Sunday, July 29, 2018

In Memoriam: Mel Rosen, 1941–2018


Another crossword great passed away a few days ago, and his death, though not unexpected, came as a particularly heavy blow.  I had been in touch with him recently about a puzzle he'd submitted to The Puzzle Society Crossword, and when I accepted it, I realized it might end up being his last.  I bumped it up to the soonest date I could, scheduling it for August 7—but that turned out to be too late.

Mel's life and importance to the crossword community has been eulogized elsewhere by others who knew him better than I, most notably Will Shortz.  But I will always think of him as one of the most generous constructors I had the pleasure of interacting with, albeit at a distance, in creating this blog.  He responded at length to the many questions I, a high school sophomore, asked via email about his cruciverbal life; his answers became the 2013 interview that can be read here.  A 2010 L.A. Times Crossword Corner interview by C.C. Burnikel appears here, and a 1994 profile by Alex Vaughn in Crossw_rd Magazine is available on the pspuzzles Scribd site here.

Author of the classic Random House Puzzlemaker's Handbook and former editor of The Crosswords Club, Mel published at least 24 pre-Shortzian puzzles in The New York Times and 14 in the Shortz era.  As editor of the former OCRossword, I published two puzzles by Mel in The Orange County Register.  One was what he called a Dilemma Crossword.  The grid had bars instead of black squares, and it was split into two identically structured 8x15 halves.  Each clue was actually two different clues separated by a slash.  The catch was that the solver had to figure out which answer was to be entered into which half, since the order of the clues was scrambled!  Mel needed to have one entry joining the two halves, and he aptly chose TWO SIDES OF A COIN.  Easily one of the most memorable puzzles I ran in the Register.

Mel's creativity and originality were surpassed only by his character.  Earlier this year, I had approved what would have been the second of his ideas for The Puzzle Society Crossword.  He sent along an initial grid, complete with clues, and I responded by asking him to make a handful of changes.  In his usual positive, cheerful manner, Mel said he'd get to work on a revision.  A few days later, he told me he'd discovered a New York Times puzzle with a similar theme that we'd both overlooked.  Mel didn't want to put me in a pickle, so he dropped the idea altogether, no questions asked.  Considering how much work he'd put into that puzzle, his decision was truly admirable.

The August 7 Puzzle Society Crossword will be the last Mel Rosen puzzle I'll have the honor of publishing.  As per usual with Mel's puzzles, the theme is exceptionally clever, so be sure to mark your calendar!  Thanks so much again, Mel—rest in peace.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

In Memoriam: Maura Jacobson, 1926–2017

Photo copyright 1993, 2018, Megalo 
Media, Inc. Reprinted by permission of 
Stan Chess and CROSSW-RD Magazine.

Very sad news for the start of the new year:  Another crossword legend, Maura Jacobson, recently passed away.  I was on vacation when I first learned of the news on Facebook.  Although I never met Maura, I remember signing a large get well card for her at my first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2012.  She wasn't able to attend that year, and I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to meet her.  Later, I hoped to have a chance to talk to her about crosswords and perhaps interview her for this blog, but by then she was too ill.  For more on Maura, see Will Shortz's moving tribute, "Remembering Maura Jacobson," and this obituary in The Times, or click here and here and scroll down.  Rest in peace, Maura.

Friday, September 22, 2017

In Memoriam: Charles Gersch, Will Weng's Submission Guidelines, Robert Guilbert Update, and More

In Memoriam:  Charles Gersch, 1930–2017


Photo by Don Christensen.

It is with great sadness that I report the recent passing of another crossword great, Charles Gersch.  His son Jonathan, also a Times crossword constructor, contacted me with this news in August.  Charles was the beloved husband of Marianna and devoted father of Alan, Jonathan, and Jennifer.

I was honored to interview Charles four years ago for this blog; he published 47 puzzles in The New York Times and continued his impressive constructing by hand, even after computer software became available.

On August 21, Will Shortz posted the below reminiscence on Cruciverb.com:

Passing of Charles E. Gersch

Jonathan Gersch, the son of Charles E. Gersch, has asked me to post the sad news of his father's passing.

Younger constructors may not know, but Charles was one of the greats in crossword history.  His first puzzle appeared in the old New York Herald Tribune on Feb. 21, 1944, when he was just 13 years 6 months of age.  This made him the youngest known crossword constructor for a major newspaper in history — until that record was broken, narrowly, earlier this year in the Times.

I published 17 of Charles' puzzles between 1994 and 2010.  He had 30 more under my predecessors, going back to 1953, and many more in other venues, including the Herald Tribune, Newsday, Simon & Schuster books, Games magazine, Crossworder's Own Newsletter, etc.

In one memorable 1996 Times puzzle, Charles had GEORGE BURNS and GRACIE ALLEN stacked near the top, OH GOD BOOK II and CENTENARIAN stacked near the bottom, THE SUNSHINE BOYS running across the middle, and CIGAR SMOKER and COMEDY TEAMS reading down, crossing the central entry — all in a pretty solid construction.  That's fancy puzzlemaking.  It ran, appropriately, around Burns' 100th birthday.

David Steinberg published an interview with Charles here (scroll down to Aug. 23, 2013).

My condolences to Jonathan and everyone who knew his father.


—Will Shortz

Although Charles is no longer with us, he and his puzzles will continue to have a celebrated place in crossword history.


Will Weng's Submission Guidelines

This summer while helping Will Shortz with crossword submissions, I came across a page of guidelines for constructors written by none other than former New York Times crossword editor Will Weng!  There were no other pages, but this one was a copy, which Will Shortz let me keep (thanks again, Will!).

"The Crossword Puzzle Information Sheet" (see below) was sent to a constructor and has this handwritten note by Weng at the top:  "Your puzzle looks pretty good.  But— please follow the format."  An arrow points to details on "Mechanics in general" and "Particulars."




Perhaps the most interesting thing about these guidelines is Weng's philosophy on what puzzles should be.  He preferred their difficulty to come from clever clues and lively words and phrases, rather than from obscurity.  This philosophy was ahead of its time and foreshadowed the "new wave" and today's "golden age of crosswords."

Robert Guilbert Update:  The Crossword Puzzle Hall of Fame

Several weeks ago I received an email from Jon Guilbert, whose older brother, Rob, had written to him about following up on previous coverage on their father, Robert, in this blog.  Beginning in 1988, Robert Guilbert spearheaded an effort to create a Crossword Puzzle Hall of Fame.  (For more details, see the posts of November 21, 2014;  December 5, 2014December 19, 2014; and May 22, 2015.)  Jon had written previously about his father in a blog comment, which you can read here, and offered more details about this enterprise and his father's fascinating life:

He was a remarkable man—as are all/most fathers I would think—and this was his last "big project and idea" before his death in October of 1990.  In the [below] photo he can be seen working on a puzzle that he designed as a "Moebius Strip"—an "Infinity Crossword Puzzle"—a puzzle without a beginning and an end. He was going to have this game manufactured and marketed under the name "Pago Pago," I believe.  I also think his work on this crossword game of his was the genesis for his wanting to create an institution recognizing and honoring the "greats" within the crossword world. . . . [O]ur Dad . . . was also the original "Don Winslow of the Navy" playing the lead character in the late 1930s NBC coast-to-coast radio thriller and an advertising executive with J. Walter Thompson.  The luncheon meeting—the first and last of the Institute—was held at the Harvard Club in NYC.  Dad had made a connection with one of the members of the Club, who offered it as a meeting place.  I know Dad was very pleased to have this "blue ribbon" venue [in which] to gather.


Guilbert working on an "Infinity Crossword Puzzle." 

Thanks so much again, Jon and Rob!  I wish I could have met your father.

Joli Quentin Kansil, aka Joel Dennis Gaines:  Another "Unknown" Constructor Found

Recently Will Shortz received an email from Joli Quentin Kansil, who had published six crosswords in the Times during the 1970s under two names:  Joel Dennis Gaines, for the earlier puzzles; and Joli Quentin Kansil, for the later ones.

Will asked Joli for the dates of those puzzles, and with that information, Jim Horne of XWord Info and I were able to add names to some of the previously "Unknown" constructors in our databases.

Joli mentioned that he'd also designed three word games—Knock-on-Word, Montage, and What's My Word—and that Joli's first boss, Albert H. Morehead, was the Times's first bridge editor and an early designer of puns and anagrams puzzles.

We're grateful to Joli for this valuable update and hopeful that more currently anonymous pre-Shortzian constructors surface in the future.

Jim Page's Puzzle Count

Some time ago renowned constructor Jim Page sent me a copy of an email he'd sent to Jeff Chen at XWord Info.  Because there were two pre-Shortzian constructors with the last name of Page—Jim and Christopher—and many bylines in what records we do have list only the constructor's last name, determining which puzzles were built by Jim has been difficult.  (And, as I've often mentioned, thousands of daily puzzles remain anonymous, with no record of their constructors.)  Here's what Jim wrote:

I'm currently working on puzzle number 1,232.  That 1,232 total number includes puzzles published in The New York Times, NY Post, NY Daily News, NY Sun, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Newsday, Chicago Tribune Syndicate, Crossword Puzzle Club, USA Today, Simon & Schuster.  That 1,232 figure includes puzzles accepted for publication, some works in progress and some puzzles rejected.  Some lost to history, as well.

Here's the NY Times breakdown on published puzzles:

Will Weng
19 dailies (uncredited)  2 Sundays (credited)     total        21

Gene Maleska
48 dailies (uncredited)  23 Sundays (credited)   total        71      
Will Shortz
68 dailies (credited)     10 Sundays (credited)    total        78
                                                                                                                                                                                        (170)

He added:

[T]his is as accurate as I'm able to be, give or take some puzzles lost to history.  I've credited myself with 3 Maleska Sunday puzzles that Gene had accepted for publication in the Times and that Shortz rejected upon his appointment as editor. Those 3 puzzles got published elsewhere.

Thanks so much, Jim—at least we have this information now, which is more than what exists on many other pre-Shortzian puzzles whose authors will likely remain anonymous.

More Todd Gross Finds:  Audrey Joy Koch, Bob Lubbers, Melvin Kenworthy, and Robert Doll 

This summer I received an email from crossword constructor and historian Todd Gross informing me of an obituary of Audrey Joy Koch.  Koch passed away in 2011 at the age of 91 and published at least five crosswords in The New York Times.  To read more about Audrey, click here.

A couple of weeks later, Todd found an obituary of cartoonist and New York Times crossword constructor Bob Lubbers, who'd recently passed away.  Lubbers, who published at least one pre-Shortzian puzzle in the Times and four Shortz-era puzzles.  According to this obituary, Bob won an award for the best Sunday crossword in 1995, which was reportedly his first constructing attempt.  This 1995 date, though, may be a mistake, since Lubbers's earliest published puzzle in The Times was published on April 13, 1975, and was his only Sunday publication there.  To read more about Bob, click here.

Todd emailed me again about other finds:  an obituary of Melvin Kenworthy, who published at least 23 pre-Shortzian puzzles in The New York Times; and an obituary of Robert Doll, who published 6 Shortz-era crosswords in the Times.  Todd noted that although Doll passed away in 2011, his final Times puzzle didn't appear until 2013.

Thanks again, Todd, for all this great research!

George Rose Smith

Solver Nick Harvey wrote to me some time ago about George Rose Smith, constructor of at least 10 pre-Shortzian puzzles published in the Times.  Nick had been working his way through the Sunday puzzles from 1969 to the present and noted, "This allows me to watch the evolution of the NYT puzzle unfold as I go through the Weng, Maleska, and early Shortz eras."  He became curious about George Rose Smith and wrote the following:

I had finally thrown in the towel after finishing most of the November 2, 1980, puzzle, "Nickname Dropping," but not being able to get that last themer figured out.  Try this puzzle—it has quite a tricky theme, especially for its time.  Similar "substitution" themes have appeared in the Maleska and early Shortz period of the 80s/90s, but this is one of the earliest, and I would imagine that solvers back in 1980 could have had a lot of trouble with this.  I still appreciate the genius into coming up with this theme, and finding ten examples to work symmetrically into the grid—not an easy thing to do in a time when very few people had access to a computer (and probably not even a VCR or microwave oven—vinyl was still the main format for recorded music).  Weng and Maleska really rolled the dice on trying out some groundbreaking theme ideas on the solving public, and Shortz has of course continued on that tradition.

Anyway, I found this on Mr. Smith.  It turns out that, just like Victor Fleming today, he was a judge in Arkansas.  One wonders if he was the one who got Mr. Fleming into solving (and ultimately constructing) the NYT crossword puzzle.  I can certainly imagine that Justice Smith and Justice Fleming may have been colleagues at one time, serving together for Arkansas's judicial system.

George Rose Smith passed away in 1992, during a period in the early '90s that saw an unusually high number of deaths in the top echelon of puzzlemaking (Luzzatto, Lutwiniak, Maleska, and Weng, to name a few).  I can only hope that the constructors who have moved on from this world, are looking down on me from Heaven and watching me whenever I am working on one of their creations. :-)

Links:




Constructors of the past may be long gone, but they are immortalized by the legacy of their puzzles to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Very interesting stuff, Nick—thanks for sending this, and happy solving!


Judson G. [Gordon] Trent, aka Gordon S. Trick?

A while back I received an email from Julie (Trick) Munsterman, who'd been doing genealogical research and come to the conclusion that pre-Shortzian constructor Judson G. Trent—possibly Judson Gordon Trick/Trent—was her great-uncle.  Julie noted that census documents suggest he was born Gordon S. Trick, which might explain some of the difficulty in tracking down his history online.  She added that Trick's father was a Presbyterian minister and suggested that this could explain the theological studies.

Thanks for this genealogical sleuthing, Julie—this seems like an especially "tricky" trail!

Wrap-up

That does it for the time being, since school is about to start up again.  But I do have some other interesting things to go through that I hope to write about at some point in the future!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Stan Newman Finds William Lutwiniak NSA Interview; Constructor Regina M. Heil Identified

Stan Newman Finds William Lutwiniak NSA Interview

Some time ago I received an email from Newsday crossword editor Stan Newman, who'd discovered a long piece about William Lutwiniak, one of the most prolific New York Times crossword constructors ever.  Lutwiniak, a former cryptologist for the National Security Agency (NSA), published at least 304 pre-Shortz puzzles in The Times, which are available here on XWord Info.  Stan's find is a long, formerly top-secret but now declassified interview by Robert Farley of the NSA on October 18, 1981.  Here's Lutwiniak discussing his background:


To read the full interview, click here.  (And for more on William Lutwiniak, see other links on this blog, including on the Pre-Shortzian Constructors pagethis CROSSW_RD Magazine profile by Helene Hovanec; and, as Stan suggested, links that come up when Googling "Lutwiniak NSA," such as this Wikipedia entry.)  Thanks so much again, Stan, for this great discovery!

Constructor Regina M. Heil Identified


Regina M. Heil. Photo courtesy of Bill Heil.

In mid-April, Thomas Heil emailed The New York Times about his mother, Regina M. Heil, who'd built a daily crossword puzzle edited by Will Weng.  The puzzle was published on January 29, 1973.  Tom wondered whether The Times had a copy in its archives or wanted one for its files.

The email made its way to Times crossword editor Will Shortz, who sent Tom a copy of the puzzle, which our records at the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project (and now on XWord Info) had previously listed as being by "Unknown."  Tom confirmed that this was indeed the puzzle his mother had constructed; he also mentioned that he recalled her having submitted two other puzzles to Will Weng before this one was published.  "Mr. Weng put my mother through Goldilocks editing," Tom noted.  "The first puzzle was too hard, the second too easy and the third was just right."  She received $10 for the puzzle.  Tom added that his mother "never missed a day of the puzzle, all while raising nine kids.  She was pretty amazing."  At the time, she lived on Thomas Road in Wayne, Penn.

Will suggested that Tom send a headshot of his mother, if he had one, to Jim Horne at XWord Info so it could appear with her puzzle.  I emailed Tom too asking if we could write about her on this blog and encouraging him to send along any further information or photos.

I then received an email from Bill Heil, Tom's brother, along with this photo and the one above:

Regina M. Heil. Photo courtesy of Bill Heil.

Bill wrote that their sister, Mary Colleen, had reiterated Tom's "Goldilocks" comment.  In a follow-up email, Bill reported that he'd asked Regina's 81-year-old brother, Brian Torsney, for more information, and Brian had written:

My father used to sit in the den and do the NY Times Sunday puzzle.  My father could do at least 3/4's of the puzzle and when he was stumped, he would get your mother and I to brainstorm.  I still do the NY Times crossword puzzles.  They appear in the Desert Sun (the Palm Springs paper) daily and Sunday. I can complete the Sunday puzzle in one sitting about 1/2 the time, and completely at least 90% of the time. I run into trouble when they use rap music stars, current movie/TV stars or new movies as clues.

And Tom, who'd originally contacted The Times, added:

Did I mention that I also do the puzzles every day but Sunday. Sundays Bobbie [Ed.: Tom's wife], who does at least a puzzle a day, and I work on the puzzle together. It's good for the marriage — 28 years now.

Thanks so much again, Tom, Bill, Mary Colleen, and Brian, for helping us identify and get to know the long-lost constructor of this puzzle!  It's also wonderful to see how an interest in puzzles was passed down over three generations—from Regina's father, to Regina and Brian, to Tom himself.