Friday, May 27, 2016

Todd Gross: Christy Ridley Male, Not Female—Plus a Major Report on Early Female Constructor Helen Pettigrew

Christy Ridley Male, Not Female

Photo courtesy of

Crossword researcher and historian Todd Gross reported a major discovery yesterday:  Pre-Shortzian constructor Christy Ridley, who published at least 54 daily puzzles under editor Eugene T. Maleska between 1981 and 1993, was male, not female.  Christy was one of several pre-Shortzian constructors with ambiguous first names and about whom we had no additional information.  Todd's finding is important both because Christy was originally erroneously coded as female in my files and because of the relatively large number of puzzles involved.

Two years ago at the 2014 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I reported the results of statistical tests I had done on constructor gender in the pre-Shortz and Shortz eras.  That report was a brief summary of my findings, which were detailed in a paper I wrote for a science research course.  I ran many statistical tests, some of which involved limited portions of the complete data set.  The smaller the data set, the more likely the results are to be skewed by individual data points.  Although I have not rerun the tests with this change in one constructor's gender coding, certain tests within the Maleska era would likely turn out differently enough to significantly affect some results—most notably, the proportion of puzzles Maleska published by women would have been less than the proportion published by Will Weng, but probably still not as low as in the Farrar and Shortz eras.  It is worth keeping in mind that my data set is incomplete and that the constructor names (and, consequently, genders) of many puzzles are still unknown.

In addition to the above photo, which Todd found on, Todd discovered this obituary reprinted on

Courtesy of The Daily News-Journal

Thanks so much again, Todd, for this very important discovery!

Early Female Constructor Helen Pettigrew

Todd also contacted me recently about his efforts to find out more about pre-Shortzian constructor Helen Pettigrew, who, according to my (incomplete) records, published one puzzle in The New York Times.  Here's Todd's report:

Helen Pettigrew was the first constructor I decided to research.  I saw the following puzzle, published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, July 15, 1928.

Image courtesy of the Los Angeles Times

The crossword is titled "Down in Arkansas," but there's nothing about Arkansas in the puzzle.  I asked [New York Times constructor] Joe Krozel about it (he'd mentioned an interest in crossword history); he thought maybe the constructor was from Arkansas. So I went on to try to find her . . . and find her I did.  And indeed, she was born and raised, and lived nearly her entire life, in what is now Charleston in Franklin County, about 25 miles east of Ft. Smith. has a pretty thorough history for Helen:   She was born in 1894 in what is now Charleston but was unincorporated at the time.  In the 1920 Census she's listed as a teacher.  But in the 1930 Census she's listed as a sketch writer for magazines.  In the 1940 Census, she's listed with no occupation . . . but living with her father (now 83) and her mother's sister (91), so likely taking care of both of them.

Alas, I don't have any examples of her work in magazines . . . but I found some puzzles from the early 1950s published in newspapers.  I'm including two of them here, the first from November 1951; the second from April 1953.

Image courtesy of the Lethbridge Herald

Image courtesy of the
Independent Record   

I also have a couple of her crosswords from the early '70s, which fits with her one known puzzle in The New York Times published April 15, 1974.  But I'm pretty sure she was published in Simon & Schuster in at least the late '20s to early '30s, and I have a New York Herald Tribune puzzle of hers from Sunday, March 25, 1928 (the Los Angeles Times puzzle was syndicated from the New York World).

She also published several books of Bible-themed crosswords (and other puzzles) in the 1960s and '70s.  Google has links to various books; here is the cover of one published in (I believe) 1963:

Over the years (I first saw "Down in Arkansas" in 2009), I uncovered a lot of information about Ms. Pettigrew.  But I couldn't answer the question I've been pondering since I first saw that crossword:  What inspired a woman living in central Arkansas in the 1920s to try her hand at crossword construction, sending puzzles to editors thousands of miles away in New York?

Last month (April 2016), I decided to try going to Charleston for myself to see what I could uncover there.  I flew to Little Rock for Arkansas Puzzle Day and made a weeklong trip of it, including visiting Charleston.  Helen never married, and I believe there are no living Pettigrews left there.   But I did find the local library, which had a genealogy room.  And in that room, I found a book that didn't answer that question . . . but it did answer another question I'd had since I started:  What did Helen look like?

The book, titled Franklin County (Images of America) was written by Lola Shropshire and published in 2000.  Among images of various people and places in Franklin County, I found one of Helen Pettigrew, with a nice explanatory paragraph below.  It may not have answered all my questions, but it gave me nice closure.  I took several pictures of the page, to be sure I got it right.  But I needn't have bothered:  The book is in Google Books, and here is the picture of Helen with the accompanying paragraph:

Image courtesy of Arcadia Publishing

So perhaps I didn't need to make the trip.  But before I left Charleston, I took one picture that isn't in any book.  Helen passed away in 1977, about three years after the New York Times crossword was published.  She passed away in Booneville but is buried in the local cemetery in Charleston, near her father and other family members.  It isn't large, and in about 15 minutes I found her grave.  And I propped a copy of her "Down in Arkansas" puzzle next to the headstone and took this picture.

R.I.P., Helen Lyle Pettigrew (1894–1977).  You may have died alone, but you are not forgotten.

Thanks again, Todd, for all your amazing research and for the lovely picture of Helen's puzzle on her grave.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Grace Fabbroni on Her Crossword Career—Plus More Todd Gross Finds and His Interview on the L.A. Times Crossword Corner

Grace Fabbroni on Her Crossword Career

Photo courtesy of Grace Fabbroni

Recently I heard from crossword historian Todd Gross, who'd been in contact with pre-Shortzian and Shortz-era constructor Grace Fabbroni on LinkedIn.  Grace wondered why her byline had been listed as "Mrs. John Fabbroni"—a name she never went by—instead of "Grace Fabbroni."  I explained to Todd that we'd just used whatever name had been listed with the puzzles but that this new information was very helpful and we'd change all her bylines.

Todd also noted that Grace planned to send something about her crossword career, which she did—here it is:

Thanks so much again for letting me know about this, Todd, and for this wonderful reminiscence, Grace!

Frances Hansen

A couple of months ago, Todd also told me about a 2004 article (and photo) he'd found on pre-Shortzian and Shortz-era constructor Frances Hansen, who passed away some six months later.  The link worked then but unfortunately has since disappeared.  I've listed the article on the Pre-Shortzian Constructors page, though, so you may be able to track it down through your local library.

Obituaries:  Eugene T. Maleska, Alex F. Black, Terry Healy, Maurice J. Teitelbaum, and Jack Jumonville

Todd also found some fascinating obituaries for editor/constructor Eugene T. Maleska and constructors Alex F. Black, Terry [Teresa] Healy, Maurice J. Teitelbaum, and Jack Jumonville, all of which you can see by clicking on the individual links here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructors page.  The Alex Black obituary also contained this photo taken by his family:

Alex F. Black (photo courtesy of the Black family)

Todd did some additional research on Jack Jumonville—here's his report:

Jack Jumonville

I went to to see if I could find more about Jack Jumonville.  There's a fair amount there, including pictures from his college yearbook.  He was a member of a fairly elite club at LSU called Samurai, which means a larger than normal picture.  I'm enclosing what I found . . . the picture of young Mr. Jumonville not quite what I expected. . . . There's also a private story and a private picture of him.

Here's the earlier photo of Jack from the Louisiana State University yearbook that Todd found, along with some information about the Samurai organization Jack belonged to:

Jack Jumonville in college (photo
courtesy of the Louisiana State 
University yearbook)

From the Louisiana State University Yearbook

Thanks again, Todd—it's always great to learn more about the lives and careers of these early constructors, who, in addition to their crossword talents, often had successful unrelated careers and other wide-ranging interests!

Todd Gross's Interview on the L.A. Times Crossword Corner

Finally, Todd was recently interviewed for the L.A. Times Crossword Corner!  In his interview, which you can read by clicking here, he mentions the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project and talks about his interest in crossword history and career as a constructor for The New York Times and other top publications.  Congratulations, Todd!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

J. A. Felker (and Another Puzzle Identified), Warren W. Reich, and James E. Hinish Jr.

J. A. Felker (and Another Puzzle Identified)

Photo courtesy of Janet Felker, from 1983

Back in January, Jim Horne and Jeff Chen of XWord Info received an email, which Jim subsequently copied me on, from Janet Felker, the daughter of pre-Shortzian constructor J. A. Felker (1911–91).  Janet wrote that her mother, whose full name was Josephine Ann, had had crossword puzzles published in The New York Times (as well as Bantam Books and Pocket Books) between 1971 and 1977.  Will Weng had published 11 of her diagramless puzzles and four of her regular Sunday puzzles (as well as what turned out to be a previously anonymous Friday puzzle!).  Janet noted that she had files of her mother's submissions to the Times that were accepted, as well as of some submissions that had been rejected.  "Perhaps of most interest to crossword puzzle enthusiasts," she wrote, "are the original memo notes from Will Weng regarding some of the puzzles, including his rationale for those he rejected."

I wrote to Janet expressing interest in these and other items, and she soon sent along the above photo of her mother, taken in 1983; a 1991 Miami Herald obituary, "Josephine Felker, N.Y. Times crossword puzzle composer"; a 1980 note from Will Weng (see below) about her mother's name; and a copy of the original clipping of her mother's August 27, 1971, daily puzzle, along with the original clues (or "definitions," as they were called then), some of which Weng subsequently edited for publication.  I've posted the obituary and clipping plus clues on Scribd; to see them, click on the links above.

Janet also mentioned that she remembered why her mother had used just her initials when submitting puzzles:

I have a vague memory of my mother explaining that she intentionally used "J.A." as she began submitting crossword puzzles to the NYT because she felt that her puzzles might receive more equitable treatment than if she were to submit under "Josephine."  It's interesting to me that in his note, Will Weng admits that he assumed that J.A. was a male and was "astonished" to learn that she was a female.

Here's the note Weng sent:

Janet also reported that her mother had two large puzzles published by Bantam Books, for which she won cash awards for fourth prize and fifth prize in The Bantam Great Master's Crossword Puzzle Hunt, which was where Janet thought Weng had discovered that "J. A." stood for "Josephine."  She had documents for those two puzzles, along with a folder of six rejected large puzzles, each of which included her mother's clues, as well as a blank and handwritten completed grid.  Several puzzles had Will Weng's memos attached, with an explanation of why he was returning them.

In addition to her regular crosswords, J. A. Felker also had 12 diagramless puzzles published in the Times between 1971 and 1977; Janet sent the note below from Will Weng—addressed to "Mr. Felker"—accepting J. A.'s first diagramless puzzle, which was published on August 29, 1971.

Janet also noted:

I don't know if you are interested in more background on my mother, but she was quite educated (for a woman of her time) and talented in other ways as well.  She earned a bachelor's of art from Carnegie Tech and a master's of art from Penn State College in 1936.  She was quite artistic and continued to sketch and paint through much of my childhood. She was also an accomplished seamstress (her master's thesis was on the history of women's dress) and sewed many of her own and her children's clothes, often designing her own patterns.  A few of the outfits (sewed with fabric from Europe) are now part of the collection for students to study in the Fashion Institute of Salt Lake Community College.  As the Miami Herald article indicates, mom also learned several languages as a result of living abroad (Brazil, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Belgium, Japan, Hong Kong)  due to my father's work, between 1946 and 1972.  She was an avid reader and loved not only doing crossword puzzles but also jigsaw puzzles.

Thanks so much again for writing and telling us about your mother, Janet!  Thanks to this information, we were able to identify one more previously anonymous daily puzzle and to provide an illuminating look not only into one of the rare female constructors of the pre-Shortz era but also into the mind of editor Will Weng!

Warren W. Reich

Photo courtesy of the Times Union

Shortly after my recent post containing an olio of Todd Gross pre-Shortzian constructor research appeared, I received an email from constructor Jim Modney, who wrote that there had been an obituary of Warren W. Reich in his local paper, which you can read here and which also contained the above photo.  Jim noted:

I met Warren once in the early 1980’s, after Eugene Maleska noticed that Warren and I were both in the Albany, NY area.  By that time I had begun my 30 year “hibernation” from crossword constructing, so Warren and I never crossed paths again.

Jim's email was followed by one in early January from crossword historian Todd Gross, who also sent a link to the Times Union obituary and mentioned that he'd received an email from Warren Reich's daughter, who'd said some nice things about her father.  Thanks so much again for letting me know about this, Jim and Todd!

James E. Hinish Jr.

  Photo courtesy of the Williamsburg York-
  town Daily

A few days later, Todd wrote that another pre-Shortzian constructor, James E. Hinish Jr., had died and sent a link to an obituary, which had the above photo and which you can read here.  James published at least 16 puzzles in the pre-Shortz era.

Thanks again, Todd!

Stay tuned for more updates and commentary coming soon!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Interview and Visit with Guido Scarato—and Maleska's Letters

Happy New Year, everyone!  Over winter break I was delighted to receive an email from Will Shortz telling me about another pre-Shortzian constructor who'd resurfaced:  Guido Scarato.

Guido published many puzzles in The New York Times under Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska, but almost all of them appeared without bylines, and many have been misplaced over the years, especially during a move from New York to California.  Guido now lives on the Monterey Peninsula in Pacific Grove, where his family has been since he was 13.  The area, which I've visited many times with my parents over the years, is a short detour from one of the routes we take between Los Angeles and Palo Alto, so it occurred to me that I might actually be able to meet Guido in person on my way back up to Stanford after the break!

I wrote to Guido and introduced myself, and before long we'd set up a time to meet.  I sent him some interview questions in advance, and you can read his responses by clicking here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews tab above.  But the real treat began when we pulled up in front of his house just a few steps away from Monterey Bay.

Guido, who is also a painter and singer, had a long career as an art director for boutique advertising agencies in New York, producing campaigns for clients including Citibank, Pan Am, Nabisco, and many others; his creativity and talent are evident even from the outside of his house, whose colors are unusually vibrant for the area.  You can see a little of that in this photo of us together by his front door:

And here's a painting he did of his house and yard:

When I came inside, I was immediately greeted by his two friendly dachshunds, whom he also painted in this self-portrait:

And taking up almost the entire wall facing the entrance is this triptych of wood panels painted by Rex Clawson in 1985:

Here's an explanation of it:

And below is a closer picture of one of the chairs:

After chatting a bit with Guido and a couple of his friends who'd brought over some delicious cookies, we went into another room filled with art (as was the rest of the house—not to mention the backyard, whose fence he turned into another masterpiece and where he celebrated his 80th birthday with more than 100 friends).  There, Guido showed me his crossword puzzle dictionary, much used and very worn over the years:


First page

Sample pages
We then began discussing Crossword Compiler and other construction software, which Guido had never tried but was fascinated by.  I'd brought along my laptop, so I was able to show him how it worked (and also give him a tour of XWord Info, which amazed him!).  We got so into it that we actually began constructing a puzzle together that we may eventually finish and submit somewhere!

During the course of my several hours there, Guido told me more about his constructing and also showed me some of the letters he still had from Maleska, including the latter's missive to all constructors informing them of a moratorium on puzzle submissions.  I've posted them on Scribd here—highlights include the August 82 [sic], 1988, letter, in which Maleska says Guido owes him 25 cents; the September 23, 1989, letter, at the end of which Maleska asks Guido whether he'd solved a recently published Times puzzle that reminded Maleska of Guido's current submission; and his January 19, 1990, puzzle, in which he chides Guido for "careless defining."

Guido also still has a few of his old puzzles, and one of them—June 19, 1972—was a puzzle previously identified in my database as being by "Unknown."  It was great to be able to put a name to yet another anonymous puzzle.

Before our meeting came to a close, Guido offered to play a CD of his singing in South Pacific.  Guido has an amazing voice and has appeared in numerous musical productions, including The Sound of Music, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma! and many others.

After I left, I was struck by how diverse Guido's interests and accomplishments were.  The pre-Shortzian constructors were (and are) remarkable for the variety and depth of their talents, and I suspect that the same holds true for some of today's constructors as well, though many of us are often too busy to do or talk about much other than crosswords.  There's a wealth and richness to the lives of these early constructors—and a willingness to share their experiences and thoughts—that seems elusive in our increasingly hurried and fragmented existences.

Thanks so much again for our wonderful afternoon, Guido!