office in Manhattan that
turned over its completed manuscripts to one of two or three publishers.
The publishers were paid a sum to publish and market the books, but the
copyrights belonged to the syndicate -- in essence, to Edward Stratemeyer.
And Stratemeyer became a rich man because of his novel idea. As Fortune
magazine wrote in one of the few articles about the syndicate, "as oil had
its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer." 21
Stratemeyer's right-hand man was Howard Garis, a newspaper reporter
from Newark, New Jersey. Garis helped Stratemeyer prepare plot outlines
and helped him conduct some syndicate business. More important to the
syndicate, though, was his role as ghostwriter for many early series,
including some Motor Boys and Tom Swift books.
22 Garis is probably most famous, though, as author of the Uncle Wiggily
series of books, which he wrote on his own under his own name, outside of
But ultimately, two of the syndicate's best-selling and enduring series
were written by former newspaper reporters: the Hardy Boys series, and the
popular Nancy Drew series. In 1926, the same year Leslie McFarlane quit his
newspaper job, Mildred Wirt quit her newspaper job in Iowa and ventured to
New York to embark on a career as a writer there. After interviewing with
the syndicate, she also became a member of its stable of regular writers.
Many people may know her as "Carolyn Keene," author of the tremendously
popular Nancy Drew series, the most lucrative of all the syndicate
books. Wirt helped launch that series in 1930 -- ironically, the first
group in the series was published within a month or so of Edward
Stratemeyer's death. Mildred Wirt, who later married and became Mildred
Wirt Benson, wrote most of the first 25 Nancy Drew books, as well as a few
books in other syndicate series.
As innocent as they seem today, the Stratemeyer series books have
been a lightning rod for controversy for much of their existence. Indeed,
as late as the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, some children's librarians banned
them from the shelves because they regarded them as unimaginative,
formulaic -- and a waste of time for children.
24 Stratemeyer himself, though, battled the first attempt at censorship of
the books near the turn of the century, when the " head librarian" of the
Boys Scouts of America began a national campaign against the books,
claiming they were harmful to children and that the adventures in the books
led children astray. Formation of the Boy Scouts of America in 1908 had
stimulated readership and production of boys' serial books, including
Stratemeyer's Boy Scouts series, a phenomenon that enraged Boy Scout head
librarian Franklin K. Mathiews. In an attempt to stem what he deemed the
reckless production of mindless adventure books that were harmful to normal
adolescents, Mathiews went to publishers with his own Scout-approved
reading list and the suggestion of taking part in a "Boy Scout Safety First
25 His activities did not bother Stratemeyer, who kept up business as
usual; but Mathiews did get the ear of publishers, many of whom did follow
a Boy Scout-approved list.
It is a measure of Stratemeyer's steely determination and his
business acumen that he was still unfazed by Mathiews, despite the actions
by publishers. And it is a measure of Mathiews evangelical zeal that he did
not stop there. In 1914, he wrote a now-famous 1,000 -word essay in
Outlook magazine that would be read by librarians for decades to come,
titled "Blowing Out the Boys' Brains." By today's standards of language and
imagery, the tone of the essay is comical. Although he never mentions
Stratemeyer by name, he angrily points out that the series books of the era
were like explosives, guaranteed to "blow out the brains" of the boys who
read them, and worthy of a warning label on each one. The books are not
written, he says, but "manufactured," not by one man, he implies, but by
several people who turned out the books at break-neck speed, often one
every two weeks.
26 With their formulaic writing style and plots, Mathiews writes, the
"vile" series books may provide short-term cheap thrills, but will destroy
the brain and the body, much as alcohol does. It would be the first of
many challenges to Stratemeyer series books.
By the time McFarlane became involved with the syndicate in 1926, it
was clear that the efforts of the Boy Scouts and others who criticized the
books were nearly fruitless. The syndicate books had achieved commercial
success and no criticism by the Boy Scouts would stop children from reading
them. In 1926 and 1927, the American Library Association published the
Winnetka Grade Book List based on a survey of books read by schoolchildren
in 34 American cities. It showed that series books were read by a full 98
percent of those surveyed. And it noted, "the books of one series
[presumably the Bobbsey Twins] were unanimously rated trashy by our expert
librarians and almost unanimously liked by the 900 children who read them."
Although sales figures were kept under wraps, it is estimated that the
series books in the first twenty years or so of their existence sold an
average of 5 million copies a year. The sales net Stratemeyer $5,000
annually "in an era when one dollar could buy a fine three-course meal,"
according to one critic. 
Certainly the millions of readers of Stratemeyer books exemplified the
power children had when selecting reading material – a power that was
greater in Stratemeyer's era than it is today. The role of librarians and
teachers in the selection and recommendation of children's books by schools
and libraries has of course been pivotal for most of the 20th century, but
until the 1920s publishing houses did not have separate children's
divisions and children's sections of public libraries were rare or
Lewis Carroll's Alice 's Adventures in Wonderland, published in
1865, was a watershed book, primarily because it was one of the first books
written for children's pure enjoyment, rather than one designed to teach a
lesson or instill a moral. Other books of the late 19th century were
romantic and fey in nature, and were frequently aimed at a female audience
– books like Lucretia Hale's the Peterkin Papers, and of course the famous
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which portrayed the warm family life of
the Marches. Boys for books – most notably Mark Twain's Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn in 1884 and Tom Sawyer in 1876 -- portrayed greater
realism, combining adventure, realism and humor. 29 But the true
watershed book of the era was Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island,
published in 1893. The difference between Treasure Island and other
adventure novels of the era is, again, that Stevenson's book is pure
adventure undiluted by what one group of children's literature
critics called "ulterior" motives such as piety or morality. As one critic
wrote, the beauty and craft of the writing "raises it to a level of
art…[Stevenson] is not just a lover of tales, but equally a lover of words
and phrases, a meticulous searcher for the right word, a builder of phrases
precise and exact…Treasure Island anticipates the escape from previous
limitations of Puritanism and didacticism into complete freedom of form,
idea and substance."30
And of course many other brilliant and richly textured children's
books were written in the late 19th and early 20th century. Still,
children's librarians of the early 1920s lamented the dearth of such books.
"We are tired of substitutes for realities in writing for children," said
Anne Carroll Moore, head of the New York Public Library's Children's
Department in 1920. "The trail….[is] strewn with patronage and propaganda,
moralizing self-sufficiency and sham efficiency, mock heroics and cheap
optimism – above all, with the commonplace in theme, treatment and
language." 31 The end of World War I, however, brought many
revolutionary changes in children's literature. Children's divisions were
formed in publishing houses, magazines about the subject of children's
literature most notably The Horn Book Magazine, were published and the John
Newbery Medal was created by the American Library Association in 1922 to
encourage high-quality juvenile books. 32
Most important, for the first time, the concept of "children's literature"
was formed. In other words, the genre was starting to be taken seriously.
Moore, of the New York Public Library, began editing in 1924 a weekly page
of criticism of children's books in the New York Herald Tribune , a section
which included submissions from writers, illustrators and librarians. A
similar section was formed in the New York Times Book Review in 1930.33
After his marriage in 1928, his life naturally changed -- but he
had no idea how much it would change, not simply domestically but because
of the Great Depression of 1929. Just as his magazine sales began to pick
up, and just as he thought he could abandon his "Franklin W. Dixon"
identity, North America was plunged into an economic depression. Magazines
folded, markets dried up and pay declined dramatically by those outlets
that were still accepting stories. The advent of the Great Depression
coincided with the birth of at two of his three children. Patricia
McFarlane was born on February 17, 1929; Brian McFarlane was born two years
later on August 10, 1931, and Norah McFarlane was born on February 4, 1933.
And these were very tough years for the McFarlane family; frustration with
his career caused McFarlane to drink too much and, eventually to seek
treatment for his drinking. Amy McFarlane suffered bouts of depression
that deepened as her family's financial situation worsened. Although he
frequently contemplated applying for fulltime jobs and abandoning his
freelance career, McFarlane perservered. It was twenty years before he
gave up that career for fulltime work.
McFarlane continued working on his fiction into the 1930s and he
hoped his work would get accepted by magazines. A compulsive writer, he
also kept detailed diaries for nearly 20 years. These diaries detailed his
daily activities, his professional successes and disappointments and his
thoughts about many matters. Over the years, they paint a picture of a man
who was plagued by insecurities about his freelance writing and his
decision to support a family of five through it. The passages also showed
that despite numerous setbacks and much indecision, he struggled on, taking
some pride in the fact that his magazine sales allowed him to continue
working on his own.
Yet his life was not easy in the 1930s when markets dried up and he
had a growing family. The passages also dramatically illustrate the
vicissitudes of the life of a writer, particularly during the brutal
weather of northern Ontario (where, he writes, it could be cold nearly
eight months a year). In McFarlane's case, he could usually count on the
Stratemeyers to send him a small advance check for the work he was to do
for them. He would pay some smaller bills with the advance and hope the
remainder of the check would come soon enough to help cover rent and
34 "Feeling very tired today," he wrote on November 1, 1930. "Disappointed
when the Stratemeyer letter came with outline for new story but no advance
checque. Absolutely broke now. Not a nickel in the house." McFarlane's
fortunes could change dramatically within days, though, if he received word
of a sale -- or a check. As a result, the McFarlane family usually waited
on tenterhooks each day for the mail, hoping for good news. The news,
though, was sometimes bad: "A bad day," he wrote on September 25, 1931.
"Had to meet an overdraft at the bank… [Amy] couldn't understand how our
finances got so low and feels badly." Amid the ups and downs of his career,
it was Frank and Joe Hardy who frequently bore the brunt of his
frustrations in those desperate days of the 1930s. He found writing "the
juveniles" a frustrating and time-consuming experience. And if he didn't
record an entry in his diary, he berated himself. "As usual, when I am
writing one of those cursed juvenile books everything else goes by the
board," he wrote on January 8, 1936, after failing to write in his diary
for two days. "Day after day has been a solid sweat at the damnable boys
book, usually 4,000 words a day when I have been in a good working sweat,
some days so fed up that I have been able to do nothing at all…." He seemed
particularly bitter in this diary entry, and even criticized the plot
summary that the syndicate had sent him for The Sinister Signpost, the
15th in the Hardy Boys series. "Full of inventors, secret chambers, etc.
and a kidnapped racehorse as well as the obnoxious Hardy Brats." By this
time, after the death of Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicate was run by
Edward Stratemeyer's daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Stratemeyer, who
were now paying $85 per book for many syndicate books, but who usually kept
McFarlane's pay at $100 per book. Nonetheless, he wrote, he felt he was
potentially losing money writing the Hardy Boys because his pay for other
work was higher. McFarlane did finish The Sinister Signpost three weeks
later, on January 28, as his diary reflects: "I worked hard and finished up
the boys' book at 5 o'clock [in the morning], sent it out by express at
once and feel as if I have just climbed the Matterhorn.'"
But these passages in the diaries are misleading to some extent. When
things were going well for McFarlane and sales to magazines were good, he
was much more complacent about his work for the syndicate, and even felt a
certain loyalty toward his "step-children," Joe and Frank Hardy. In fact,
in the early 1940s, when his life stabilized and his magazine fiction began
to sell better, he decided to accept a few more Hardy Boys assignments, he
wrote, because he was repelled by the thought of another author writing
about the Hardy Boys.
Based on his diaries, those days of the middle 1930s were the lowest
for McFarlane and his family. Not normally a heavy drinker, McFarlane, like
many newspaper reporters, was never one to turn down a drink. But his
drinking worsened in 1935 and 1936 -- to a point where his family
intervened. Even his diary entries during some of those weeks in 1935
indicated that he was not himself. He notes that he has trouble working and
concentrating because of "making a night of it" or staying out late. "I'm
in bad shape today and badly in disfavor [with his family]," he wrote one
cold day in February. He knew, though, that the drinking was hurting his
writing. As he wrote two days later, "Still enfeebled….my health can't
stand this nonsense much longer. Got back to work and am now over the worst
of the book, into the home stretch. Ten days overdue and a bad job." By
October, things had not looked up. On October 1, he wrote, "Tired today and
in no shape for work." He apparently thought he could recuperate with the
hair of the dog that bit him. "Revived myself with a Bass."
Norah McFarlane Perez said her father's actions would exasperate her
mother, who often went out looking for her husband on the nights he was
holed up drinking. On some desperate evenings, she would hide his clothes
in the oven as a pre-emptory strike -- no clothes, no drinking,
particularly for someone like McFarlane, who was dapper and concerned about
his appearance. 
35 Finally, in the spring of 1936, McFarlane's father, John Henry
McFarlane, who lived nearby, took matters in his own hands and took his son
away for "the cure." McFarlane's children, who were very young at the
time, barely remember this era and later came to believe that their father
went to a sanitarium near Hamilton, Ontario. Norah Perez believes this
drying out consisted of a treatment like Antabuse, which is designed to
instill a strong distaste for liquor. For many years after that, Leslie
McFarlane didn't take another drink. After his children were grown, he
indicates in diaries and letters that he was once again a social drinker.
There is no evidence that drinking was ever a problem for him again.
The hard-drinking writer has long been a stereotype in North American
literary culture, and when it came to freelance writers of the 1920s and
1930s, that image may have had a basis in reality. Indeed, his brief period
of alcohol abuse may have been one of the few behaviors that linked
McFarlane to other writers of the era. In his biography of author and pulp
writer John D. MacDonald, Hugh Merrill wrote that only about 300 writers --
most of whom lived in New York -- filled the pages of America's pulp
magazines. Their domestic situation was hardly tranquil, though. To
support themselves, they lived in cheap hotels, ate in cheap restaurants
and were prone to spending what little money they made on cheap liquor.
During that era, Merrill estimated that American pulp magazines published
about 800 pieces of fiction a month. So McFarlane was an anomaly both
socially and geographically, when compared to his fellow pulp writers.
Although McFarlane naturally preferred to sell his material to
"slick," more literary magazines, many of his sales did go to pulps such
as Adventure, Detective and others. Some of his work in the 1930s, though,
was sold to Maclean's in Canada and to the Toronto Star Weekly
magazine. He also sold hockey and boxing fiction to Sport Story and a few
other sports magazine. The bulk of his work was mysteries and sports
stories, although he was versatile: he also sold much humorous fiction and
But McFarlane and other young writers of his generation never did
fully recover from the effects of the Great Depression. Even after
McFarlane gave up drinking, Amy McFarlane began suffering severe bouts of
what we now call depression. She suffered a variety of physical ailments,
and at times was unable to leave her home; other times, she was unable to
leave her bed. As the years passed, as her three children grew older, and
after her husband took a fulltime job, she did recover. 
Despite the declining markets for fiction, McFarlane did endure
during those shaky years of the mid and late 1930s, and, ultimately, he was
able to support his family (and eventually send two of this three children
to college). But life was not without its disappointments. His role as
author of the Hardy Boys books certainly helped to keep him afloat
financially, but he never was able to fulfill a lifetime dream of writing
an epic novel about settlement of Northern Ontario and the drama and
romance of the pioneers who came to the region in the late nineteenth
century. McFarlane had met his share of characters when he was a young
reporter in Canada -- miners, con men, adventurers and others who were
drawn to the wealth of the mines of the region -- and he believed the tale
of the region had tremendous potential. 
An avid reader throughout his life, McFarlane kept current on books
and magazines, and thought it important to maintain contact with other
writers, even if by letter. He evidently wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in
1938 to critique Fitzgerald's book, Tender is the Night, and to praise him
for short articles he did for Esquire. McFarlane received a grateful reply
from the author, who had by 1938 become a successful magazine fiction
writer and a moderately successful novelist. In a 160-word hand-scribbled
note, Fitzgerald wrote that he, too, was insecure about his career and
feared his work was not read. Consequently, he said, he appreciated letters
like the one he received from McFarlane: "One of the ghastly aspects of my
gloom was a horrible feeling that I wasn't being read," he wrote. "And I'd
rather have a sharp criticism of my pet child Tender is the Night such as
yours, than the feeling of pouring out endless words to fall upon as ears
as I had had." Fitzgerald went on to say that he believed "I am done as a
writer -- maybe not, of course…In the meantime I appreciate the goodness of
heart that prompted your letter." McFarlane of course valued the letter --
it became one of his prized possessions.
McFarlane's diaries are filled with the enormous highs and crushing
lows of the life of a fulltime freelance writer. Of course, upping the
stakes was the fact that he had a family of five to support, and that he
lived in an area that was cold much of the year. Passages in the diary
reflect how he worries at times that his home's heating oil will run out,
and that he will have no resources to buy more. Or, in one particular
desperate passage, he notes how his young son, Brian, has holes in his
shoes and he has no money to buy him new shoes. But the "markets" as he
called them , always came through for McFarlane, and despite the drama and
stress in his life, he was able to hold his family together.
All of that ended however, in 1942, when the patriotic
McFarlane, disappointed that he was rejected for military service because
of his height (he was 5-foot-3-inches tall), agreed to become a
speechwriter in the public relations office of the Canadian Department of
Munitions and Supply. It was his first fulltime job in about fifteen years.
As part of his duties, he began writing for the newly formed Canadian
National Film Board, whose role was, in part, to produce short
documentaries about Canada's role in the war effort.
At this point in his life, McFarlane gave up magazine writing for
good, but he began a new life of sorts. By 1943, he was asked to join the
Film Board on a fulltime basis, and he began a career of traveling
throughout Canada as a producer, director and writer of short documentary
films. After the war, the Film Board expanded and eventually became
respected for the films it produced on a variety of topics. McFarlane won
several awards for the films he wrote and produced, including a British
Film Award for a feature documentary on visit of the British royal family
to Canada, and a nomination for an American Academy Award for a documentary
on herring boats in Canada.
Eventually, McFarlane's versatility in documentary-film writing and
directing led to a job in 1953 with the fledgling television network, the
Canadian Broadcasting Company, and he was named chief editor of television
drama. He was responsible primarily for editing and writing live dramas
for the new medium of television, a job that he has described as one
similar to a playwright. In 1960, he received Liberty magazine's award for
the "best playwright" in Canada. Even when he was in his 70s, McFarlane
never retired -- he continued to write sports stories for adults and
children, and he wrote a wry and humorous autobiography that focused
primarily on his years as "Franklin W. Dixon," and the events leading up to
that role. But he never did write his Great Canadian novel about the
pioneers of northern Ontario.
In the many interviews he granted late in his life, when he finally
acknowledged that he was "Franklin W. Dixon," Leslie McFarlane exhibits a
type of schizophrenia about that role. "The irony there is that a
relatively small body of my work took over everything else," he said late
in his life. 
41 But he acknowledged that he took seriously the millions of readers who
loved the Hardy Boys, and respected the fact that the series introduced
many of them to the joys of reading. "Anything that induces the reading
habit is all for the good," he said." 
42 And although he did not write the great novel he had talked about as a
young man, and although his real name never became nearly as famous as his
pen name, he was particularly proud that he had overcome many obstacles
to earn his living as a freelance writer. It was an accomplishment that
had eluded many others.
Leslie McFarlane's diaries and papers are stored at the home of his son,
Brian McFarlane, in Toronto, Ontario. The author appreciates Brian
McFarlane's generosity in giving her permission to read and quote from them.
 1 See McFarlane's autobiography, The Ghost of the Hardy Boys, Toronto:
Methuen, 1976, pp. 1-9.
 2 McFarlane discusses at length this period and other periods in his
life in a series of "Interview Notes" he typed late in his life in the late
1970s. These are located among his personal papers, which are held by his
son, Brian McFarlane.
 3 Ghost of the Hardy Boys, pp. 1-7.
 4 McFarlane describes in length in his autobiography receiving the
packet from the Stratemeyer Syndicate and the "test" chapters he was asked
 5 Ghost of the Hardy Boys, p. 13.
 6 Ibid, pp. 57-61.
 7 Exactly how many of the first group of Hardy Boys books were written
by McFarlane is debatable. Some researchers believe that he wrote
twenty-one of the first twenty-six, and others think he may have written
nineteen of the first twenty-six. Many Hardy Boys readers have debated the
issue in papers and on web sites. It is likely, however, based on
correspondence between McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate (located at
the New York Public Library) that he wrote the twenty-one of the first
twenty-six. For a discussion of this, see for example Robert Crawford's,
The Lost Hardys: A Concordance, Rheem Valley, CA: SynSine Press, 1997, and
writings by James Keeline at www. Keeline.com.
 8 Interview by the author with Norah McFarlane Perez, July 31, 2001,
 9 McFarlane mentioned this in many interviews he did late in his life
and his children confirmed it in interviews with the author: Norah
McFarlane Perez, in an interview with the author, op. cit., and Brian
McFarlane in an interview on July 30, 2001 in Toronto, Ontario.
 10 See Bruce Weber's Hired Pens: Professional Writers in the Golden
Age, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1997, pp. 117-119.
 11 Weber, p. 122.
 12 McFarlane recounts this story in Ghost of the Hardy Boys, pp. 111-112.
 13 Weber, p. 113.
 14 See Theodore Peterson's A History of Magazines in the 20th Century,
Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975, pp. 6-7.
 15 Ibid, p. 4.
 16 Ibid., p. 12.
 17 Ibid., p. 21.
 18 McFarlane kept detailed ledgers of his fiction sales that are among
his personal papers.
 19 Ghost of the Hardy Boys, p 186.
 20 Ibid., p. 44.
 21 This quote appeared in an extensive profile of the Stratemeyer
Syndicate that was published in the April 1934 issue of Fortune magazine,
titled "For Indeed it Was He" (no author listed), pp.86-90. The quote
appeared on page 87.
 22 Howard Garis' role with the syndicate is discussed in much of the
literature about the syndicate, including in the Fortune story. It is also
discussed at length in Carol Billman's history of the syndicate, The
Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, New York: Ungar Publishing Co., 1986,
p. 23. Garis' son, Roger -- who also wrote the syndicate -- describes at
length his father's role with it in Roger Garis' memoir, My Father Was
Uncle Wiggily, New, York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966.
 23 For this and more details on the syndicate see Deidre Johnson's
Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, New York: Twayne
Publishing,1993, p. 10.
 24 Several newspaper articles have discussed the controversial nature
of some of the Stratemeyer books. See, for example, Roger May's "Nancy Drew
and Kin: Still Surmount Scrapes and Critics' Slurs," Wall Street Journal,
January 15, 1975, pp. 1, 25. Here a librarian is quoted as saying, "You'd
be surprised how much heat you can generate by mentioning Nancy Drew."
 25 Mathiews actions are discussed in many writings about the
syndicate. For a summary see Arthur Prager's "Edward Stratemeyer and the
Stratemeyer Syndicate," Saturday Review, July 10, 1971, p. 16; Ken
Donelson, "The Stratemeyer Syndicate," Then and Now," in Children's
Literature, vol. 7, 1978, pp. 16-44; John T. Dizer, Tom Swift and Friends,
Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland, 1982, pp. 15-29.
 26 Mathiews' article appeared in Outlook on November 18, 1914, pp. 2-4.
 27 See Johnson, p. 161. Johnson notes that the original reading list
was published in 1926 in Chicago by the American Library Association. John
Maxwell Hamilton offered these sales figures and earnings in his
book, Casanova was a Book Lover, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University
Press, 2000, p. 50.
 28 See Kathleen T. Horning, From Cover to Cover: Evaluating Children's
Books, New York: HarperCollins Juvenile Division, 1997, p. 150.
 29 Cornelia Meigs, Anne Thaxter Eaton, Elizabeth Nesbitt, Ruth Hill
Viguers, eds., A Critical History of Children's Literature, New York,
Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1969, p. 359.
 30 Meigs, et. al., p. 303-305.
 31 Horning, p. 150.
 32 Ibid., p. 151.
 33 Meigs, et. al., p. 394.
 34 McFarlane wrote passages in his diary nearly every day -- the
entries were usually between two and eight or nine sentences. Occasionally,
a week or so would go by when he did not write a passage, but this was
unusual, and he frequently chastised himself later in an entry for failure
to write in the diary. The diary entries reflected his daily activities as
well as his thoughts.
 35 Interview with Norah Perez.
 37 Hugh Merrill, The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D.
MacDonald, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Minotaur, 2000, pp.
 38 Brian McFarlane and Norah Perez discussed their mother's illness
during interviews with the author, op. cit.
 39 McFarlane conducted an extensive letter-writing relationship during
the 1920s and part of the 1930s with literary critic William Deacon. Deacon
had been a book critic and literary editor of several Canadian
publications, including the defunct Toronto Mail and Empire, and, later the
Globe and Mail. In their letters, the two men discuss the possibility of
McFarlane writing an epic novel about the Northern Canadian frontier. See,
for example, a letter from McFarlane to Deacon dated December, 1931, and
from Deacon to McFarlane dated August 23, 1931. The correspondence is
stored in the Deacon Archives at the University of Toronto.
 40 Norah Perez now has the copy of the Fitzgerald letter in her home
in Lewiston, NY.
 41 Ghost of the Hardy Boys, p. 41.
 42 He wrote this in his Interview Notes, op. cit.