Thursday, July 4, 2019

Alfio Micci, Virtuoso Violinist and Constructor

Happy Fourth of July!  To celebrate, here are two wonderful new reminiscences of Alfio Micci, a virtuoso violinist and constructor whom I've written about several times before.  For many years, Alfio played in the First Violin Section of the New York Philharmonic; he also published at least 91 Times crosswords in the pre-Shortz era and 11 under Will Shortz's editorship.

Alfio Micci

In early May this year, the following comment appeared on this blog beneath the December 22, 2012, post containing Al Weeks's tribute to Alfio:

Hello! I'm Alfio's grandson, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate reading this article. I think Alfio's approach to writing puzzles connects to his whole personality. He was the most loving grandpa a boy could hope for, and he supported his family unceasingly. I remember the off-white plastic frame he used to construct puzzles and the bookshelf of reference materials he used to solve them (including the first copy of Ulysses I ever saw). Also, few know this but he wrote lyrics (Grandma wrote music) to a musical for the local school to perform entitled "Bearin' Camp." It was about a bear in a camp. The artistic and intellectual legacy lives on with me and my son, Lennon.

I was thrilled to see the comment and asked the anonymous author to contact me if he'd be willing to be interviewed for the blog.  A few weeks later, I received a response from Christian Recca, who said he was interested and mentioned that his uncles, Alfio's sons, might be as well.  There was a brief delay in getting the interview under way while I was finishing school, but shortly after graduation, I sent Christian a list of questions.  His answers are below.  One of Christian's uncles, Ronald (Ron) Micci, was also interested, and he sent his reminiscences too, along with the photos that appear below.

Interview with Christian Recca, Alfio Micci's Grandson

What was Alfio's early life like?

Alfio was born in America but emigrated to his family's homeland of Italy for a few years, then returned to America when he was very young—less than five, I'm guessing.

Were there any signs in his youth that he would become a musician and crossword constructor?

I'm not sure what sparked his interest in music (one of many questions I'd like to ask the man himself), but by the time he was a teenager he was supposedly practicing an impressive number of hours a day.  At this time, he lived in Chicago Heights.  He also had an avid interest in theatre, even aspiring to be a playwright at one point (he envied the life of being able to lounge around in your PJs and write as much or as little as you felt like—how many lived that life, I don't know).

Many musicians and crossword constructors have a talent for and interest in math and/or engineering.  Was this true for Alfio, and if so, how?

I'm not sure how Gramps did in school, but our whole family is very intelligent, so I don't doubt it.

Alfio's puzzles suggest he had a great sense of humor—was that the case, and do you have any memories of him that speak to that?

Yes, Gramps had a great sense of humor!  We used to spend a lot of time in the ol' backyard pool, and he would deliver a lot of one-liners.  One of his was, "It's a wonderful day for an auto-da-fe."  I had no idea what that meant at the time.  If you don't know, I won't spoil it.  A quick Google search will be worth the time.  "What's black and white and read all over?" was a favorite riddle.  I also recall we played a lot of that party game called "Ghost," sort of an oral crossword puzzle in itself.

Alfio reportedly disliked puzzle-editing styles that involved stumping and frustrating solvers with obscure trivia.  What might he think of today's puzzles, which, within the constraints grids sometimes impose, focus much more on accessible clues and entries?

Given my knowledge of Gramps' musical opinions, I'm thinking he probably would have felt that increased accessibility led to a "dumbing down" of the crossword genre.  That said, he was also very interested in teaching the new generation to love music and language, so who knows?  His grumpiness may have been a product of advanced age.

Many of today's puzzle editors also eschew "politically incorrect" or "triggering" entries, such as GAL FRIDAY or NAZI; sometimes doing so means rejecting an otherwise excellent puzzle.  What might Alfio's views on this have been—would he, for instance, have viewed such entries as part of our cultural and/or historical past and, therefore, as fair game for inclusion in puzzles?

Well, I'm not sure about that one.  Gramps was more progressive than others of his generation:  He respected Dr. Kevorkian and was friends with plenty of gay men.  That said, he was also sort of old-fashioned in his view of racism/sexism/homophobia.  That is, while he condemned overt expressions of hate and promoted equality generally, his view of these issues was limited.  Today, we see the importance of microaggressions and systemic racism.  He may have been impatient with those claims, I'm not sure.  So, all in all, I think he would have thought it was a shame that a whole puzzle would be rejected for one or two "inappropriate" answers.  And yeah, he would find it harmless to have "Gal Friday" as an answer.

Is there anything else you remember or would like to say about Alfio's life, career, and/or puzzle constructing?

Gramps loved his family so dearly, and he put his money where his mouth was—literally and figuratively.  His kids fell on hard times, and he took them in.  His daughter wasn't the best  at housekeeping, so he would come over and clean up.  When she needed to go out of town, he came over and watched us.

He kept up the theatrical pursuits and even collaborated on a musical for his kids' school called "Bearin' Camp" (note the pun).

Reminiscences of Ronald Micci, Alfio Micci's Son

    First, I've attached a number of photographs of Dad, including an interview he did for the South Bergenite in Rutherford a year or two before he passed away [Ed.: see below].
    He was a very humble, self-effacing person, and many of the things I learned about him were only revealed later in his life.  He was rather secretive, would never have bragged about them and been forthcoming without being asked.
     He was born March 3, 1918, in Chicago Heights.  He and his mother attended the opera, but he was the only one in his family with musical talent.  His sister, Eda, was not musical.  His mother was a seamstress; his father was a factory worker.  His father was very rotund and remote and his English was still somewhat shaky in his 80s.  His mother (Rose Pirani—Pirani from the Pyrenees) was the sweetest, dearest woman, an absolutely wonderful cook, and remained active well into her old age.  I believe his father hailed from Ancona on the Adriatic, albeit my own 23andMe profile identified about half a dozen Italian areas of origin.
     My father began violin studies at the age of eleven, and within two years he was giving recitals.
     He was the valedictorian of his high school class (Bloom Township High School), earned a full scholarship to the Eastman School of Music.  I understand he was also offered a scholarship in drama to a college in Illinois, though I don't know any of the particulars of his dramatic background in high school.  I know there is a plaque in his high school celebrating notable Bloom High graduates.  The only reason I know this is that a woman accosted me at his wake, said she had gone to his school with him, and that such a plaque existed.
    He was also valedictorian of his Eastman class.  And he earned a master's degree from Eastman as well.  (I actually still have his thesis somewhere in the closet.)

Honorary Music Symphony at Eastman,
1940 (image courtesy of Ronald Micci)

    He was concertmaster of the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra (this I'm gleaning from his college yearbook photos, attached) and of the Little Symphony.

Eastman School yearbook, 1940 (image courtesy of
Ronald Micci)

Eastman School Symphony Orchestra, 1941 (image courtesy
of Ronald Micci)

    He also played with the Rochester Philharmonic, a paid gig.  (Doriot Anthony, who later became the first flutist with the Boston Symphony, is also somewhere in the photo.  They knew each other from Eastman.  Ironically, they were both from Illinois but she was a few years younger, so they had not crossed paths before.)

Alfio and Martha Micci (image
courtesy of Ronald Micci)

Alfio and Martha Micci's wedding day (image courtesy of
Ronald Micci)

Alfio and Martha Micci (images courtesy of Ronald Micci)

    During the war he was a soloist with the Navy Band in Washington, D.C.
    He came to New York, played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, then auditioned for the New York Philharmonic.  There were two openings, and about two hundred people auditioned for them.  He spent thirty-one years with the Philharmonic, including the Bernstein years, and rose to the third stand of the first violins.  (Bernstein complimented him at some point on his sight-reading ability.  I only know this through my mother.)


    After he retired, he played for several jingle companies in Manhattan, and on occasional movie scores.  (Indeed, my brother and I still receive a very small amount of yearly royalties from his movie gigs from the Film Musicians Union in California.)
    Yes, he had a great passion for solving and constructing crossword puzzles.  Up until a few days before he passed away, he was still sitting upright in bed with a little clipboard solving them.  His mind, I'm happy to say, was very sharp up until the end.
     He was really a dear person, and every time I would criticize something or someone, he would retort, "He only says nice things about you."
     My father played a Joseph Gagliano violin (Naples 1784).

Images courtesy of Ronald Micci and South Bergenite.

Thanks so much again, Christian, for contacting me about your grandfather and shedding new light on his life and thoughts.  And thanks so much too, Ron, for your illuminating reminiscences and photos of your father's amazing life!

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!