Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews

[Scroll down to read earlier interviews.]

(July 25, 2019)

What got you interested in constructing crosswords, and when did you start?

My interest in crossword construction began when I saw Mel Taub making one in a Brooklyn poolroom.  He explained how he went about it, and I went home, made one in a few days, and submitted it to The New York Times.

According to records on XWord Info, your first puzzle was published by The New York Times on August 3, 1955, when Margaret Farrar was editor.  Was that your first puzzle published anywhere, and how long was it before your first puzzle was accepted by The Times?

Margaret Farrar rejected it, with an encouraging note.  My next attempt also failed, but the third one was accepted.  Memory tells me the year was 1950, but you say XWord Info pegs it as 1955.  It may have been 1955 when my first Sunday puzzle ran in The New York Times.  After that, The New York Times ran my efforts fairly regularly, and I branched out to the New York Herald Tribune.

You published at least 108 puzzles during the pre-Shortz era in The Times.  There's a gap of eight years or so, though, between October 1967 and September 1975, for much of Will Weng's editorship.  Did you stop constructing altogether during that period, or were there puzzles published then that we weren't able to identify in our records?

The eight-year gap you refer to when I wasn't making puzzles was caused by a busy schedule as a magazine editor while simultaneously pursuing my Master's studies.  After I got my degree, more years passed as I devoted time to editing, writing, and being a husband/father.  (Incidentally, my son, Keith, had a puzzle published in The New York Times when he was 14, although Will Shortz can find no record of this event.)

What was it like being a constructor in the Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska days?  In your experience, what were each of them like as editors, and did they make many changes to your grids, fills, or clues?

Constructing for Margaret was a pleasure, because she helped me improve my constructing skills while we maintained a "friendship" with crosswords as the theme.  Will Weng was easy to construct for, always accepting all my efforts and occasionally assigning a specific puzzle for The New York Times or some other market.  Also, we enjoyed walking in the city, discussing puzzles, other constructors, etc.  All three editors deserve praise for being simultaneously demanding but fair.  My shortcoming was cluing, so their changes in this regard were welcome and invariably superior to my clues.  (John Samson does the same with the clues in my puzzles he runs in the Simon & Schuster Mega books.)  Each New York Times editor had—in my opinion—strengths and weaknesses, but I wouldn't presume to rate one over the others.

Maleska was famous for his rejection letters.  If you received any, were they memorable?

Gene Maleska never rejected any puzzles, nor did he negatively criticize my puzzles.  He also had me make puzzles for children's magazines he edited.

You've published 29 New York Times crosswords in the Shortz era, with your last one appearing on September 15, 2009.

The last puzzle I had in The New York Times was by request, when Will Shortz included me among five constructors with a history of 50-plus years of publishing in The New York Times.

You mentioned that your wife, Fran, with whom you collaborated on puzzles for other markets, shared a byline with you in The Times, with 25 Shortz-era puzzles credited to you and her as co-constructors, though the puzzles were actually constructed entirely by you.

A number of puzzles with her byline appeared in The New York Times, all of them made by me but credited to her for business reasons.  At this time I was coauthoring puzzles with my wife, Fran, for People magazine.  (She did the research; I did the rest.)  When Fran died in 2015, I chose not to continue my association with People, devoting my efforts to books and magazines.  Apart from the work I did with my wife, during the 1980s and '90s I managed to sneak in a few puzzle books:  two Challenger Crossword Puzzles, published by Simon & Schuster, and The World's Craziest Crossword Puzzles, published by Dell.  This all came to an end when I moved from New Jersey to New York City.  The only puzzles I make now are for the New York Philharmonic newsletter.  (I'm a volunteer for the Philharmonic, selling books on concert days.)

You and your wife also wrote many books that weren't about puzzles.

We cowrote more than 100 books for various publishers, and many magazine articles, covering a variety of subjects, from science and sports, to nature, history, pets, etc.  In addition, my wife and I wrote a series of 100 biographies for Troll Publishing.  Aside from those, a number of our books were published by Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, Random House, G. P. Putnam's Sons, David McKay Publications, and others.  All told, either together or separately, we published approximately 250 books.

Out of the many crosswords you've constructed, do you have a favorite?

I don't recall any of my puzzles as a favorite.

What's your favorite puzzle of all time (constructed by someone else)?

The puzzlers I admired most were 1) Maura Jacobson, for her puzzles in New York Magazine, and 2) Mel Taub, for his puns and anagrams crosswords.

Have you used construction software, and if so, what do you think of it?

Constructing with software is immensely easier than doing so by hand, although I'd never use fill-in shortcuts.

Do you still solve crosswords?

I haven't solved puzzles for, at least, the past 10–15 years.

What advice do you have for new crossword constructors?

I'd not presume to advise neophyte or veteran constructors.

Other than crosswords, what are some of your other interests?

Crossword constructing and solving are of the past.  I now devote time to tending to my real estate holdings; attending, with my partner, Rosa, theater productions and musical events from jazz to classical to opera to popular; and reading.  We live near Lincoln Center, so we attend plays, concerts, and such year-round.  In addition to volunteering at Lincoln Center, I am a member of a group that tutors foreign students in English as a second language.

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(December 29, 2015, and January 2, 15, and 16, 2016)

How did you become interested in crossword construction?

It is rather humorous as to how I became interested in crossword puzzles.  One of the guys I worked with used to solve the Times crossword every day.  I saw him doing this and became intrigued, so I decided to try building one myself.  The guy told me my puzzle wasn't bad, so I sent it off to Margaret Farrar at the Times, and about a week later it appeared in the paper!  Nobody told me it had been accepted—it just showed up there.  Then I got a check—I think for $7.  Later I think the pay went up to $15.

Are you also a serious crossword solver?  If so, which puzzles do you do on a regular basis?

I do the local Monterey Herald puzzle (simple but fun), The New York Times every day, Los Angeles Times every Sunday, and The Week magazine every Friday.  Otherwise, whenever I see a puzzle anywhere, I do it.

You published under Farrar, Weng, and Maleska.  What were the stylistic differences between these three editors, and what was it like working with each editor?

Farrar was so long ago—not much memory of it.  However, she published my very first attempt.  She never communicated with me about my puzzles—she just published them, and then I'd receive the checks.  It was different with the other editors.  Weng was funny and said he would take the Sunday puzzle if I changed a small section for one wrong word, and it took me longer to correct it than it did to do the whole puzzle.  Maleska was fun too.  He would write me a letter personally chewing me out for my simple mistakes, but he at least put me in quite a few Simon & Schuster books.

How many crosswords would you estimate you've published in The New York Times?

I really can't give an estimate on the number of Times puzzles, but at the beginning, with Farrar, they appeared quite often.  In those days they never notified you when they appeared.  I just found them randomly, as I did them.

What do you think defines a good crossword puzzle, and how has your opinion on this matter changed over time?

I prefer the old style rather than all the tricky gimmicks in today's New York Times.  At 82 I guess I haven't caught up with the times.  I liked the plain old puzzles, I seldom used any other source for inspiration than just an old beat-up dictionary.

Of all the puzzles you've constructed, do you have a favorite?  If so, which one, and why?

My favorite of mine is the Weng Sunday puzzle ["Time Piece," September 12, 1971], for obvious reasons.

Which constructors (past or present) do you most admire, and why?

I guess it would be Weng and Maleska, because there was a lot of communication with them, and [as editors] they tried to advise me on the mistakes I made in constructions.

Do you still construct puzzles by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

I still do them by hand, and I stink at using the computer and iPhone, which I just last year got for the first time.

What are your thoughts on computer-assisted crossword constructing?

I wouldn't know the first thing about how to do computer software—that takes out all the fun for me.  [Ed.:  After our meeting, Guido wrote:  When I think of all the hours I wasted trying to do everything by hand and then seeing you whiz through constructing puzzles, I was really astounded.  I don't  know if I could compete with you young guys at this point, and it scares me—I'm afraid I'd go nuts, loco, or bats trying to learn a new computerized way of constructing after all those years of using "my brain" to do them.]

If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only use three references (print or electronic) to construct crosswords, what would they be?

I would prefer print on the desert island.  I actually constructed a puzzle on a flight from New York to Pacific Grove with nothing other than my brain for help in doing it.

What do you think the future of crosswords looks like?

At my age I don't look too far into the future for crosswords other than I'm sure you will still be a major influence in them.

Do you have any other crossword recollections?

I became a contestant on Wheel of Fortune pretty much because I told the interviewer about my puzzlemaking for the Times, and they called me the next day to be on the show.  I think it was because they thought I would be able to unseat their current contestant who kept winning.  In those days you played until you reached five games in a row; unfortunately, I gave a wrong letter, and she went on to win a total of over $120,000.

I was also a contestant on Concentration (with Hugh Downs), To Tell the Truth (with Peggy Cass, Nipsy Russell, Arlene Francis, etc.), and The Money Maze (with George Clooney's father, Nick).  I also passed the test for Jeopardy! but the female judge commented that "only the stars are allowed to wear tinted glasses," as if I didn't have clear ones at home.  I used to say that if I got on a couple of other shows I'd try to write a book on how to get on game shows—LOL!

What are some of your other interests/hobbies?

Other interests include portrait oil painting and seascapes.  I sang with the Monterey Opera when I first moved California.  I also sang in local musicals, mostly Broadway.  I love to entertain—parties and dinners at home—deliver Meals on Wheels, and do gardening.  Also, my cousin and I are great Scrabble lovers, and we play for hours at a time.

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(December 27, 2015)

According to my (incomplete) records, your Times publications include 28 pre-Shortzian puzzles.  Are there any others?

I do not think there are any additional Times puzzles.  There are numerous others.  About 50 puzzles (a selection from American Laboratory and American Biotechnology Laboratory were published by International Scientific Communications, Inc., in 1989.  They might be able to send you this book that is called Scientific Crossword Puzzle Book, if any still exist.  They require written permission to reproduce.

Also, whenever Eugene Maleska felt that my submission was not up to snuff for the Times, he automatically shifted it over to the Simon & Schuster crossword puzzle books, so very many of my puzzles are contained in multiple issues of these books—I do not have a record of them and would have to rummage through some boxes to find the books, but there is no guarantee that I have the complete collection.  Also, many puzzles were published in ACS [American Chemical Society] magazines like SciQuest and CHEMTECH—now defunct.

It's great that you were able to combine your career (chemistry) with your hobby (crosswords) by building chemistry-related puzzles.  How were these more technical puzzles received?

The technical puzzles were very well received, but I kept getting more and more requests for them, so much so that my hobby ceased to be a hobby because of stringent deadlines—so I quit making puzzles altogether and took up another hobby.

Do you ever regret not pursuing Latin further?

No—I knew what I needed to know and used it for many other projects, not just crossword puzzles.  Latin was the most useful subject that I ever studied in school.

You've gone from building puzzles by hand to using computer software to help build puzzles.  What are the plusses and minuses of each for you?

As long as the software did what I wanted it to do, it was all plus.

Can you explain the software you developed to help with the crosswords you built?

We had in our lab a device called an x-y plotter.  By entering the required code, one could have the plotter do simple graphics, and crossword puzzle grids are simple graphics.  I taught myself how to write the code, and it was so much easier to print out the grids, numbers and all, and when prompted, also the solutions.  However, in the construction of the original puzzle, I always used simple graph paper and constructed by hand.  It was only when the puzzle was done that I coded it into the x-y plotter for the editor.

Relatively few crossword constructors are female.  Why do you think that is?

I have no idea.  I've always admired the puzzles of Kathryn Righter (the only other constructor that I ever met in person), Maura B. Jacobson, and others.

Do you read today's crossword blogs, and if so, what do you think of them?


If you had to pick one of your puzzles as a favorite, which one would it be and why?

I think my first Sunday Times puzzle [Ed.:  September 16, 1979], simply because it was a breakthrough.

Do you still construct crosswords for the general public, or are all your puzzles scientific/educational at this point?  If the latter, do you think you'll start making mainstream crosswords again?

I don't construct anymore.  I have another hobby.

Is your new hobby related to words?

My present hobby is languages.  Since dropping puzzles, I've taken up languages and have learned Italian, German, Hebrew and French.  However, since I don't use the Hebrew very much and since it has a different alphabet, I've pretty much abandoned it.  I have, as a hobby, translated books from Italian into English, and I am now working on translating a book from German into English.  So boredom is not a quality that has visited my psyche.

[Ed.:  For a fascinating article by Mary Virginia Orna about crossword construction, see her "Always a Cross(ed) Word."]

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(January 2, 2015)

How did you get started constructing crosswords?

I became interested in crosswords after college, back in my bachelor days while attending graduate school.  I decided to try my hand at constructing one.  My first couple of efforts were atrocious, but I submitted them and received handwritten replies from Eugene Maleska, so that was exciting, and at least he wasn’t discouraging me.  And I was thrilled when my third attempt was actually accepted!  It had the entry CATCH-TWENTY-TWO in it, one of my favorite books, and I even mailed it to the author, Joseph Heller, and received a nice reply from him, so that was another bonus.  That was a long time ago—I see in my acceptance letter that Mr. Maleska said, “Please give me proof of ORC as a Tolkien creature.”  The acceptance spurred me to continue constructing, although looking back I see that those first puzzles were really of painfully poor quality.  One of my early puzzles actually had the entry UNSEL, which I thought was how Wes Unseld, a then-famous basketball player, spelled his name.  Mr. Maleska really castigated me for that one, although he was usually very supportive and helpful.

Did you inspire your sister to start constructing as well?

Yes, when my sister Elie saw that I was able to get published, she made the proper a fortiori argument and did it herself.  She had two puzzles in the Times.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

One of the main things I learned from Mr. Maleska’s editing was the importance of cluing.  When I first started constructing, the cluing was the easiest part—I’d just race down the list of words, writing dictionary definitions.  Mr. Maleska would have to “punch up” the clues.  I remember once solving a very challenging and satisfying Saturday puzzle, and when I looked at the answer grid on Monday, I noticed that the filled-in grid itself wasn’t remarkable at all and that what had made the puzzle so enjoyable was the clues, so from then on I spent more time on the clues than on the grid.  He also constantly stressed the importance of fresh new themes and avoiding boring or strained fill.  Luckily for me he wasn’t too selective about which puzzles would be accepted.  He was a great bridge between the beginning of crosswords and today’s modern puzzles.

Your Maleska puzzles ran under the byline “I. Judah Koolyk, but your e-mail name is Judah Koolyk.  What happened to the I.?

Haha, my first name is actually “Israel,” but I’ve always been called by my middle name.  Having consecutive alphabetical initials has always been a great source of pride!

Do you still construct and/or solve crosswords, or did you stop after the Maleska era?

I did stop constructing puzzles at about the end of the Maleska era.  I got married in 1982, and by 1991 five of my six children had been born.  It turns out that children are even more fun than crossword puzzles!  I’ve always enjoyed solving puzzles occasionally, but recently I’ve signed up for online access to the Times puzzle archive, and I’ve been doing all the puzzles in reverse chronological order.  Amazing puzzles!  I see that puzzles nowadays are light-years ahead of the old puzzles, and I feel like an old NBA player from the 1940s looking at today’s athletes in awe.

Thats fascinating that youre working through the Times puzzles in reverse chronological order—are you tackling every single puzzle?

I started going backwards through the Times archives, and I’m up to March 2013, so that’s been really fun.  I don’t bother with Monday and Tuesday puzzles, though.  (I do the current Mondays and Tuesday puzzles—I just skip them as I’m going back through the archive.  Love that archive!)  I can’t believe how good the puzzles have become since my days.  So many long words next to each other.  I wonder if the software helps with that.  And the clues are so challenging.  I love going through all the clues and hardly knowing a single answer, and fifteen minutes later the whole thing is pretty much filled in.  And they’re consistently like that.  I sometimes look at Rex Parker’s blog; he’s always complaining about the poor “fill.”  Even when there’s an amazing grid, a real work of art, he complains about a couple of mundane four-letter words, so that amuses me.  I’d hate to think what he’d say about one of my old puzzles!

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

I’ve always liked cryptic puzzles, so those are probably my favorites.  I once wrote a puzzle I really liked in which some of the entries were entered upside down, but Mr. Maleska thought it would be too difficult for the average solver.  One of my puzzles was called “Double or Nothing,” and the theme answers were entered two letters in a box alternating with an empty box.  Probably even my best themes are tame by today’s standards.

Did you consider submitting Double or Nothing too?  It sounds really interesting!

I remember submitting my “Double or Nothing” puzzle to Will Weng, who used it in his Crosswords Club, if I remember correctly.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the “Double or Nothing” puzzle.  It’s probably just as well, because now I can look back on it with fondness and not be confronted with a disappointing reality.  I did find letters from Will Weng in which he said he would publish it in March, and the letter is postmarked in September.  I can’t read the year, but I think it’s 1985.  I guess at first he wanted me to make a change in the numbering system, so I made the change and resubmitted, and he accepted it.  I seem to remember actually getting a fan letter for that puzzle in which the puzzle was included, so I’ll give the search one more try, but I’m not holding out much hope.

Will Weng letter to Judah Koolyk
Another Will Weng letter to Judah Koolyk

What’s your favorite puzzle constructed by someone other than yourself?

I don’t know, but it was definitely written by David Steinberg.

How do you feel about crossword construction software?

I’ve never used crossword construction software.  I had a couple of books that listed words of various lengths in different ways alphabetically, and they got so much use that I eventually had to replace them, as well as more than one dictionary.

How do you feel about the direction crosswords are headed in nowadays (using more risqué entries, brand names, pop culture, etc.)?

As I said, crosswords today are spectacular!  Amazing grids that I would never even have dared to attempt.  Fascinating, imaginative clues.  I’m really in awe.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I’m a computer programmer by trade.  I spend much of my free time immersed in Jewish studies, and every day at 5 a.m.  I learn “daf yomi,” two words that might be interesting if placed in a puzzle.  I’m also the editor-in-chief of Grab a Newspaper, a weekly family newspaper that will celebrate its seventh anniversary this Friday [December 19, 2014] if I can just get everybody to write an article!  I’ve actually written a couple of crosswords for Grab a Newspaper, including what may be the most remarkable puzzle ever published:  a 15x15 puzzle with no black squares!  [Ed.:  See puzzle and its solution below.]  Of course, pretty much all the Down answers looked like nonsense, although they were actually valid, being titles from the articles in that very edition.  I’ve attached the Grab a Newspaper issue that contained the puzzle.  [Ed.:  To read the issue on Scribd, click here.]  You’ll notice that many of the articles are titles with whatever I needed going down in the puzzle.  It was just a lame joke, I suppose.  Many of the Across answers relate either to journalism or specifically to our family.  For instance, 1-Across is EITAN JOEL NEUGUT, my nephew.  I’ve also attached another puzzle that was in our 243rd edition.  [Ed.:  To see the puzzle on Scribd, click here; to see the solution, click here.]

No black squares puzzle
No black squares solution

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by Todd Gross
(December 12, 2014)

Jane at the time she was constructing, with a crossword nearby.

Can you give us a brief personal history (major milestones/events, career, family)?

I am an inactive member of the Ohio and Georgia Bars and a graduate of Kenyon College and Tulane Law School.  Over the years, I have been involved in community service and philanthropic projects.  Junior League committees that I served on produced the True Grits cookbook and LAWS, a women’s guide to Georgia law.  For my family and friends and hopefully generations to come, I wrote a cookbook to preserve my late mother’s delicious recipes and our family’s history.

Cookies from Janes cookbook.

Coconut Islands recipe.

I have two wonderful daughters.  The older is an associate director of a management consulting company specializing in strategic planning for the high tech industry, and my younger daughter is a school psychologist at a high school who is married to a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.  My husband of 36 years is a financial advisor and investor.  Despite my best efforts, I could not get any of them interested in the world of crossword puzzles.  I think they find it quirky.  To quote my husband, “I guess having a puzzle published in The New York Times is some sort of accomplishment, but it leaves me cold.  I like your cookbook far better.”  It is a sentiment probably shared by my girls.

What inspired you to become a crossword constructor, and when did you submit your first puzzle for publication?

My parents, long-time solvers, got me interested in crosswords.  I had been regularly doing puzzles in the Times and GAMES magazine for a number of years.  After reading Mr. Maleska's Across and Down and A Pleasure in Words, I was inspired to try my hand at construction.  I was a full-time homemaker, and mother of toddlers, in dire need of intellectual stimulation, so for my first effort, I chose a theme I could identify with—“Diary of a Mad Housewife.”  I sent it off to The New York Times in late summer of 1988 with little to no expectation of a response, therefore failing to include a cover letter.

Janes parents, who got her interested in crosswords—and cookies.

How long before your first puzzle was accepted?

I was elated to receive a handwritten response from Eugene Maleska.  He began with, “You amaze me!  Every week I receive about five puzzles from newcomers who violate almost every rule in the book.  Then along comes a full-blown blossom from a Flowerree in Atlanta, and I am mystified.  It’s excellent!”  He went on to ask me a number of background questions since he “was once fooled by a plagiarizer and I must be wary.”  I replied immediately and I guess he liked my answers enough to invite me to become a regular contributor a week later.  That puzzle appeared in the daily Times (sans constructor byline) four months later [December 19, 1988].

Letter from Eugene T. Maleska dated April 22, 1991.

What editors did you work with, and what was your experience interacting/working with them?

The only editor I ever worked with was Mr. Maleska.  I held him in the highest esteem and regret that I never met him.  We regularly corresponded over the course of four years, and his letters were always warm and supportive.  Most letters would include a request for more crosswords in specific sizes, especially for his Simon & Schuster books.  I’m afraid I was a rather slow constructor and not as productive as he would have liked.  He was a very kind man and showed an interest in my family, such as remembering my older daughter’s name and suggesting a book for her.  I told him I wrote the daily “Terms of Endearment” puzzle [February 14, 1990] for my mother, who had a Valentine’s Day birthday, and he scheduled it for publication on that date as a special gift to her.  I often included my family’s names and nicknames in puzzles, and he seemed to be fine with that.  I wrote my puzzles in the days before the Internet, and Mr. Maleska always expected a citation for any questionable word or phrase.  I used the word AMUSS, which I knew I had heard (at least in the South), as in “my hair is all amuss.”  Mr. Maleska called me out on this one, and I could not find it in any of my many dictionaries, so I had to change a couple of minor words in the grid.  Fast forward to the world of 2014 . . . I typed AMUSS into Google, and lots of hits came up dating back to at least the early 1900s.  Oh, well!  The last puzzle I submitted to him was for the Sunday Times in May of 1992.  He wrote back, “Your ‘foods’ puzzle is excellent!  I wish I could publish it next Sunday, but unfortunately that action wouldn’t be fair to other solvers (sic).  Since I have scores of 21’s in my TIMES files the waiting period is a few years.”  He continued on, suggesting alternative titles for my “Food for Thought” (which he found hackneyed) crossword and asking my opinion on that as well as some other ideas.  I kept looking for it to appear in the Times until one day in 1995 I received an envelope with my puzzle enclosed and a form letter from Will Shortz saying it wasn’t up to his “own standards and tastes as editor.”  While I have written some puzzles since then, I never again submitted them to any publication, including the Times.  It was one of the greatest honors of my life to have Mr. Maleska appreciate and promote my efforts.

Do you still solve and/or construct crosswords?

I still solve the New York Times crossword every morning, along with the Friday crossword in The Wall Street Journal.  I especially enjoy the cryptic and puns and anagrams puzzles when they appear in the Sunday Times Magazine.  The weekend variety puzzles in the Journal are fun and often a little more challenging to solve.  It has been several years since I last constructed a crossword at someone’s request for a special occasion.

Do you have a favorite puzzle you constructed?  If so, which one, and why is it your favorite?

“Missed Connections” (New York Times, Sunday, April 14, 1991) was my favorite, because I thought the trick to solving it was amusing.  Apparently, however, not everyone was amused.  Mr. Maleska received about a dozen letters in response to the puzzle, which he forwarded to me along with a letter saying “complimentary messages are rare.  It’s human nature to send complaints often and kudos seldom.”  Much of the correspondence was surprisingly vituperative hate mail towards him and me, but a few people wrote saying it was one of the best puzzles ever.  “Before and After,” which appeared in a Simon & Schuster crossword book, was also a personal favorite, because it was fun and much more accessible . . . not the kind of puzzle likely to provoke a hostile response.

I think the best clue I ever came up with was in my first Times puzzle, for the trite crossword filler EGO, which I defined as, “It won't swell when bruised.”

Hate mail sent to Maleska about Missed Connections.

Letter from a fan of Missed Connections.

What are your interests outside crosswords?

In addition to my favorite pastime of bugging my daughters with articles and unsolicited advice, I enjoy taking regular long walks with friends, being in a church handbell choir, and reading lots of books on my Kindle.  I travel frequently with my husband and find that extensively researching the destinations and planning the itinerary is often half the fun.  My interests include interior design, antiquing, and gardening.  I love entertaining and find I can happily channel my creative energies into everything from arranging flowers to writing in calligraphy.

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(August 8, 2014)

What inspired you to start constructing crosswords in second grade?

My first love actually was numbers (e.g., I could keep score in bowling at age 3).  However, I also developed a love of words at an early age.  When I was in second grade, one of my brother’s high school projects was to construct a crossword puzzle.  I found it so fascinating that I tried constructing some of my own.  (I still have one from second grade in my files.)  Interestingly, I didn’t realize until years later that one needs to write clues to challenge someone else to complete the grid! 

While you were an undergraduate at Rutgers, you formed a syndicate to sell crosswords to college newspapers.  Is this syndicate still around, and how often are/were new puzzles published?

The syndicate was called Collegiate Crossword, and I supplied a 15x15 crossword on a weekly basis to college newspapers from 1972 to 1997.  In all, well over 1,000 college papers subscribed to the service over the 25-year period.

Did you accept outside submissions for your syndicate?

For the syndicate, I constructed all of the puzzles.  However, for the six-book series that I wrote for Bantam Books, I did purchase a number of puzzles from others (and, of course, gave credit in the books). 

How did you spread the word about your syndicate to other colleges?

To generate sales for Collegiate Crossword, I sent out high-quality (glossy), four-page ads on a semiannual basis, always with a new sample puzzle.  I still have some of those ads in my archives.  As a footnote, when I applied to graduate business schools, I attached a puzzle ad to each of my applications.  Although my board scores and undergraduate GPA were respectable, if not spectacular, I’m completely convinced that my crossword venture got me accepted to some top schools.  In fact, when I phoned the Wharton School to see if they had made a decision on my application, their response was, “Oh, you’re the guy with the crosswords.  Yes, you’ve been accepted.”  And that is where I attended graduate business school.  To pay for graduate school (the vast sum of $10,000—this was 1974), I signed a contract with Bantam Books to write a series of six crossword puzzle books, entitled “Bantam One-A-Day Crosswords.”  I was most gratified to receive a “fan letter” from an Indiana University student named Will Shortz (wonder what happened to him), who explained that he had a vast library of crossword puzzle books but that he thought mine were the best he had seen by a single author. 

You mentioned that Stan Newman (a graduate student at the time) solved the Sunday-size crossword you built during your senior undergraduate year in less than half an hour.  Did you and Stan stay in touch after this, or did you go separate ways until Stan became editor of the Newsday crossword?

Stan and I did not know each other until that Rutgers puzzle contest, and I next got in touch with him many years later when People magazine printed an article about his Guinness record of having solved a New York Times crossword in something like two minutes.  We’ve stayed in touch, off and on, since that time.  I’m honored that he’s printed several of my puzzles in his books.

You also mentioned that you encouraged Will Shortz not to pursue a career in puzzlemaking when he contacted you.  What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a professional puzzlemaker nowadays?

These days, I probably wouldn’t be the best one to offer advice on a career in puzzlemaking.  However, I would suspect that there are (and historically have been) only a small number who could earn a decent living at full-time crossword construction or editing.

One of your puzzles appeared in The New York Times on January 15, 1974.  I’m featuring this puzzle in the blog today.  Do you remember anything special or unusual about its construction process?  It must have been quite a challenge to get six 15-letter entries to interlock before computer software!

For every crossword I constructed in the 1970s, I only had my college and unabridged dictionaries, my almanac, and the public library to consult.  I remember wanting to use Tige in a puzzle and having to phone several Buster Brown shoe stores to confirm that Tige was Buster Brown’s dog!  During the 1980s, I acquired books like The Ultimate Crossword Puzzle Index (by Douglas W. Hershey) to assist me.  However, I have never used crossword constructing software, and I have no idea how any of it works.  So the wide-open patterns (my specialty) and the 15-letter intersecting entries were always a challenge.  In general, it would take me 15–20 hours to construct a 15x15 puzzle (including clues). 

Did your Times puzzle appear while you were an undergraduate or graduate student?

My sole New York Times puzzle appeared while I was a senior in undergraduate school.  I received a check for $10 and no byline.  I did submit a Sunday-size puzzle at one point, but Will Weng rejected it, explaining that he could not print the copyrighted Ogden Nash poem contained in the crossword.  However, the puzzle subsequently won fourth prize (fetching me $75) in a contest and was printed in The Bantam Great Masters Winning Crossword Puzzles, Volume 2.   

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor?  Did he change a lot of your clues or entries?

Will Weng seemed (in his couple of notes to me) to be a gentle and kind man.  For the crossword of mine that he eventually published, he didn’t like one of the words in the initial submission but suggested a slight change, which I did make.  He only changed a few clues, but he did correct one of mine.  For “damn,” I clued, “Last word in Gone With the Wind.”  However, he astutely changed it to “Rhett Butler’s closing word.” 

Did you have any interaction with Eugene T. Maleska or Margaret Farrar and, if so, how did it go?

I did not have any interaction with Dr. Maleska or Ms. Farrar. 

You mentioned above that you accepted some outside submissions for the six books of crosswords you published—can you say a bit more about that?

I did construct the majority of the puzzles in my books, but I also enlisted the services of Ray Eisner, Jordan Lasher, Herb Risteen, Kathryn Righter, Thomas Schier, Dorothea Shipp, Nancy Atkinson, and about a dozen others.  Though I don’t know if the term “new wave” construction had been coined by 1974, the books’ introduction included the following hype:  “Edward Julius has put together an unusual collection of puzzles—interesting, vibrant, and always challenging.  He picks your memory for forgotten faces, bygone radio and TV shows, and old flicks, and he keeps you up-to-date, as well, with the latest slang, politics, and hottest teams.”

Ed's first crossword book (1975)

You’ve been credited with coining the concept of a new wave puzzle.  How would you define a new wave crossword?

To me, a new wave puzzle is one that contains trivia, pop culture, or just something this is unusual or innovative.  It also is devoid of those obscure words seemingly only found in crossword puzzles.  I simply thought (back in the early 70s) that “beefing up” clues with sports, politics, entertainment, the arts, and much more, would make the solving experience much richer and more educational.  A couple of early new wave clues that I used were “Instruction from Jack LaLanne” (INHALE) and “Terry-Thomas feature” (GAP).  Though I was never clever enough to incorporate puns into my clues, I love seeing them in other constructors’ puzzles. 

Where was the crossword puzzle class you taught, and what kinds of things did you teach in it?

I taught a one-unit course called “Crossword Construction for Fun and Profit” on two occasions in the 1980s at my school, California Lutheran University.  I had the students do many wordplay exercises and gradually had them create more and more sophisticated puzzles.  I did work them hard and always insisted that they create technically accurate clues (something they initially had difficulty with).  I also had a guest  lecturer—the one and only Merl Reagle!  What a treat that was! 

How would you define your style as a constructor?

I’ve always preferred the wide-open patterns to the thematic puzzles.  I also try my best to avoid questionable entries.  Other than that, I just try to make the clues as entertaining, informative, and fair as possible.

Of all the crosswords you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

Yes, I have a favorite construction, which contains both a wide-open pattern and a theme (one of the rare ones for me).  As always, I did not use any computer software.  [Ed.:  A downloadable PDF of this puzzle is on Scribd—to see it, click here; to view the solution, click here.]  My second favorite is the Sunday-size crossword containing the Ogden Nash poem (alluded to above).  [Ed.:  A downloadable PDF of this puzzle is on Scribd—to see it, click here; to view the solution, click here.

What’s the weirdest entry you’ve ever seen in a crossword puzzle?

Can’t think of any weird entries in a crossword.  However, I love creativity, like one such New York Times puzzle from last year, all of whose clues contained 13 letters!  I also thought Trip Payne’s “Something Different” crosswords of many years ago were truly remarkable.  I’m waiting for someone like Joe Krozel to create a 15x15 puzzle with no black squares!  In fact, in an April Fools’ Day issue of my college newspaper, I published a 15x15 puzzle with no black squares (and obviously bogus clues), and people actually tried solving it, apparently thinking that such a feat was possible!

What’s your opinion about crossword construction software?  Do you use it or do you still construct crosswords by hand?

I still construct crosswords by hand, using xeroxes of the grid that I hand-drew in 1972.  In recent years, I’ve only constructed puzzles for Cal Lutheran University’s alumni magazine, each containing a CLU theme (one was entitled, “Get a CLU!”). 

If a grid you were filling were one letter away from being a pangram (using every letter of the alphabet) and adding that last letter would introduce a not-so-great entry, would go you go for the pangram or for the cleaner fill?

I would always go for the clean filler, even if it took me all week.  I remember constructing a puzzle in the 1970s that contained a particularly tricky corner.  I thought I had it conquered, but, unfortunately, I had misspelled the work “leaking” as “leeking” and had to spend another several hours fixing it.  

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

I’m most excited to see the names of people I had forgotten about.  The database seems like a most ambitious and interesting undertaking! 

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

My other outside interests are vintage jazz (especially stride piano), Broadway musicals, baseball (especially the Boston Red Sox—I grew up in Sharon, Mass.), old movies, bowling, wordplay (obviously), and rapid mental math (I’ve written four books on rapid math, which collectively appear in eight languages).  I also have a love for the proper use of the English language. 

Is there anything else youd like to add?

My proudest and weirdest “crossword” moments:

1.  In January of 1974, The New York Times published an article (with my picture) entitled, “Student Sells His Crosswords.”  I perma-plaqued the article and have had it up on my wall for 40 years!  [Ed.:  This article is in the January 6, 1974, New York Times and is available in many libraries through the ProQuest online database of the Historical New York Times.  A minimized screen capture of it appears below.

2.  I was thrilled to see my first crossword puzzle book in bookstores back in 1975.  However, when the second in the series was published, I noticed that a few of the puzzle grids in the book did not match the set of clues on the accompanying page.  Accordingly, the 75,000 copies had to be recalled, and the book republished. 

3.  My proudest crossword moment came just a few years ago, when, in front of 1,000+ people at UCLA, Will Shortz paid a brief tribute to my “pioneering” new wave constructions.  I actually hadn’t met Will (in person) until then.

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(July 11, 2014)

Did you submit your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar or Will Weng?

Will Weng.

Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

Although I am not absolutely certain about this, I do not recall sending in many, if any, puzzles that were rejected, so it’s quite possible that I received an acceptance on my first try.  I have some confidence in this answer because I only submitted a very small number of puzzles in those early years—perhaps about three—and I think they were all accepted.  There possibly was a bit of editing done by Will Weng directly into the grid.

How old were you when your first puzzle was published?

Twenty years old.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar and/or Will Weng as editors?  Did you have any interactions with Eugene T.Maleska?

I had no interactions with either Farrar or Maleska.  Will Weng was a very friendly person who, I’ve always wondered, perhaps looked favorably upon my work simply because he was amused by the manner by which I first presented it.  With the naïveté of youth, I visited the offices of The New York Times without an appointment to see Will Weng, to ask about crossword submission procedures and, if I recall correctly, offer a sample of my work.  Ah, the good old days when so many things were more informal!  I was told where to locate Mr. Weng and found him at a desk amidst an array of many other desks.  That he took the time to speak to me earnestly and helpfully, given that I was literally just a kid who walked in off the street (and was probably wearing sneakers), has in retrospect evoked from me considerable appreciation toward the man.

Why did you take a 40-year hiatus from crossword construction, and what motivated you to start up again in 2009?

I really don’t know why I stopped constructing crosswords after such a short period.  I continued to solve puzzles for many years.  An interest in returning to construction seemed to occur at about the same time the film Wordplay was released, and the added impetus of seeing how the crossword world had expanded and improved sealed the deal.  I started submitting to The New York Times again, and I now submit regularly to the Los Angeles Times, with a reduced pace for The New York Times.  I’ve also had some puzzles published in The Chronicle of Higher Education and a couple of Saturday Stumpers in Stan Newman’s Newsday syndication.  Also, amazingly, I’ve had one puzzle accepted for the notoriously demanding Fireball puzzles edited by Peter Gordon.

How has your perspective on crossword construction changed since the late 60s?

In a very real sense, it was necessary that my perspective on construction should change, because the general practice of crossword construction has changed so much over the years.  To some extent, the transition was something like the plot of science fiction time-travel stories in which a person from the past is somehow transported to the future and must now adapt to the new world.  The myriad forms of thematic innovations and clever gimmicks that have occurred in the last two decades alone has been breathtaking—and humbling—to someone like me who must now attempt to compete with constructors of staggering technical ability, and to meet the standards of editors who accepted and nurtured the advances in the field.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

In precomputer years, I ordered specialized pads of paper imprinted with 15x15 grids (from a company in Maine, if I recall correctly).  The construction of the puzzle itself was then as it is now—determining theme answers, or anchoring entries in a themeless, and creating a suitable symmetrical grid.  The fill was arrived at through trial-and-error and a very large amount of erasing.

There were also, it seems, less stringent standards on fill and cluing many years ago.  I understand that you are presenting my July 17, 1969, puzzle with this interview.  I look forward to its republication with mixed emotions, because that grid—with 12 helper/cheater squares in the corners alone!—would probably not be accepted today without some very good reason to do so.  Also (Spoiler Alert for this and the next sentence for those who want to solve the puzzle!), the entry at 28-Down—OUR SONG—would be now likely considered an unacceptable 7-letter partial.  And 11-Down—BUTCH—is simply clued as [Boy’s nickname]; hey, there aren’t too many of those for solvers to choose from, right?

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?  If you use computer software, what do you feel are its advantages and disadvantages in comparison to hand construction?

To answer this, I’d like to use a definition of the term “hand construction” that David Steinberg sent to me:

I think of hand construction as not using computer-assisted fill.  If you think up your theme entries and then fill the grid without the computer’s help (other than as a reference tool, as with electronic word lists or Google), and then type the final product into Crossword Compiler, that to me is hand crossword construction.

I agree with that definition, and thus can state that my crosswords are constructed by hand.  Construction programs such as Crossword Compiler can function simply as methods of filling in and removing words in a more rapid and practical manner.  Furthermore, I will never touch that “Autofill” option; to me, that is not acceptable if you want to honestly state that you constructed the crossword.

I’ve noticed that your puzzles tend to contain innovative themes with several long nonthematic down entries.  What else do you feel characterizes your construction style?

Thanks very much for considering my themes “innovative,” although I tend to reserve that word for formats that truly break boundaries and introduce utterly new concepts to crosswords.  Basically, I do attempt to “keep things interesting” by creating a wide variety of types, formats, and gimmicks.  I’m particularly happy when ideas simply appear out of nowhere, or at least from way out in left field, that seem to have few precedents.  One such puzzle would be the “There Was an Old Lady” puzzle of May 30, 2014, in the L.A. Times.  Why that bizarre children’s ditty popped into my head, or why I then decided I could make a puzzle out of it—well, I haven’t the foggiest notion.  But it was fun (if difficult) to construct, and I hope the solvers enjoyed it too.  Indeed, that’s why I (and I’m sure many other constructors) insert those long, nonthematic Downs into the grids—they are a challenge to the constructor and they often allow uncommon and amusing phrases that may evoke a smile or a nod of appreciation from the solvers.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

This is a bit like asking artists if they have a favorite painting or sculpture that they’ve made.  They frequently say “My most recent one.”  (Why the art reference?  See my answer to the final question below.)  However, when pressed, the artists will admit to a few favorites.  My favorites would be those which match my interests mentioned above—to create or effectively use an imaginative format.  Two of my puzzles for the CHE fit that criterion:  They were titled “Mineral Deposits” and “Center of Gravity,” and they both employed the two-way rebus concept or a variation thereupon.  For example, in “Mineral Deposits” the two-way rebus squares included the name of a metal in the horizontal entry and the metal’s chemical symbol in the vertical entry.  As an example, LEAD in the fifth square of the horizontal phrase SIMPLE ADDITION, was crossed by lead’s symbol Pb in the third square of the crossing vertical entry HEPBURN.  In the L.A. Times, among my favorites (and they are recent!) are the aforementioned “There Was an Old Lady” and “Canadian Cities” of May 9, 2014, the latter for the sheer wackiness of the imaginary portmanteau theme entries (thanks for accepting them, Rich Norris!) and for the opportunity to create a puzzle with a theme involving Canada, our wonderful but neglected neighbor to the north.  I also was very happy with the “American” themed puzzle published in the L.A. Times on July 4, 2014, because of the amount of theme material and the reversal of the standard clue phrase “With (clue number). . . . ” into “Following (clue number). . . . ”

What’s your favorite puzzle constructed by someone else?

I can’t name an exclusive favorite; there have been so many exceptional puzzles made.  I’d like to offer a general tip of the hat to Patrick Berry, whose themeless puzzles are so smooth and virtually free of crosswordese (and I don’t recall any partials) that they seem to have arisen naturally and organically upon the page.  He also comes up with tricky themes that are deceptively simple once appreciated, yet provide evidence of an enormous fluency with developing thematic entries.  I would also like to mention the various visual creations of Elizabeth Gorski, which have been honored by many others.  I retain a special fondness for her [December 21, 2008] Christmas-themed puzzle of many years back called “Laughing All the Way,” that presented its theme visually (and aurally!) through a repeated central vertical column of rebus squares containing HO-HO-HO-HO-HO . . . all the way from the top to the bottom of the grid.  That’s imagination, simplicity, humor, elegance, fun, and fine construction wrapped up in a lovely Christmas present for solvers.  And her [October 18, 2009] NYT puzzle noting the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum, with its extraordinary spiral grid pattern, was a conceptual and constructing tour de force.

What’s the weirdest entry you’ve seen in a crossword?

I wouldn’t like to designate anyone else’s work as “weird,” so I’ll use this space to offer an appreciation to Rich Norris for accepting what might be considered a weird entry, without which I probably could not have brought a puzzle to an acceptable level.  A particularly intransigent area forced me to try the entry LATONY.  What is a LATONY?  Well, it should be parsed in three sections, as LA-to-NY, as in a Los Angeles to New York flight.  Given the large number of red-eye LA-to-NY flights, Rich accepted the entry, and that gave the puzzle the green light.  Necessity is the mother of invention!

If you were stuck using either a partial phrase, a less-common word, a foreign word, or an abbreviation in a difficult-to-fill corner, which would you choose and why?

The foreign word would be the first to be eliminated (even through I’ve often used them, including the omnipresent AMI, UNE, and ETE), simply because the puzzle is meant to be in English, and that should be maintained if possible.  The partial would be the next to go, since it is, well, a partial—a crossword convention allowed only to save otherwise doomed constructions.  I’ve used many partials, of course, but whenever possible, I try to complete the partial elsewhere in the puzzle, so that it becomes a full entry, in a way.  So, my choice would tend toward a well-known abbreviation (to me, IBM, FBI, or DVD are as valid as any standard word) or a less-common word, as long as the crossing words are all gettable.  Part of the enjoyment of crosswords is learning new facts about words, or learning new words themselves, so this educational aspect seems quite appropriate.

I’m featuring your July 17, 1969, crossword (published the day after the Apollo 11 moon launch!), a themeless with lots of fun entries and very little crosswordese, today on the blog.  Do you remember anything unusual about this puzzle’s construction and/or editorial process?

Although it is now the accepted convention—indeed, requirement—that most puzzles have themes, such was not the case when this puzzle appeared.  I wasn’t trying to create a themeless in the current sense, just a puzzle.  Present-day themelesses, of course, are meant to showcase the constructor’s skill at filling wide swathes of unblocked grid, so black squares are kept at a minimum, unlike this early puzzle of mine.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?
The overall record should offer a fascinating view of the continually progressing sophistication of the crossword puzzle in terms of theme, creativity, and constructing prowess.  Also, it will be very good to simply make known the names of past constructors, where possible.

What are some of your interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I’ve noticed that many (though by no means all) constructors and champion solvers come from backgrounds of math, computer technology, engineering, or science.  I am pleased to note that I come from a different background.  In 2011, I retired from my position as Senior Curator of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where I worked for 34 years.  I am still active in independent curatorial work and writing on art.  I enjoy music (although I don’t play an instrument) with a taste that has evolved over the years.  In my early years, I was a programmer of rock music for my college radio station; I now primarily listen to classical music (although I still absolutely love classic rock).  Also, I am a great fan of puns (a truly good pun is one of the highest forms of humor), which I suppose partially accounts for my interest in the potential of wordplay in crosswords.

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(June 27, 2014)

Thank you, David, for all your work with the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  I dont know how you find the time to construct your high-quality puzzles, write your blog, organize all the volunteers, and do all the normal things of life like school and homework.  Perhaps you have cloned yourself?

Ive sent you another file with the complete history of my correspondence with Eugene Maleska from 1979 to 1985, which also touches on many of the questions below.

You submitted your first puzzles to Eugene T. Maleska.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

When I was in my early 20’s, I wrote primitive crosswords for friends, with lots of ghastly unprofessional features like asymmetrical grids, two-letter words, and forced expressions.  I studied the New York Times puzzles for several years, read what I could find about professional construction, and practiced filling small grids endlessly to hone my skills.

In 1979 I decided to go for the gold and submit two daily crossword puzzles to The New York Times.  They were the first puzzles I sent anywhere for publication, and Mr. Maleska accepted one of them immediately and the other after some major revisions.  They were published on Thursday, September 4, 1980, and Wednesday, September 10, 1980.

I eventually had 14 puzzles appear in the NYT from 1980 to 1984 and a total of 38 puzzles published by various syndicates in those years.  (And then, like Rip Van Winkle, I went into a long slumber, which recently ended with my BODY DOUBLES puzzle in the NYT on Monday, April 28, 2014.)

So my early experience was no doubt atypical . . . like the young actor who lands a big role in his first movie.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Mr. Maleska was friendly and supportive.  Looking back at our correspondence, I think he decided to become my mentor.  Ive read on the blogs about other constructors who had a rough time with him, but I never saw that side of his personality.

He generally left my grids and fill unchanged, especially in the later puzzles.  He altered about half of my clues.

Mr. Maleska wanted the fill to stand the test of time, so he rejected faddish entries.  A quick survey of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project database reveals that basketball player Julius Dr. J Erving (DRJ) never appeared in a Maleska-era puzzle, although The A-Team star Laurence Mr. T Tureaud (MRT) did eventually make the cut.  Mr. Maleska drew his clues from a wide range of subject matter, from the esoterica of high culture to the mainstreams of popular culture.

He relentlessly rejected trade names in the fill, such as SANKA and ICEE, and I quickly learned to avoid them.  I also learned to avoid disgusting body parts and diseases.  For example, I had URETER and LATRINE in two submissions.  Both of those puzzles were sanitized with more hygienic fill.

I included the nicely Scrabbly XEROX in my first submission, and although Mr. Maleska didnt raise any objection in his acceptance letter, I was surprised to see the trademark replaced by LEROY in the Thursday, September 4, 1980, puzzle.

Interestingly, his opinion about XEROX eventually softened as the word slowly became synonymous with copy, and he allowed it four times in later years, starting with Charlotte Shores puzzle on Wednesday, May 15, 1985.

(And there is an example of the enormous value of the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project!  We can now trace word usage back in time, and we can see how the editors opinions evolved over time.  Perhaps Mr. Maleska was actually flexible?)

You mentioned that Margaret Farrar also taught you the puzzle-making craft.  How did her advice and encouragement differ from that of Maleska?

Their advice was very similar, but Margaret Farrars letters were more cheerful.

In the early 80s, she was the editor of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate crossword puzzles, which were carried in papers such as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post.

She also edited crossword books for Simon & Schuster, often as co-editor with Eugene Maleska.

She was a bit more lenient than Mr. Maleska.  She accepted daily puzzles from me with 80 words and 44 black squares, where Mr. Maleska generally had limits of 78 words and 40 black squares.  Of course, these rules werent always enforced—my first puzzle in the NYT had 42 black squares!

In one letter she encouraged me to avoid downbeat words.  I note IDI in your puzzle in a spot that resists changing.  This is to suggest that we want to resist IDI AMINs bid to become a puzzle regular.

We had a charming correspondence for four years, and I was thrilled to have this link to the early years of the crossword.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

Lots of erasing!

I constructed crossword puzzles with state-of-the-art pencils, graph paper, and my handy Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary.  I also had a couple of crossword dictionaries, including the Funk & Wagnalls Crossword Puzzle Word Finder, which featured words up to six letters.  (Those of us of a certain age, who remember the Laugh-In TV show, really enjoyed looking things up in our Funk & Wagnalls. . . .)

Writing clues was arduous.  There was no Internet or Google, so it was hard to verify facts.  Say I wanted to write a clue for BRIDGE, and my first thought was that movie from the 1950’s about some WWII prisoners-of-war who built and then blew up a railroad bridge in Asia . . . was that Alec Guinness who starred . . . did I just spell his name correctly . . . was it the River Kwai or the Kwai River . . . did I just spell Kwai correctly . . . and so on.

Preparing the puzzles for submission was also a chore.  At least I had an electric typewriter!

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?  If you use computer software, what do you feel are its advantages and disadvantages in comparison to hand construction?

After I came out of hibernation about three years ago, I discovered various crossword blogs such as XWord Info and the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, noticed all the chatter about construction software, and eventually purchased Crossword Compiler for Windows (CCW).

I learned the software by entering all of my crosswords from the 80’s into CCW (my own mini-litzing project!), and for those never published, trying to modernize the themes, fill, and clues.

I love using CCW and couldn’t bear to go back to the old ways.  The biggest advantage is the automation of the humdrum mechanics of grid creation and numbering, entry filling, and printing.  I use the CCW word dictionaries to look up fill possibilities (just like I used to thumb through that Funk & Wagnalls crossword dictionary), but I’m enough of an old-schooler to resist using the AutoFill feature.

I get the impression that some modern constructors spend most of their energy gathering words for their computerized word lists and let AutoFill programs actually create the fill. The results can be dazzling, especially for themeless puzzles, and I really enjoy the challenge of solving those puzzles in the Friday and Saturday NYT.

However, my greatest pleasure in construction is the search for that just-right word, preferably with a few Scrabbly letters, and so I’ll never cede that process to the automatons.

So, perhaps the biggest disadvantage of crossword software is that many constructors are losing out on the pleasure (and brain exercise) of word and letter pattern-matching.

Oh, another advantage . . . my wife, Andrea, no longer complains about eraser crumbs all over my desk.

I’ve noticed that you like to use a lot of unusual/Scrabbly letters in your puzzles.  What else do you feel characterizes your construction style?

I put SNEEZED in one of the first puzzles I sent to Eugene Maleska, so Scrabbly letters have been a big part of my style from the start (or should I say AB OVO for the cruciverbalists reading this blog?).

I also tried to use alliteration, which was easier to do back when repeated word themes were allowed.  For example, my NYT puzzle on Friday, May 1, 1981, had themers CRACKDOWN, CRACK OF DAWN, and CRACK OF DOOM.  Say those out loud, and enjoy the sensation in the tongue and palate!  They also looked great in the grid, interlocking tightly near the center.

I played around with grid design, trying to make it more pleasing to the eye by using strong diagonals, bold patterns, and extra symmetry.

The FLEXING puzzle on Saturday, April 17, 1982, was a good example of my constructing tendencies:  It celebrated the letter X by including seven X’s in the fill and a huge X shape in the middle of the grid.  The grid had super symmetry and lots of Scrabbly fill.

That puzzle also played a role in my recent return to crossword constructing.

About a year and a half ago I Googled my name and up popped a hit on something called the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  Someone named David Steinberg had done a write-up on October 28, 2012, about the FLEXING puzzle.  He analyzed it in depth and seemed to really like it!  I was astonished . . . and encouraged to keep working on my comeback.

Thank you, David, and thank you to all the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project volunteers!

I’m featuring your Saturday, September 12, 1981, puzzle in this week’s blog post.  I really like how this puzzle has a low word count, ultra-Scrabbly fill, and even a mini-theme!  Do you remember anything unusual about this puzzle’s construction/editing process?

I was pleased to include the fractional themers QUARTERFINALIST and HALFHEARTEDNESS as the seed entries in my Saturday, September 12, 1981, puzzle.  In the early 80’s, it was considered sufficient to have a theme with two spanners, so this puzzle could have appeared on any late weekday.

I recall trying to stuff as many Scrabbly letters as possible into the grid while preserving the pangram and the low word count and feeling some dismay at all the cheater squares that resulted.

Mr. Maleska didn’t change any of the fill, and he even arranged to pay a bonus:  I received $25 instead of the normal $20 for a daily puzzle!

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

My Valentine’s Day puzzle to my wife, Andrea, takes the cake.  I wrote the puzzle while we were dating, and we were married by the time it appeared in the NYT on Saturday, February 14, 1981.  We celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary this year.  The puzzle has lots of thematic fill and clues, and check out the answer to 4-Down!

Now that you’re back from your “30-year slumber” in which you were busy with family and work, do you plan to construct many more puzzles?  Do you look at constructing differently now than you did 30 years ago?

Yes!  I hope to have many more puzzles hit the street and the Information Superhighway until someday I beat Bernice Gordon for oldest constructor honors.  (I was hoping for “longest constructor hiatus” honors, but it appears that Jeffrey Wechsler has that sewn up.  He took 40 years off between 1969 and 2009!)

Constructing is different now, because the themes have to be so much more clever, and the fill has to be more “hip” and “sparkly.”  It’s harder to build a winning puzzle, but I am enjoying the challenge, pitting my Maleska-era skills against the new wave.

If you could only construct crosswords at one difficulty level (Monday NYT, Saturday NYT, etc.) for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I would choose Wednesday because I prefer to construct puzzles with themes that aren’t too gimmicky, but I also want some clever and punny clues to survive the editing process.  But it is a hard question to answer, because I enjoy the challenge of creating puzzles for every level.

What’s the weirdest entry you’ve ever seen in a crossword puzzle?

The NYT April Fools’ Day puzzle by Elizabeth A. Long on Friday, April 1, 2011, which simulated a highway with traffic flowing downward on the left of the puzzle and upward on the right of the puzzle, really sticks in my mind.  At the time, I was groggily emerging from my 30-year constructing slumber, and it was one of the first NYT puzzles I had tried to solve in many years, and I just couldn’t see that the fill read from bottom to top in the “right lane” of the grid.  That puzzle ran me over like a double trailer SEMI.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

The Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project will provide a massive database of the evolution of language and societal trends.

And, of course, the database will also allow us to study the evolution of the crossword puzzle, including rescuing all those constructors (including me!) from their “national anonymity.”

And more immediately, I couldn’t have reconstructed my correspondence with Eugene Maleska without the pre-Shortzian database.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

My interests include history, politics, business, sports, and classical music, and I’ve been a railfan ever since my Dad set up a Lionel train around the Christmas tree when I was a toddler.  (And now you know why I was doubly delighted by my first puzzle in the NYT on Thursday, September 4, 1980!)

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(June 6, 2014)

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

“Space Madness” was the first Sunday puzzle I ever submitted to the Times, and it was accepted by Ms. Farrar.  The two dailies were also accepted after submission.  Incidentally, payment back then was $15 for the daily and $80 for the big one (about enough to cover the cost of good pencils and erasers!).  Now it’s $300 for the daily and $1,000 for the Sunday!

How did Margaret Farrar differ from Will Weng?

Ms. Farrar was, I think, keener on punny puzzles than Will Weng was.  Or he may well have been okay with them but didn’t like mine in particular.  The puzzle he rejected had a sports theme, with plays on words—my forte—but, I guess, my downfall with Weng.

Did the fan letters you received after “Space Madness” was published come from random solvers or from people you knew (or both)?

The fan letters I received regarding “Space Madness” came from random solvers—one from abroad via the Herald Tribune—and two from the States.  One fan from Pass Christian wrote, “Please, oh please!  More puzzles by Eileen Bush.  It was so clever and fun.  Others are hard and dull. . . . ”  (The letter was forwarded to me.)

You mentioned that after Weng rejected your second Sunday submission, you stopped contributing to the Times and went into the corporate house organ/publication market, where you made $75 to $100 per puzzle.  How exactly did the corporate house organ/publication market work?  Were you commissioned to do custom crosswords?

The P.R./communications manager (Theodore Lustig) at American Cyanamid in Wayne, New Jersey, where I worked for a number of years, was aware of my hobby and asked me to construct a crossword for the company’s house organ.  He wanted to include as many clues as possible relative to the chemical company—i.e., new products, developments, goals, people, etc.  It would be a great way to educate as well as entertain the employees who read the publication.  To test his readership, he decided to have a contest too.  There would be a prize awarded to employees who completed the puzzle correctly.  We thought the puzzle was hard enough that there would be a limited number of people able to finish it.  We were wrong. . . .

The day the publication came out, work at Cyanamid virtually came to a halt.  Employees from one division started calling those from other divisions to help them with answers to the puzzle.  Some employees spent a lot of time in the company library looking things up.  A team entry from South America sent in their answers via special delivery.  There were close to 900 correct answers!

Mr. Lustig also happened to be a contributing writer for the publication Editor & Publisher.  He wrote an article about the success of our crossword experiment and how it could be of benefit to other companies.  It was through that published article that several companies contacted me to construct puzzles.  Among them:  National Distillers (4 puzzles); Hercules Powder (2); Gulf & Western, McKesson & Robbins (1 each), and Shenandoan Insurance Co.  After that, through my own efforts, I got work from Burger King, General Development, Florida Power & Light, and others.

I was paid from $70 to $100 per puzzle.  These custom puzzles were easier to construct than the Times puzzles, since I wasn’t restricted by standards like the requirement of a symmetrical grid.  This allowed me to include many more theme-related words.  And no one ever noticed or complained.  Of course, I’ve never included two-letter words.  I have certain standards too!

Did you construct crosswords for the Miami Herald and your hometown newspapers on a regular basis?  How did that work?

Regarding the Miami Herald puzzles, I offered the first one for free, hoping they would like it enough to request another, which they did.  They paid me $75 for a second Sunday-sized crossword.  (Not enough to pursue a third time.)  Two of my favorite puns from the first puzzle were MOON OVER MIAMI ("The ultimate practical joke from atop the Centrust Building") and OFFENSIVE LINEMAN ("Miami Dolphin who forgot his Right Guard?")

I was paid $60 for a punny, puny puzzle in a Florida Keys (where I lived for 12 years) publication, but all the rest of the hometown newspaper puzzles were freebies.  It was okay with me, because I looked at these projects as a fun way to learn about the history of the places where I lived.  In my first hometown puzzle in Oakland, New Jersey, a lot of the history involved the Bush family settlers.  But I had an error in that one that was inexcusable:  I incorrectly spelled the current mayor’s last name.

Did you have any interaction with Eugene T. Maleska?

I never had any interaction with Eugene Maleska.

What’s your favorite crossword constructed by someone other than yourself?

A few years ago, I was moved to congratulate a female constructor on her puzzle that had appeared in the AARP magazine (at a time when they were using puzzles).  Unfortunately, I can’t remember the woman’s name.  [Ed.:  The constructor was likely Stephanie Spadaccini.]  There aren’t too many female cruciverbalists, are there?  I wonder why.  Are crossword editors biased?

What’s the weirdest entry you’ve ever seen in a crossword puzzle?

There have been oodles of them.  But most recently I thought “Orphic hymn charmer” was a bit obscure.  “Kind of platform shoe worn by Renaissance ladies” is one that I used in the puzzle I recently sent to Will Shortz.  That word was okay, but he found a lot of “junk” entries in the puzzle and rejected it.  The puzzle’s theme was about the wicked winter we’ve had this year and centered around the polar vortex we experienced in January.  I thought it was good and timely.

What’s your opinion on crossword construction software?  Do you use it, or do you still construct crosswords by hand?

I don’t use the puzzle software.  I tried one (can’t remember the brand), and it was very frustrating.  Back when I constructed the “Space Madness” puzzle, by the way, there were no electronic Franklin word finders or the Internet.  I collected lists of words on grid paper (3-letter words up to 15) from an unabridged dictionary.  There were no shortcuts, and it was a grueling process.

How do you feel about brand names and pop culture in crosswords?

I used one in the polar vortex puzzle I sent to Shortz, and he didn’t like it:  “Cedrin” (a cold remedy pill, which I connected with the wintry theme).  I also happened to use the name “Lexy”—a pop singer from South Korea—and that was a stretch, I guess.  Don’t like to use either brand names or pop culture generally, but in a pinch I’ll yield. . . .

What inspired you to take up crossword construction again after a ten-year hiatus?

I was living in a new area (Ormond Beach, Florida) with my sister (we are both widows).  I didn't know much about the history of my new environs, so I decided to do some research, and at the same time incorporate the info into a fun crossword project.  At the same time, there was a fledgling innovative newspaper in town trying to start up, and I thought a crossword telling the story of the Ormond and Daytona Beach areas might help them gain readership.  I constructed the puzzle (large size) and took it down to the office personally.  The  staff members loved the idea—and were excited about actually meeting a crossword constructor for the first time.  They assigned a nice young man to interview me, and the puzzle ran soon after.  The publisher told me later that it was received very well, and numerous calls came in from readers demanding the answers, which they thought would be included in the same issue somewhere.

Here’s a side thought:

I don’t think people really believe that there’s an actual hard-working person behind a crossword puzzle.  They think a puzzle just “magically appears” somehow . . . computerized, perhaps.  Which raises another question:  Will computers one day be able to construct puzzles and replace us?  They already can write articles!

If you were commissioned to hand-construct crosswords on a deserted island with just one reference book, what would it be and why?

I would take my Franklin crossword word finder.  The unabridged dictionaries would be too bulky.  I would also like to have a book on how to survive on a deserted island (lol).  I use the Internet to look up definitions, and sometimes that gets me in trouble—i.e., Will Shortz didn't like my “Lexy” (South Korean vocalist), which I garnered from the Internet.

If a grid you were filling were one letter away from being a pangram (using every letter of the alphabet), and adding that last letter would introduce a not-so-great entry, would go you go for the pangram or for the cleaner fill?

Wow, making a pangram would really be a kick.  I would go for the pangram with the not-so-great last letter.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

I’m most excited about other old constructors getting the same thrill and acknowledgment that I did when you resurrected my “Space Madness” puzzle.  You highlighted words that I had completely forgotten about—i.e., SPLASHDOWN, RENDEZVOUS, SABRE JETS, etc.  You also have ensured that my space-related paronomasia will never be lost in posterity.  Thanks!

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I am a very good tennis player for my age (75) and play on three league teams (not just senior teams).  I sing harmony with the “praise team” guitar players at my little Alliance church.  I occasionally paint (acrylics), but my sister discourages this because “we already have too many” of my pictures “hanging around” her house.  Also enjoy gardening and cooking—creative endeavors.  I hate vacuuming, dusting, and cleaning windows, much to my sister’s annoyance.

I also play the Scrabble-like Lexulous on the Internet.  It’s fun to play and chat with word lovers from around the world.

Here’s another side thought and interesting project to consider in the future:

I wonder if any demographic survey has been done on who the daily/Sunday crossword puzzle solvers actually are.  As we did at American Cyanamid, a contest could be created with a raffle-style drawing for a winner.  Along with their completed puzzle, participants could send in a questionnaire (printed alongside of the puzzle) indicating their gender, age, and favorite kind of puzzle, constructor, etc.

I have an inkling, based on my own circle of friends, that the majority of solvers will turn out to be seniors, and the majority of those—women.

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(May 16, 2014)

You submitted your first puzzles to Will Weng.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

Yes, my first puzzle was accepted!  A daily, of course.  The only thing was a problem in one corner; WW suggested a fix for it—just one word that was almost as obscure as the one causing the problem in the first place (wish I could remember what the words were!).  I plugged in the new word and voila.  I made a big $15, but it was very exciting.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?

I loved WW's style, so funny and fresh and original.  I might not have caught the cruciverbal bug if his puzzles hadn't provided so much entertainment.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

ETM was the anti-WW.  I'm sure he had very high standards, but he wasn't the most tactful of editors.  The puzzle you're featuring was one of the few that he complimented.  When I submitted a Sunday puzzle to him, he commented rudely on it, so I sent him a rude letter back, and that was the end of our working together.  From then on, all my Sunday-sized puzzles went to Will Weng's Crossword Club.

Ive noticed that you construct a lot of humorous quip puzzles, which always make me chuckle!  Im featuring one such puzzle (published February 24, 1978) this week.  Do you remember anything unusual about the construction process behind this one?

All I remember was thinking "Is this enough?  A 15 across the top and a 15 across the bottom?"  But ETM really liked it.

How has your construction style changed over the many years you’ve been constructing crosswords?

I guess it changed when the New Wave of constructors hit:  Merl Reagle, Mike Shenk, Henry Hook, etc.  Suddenly those old obscure words (like ATLI and AYMER in the puzzle above) were, if not taboo, then only used in emergencies.  Now, the more familiar the better.  And I think everyone likes it that way.

Of all the puzzles youve constructed, do you have a favorite?

Not really.  My puzzles have been called "cute" by more than one expert, but I don't think there's one that could be called "the cutest."

Whats your favorite puzzle constructed by someone other than yourself?

I love Merl Reagle's style:  kind of wacky, tight in construction, loose in atmosphere, and always funny.  But I have to admit that I very rarely solve anyone's puzzles anymore.  I love the "Something Different" puzzles, a.k.a. "Anything Goes":  21x21s with virtually no rules.  I have a stash of them that I take on long plane trips.  Done beautifully by Merl, Mike Shenk, Trip Payne, and a few others.

Whats the worst entry youve ever seen in a crossword?

That might be the answer to the clue:  The ___ mightier than the sword.  I think it appeared during Maleska's reign. But anyone can feel free to correct me on that if I'm wrong.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

Good old-fashioned graph paper and a pencil with a big eraser.  I later upgraded to graph-paper notebooks, but still completely by hand.  Then the typing—with carbon paper!  Oy.

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

Does anyone still construct by hand?  I have an old PC and all it does is run Crossword Compiler.  I then format the puzzles on a Mac, running an old program in OS8 that Mike Shenk wrote for Games way back when.  It's a very convoluted system that eventually produces puzzles in an older version of Word so I can insert the grids as EPS files.    

What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of computer software in comparison to hand construction?

The advantage is that it produces your clue list and saves your clues—hallelujah!—so that you don't use the same clue you did a month or two before.  I very rarely use the AutoFill function but have gotten used to scanning the word lists as a crutch.  When I'm on a roll, though, I don't need either . . . just let the puzzle make itself.  Granted, I have the luxury of not having to conform to anyone's ideas of maximum words, so I'm lucky in that respect.

If you were stuck with a difficult-to-fill corner, would you rather use a partial phrase, an abbreviation, a less-common English word, or a foreign word?  Why?

That's a really interesting question.  I'd probably pick a foreign word as my preference, because my French and Italian are not too bad (thanks to Latin and French classes at school, and a few trips to Italy).  But of course, that's within limits.  I remember that I used to see words like ONDE or ANGE in puzzles, but I can set my own word limits so I don't need to rely on them.

When did you start constructing crosswords for the AARP magazine?  Do you construct puzzles for AARP differently than usual (making them easier, using more older references, etc.)?

I had written to the editor in the mid-1990s asking why in the heck the magazine (called Modern Maturity at the time) didn't have a crossword, and he said they didn't need one and I should go away.  I got a call in 1998 asking me to write word search puzzles for the magazine and the next year started writing both crosswords and word searches for two different versions of the magazine (for readers who were under 70 and 70+).  For some reason, they think that once you hit 70 you can only solve soft puzzles like word searches.  And yes, I absolutely love that I can target the audience with things I remember from the '50s and '60s and even further back.  There's hardly an audience left for that stuff anymore.  By the way, there are now three versions of the magazine:  Merl Reagle does a crossword for the under-60 crowd.

I also construct crosswords for People magazine.  There's another specialized audience.  Constructing People puzzles is challenging, because try as I might for 100% entertainment fill, I have had to settle so far for somewhere around 85% to 90%.  It also gives me the right—nay, the obligation—to watch lots of TV.

How do you feel about the direction crosswords are headed in nowadays (using entries that everyone knows, more complex themes, etc.)?

I love that we rely on well-known entries, even tho I know there are some smarty-pants people who love the challenge of those lesser-known words.  And I very much admire constructors who can live up to Will Shortz's challenging requirements for the Times.  I'm just glad I don't have to anymore and I can still make a living writing puzzles.  That's one of the blessings of getting older.  Maybe the only one.

What inspired you to start litzing?  Did you enjoy the litzing process?

I'd heard about the litzing on cruciverb-l and had wanted to participate but didn't have the time.  When I saw that all I had to do was ONE puzzle, I decided that I wanted to be part of it, especially because some of the puzzles were mine.  I enjoyed it a lot—because it was a challenge and because it taught me how far puzzles have come since April 25, 1943 (the date of the puzzle I litzed, which happened to have been published a few days before I was born).

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

I love that it's kind of an online museum that I can browse through.  And of course, being as self-absorbed as the next person, that I can compare—in great detail—my puzzles against others.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I've been dancing hula for 16 years and love the music and the mythology of Hawaii, not to mention the sense of community I get from being in a HALAU (hula school—and note the five-letter word ending in U).  I've got four grandchildren under the age of 10 and love watching them grow up, even though they live far away and I have to travel to see them.  I exercise every day (a California thing).  I also work as a copy editor/proofreader for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a part-time gig that gives me a nice break from constructing but that is still challenging and good exercise for other corners of my brain.  And I play Scrabble once a month with three very smart friends who are not in the puzzle biz but who still manage to beat me three out of four times.

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(May 2, 2014)

Photo courtesy of

How did you become interested in crossword construction?

My interest in puzzles emerged gradually.  I was always interested in wordplay and humor.  In addition, I was probably influenced by the fact that I am a scientist; my training heightened my awareness of geometric patterns and how they could be expressed in a crossword format.  These finally came together after I moved to Toronto to take up a faculty position at the University of Toronto.  Motivated by reasons that I can’t really reconstruct, I created a Sunday-size puzzle containing puns on Canada’s newly announced metric system (e.g., “A new children’s game” would be FOLLOW THE LITER, and “A modern miss” would be AS GOOD AS A KILOMETER).  As is obvious now, these weren’t fully consistent (some replaced the nonmetric word, whereas others punned on the metric measure).  But as a Brooklyn-raised boy who was a regular reader of The New York Times, I decided to start at the top and send it directly to Eugene Maleska.  Of course he returned it, but he hand-wrote some helpful suggestions, adding that I had “ . . . talent for a neophyte” and encouraging me to try again.  So I did, sending him several puzzles over about a two-year period.  These also tended to contain some genuine howler entries.  A couple I remember were “Not just lemon but ___” (Answer:  LIMETOO) and “Red Sox and White Sox” (Answer:  HOSENINES).  Eventually I improved.  A couple of my puzzles were accepted for the Simon & Schuster series—and ultimately by the Times.

How do you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

Once I’ve selected the theme, I start by researching the available range of theme entries, with an eye toward the pairs of “equal-numbers-of-letters” answers that I’ll need for symmetry.  I sketch them into a blank diagram, slowly (!) adding in the dark squares around them, making sure I don’t create any impossible letter combinations between any two or three of the entries.  Once I’m satisfied with the layout, I begin the job of filling in the diagram, using just pencil and eraser, and making good use of databases such as XWord Info and also OneAcross.  And then, of course, I write the clues, for which Google is enormously helpful.  It’s hard to remember the days when we had to flip through unabridged dictionaries and encyclopedias.  I then ask my test solvers to look at the puzzle; they are extremely helpful in picking up things I may have missed.  I’ve actually been asked to make a brief video of my construction process for The Toronto Star (in connection with the 100th anniversary of the crossword in December 2013), which can be found here.

You submitted your first crosswords to Eugene T. Maleska.  What did you think of Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Gene Maleska was a stickler for detail—but as a newbie at the time, this really helped me improve my constructing.  Admittedly, some of the entries during his editorship now seem like what we dub “crosswordese,” as is apparent from the XWord Info database, but keep in mind that none of us had any electronic aids back in the day to help us find better choices for the fill.

What do you think of crossword construction software?  What do you feel are some of its advantages and disadvantages?

I don’t use any construction software, other than my ancient CrossMaster program that prints the unfilled and filled diagram beautifully.  Rebus boxes are always tricky.

How has your construction style changed over 30-plus years of puzzle making?

It hasn’t changed fundamentally, but perhaps I have a keener sense of how to lay out the theme entries so as not to box myself into some virtually impossible crossings as the fill proceeds.  It seems the more puzzles I do, the more my vocabulary expands.  And I continue to benefit enormously from Will Shortz’s helpful comments—whether in acceptance or rejection!

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

Among my puzzles that have appeared in The New York Times, I perhaps got the biggest kick out of “What Am I?” [April 13, 2003], in which five long entries answered the question posed in the title:  If I have “seventy-two dark squares” and I have “one hundred forty words” and I am “twenty one by twenty one” and I am “moderately challenging,” then I must be “today’s crossword puzzle.”  This puzzle is a pangram and to this day has one of the highest Scrabble scores of all time.  I had lots of interesting feedback on this one from solvers—particularly wondering how I kept the diagram to exactly 72 dark squares, once that phrase was locked into the puzzle.
What’s the most interesting puzzle you’ve seen constructed by someone other than yourself?

There have been many excellent constructors over the years, from which I will cite just a couple of examples.  One of my early heroes was Maura Jacobson, who I think is still not only the “queen of puns” but also whose sense of humor—and insight into the solvers’ mindset—was outstanding.  Looking back, I saw one Sunday New York Times puzzle of hers, “Mangled Middle Names” [June 14, 1987], which had theme answers such as JOHN FILLUP SOUSA (“Composer of ‘Pump and Circumstance’?”) and THOMAS HALVAH EDISON (“Inventor of a Turkish confection?”).

Among the current constructors, I tremendously admire Elizabeth Gorski for her versatility and imagination, which I feel is epitomized by her Sunday New York Times puzzle “Downward Spiral” [October 13, 2002], in which she codified the discovery of the genetic code with a “double helix” winding down the center of the grid.  Probably my science background influences me here, but this is just one example of Elizabeth’s high-caliber puzzle making.

I noticed that you do a lot of Sunday puzzles.  Do you prefer Sunday grids, and, if so, why?

Because all of my puzzles have themes, I prefer Sunday grids, both because the 21x21 diagram enables more examples of the theme and because, unlike the dailies, they have a title that allows you to give a hint to the solver.  But some themes do lend themselves better to 15x15s, and I have been doing more of these lately.  My family is used to me asking “What do you think of [an example of my latest theme idea]?”

I love how your puzzles are always so gimmicky and innovative!  I’ve already featured a couple on this blog, though I haven’t highlighted your “Playing the Angles” puzzle [April 4, 1982] yet.  Was there anything special you remember about the construction process behind this one?  It must have been a real challenge to incorporate all the twists, especially since it was your New York Times debut!

Thanks for the kind words.  Both then and now, I’m always looking to (literally) think outside the box and see how I can extend the limits of the genre.  “Playing the Angles” set the tone for several of my subsequent puzzles, published in the Times and elsewhere, which have used a variety of such gimmicks as rebuses (using numbers, colors, ampersands, and blank squares), mirror images, steps winding through the puzzle like snakes, mazes with dead ends, phrases turning around outside and then reentering the diagram, and messages running around the outside periphery of the diagram (IT’S SO NICE OUTSIDE).  Others of my puzzles, of course, rely on puns and wordplay, such as pairing anagrammed words into phrases and using Roman numerals that spell out words.

Which aspect of the eventual pre-Shortzian database are you most excited about?

I greatly appreciate the availability of the pre-Shortzian puzzles and words, not only for archival purposes but also to give a sense of the history of the development of puzzledom.

What are some of your other interests outside of crosswords?

I love my job as a research scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where I study how the molecular structure and function of proteins relates to diseases.  Understanding this may ultimately lead to better treatments for the diseases.  My crossword constructing has been a hobby that continues to stimulate my creative side in my spare time.  I also love listening to—and piano-playing—rock ’n’ roll music and enjoy watching baseball and hockey on TV.  I never miss Jeopardy!

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(January 17, 2014)

I would like to thank David for his Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project.  It’s interesting to see how crosswords have evolved from 1942, when Margaret Farrar first edited that New York Times crossword, to today’s daily and Sunday challengers.

I’m sure many of those oldie clues and answers seem strange to today’s solvers, and I’m sure many wonder why crosswordese and esoterica seemed to permeate those grids.  Perhaps some of this can be rationalized by taking the Wayback Machine to earlier decades and see what working conditions were like for crossword constructors and editors.

The year was 1977, and Eugene T. Maleska had just become crossword editor of The New York Times.  I had been solving New York Times puzzles for a few years prior and decided to take a crack at making my own crossword.  I was in awe of Will Weng and his group of puzzlers.  I never would have dreamed of submitting to him, of trying to break into that elite group.  When Will Weng retired, I quickly slapped together a crossword and mailed it into Eugene T. Maleska, the new crossword editor at The New York Times.  Unfortunately, my puzzle was a complete disaster.  It violated every golden crossword rule.   But . . . I received a handwritten letter from Eugene T. Maleska himself . . . stunned that he took the time to personally answer my letter.  “Don’t ever submit to me again.  Why waste your time and mine?” he wrote.  “Why not?” I thought to myself.  “Why the hell not?”

I decided to partner up before submitting again and teamed up with my friend David Pohl, a hail-fellow-well-met solver and mayor of my hometown.  As a crossword team we seemed to hit it off and scored quickly with three Sunday Times puzzles:  “Expansion Teams” (3/18/1979), “Electricks” (8/26/1979), and “Letter-Perfect” (10/21/1979).  We would brainstorm theme ideas over a pot of Formosa Oolong and then share construction and clue duties.  “Expansion Teams” was my idea, and “Electricks” was his idea—an original theme ahead of its time.  Our original title was “High Tension Area,” but Eugene changed it, because he thought the title would make solvers nervous.  As it turned out, he allowed “High tension area” as a clue for WASHINGTON, D.C. (that clue is still relevant).

Back in 1979, there was no Internet.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No computer crossword software.  No personal computers.  The standard tools of our trade were:  graph paper, pencils, dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, and the local library.  It was a challenge just to design a symmetrical grid and then number it correctly.  (Down entries were often overlooked.)  Choice of words for the fill was extremely limited.  We didn’t have the wide assortment of names like we do now.  The few names we could use that ended in vowels were:  Joni (Mitchell), Teri (Garr), Ava (Gardner), Shari (Lewis), Toni (Tennille), and Oona (O’Neill).  And lest we forget Oola Oop . . . misspelled, of course.  (In 1979, who knew her name was actually spelled Ooola?)

Back in 1979, The New York Times was dead set against brand names appearing in crosswords.  Any submissions containing brand names were quickly rejected.  And the Times solving base was  different than it is today.  Solvers were generally older and seemed to like clues with ties to art, literature, geography, and classical music.  They weren’t big on Top Forty music clues.  Chic was never clued as “Le Freak” group, and YMCA was never clued as a Village People hit.  Eugene was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera, and solvers could expect plenty of Met-life clues.

Yes, you will find a substantial number of geographical entries, opera roles, Italian/Spanish words, and esoterica in these pre-Shortzian grids, but it should be taken into account what constraints crossword constructors were shackled with during those predigital decades:  No Internet.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No computer crossword software.  No brand names.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule, and that exception was Jordan Lasher.  His low word-count grids were amazingly free of esoterica and crosswordese.  Constructors and editors marveled at his constructions.  Sadly, in 1995 Jordan Lasher died of a brain tumor at the age of 48.  His passing was a great loss to the crossword world.

My own crossword world suffered a loss in 1979.  After our third New York Times acceptance, Dave Pohl was involved in a boating accident on Oneida Lake.  He survived the accident, but his two friends did not.  Overcome with grief from that accident, he took his life a few months later.  I wrote Eugene to tell him I was through with constructing crosswords.  He called me on the phone after receiving my letter and encouraged me to continue on.

A sincere thank you to Eugene T. Maleska and David J. Pohl for enabling my crossword career.


In 1984 the crossword world suffered another loss when Margaret Farrar died.  I had not known her personally, but everyone I talked to who did had nothing but nice things to say about her.  Margaret had been Eugene’s coeditor of the Simon & Schuster Crossword Series.  After she died, Eugene asked me to be his coeditor at Simon & Schuster.  I accepted his offer and became a crossword editor, starting with Simon & Schuster Crossword Puzzle Book, Series 137.  That series ended at 259, succeeded by the current Mega Series.

Each book contained 50 crossword puzzles with sizes that ranged from 17x17 to 23x23.  Eugene would sort them by size and place them facedown on his desk, hiding the authors’ names.  He would then divide them into two equal piles, keeping one pile for himself and mailing me the other.

The editing process back in 1984 was not an easy one and required the following:

1.  Folding the grid diagram in half and holding it up to a light to see if the black squares were placed symmetrically in each half.
2. Counting all the Across and Down words to determine the word count.
3. Checking the grid for duplicate words.
4.  Checking the grid for misspellings.
5. Checking the clues to see if they were properly numbered.
6. Checking the clues to see if any clue had been omitted.
7. Crossing out original clues and writing edited clues over them.

One can see how time-consuming the editing process was.  Any crossword that required substantial editing was a nightmare for the typesetters to read, and often many errors came about in the composing room.  No computer-generated grids nor Internet back in the “good” old days!


For many years Anne Fox constructed the Sunday Christmas puzzles for The New York Times.  Such classics as her “Seasonal Songs” (12/27/1981) and “Yuletide Excerpts” (12/25/1983) featured an amazing interlocking of seven 23-letter theme entries (all hand-constructed!).  After she died in 1983, Eugene asked me to provide the Times with Christmas crosswords.  My first yuletide effort was “Gifts of the Magi” (12/23/1984).  Like the O. Henry tale, inappropriate gifts were exchanged in theme answers.  Xavier Roberts received a Cabbage Patch doll as a gift from Too Tall Jones, and in return, Too Tall Jones received a pair of elevator shoes from Xavier Roberts.

Looking at my “Let It Snow . . . ” Christmas puzzle (12/20/1987) reminds me of a clue change that was made for (SNOW)CRAB AT 115-Down.  The clue for that entry had been changed to “Specially equipped railroad car.”  My original clue related to the crustacean.  I can’t recall the clue, but it may have been something like:  “Relative of a red king.”  I politely asked Eugene why the clue was changed to a railroad car that everyone I talked to had never heard of before.  He told me that Harriet Wilson had looked up snow crab in Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (that and the second were considered crossword bibles), and the only definition listed was “specially equipped railroad car.”  I had referenced that entry as (commonly sold in stores), but Harriet felt the railroad clue would be fairer, since not every solver had access to a grocery store.  (Checking modern dictionaries and Wikipedia, I notice that the crustacean is listed and the railroad car is nowhere to be found.)

When Will Shortz began editing the Times puzzles, he asked me to construct a jumbo 25x25 Christmas crossword.  “Ho, Ho, Ho” appeared on 12/19/1993 and featured a SANTA rebus.  I thanked Will for allowing me that honor and then politely asked to be relieved of future Christmas crossword assignments.  I had run out of new ideas and felt it was time for a change.  Liz Gorski’s “Good One!” (12/22/2013) is a good example of that change.


One of my favorite crosswords I constructed was for Golf Digest, a three-page centerfold in honor of the 1990 U.S. Open.  U.S. OPEN was spelled out in red squares that ran through the center of the grid.  Fred “Boom Boom” Couples appeared on the cover of that issue.  I remember carefully inking in the black squares with a Magic Marker and then typing in the clue numbers in the diagram, because the puzzle had to be camera-ready.

Another one of my favorites was for an Albany, N.Y., punk band called Blotto.  I designed a crossword for their 1981 album cover titled Across and Down.  The diagram was featured on the cover, and the clues were found on the back.  They gave me a list of words they wanted me to include in the grid.  One was only two letters—hence, the two-letter-word violation, which raised a few eyebrows from my colleagues at the time.  Answers to the crossword could be found in song lyrics on that album.  Each member had a Blotto name:  Bowtie Blotto, Broadway Blotto, Cheese Blotto, Lee Harvey Blotto, and Sergeant Blotto.  (For this album, I was credited as Samson Blotto.)  After  their album came out, I had a chance to meet them in their dressing room during a concert they were giving in the Jabberwocky Room at Syracuse University.  I remember knocking on the door, and a voice said, "Who is it?"

"Samson Blotto!" I said.

"Samson Blotto?  Come on in!"

Years later, Eugene asked me for suggestions on a title for a book he was working on.  I reminded him of the Blotto album title Across and Down.  He liked it.

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(August 23, 2013)

Charles Gersch. Photo by Don Christensen.

How did you become interested in crossword construction?

I used to watch my father and mother solving crosswords in the papers when I was younger.  That certainly was a major factor in my puzzle interests.  Crossword construction for me goes back to junior high.

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

For the Herald Tribune (where my first puzzle appeared), I think yes.  For the Times, the third was accepted.

How old were you when your first puzzle was published?

In the Tribune, exactly 13 1/2.  In the Times, almost 21.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor, and how would you define her style?

I wish I still had her letters and style sheet!  She saw I had talent and encouraged me to keep trying.  Her letters were like revelations to me in my early days, describing to me as a young constructor what worked, what didn't, what she liked, what she didn't like. . . .  She often aimed for topical, current themed puzzles.  She was very innovative and groundbreaking in her style, setting down many of the crossword rules that have lasted for years.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?

We hardly corresponded, as I didn't submit much during those years.

How did crosswords that Will Weng edited differ from those that Margaret Farrar edited?

As I recall, he didn't change much; he mostly kept Mrs. Farrar's general style.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Based on his correspondence, he seemed like he knew everything about crosswords.  He was very straightforward in his style, very frank in his letters and correspondence.  By that time, I had more time for making puzzles and had quite a few published with him.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng and Margaret Farrar?

He was a former school principal, so he aimed for crosswords that were educational.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

I would watch my parents solving, seeing what words fit into the puzzles and how; then I would try to weave together words on my own, and [smiling] miraculously they came together in a grid!  By watching my parents, I also got a sense of the clues and then would think up my own, often fresh, definitions.

I've heard (from some puzzle historians) that I was the first, or among the first, constructors to do a triple stack of 15-letter entries (though not necessarily in the Times).  With these and other fills, I look at various letter patterns and see what other letters fit around those entries already in the grid, trying to maintain some fresh and creative entries, and then "magically" it all comes together. . . !

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

Still by hand (amazingly!).

How has your construction style changed over the 60 years you’ve been constructing crosswords?

[Jokingly]  I didn't know I had a style!  I try to keep the puzzles fresh and lively, while meeting the demands and desires of the editors.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

I really like the Casablanca puzzle that ran in the Maleska era, around late '92, about the time that the movie was rereleased celebrating its 50th anniversary.  I really got a lot of theme entries into that puzzle; I felt really good about that.  Dr. Maleska also really liked it, so I was also quite proud of that.

I noticed that you published two Sunday New York Times puzzles with the exact same title, “Words on Parade,” under two separate editors (Farrar and Maleska).  The first appeared on March 8, 1959; the second appeared on March 17, 1991.  How would you compare the two puzzles?

It was a thrill to see these again!  As I recall, Mrs. Farrar came up with the original title; years later, I was toying with the idea again for a similar puzzle, and it was a nice challenge coming up with more clever and mainly different entries for the second puzzle.  Dr. Maleska told me later he really liked how it all worked out.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

It's quite an impressive database and project.  Good luck with it!

Did you teach your son [Jonathan Gersch] how to construct crosswords, or did he teach himself?

Maybe it's in the genes, though having structured mathematical minds (as we both do) probably helps.  [Jonathan Gersch notes:  Similar to my father, I would watch him solving when I was younger and have been very much into solving puzzles of many sorts throughout my life; at some point, having watched my dad construct numerous puzzles also, I soon figured I would try to do so as well, and likewise have honed my ability over the years, thanks in good measure to my father's expertise.]

Charles and Jonathan Gersch at 2008 ACPT.
Photo by Don Christensen.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Chess, history, politics, reading.

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(August 9, 2013)

What got you interested in crossword construction, and how did you become an editor?

I attempted to solve my dad’s Times crosswords from about age 9 or 10.  I went on to solving puzzle magazines with all kinds of puzzles.  Much later I made my own puzzles for the grammar school newsletter editor who asked for them.  They were pretty awful, but constructing them intrigued me completely over solving.  I got a bit more proficient, and finally I sold to newsstand magazines for $5 and $7 per puzzle!

When Weng became editor I wrote to apply as his assistant.  He said thanks, but there were no funds for that, and why didn’t I apply to Dell Magazines as a freelance editor.  This worked out beautifully, and I edited the “Expert” and “Challenger” puzzles for them from 1971 on.

How would you describe Margaret Farrar as an editor?  Did she change your grids, clues, or both?

Margaret changed nothing, because she never accepted a puzzle from me.  I must’ve been on her Do Not Call list.  So I was very glad when Will Weng took over, because he printed practically everything I sent him.

Margaret Farrar and Nancy Schuster

How would you describe Will Weng as an editor?

I loved Weng and, unlike Ai (Arthur Schulman), I found his more modern and witty editing much more fun than Margaret’s.  So much so that that’s the reason I first wrote to him about a job.

I’ll be featuring your Military Titles 15x in an upcoming blog post.  What are your thoughts about it now?  Are there any entries or clues you would change?

After a quick look, it appears to be very much in the style of that day, with pretty straightforward cluing, e.g.

It might have been unusual in that the theme was in the clues and not in the answers, and that might have been a new approach, but I’d have to see other puzzles of that time to be sure.

How would you describe Eugene T. Maleska as an editor?

I thought he was a big come-down from Weng.  But I was already very familiar with his talents, since I had been editing his puzzles for Dell for more than five years.  His clues always needed lightening up, if possible, and an avoidance of the pedantic tone.

How would you describe yourself as an editor, and do you still edit crosswords?

I edit whenever I’m given the chance nowadays!  I am somewhat careless and need a good proofer.  I’m in favor of everyday language over pompous or complicated cluing.

What made or makes a puzzle stand out to you?

Primarily, I’m constantly amazed at the creativity of constructors nowadays.  We always think there are no more original themes after all these years, then eureka! something new and clever shows up.  It happens so often now that I’m perpetually thrilled and delighted.

What do you think of crossword construction software?  Do you think it leads to better or worse puzzles overall?

I never used it, having been stuck with graph paper and reading the dictionary backwards when necessary.  The software has to be used in the right hands.  I’m sure this makes the fill much better than it used to be, so long as you keep building up your word lists.  When people solve your pre-Shortzian puzzles, they should keep in mind that the entire grid had to come out of your brain and nowhere else.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

It’s wonderful for solvers and constructors to learn what life was like and what was important to people back in the olden days. ;)  If you’re solving an oldie, try to pretend you’re living back then.  It was a kinder, gentler, more courteous world, but I am probably prejudiced!  It’s very nice that we old guys are getting a little new recognition.

How did you become such a speedy crossword solver?

The same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

What are some of your other interests outside of crosswords?

Family, friends, health, and once upon a time, men. ;)

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(April 26, 2013)

What got you interested in crossword puzzles?

My mother taught remedial reading in elementary school.  My father solved the crossword (and the Double-Crostic, which he really enjoyed) over Sunday breakfast.  He said his goal was to finish everything at the same time:  the puzzles, his coffee, and his toast-and-jam.  If he needed another piece of toast or two or another cup of coffee or two in the process . . . oh, well.  Thus, my curiosity and love of words came from both my parents.

My wife’s parents were also crossword solvers, and so Peggy and I bought many puzzle books, including Double-Crostic collections.  During one vacation the metaphoric lightbulb appeared, and I literally said to Peggy, “If we’re paying to buy these books, maybe the puzzle writers get paid for making the puzzles.”  Fully armed with no knowledge whatsoever of the craft, I figured out how to make a Double-Crostic puzzle by printing a quotation in block letters on a sheet of paper, cutting the paper into squares, and rearranging the tiles to form the “answer these clues” part of the puzzle.  Crossword puzzles were next, with hand-drawn grids on graph paper and a huge pile of eraser crumbs.  Strictly trial-and-error, including, for example, the remarkable discovery that “Starting to write a puzzle at 1-Across is a bad idea.”

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar, yet your debut puzzle was published under Will Weng.  You mentioned on Cruciverb-l that Farrar rejected some of your puzzles.  What did Farrar-era rejection slips look like—what was her reasoning for turning down your submissions?

My first submitted puzzle was, in fact, a Double-Crostic sent to Thomas Middleton in 1968 or 1969.  Middleton’s Simon & Schuster collections permitted only five reader-submitted puzzles, so ours (the byline included Peggy’s name) didn’t appear until 1972.  As I recall, the reward was $10.  The quotation was from Portnoy’s Complaint, and I had to use a couple of ellipses to cut a few objectionable words.

The first crossword puzzle I submitted went to the only outlet I knew of, “Puzzle Editor, c/o The New York Times.”  It must have arrived not long after Will Weng succeeded Margaret Farrar.  He rejected it, noting that, for one thing, the grid had too many entries.  He also commented that my assortment of punny phrases was inconsistent.  But he encouraged me to try again.  I split that puzzle into two diagramless constructions keeping the puns Weng liked and added a few more.  He published both in the fall of 1970.  I sent him my first 15 x 15 in the fall of 1970, and he ran that in late December.  The reward was $15.

Margaret Farrar had left the Times before I started submitting puzzles.  I soon learned of her available markets, the Simon & Schuster collections, and another Sunday venue.  I submitted puzzles of all sizes to her, most of which she accepted.  As you probably know, she formulated what we refer to as the “Sunday breakfast table” rule regarding upbeat material with no controversy or innuendo.  In that regard, she (1) modified a corner in one of my puzzles to replace INCEST by AT BEST, and (2) sent back a wedding-theme Sunday puzzle because one of the entries was BLOOD TESTS, which, she rightly pointed out, had disease connotations.  I pulled an all-nighter and changed BLOOD TESTS to ELOPEMENTS, whereupon she restored the puzzle to her June schedule.  On another occasion she accepted a puzzle but advised me to pay attention in the future because my Sunday grid had too many three-letter words.  Her correspondence, whether rejection or acceptance, was always polite, gracious, informational, and, er, constructive.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?

I liked Will Weng a lot, and I’m not saying that just because he accepted my work.  His style was more modern than Margaret’s, of course, and he allowed looser entries while retaining Farrar’s insistence on proper decorum.  (Well, almost.  He never noticed the theme of my very first daily puzzle, missing the connection between RUMPUS ROOM, CIGAR BUTTS, and two more.)

My first Sunday puzzle was titled “Inflation.”  Peggy suggested the idea, inspired by the Victor Borge routine involving phonetic numeral shifts (for example, the word wonderful became two-derful).  The puzzle began as a large diagramless.  When I had it done, I realized there was room for two more thematic answers if I converted the whole thing to a Sunday puzzle.  At the time inflation was high in our economy; Will was afraid that would cool down, and he bumped my puzzle ahead of others in his schedule so it would “remain relevant.”

First and foremost, Weng wanted solving to be fun.  His correspondence always reflected that and was encouraging and gentlemanly.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

Dr. Maleska was, by comparison with Will Weng, more pedantic across the board.  I assume that came from the nature of his education and career as an education administrator.  His correspondence could be brusque and admonishing, particularly when he rejected a submittal, because he knew what he wanted to see.  From conversations with other constructors, I knew he wasn’t singling me out.

Maleska was directly responsible for my first editorial opportunity.  I had sent him a Sunday puzzle based on the Tolkien trilogy, which he rejected because “not enough solvers would recognize the material.”  Several months later, a start-up publisher wrote him, asking if he had any Tolkien-themed crosswords in his hopper that could be purchased for a “Tolkien Scrapbook” olio to contain critical essays, “Middle-Earth” recipes, etc.  He remembered my puzzle and passed my name along.  The puzzle appeared in that book, along with an apt acrostic.  A couple years later, the publisher decided to pursue crossword books, and the only name in their files was mine.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng?

Maleska’s education included a lot of classical studies, and he was an opera enthusiast; consequently, his frame of reference differed greatly from Weng’s, and that was reflected in the puzzle entries and clues he liked.  So, in a way, his puzzles reverted to an earlier time with a more traditional vocabulary and, I think, less humor.

What inspired you to write a book about puzzle construction?  How and when did you meet Stan Kurzban?

Stan and I were IBM employees in the Poughkeepsie, New York, area, and we were often paired or in opposition at the bridge table.  He had written a few diagramless puzzles for The New York Times, including one asymmetrical design in the shape of New York State with ten or so place names more-or-less in their proper geographic locations.

Our motivation was simple.  When people learned of our avocation, too often they would ask, “What do you do first, the answers or the clues?”  That led to “Let’s write a book on a topic we know something about, get our names in print, and maybe earn some royalties.”  Kurzban was the driving force behind The Compleat Cruciverbalist (although we each wrote about half the material).  He had written a text on computer security and thought we could use his “in” with the publisher, even though our material was far outside the publisher’s usual arena.

Did the publication of your book have any unanticipated/serendipitous consequences?

The consequences are all pleasant.  Kurzban and I had revised our 1981 book in 1995 with the title Random House Puzzlemaker’s Handbook Will Shortz wrote its foreword, saying we would tell beginners everything they needed to know to start making puzzles, and experts everything they needed to know to polish their work for the best-paying markets.

Kurzban and I are happy that we contributed to the general acceptance of the word cruciverbalist, which has made its way into the modern dictionaries, and even happier that our books served to mentor a number of today’s well-known puzzle writers.  By the way, the 1981 book was one of two cited in a Dear Abby column in response to a query about the mysterious word cruciverbalist, which had been coined several years earlier by constructor Father Edward J. O’Brien.

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

In the early 1980s I wrote the first computer program to help crossword constructors!  I had seen a calendar prepared on a dot-matrix printer and saw the analogy between calendar cells with numbers and puzzle boxes.  I bought an IBM PC within three months of that product’s introduction, taught myself BASIC, and wrote a program that eliminated the eraser crumbs and pencil nubs all over my office.  The program made sure my grids were symmetrical, ensured my work was clean for submittal (I spoiled perhaps 30 percent of the grids I was preparing by hand, either by mis-numbering, blackening a wrong cell, or inadvertently twitching a pen line across the page), ensured every grid entry had a clue, and built a rudimentary clue database and a word-finder database.  The program did not fill a grid by itself.

I don’t remember now how other constructors learned of my program, but I sold maybe 100 copies in total.  William MacKaye, who edited the Sunday crossword for The Washington Post, bought the program and asked me to write a little module to convert my computer format to something that could directly feed his typesetting process.  He told me soon after that the very first puzzle he fed through his new procedure turned out to have an asymmetrical grid, which he had not noticed.  He began paying a modest bonus for puzzles sent on diskette in my format.

When Windows supplanted DOS I wanted to rewrite my program but lacked time.  Fortunately, Antony Lewis (then a graduate student in England) decided to teach himself computer programming by writing the program Crossword Compiler.  This was purely an intellectual exercise; he was not a puzzle constructor.  I became an immediate fan and user.

What do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages of using construction programs compared to constructing by hand?

The first, and most obvious, advantage of software assistance is taking care of all that mechanical stuff (symmetrical diagrams, nice printout, and so on) that has nothing to do with the creative work of writing a puzzle.

Crossword Compiler has two grid-filling modes.  The Basic version of the program automatically fills words into a grid once you have declared where the black squares are and supplied some thematic or other answers.  The Professional version of the program can “autofill” as well, but it can also allow the puzzle writer to select one entry at a time from available words that satisfy the current intersection constraints.  Using autofill to confirm that there is at least one way to complete a partially constructed grid seems okay to me, but relying solely on that process encourages laziness, a disadvantage because the constructor learns nothing.

Conversely, using autofill as “proof of concept” leads to many more good wide-open grids and other highly constrained configurations.  Before computer assistance Jordan Lasher was one of the very few constructors daring to create grids with low word counts.  They’re commonplace today and of high quality.

Computer assistance allows a puzzle writer to explore many more options for filling a grid than would likely be undertaken when composing by hand, and without eraser crumbs.  The result, given a satisfactorily large and modern database, should be more interesting for the solver than an array of words bogged down with those STRNLE letters.  I don’t love STRESSLESSNESS.

There’s a two-edged sword inherent in computer programs for crossword writers, and that is the clue database.  The advantage of the database is, perhaps counterintuitively, that a puzzle writer can find an answer that has never before appeared in any puzzle reflected in that database.  CRINGING doesn’t appear in my file of more than 1.5 million clues, for example.  The disadvantage of having such a database available is, again, laziness, because it’s too easy to forgo invention and merely grab clues from the file.  The Compleat Cruciverbalist, by the way, advised constructors to be inventive, to use different kinds of clues in each puzzle, and to avoid lamely repeating old clues—for instance, [Woody plant] for TREE.

How would you define your crossword construction style?  Has it changed over the many years you’ve been constructing puzzles?

My constructing style has always had the goal of making puzzles that are fun for me to pull together and, I hope, fun to solve, with an “Aha!” moment or two.  Over the years I have pretty much eliminated real obscurities and crosswordese entries from my grids.  (Question:  Are ENYA and ENDE modern crosswordese?)  Like everyone in this arena, my frame of reference is what I grew up with, so these days I can watch entire Jeopardy! music and film categories and not recognize a single answer or question.  Probably for that reason, my cluing style tends toward an encyclopedic approach rather than tie-ins to current culture.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

“Squarely Figured,” by A. J. Santora.  Oh, wait, you mean a puzzle *I* wrote!  One I liked appeared in The Wall Street Journal “I Asked How’s Business . . . ” [And the taxi driver said . . . ] –> REALLY PICKING UP.  Another was “Location! Location! Location!” in The Washington Post The long answers were clued identically:  [Location of this answer].  One long answer was BEYOND REPROACH; the answer in front of that on the same row was TSK TSK.  The center row had BETWEEN JOBS, with TASK and WORK in front and behind.  A puzzle I was particularly proud of was a tribute to Frances Hansen.  She had devised a recurring theme she called “interview with . . . ” featuring job-appropriate punning answers to normal interview questions.  I wrote “Interview With a Cruciverbalist,” shamelessly copying her approach and incorporating her name in the grid.  The puzzle was the Margaret Award winner in Simon & Schuster's Series 247.

One of my favorites of your puzzles, “Fuller Explanations,” was published on July 13, 1975, and I’m featuring it in my blog today.  This fun puzzle had the definitions of various pieces of pre-Shortzian crosswordese as entries in the puzzle, while the clues themselves were the entries that appeared on an almost daily basis back then.  Was there anything special you remember about the construction process behind this one?

That was devised as a joke, to poke fun at the ADITs and ESNEs that were common fodder in those days.

You mentioned that you also constructed many pre-Shortzian second Sunday puzzles.  Which specific types of variety puzzles did you construct, and how did variety puzzles back then compare to Shortz-era variety puzzles?

I started with diagramless puzzles, which are easy to prepare.  I composed a few “Puns & Anagrams” puzzles, and when Will Weng introduced a 17 x 13 similar puzzle he called “Puns & Twists,” I made those as well.  They permitted some longer phrase answers.  I composed a few cryptics.  There were a couple of puzzles I called “Should-be Words” with clues like “Main events” leading to the answer LIMINARIES and “Still afire” leading to TINGUISHED.  The pre-Shortzian second Sunday assortment also included Acrostic puzzles, but Thomas Middleton (and, later, Cox & Rathvon) had that niche pretty well sewn up.

Dr. Maleska discontinued some of the second Sunday varieties in favor of more cryptic puzzles.  Will Shortz incorporated some new varieties such as Split Decisions (which have no clues!) and Marching Bands, both of which arose in Games Magazine.

Which aspect of the eventual database of pre-Shortzian puzzles are you most excited about?

The opportunity to revisit a lot of gems, including, frankly, the chance to see again some puzzles by folks who are no longer with us.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Peggy and I met at our college freshman mixer 54 years ago.  At the end of the school year, she told me that if I wanted to keep seeing her the next year, I had to learn how to play bridge and tennis over the summer.  Which I did . . . no fool, I.  Peggy still plays bridge every week.  I haven’t sat at a bridge table regularly for a few years, but I read the column in our local paper every day and analyze the hand.  We both gave up tennis about three years ago as our bodies started to, you know.

I took classical piano lessons from the age of five until I graduated high school.  My father was a very good Dixieland pianist, so I was also exposed to jazz early on:  Brubeck, Peterson, Basie, Fitzgerald, Bennett, and so forth.  Serendipitously, Peggy’s father was an amateur clarinetist and a big fan of Benny Goodman, so her music tastes coincided wonderfully with mine.  I play occasional gigs, and I swing out every week when I sit in at a jazz jam in a local restaurant.

Finally, about eight years ago, Peggy persuaded me to take up ballroom dancing.  Our favorite style is Argentine tango, which I celebrated in a crossword puzzle using a common characterization for that dance:  A vertical expression of a horizontal desire.

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(April 19, 2013)

Image courtesy of The Pennsylvania
Gazette and Sarah Bloom.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor?

Margaret was a warm woman with a fine sense of humor.  I visited her in her apartment and she was hospitable, generous, and extremely patient with me.  She was most encouraging.  Evidently she saw possibilities.  I was a slow starter and did not know that puzzlers have definite rules to follow.  After a number of rejections, she published my first puzzle, which contained the two 15-letter words MAMIE EISENHOWER and OLD MAN AND THE SEA.  That is what I remember.

How about Will Weng?

Will Weng was a dear man.  I do not think he ever criticized work that I did and never rejected a puzzle.  I considered him a real friend.

And, finally, Eugene T. Maleska?

Gene was a brusque, gruff bear of a man, and not a patient person.  I do not know how to type and, to this day, still use two fingers.  I misspelled villain in one puzzle, and his letter to me was probably the worst call-down I have ever received.  I did not know him well but was very impressed that he answered every letter in longhand very, very promptly.

How would you define the styles of these three editors?

I do not know how to compare their editing.  I suppose I was lucky.  The three of them took all my work.  I was prolific and able to be creative at the same time.

What do you think of the changes in crossword puzzles over the years?

I think puzzles are getting harder and are using new words that I find difficult.  Perhaps I'm a fuddy-duddy.  I prefer PEGGY LEE to LADY GAGA, GRETA GARBO to JENNIFER LOPEZ.

What’s the most interesting crossword you’ve seen constructed by someone other than you?

I have no favorite constructor.  I think many are extremely clever.

How would you define your crossword construction style?

I do not really have a style, but I have a great sense of humor and try to put it in my puzzles.  For instance, in the case of the word BOOB, it was a cartoon character and not part of the body.

Margaret changed one of my opening words from KREMLIN to GREMLIN, because it was more amusing.

You mentioned in an interview with The Pennsylvania Gazette that one of the best puzzles that you constructed was a rebus of &, which was published on Sunday, May 30, 1965.  I’m featuring this puzzle in today’s blog—was there anything memorable about its construction process or publication?

Margaret said she had never seen anything like it in her puzzles, and she was not sure readers would accept a rebus.  She held it for about six months, and when she published it on a Sunday, the response was overwhelming.  She mailed me manila envelopes full of praise for originality, and just as many who said it was tricky and underhanded and a poor excuse for a puzzle.  But it really started a new trend in constructing.

You also mentioned in your Pennsylvania Gazette interview that you have 300-plus puzzles ready to send out since you outlived many of your puzzle editors.  Approximately how many puzzles do you construct per year?

I still do a puzzle a day.  I have a group of senior citizens here where I live that comes every Wednesday for a kind of therapy.  I make them very simple, as some of the senior citizens have dementia.  They thought the girl who lost her glass slipper was Alice in Wonderland.

Which markets do you send puzzles to?

I send work to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Simon & Schuster, and Dell magazine.  I also do work for The Pennsylvania Gazette and for the Flower Show in Rittenhouse Square.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I really have no outside interests these days.  I am confined to my Hoveround and seldom go out.  My days of running, traveling, shopping are over.  No complaints.  I am content and always busy.

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(April 12, 2013)

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted, and how old were you?

According to my records, which are incomplete, my first Times crossword was published on August 24, 1953, when I was 18 years old and halfway through the B.A. program at Brooklyn College, majoring in mathematics.  It was the first puzzle I submitted to the Times, but not the first of my puzzles to be published.  Jack Luzzatto published at least one of my crosswords in 1952, and my first publication anywhere may have been in 1951.

Where was your first publication anywhere in 1951, and where did Jack Luzzatto publish that crossword in 1952?

Alas, I have been unable to find a record of my pre-1952 publications.  Luzzatto edited Original Crosswords.  My 17x17 puzzle, labeled "Custom-Built Job," appeared in the Winter 1952 issue; I think he published at least one more of mine, but I seem to have no record of such.  Luzzatto's note on my puzzle:  "This example of the intelligent type of crossword is specially designed to be a little more taxing than the everyday fare you get in the average newspaper.  It calls for an experienced hand in interpreting the clues, and is aimed at solvers who are quick on the uptake."

I've turned up some postcards from Jack Luzzatto; the oldest, which follows, is dated August 12, 1954:
Could you please send me 8 crosswords?  Four 15s and four 17s.  Your work is good, and must be typed.  I need them soon, and two or four at a time will do, though all should be here within four weeks.  Many thanks for accommodating me.  Payment as usual.
These were for Luzzatto's Crossword Puzzles for Experts.  In September 1954 I received a check for the less than princely sum of $70 "in payment for seven crossword puzzles."

What did you think of Margaret Farrar, Will Weng, and Eugene T. Maleska as editors, and how would you define their styles?

I liked Margaret very much.  I think she published nearly all of the more than 100 dailies I sent to her, many of them on Saturdays.  My misspelling of EAST LYNNE was unsalvageable, and she couldn't find KIAMESHA in any of her atlases.  But it was easy to replace BAWD, a suggestive term she objected to, and my "bad-news" puzzle containing ALEXANDER DUBCEK and KARLOVY VARY was eventually published by Will Weng.  My file of more than 30 years of our correspondence is more than an inch thick; it includes the last letter she wrote to a constructor, dictated on June 9, 1984.  The dailies in the Times reflect her conservative tastes, but she was willing to publish—on Sundays and in collections—an occasional cryptic crossword and even a bar-puzzle of mine.  She was, in her own right, one of our finest crossword constructors.

As for Margaret's successors before Will Shortz, I have little to say.  I didn't care very much for Weng's sense of humor, and I submitted few puzzles to him.  I had an extensive correspondence with Maleska and even had lunch with him once in New York.  But I never thought much about editorial style, perhaps because it was rare for any of my puzzles to be rejected.  I never checked to see whether any of my grid entries had been altered or whether my clues, which I never spent much time in drafting, had been replaced by better ones.

How did you go about constructing crosswords by hand?

Especially as I matured as a constructor, and certainly for puzzles larger than dailies, I would almost always begin at 1-Across with a word whose structure appealed to me aesthetically.  I almost never deliberately set out to make a themed puzzle but was happy to discover that a puzzle with ZIMBABWE at 1-Across was doable.  Successful northwest corners of this kind are, unfortunately, hard to duplicate in the southeast, and so my files bulge with more partially filled grids than I care to reexamine.  (See also the chapter on me in Helene Hovanec's Creative Cruciverbalists.)

Do you still construct crosswords by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

I'm still a pencil-and-paper guy.

I’ve noticed that you like to use a lot of unusual/Scrabbly letters in your puzzles.  What else characterizes your construction style?

I've often tried to create pangrammatic puzzles.  I don't know that I have a "construction style."

How has your construction style changed over the 60 years you’ve been constructing crosswords?

My "style" may not have changed, but my interests in crossword construction have.  I now have more than 200 vowelless 15x15s in my files, the vast majority of which are unpublished.  They are in many ways easier to construct than conventional crosswords but at the same time make possible puzzles more than half of whose entries are thematically related.  Moreover, words and phrases underlying vowelless entries tend to be nonrepeaters—i.e., they seldom, if ever, are seen in conventional crosswords—thus making vowelless puzzles more interesting, at least for sophisticated solvers.

More recently I have explored the possibilities of A–M and N–Z puzzles—i.e., crosswords whose entries exclude half the letters of our alphabet.  Thus, CROSSWORDPUZZLE would appear as CDLE in A–M and as ROSSWORPUZZ in N–Z.  These puzzles are much harder to construct than a vowelless—it is hard to anticipate the difficulties in stacking up the entries—but, as with any constraint-driven practice, one can produce more interesting results than one might have thought possible.

Other construction challenges over the years:  (1) a number of bar-puzzles—all symmetric, like conventional block-puzzles—which offer the constructor new opportunities for interlock.  I regret that nobody has pursued the possibilities that bar-puzzles might afford.  And (2) back in the '60s I collaborated with Oliver Selfridge, one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, to produce some cryptic crosswords, which we published under the pseudonym TANTALUS.  I thought that these and some others that I produced on my own were pretty good, even if not up to the standard of Sondheim, Hex, and many others of today.

Of all the puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

No favorites.

One of my favorites of your puzzles was published on March 29, 1975 (1-Across was SOLO), which I’m featuring along with your interview.  This pangrammatic puzzle contained the awesome entries JAVA MAN, SQUEEGEES, METHANOL, et al.  Was there anything special you remember about the construction process behind this one?

I just found the SOLO puzzle in my scrapbook.  I don't recall anything about the construction process, but I was obviously pleased to be able to stack up JAVAMAN, EXOGAMIC, and FILIPINO in the northeast corner.  I probably started with SQUEEGEE at 1-Down.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

Doubles squash, table tennis, opera, baseball, Nabokov, Perec, dictionaries, birds, Mozart, Barcelona, Joseph Mitchell, Waverley Root, Orwell, Salinger, Emily Dickinson, Saul Steinberg, etc.

It's cool that you play table tennis!  Have you ever played Will?

Will Shortz and I were once close to each other in table tennis prowess, but he's become a much better player and would surely win easily if we played today.

I found an article about you in UVAToday that mentions a book you're working on, "The Mind of the Puzzler."  That sounds fascinating—will it be published soon?

Alas, "The Mind of the Puzzler" exists only in my mind, although I set out to write the book more than 20 years ago.  People who know me have long since stopped asking me about it.  I should still finish it, and I have fond hopes of doing so, but time is running out.  All that exists as testimony to this project is a chapter, "The Art of the Puzzler" (the editor's title, not mine), a sort of precis of the work in progress, that came out in a collection called Cognitive Ecology 17 years ago.  [Ed:  To read this chapter, click here.]

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(January 5, 2013)

You submitted your first puzzles to Margaret Farrar.  Did the first puzzle you sent get accepted?  If not, how many puzzles did you send before your first puzzle was accepted?

I succeeded on the third submission.  First one rejected because of excess crosswordese, including the word OONT (Indian camel) crossing DJO (Japanese land measure).  I made use of The Dell Crossword Dictionary, a mistake.  Second rejected because of contrived abbreviations—e.g., DIPH, as short for diphthong.

How old were you when your first puzzle was published?

Age 26.

What did you think of Margaret Farrar as an editor, and how would you define her style?

Mrs. Farrar was a lovely, caring person.  You got a personal note with a critique rather than a rejection slip.  Her challenge was to think up fresh clues to commonly repeated entries like AREA and ARIA, etc.  Also, to hold crosswordese to a bare minimum.

What motivated you to start constructing Puns and Anagrams puzzles?

I hadn't a clue on how to solve P&As until a friend, who was solving one on the beach, explained things to me.  I got hooked as a fan.  Some months later I constructed one, and Mrs. Farrar accepted it, editing about 75–80 percent of the clues.

What did you think of Will Weng as an editor, and how would you define his style?  How did crosswords that Will Weng edited differ from those that Margaret Farrar edited?

Will Weng was a gentleman through and through.  He brought to the puzzle the outrageous theme, allowing for calculated misspellings of theme words—e.g., LIONEL BURYMORE, mortician to the stars, or BEAULING, etc.  Mrs. Farrar liked plays on words, but the spelling had to be correct.

What did you think of Eugene T. Maleska as an editor, and how would you define his style?

ETM was a scholar, and his editing reflected his erudition.  He was big on vocabulary, using such words as "absquatulate" in the clues.

How did Maleska-edited crosswords differ from those edited by Will Weng and Margaret Farrar?

ETM built on the work of Farrar and Weng.  He was, in general, more exacting in his criteria and less gentle in dealing with contributors than his predecessors had been.

I read somewhere that Maleska unsuccessfully tried to phase out Puns and Anagrams puzzles.  Has it been difficult to convince editors to continue to publish them?

P&As, under Farrar, appeared every four weeks.  Weng also had a four-week schedule, but somewhere along the line he introduced Puns and Twists.  The diagram was 17x13.  The main entries were to be punny, with as many of the smaller words as possible given to wordplay.  No anagrams, and straight clues for the words that didn't lend themselves to wordplay.  He would run mostly P&As but slip in a Puns and Twists every now and then.  Maleska was thinking of doing away with P&As in favor of British-style cryptics, but a barrage of protest induced him to change his mind.  He would alternate the P&As with what he hoped to be British cryptics with an American flair.

You ghost-edited three weeks of New York Times puzzles (one week when Maleska was taking an extended vacation, and two weeks when he was going in for major surgery).  Did any solvers realize or suspect that Maleska had not actually edited these puzzles?

Not that I know of.

The puzzle that Maleska had slated for August 29, 1993, had to be replaced since there was an uncorrectable spelling error (OTTOWA instead of OTTAWA) where two long theme entries intersected.  You were asked to edit the replacement puzzle, which was constructed by Tap Osborn.  Was any effort made to replace OTTOWA, or did you or someone else deem it uncorrectable?  What was the theme of the puzzle that was never published, and was the puzzle later revised and published?

OTTOWA was part of a lengthy theme entry, and the second O crossed with a similarly sized, correctly spelled theme entry.  It would have been impossible to fix without undoing almost the entire puzzle.  I don't know if the author ever redid the puzzle.  The puzzle had already been edited by ETM, who had not been well during most of the preceding months, and he simply missed the error.  It was noted at the last minute by Harriett Wilson, who handled the proofreading and all sorts of other chores at The Times.  ETM worked from his home in Cape Cod, and Harriett was his most capable right hand.

How did you become interim editor?

After I retired in 1992 from my real job, ETM asked if I could work part-time at The Times helping out Harriett.  She had been overworking and hadn't had a decent vacation in some time.  They had hired someone to help her, but that woman knew only crosswords and next to nothing about The Times's second Sunday puzzles—viz., diagramless, P&A, and crostic puzzles.  I worked for a year filling in for Harriett during vacation time.  I had just finished a tour of duty when it became apparent that ETM was near death.  There were only enough edited puzzles to cover 3–4 weeks, and I was asked to fill in.

After Maleska passed away, his wife sent The New York Times a carton of puzzles that he had accepted for you to choose from.  Approximately how large was Maleska's queue—did he hold onto accepted puzzles for a long time before publishing them?

I did an inventory but don't remember the count.  There were certainly 100–125 dailies, 75 or more large Sunday puzzles, a handful of diagramless, P&A, and cryptic puzzles, and a few crostics.  As to the crostics, Maleska never looked at them.  Harriett would just check them for accuracy and proofread the printed copy.  No editing was done except when there were too many long definitions for the allotted space.  They had faith in Thomas Middleton, and he rarely, if ever, let them down.  I have no idea how long ETM held the puzzles after acceptance.  I'm sure it varied.

You mentioned that The New York Times was confused about whether there should be an editor byline for a couple of weeks—the puzzles from this time period had no editorial bylines.  Why was The Times confused?

I can't speak to the thought process of the boss at The Times.  Did the interim editor rate a byline?  He thought no, from the top of his head.  I  managed to get him to change his mind.  The thought process meant that the first two weeks' worth of puzzles had no byline.

How would you define your editing style?  How did it differ from that of previous editors?

I built on what I had learned from Farrar, Weng, and Maleska.  I tried to inject a little more wordplay and humor and, always, strived for fresh definitions for the usual repeat words.

What was it like being editor of the New York Times crossword?

Hard work.  You labored in a fishbowl, and even the slightest error would be magnified.  Think of the gotcha gang.

What happened to new submissions during this transition period?  You mentioned that two or three puzzles you edited were not from Maleska’s carton—what's the story behind those puzzles?

Since no permanent editor had been hired, I discouraged new submissions for the time being.  It would have been embarrassing to accept a puzzle that was later returned by the new editor.  Or, conversely, to reject a puzzle that was later accepted.  One of the three exceptions was a puzzle of mine run the first Wednesday (September 8) after I started.  Later on, we were running out of tough Saturday puzzles, and I asked someone to do a couple.  I know I ran one.  The other, I think, was left for Will Shortz.

Did you respond to fan mail and "Gotcha!" reports that came in for the puzzles you edited?

I responded to all fan mail, including the gotchas.  I remember just one exception—the epistle was from an obvious psychotic, and I just buried it somewhere after consulting with Harriett.

How did you select puzzles from the carton?  Did you pick them randomly, or did you choose the ones that you liked the most?

I went through all the puzzles, sorted them out in order of difficulty, analyzed them, and made my selections.  Someone had done a puzzle for Ned Rorem's 70th birthday that came out on a Saturday.  Maleska had accepted it and set it aside.  It was not as difficult as the regular Saturday offerings, and there were a few comments about that.

Were there any puzzles still left over from Maleska's carton?  If so, did they get passed on to Will Shortz?

There were a goodly number of puzzles left over for Will Shortz to look at.  During the first month or two of his tenure I recognized a number of the published puzzles.

What other crossword markets did you publish in during the pre-Shortzian era, and how did they differ from The New York Times?

I started constructing crostics in college circa 1951 and was selling them to sundry puzzle magazines, notably Dell.  In 1954 I started with crosswords and sold a number of these to Dell.  In fact, that first submission to The Times that was rejected was accepted by Dell.  They didn't mind crosswordese, because it would spur the sale of their Crossword Dictionary, a big seller in those days.  I also sold an occasional crossword to the Herald Tribune.  Nowadays, I've been doing a lot of crostics for a website,, run by Sue Gleason.

How do you think Will Shortz's style differs from the pre-Shortzian editors' styles?

Will certainly goes in for more wordplay than his predecessors did.  And the Friday and Saturday dailies are much tougher than they were prior to his taking over.

There used to be several other Puns and Anagrams constructors (Edward Buckler, Henry Hook, et al.).  Yet now, to my knowledge, you're the only constructor of such puzzles.  Would you consider Puns and Anagrams construction a lost art?

I guess you can say it's becoming a lost art.  In the early 1960s most of the P&A makers withdrew from the field.  One of the regulars, J. F. Kelly, died.  I used to study his puzzles early on for the right way to handle clues.  This left the field, more or less, to me.  Margaret discouraged newcomers, because it took up too much of her editing time.  Will Weng left it mainly to me, though here and there he would publish someone else's puzzle.  Maleska wanted the art to survive me and encouraged a few newcomers who showed promise.  He did, in fact, ask me to edit some of them and to offer suggestions.  He would then  reedit  them to a degree.  Will Shortz decided to use only mine and runs one every 18 weeks.  So, will it become a lost art?  Quien sabe?

What makes a good Puns and Anagrams puzzle?  Do you try to balance puns and anagrams, or do you prefer constructing puzzles with more of a certain form of wordplay?

What makes a good P&A?  Obviously, good clues.  I start with a couple of punned words and build from there.  I strive to use puns where possible, but anagrams are still in the majority, along with other schtick.

Do you still construct puzzles by hand, or have you switched to computer software?

By hand only.  I am computer-challenged.

Has your construction style changed over the nearly 60 years you've been publishing crossword puzzles and Puns and Anagrams puzzles, and if so, how?

The style has evolved over the years.  Mrs. Farrar had her standards, and Will Weng allowed these to be expanded.  Maleska's was a blend of both of the above, and I think I influenced his outlook.  Over the years, I tried all sorts of new kinds of clues, especially with small words.

What are some of your other interests outside of crossword puzzles?

I live with my wife in Manhattan, near Lincoln Center.  We enjoy theater, movies, and concerts and belong to a drama group at a local community center.  Then there are the museums and the dining out and just going for walks when the weather is right. 

In today's blog post, I'm featuring your “Tom Swifties Redivivus” Sunday puzzle that was published on December 11, 1988.  It's truly a masterpiece!  What was your inspiration for this puzzle, and how long did it take you to come up with 16 long theme entries that fit into a 21x grid?

Maleska opined that I hadn't done a large "straight" Sunday puzzle in years and "commissioned" me to do a Tom Swifties.  He chose the theme, and I came up with the words, which flowed from my head fast and furiously.  After a few hours I had a slew of entries, sorted them out, and came up with a suitable diagram to house them.

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(December 29, 2012)

What got you interested in constructing crosswords?

I was a solver of puzzles and thought constructing one would be very cool, although I thought I had zero chance of acceptance.  Thanks to Will Weng, my first 15-by-15 was finally accepted.  Under his guidance, and after much revising by me.  His encouragement kept me from giving up.  He accepted my first Sunday puzzle.

When did you start constructing?

In the 60's.

What was Will Weng like as an editor?

Very helpful, quiet, and unassuming.  A sweet disposition.

How would you compare Will Weng's editing style to that of Eugene T. Maleska?

Pretty similar.  Both in their own way were encouraging to me.  Gene was more strict, however.  But Gene was tough on you to make you better.

What was Eugene T. Maleska like as an editor?

Strict but fair.  Interesting to note that Gene's acceptances and rejections were handwritten.

How would you compare the pre-Shortzian era of crosswords to the Shortz era?

Most of my themed puzzles for Will Weng and Gene Maleska contained interlocked thematic grid entries.  Interlocking themes in puzzle grids have pretty much gone by the wayside.  That was the way things were done way back then.  Now, no longer.  Theme ideas like my bicentennial puzzles for Weng in 1976 resulted from much research.  But most theme ideas come from the brain of the constructor.

Puzzle constructors have witnessed changes since Will Shortz took over.  For example:
  • Constructor bylines on daily puzzles.  (That was a biggie.)
  • 15x15 puzzle payment $200.  (In Weng's and Maleska's day, considerably less.  A labor of love for puzzle constructors back then, you might say.  Hard labor of love.)
  • 21x21 and 23x23 puzzle payment now at $1000.  (Considerably less way back when.) 

Other changes since Shortz took over:
  • The difficulty of Shortz's "new wave" puzzles is often determined by the cluing, which is very clever, fresh, and challenging.
  • Expansion of the role of the grid entries to increase thematic variety—for example, grid themes that contain circles whose letters when connected uncover an author's name, movie, or book title, say, or a hint to the puzzle's theme.  Other figures in the grid are allowed now, as well.  A martini glass, say, or a double helix arrived at by connecting certain grid letters.
  • Monday through Thursday puzzles are all themed.
  • Friday and Saturday puzzles are all themeless.
  • Rebus puzzles are now encouraged.
  • Brand names like "Pepsi," for example, in the puzzle grid (kept to a minimum) are now acceptable.

Which aspect of the eventual pre-Shortzian database are you most excited about?  Do you think it will come in handy from a constructor's perspective, and if so, how?

There were no databases, as we think of them today.  Very few if any personal computers in the 60's.  Puzzles were done by hand.  Grid words came from dictionaries (no Google, no Internet), atlases, songbooks, etc.  Over the years I've constructed my own database culled from my reading.  "Fresh" words, those words seldom seen in crossword grids at any point in time.  Fresh but knowable to the solver.  Fresh words really come in handy when constructing themeless crosswords.

Do you use computer software to help construct your crosswords?


How did you construct crosswords by hand?

To construct a puzzle back in the 70's, one needed access to dictionaries, atlases, songbooks, thesauri, encyclopedias, etc.  Today a few keystrokes to the Internet and Google eliminate library visits and getting up off your butt to look up information.  When I got started back in the 70's, I assembled reams of graph paper, a fistful of hard-lead pencils, and a gum eraser.  A gum eraser the size of a football.

How would you compare constructing with computer software to constructing by hand?  What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Advantages:  keeping track of black squares and words in grid symmetry automatically.  Constructing by hand called for huge erasing horrors with each word change in the grid.  Many of my pre-computer puzzles have eraser holes perforating the graph paper.  Also, checking on duplicate words in the grid.  They can be overlooked when constructing by hand.

Out of all the many puzzles you’ve constructed, do you have a favorite?

The idea for "Clueless" (a Sunday New York Times puzzle for Shortz [published December 10, 1995]) came to me when I spotted in a blank New York Times grid the idea of using the clue numbers alone as clues.  The numbers for 21-Across, 50-Across, 77-Across, 112-Across, 13-Down, and 76-Down struck a chord.  The numbered longer grid entry blanks lent themselves to this idea.  The numbers could stand alone as clues.  And thus the title "Clueless."  Thus:

Clue 21-Across  becomes GAMBLER'S CARD GAME (twenty-one, blackjack at the casino)
Clue 50-Across  becomes STATE CAPITALS (50 state capitals)
Clue 77-Across  becomes TV SUNSET STRIP (77 Sunset Strip, you ask?  Don’t ask.)
Clue 112-Across  becomes FIFTY-SIX TIMES TWO (56 times 2 equals 112)
Clue 13-Down  becomes ROMAN XIII (Roman numeral for the number 13)
Clue 76-Down  becomes TROMBONES (76 trombones, you ask?  Song from the musical The Music Man.  The Music Man, you ask?  Don’t ask.)

Notice that in order to keep these numbers in the correct place in the grid, the black squares cannot be moved at all once the thematic entries are placed in the grid.

I'm featuring your "Playing with Matches" Sunday puzzle.  Was there anything interesting or memorable about this puzzle's construction process?

The idea came to me when I stumbled upon the phrase "clenched teeth."  The idea of pasting together two items as clues.  Thus "tuskincisor" for "clenched teeth," "saxantler" for "locked horns," etc.  Notice LOCKED HORNS is interlocked in the grid with STUCK RECORDS and JOINED FORCES.  An example of old-time interlocking.

What's your favorite puzzle of all time (constructed by someone else)?

Too many to mention.

Which crossword constructors/editors inspire you?  Who are some of your favorites?

Weng, Maleska, and Shortz in getting me started, making me better, and keeping me in the game of constructing.  Will Shortz has kept me around and not consigned me to the crossword boneyard.  And for that I'm very grateful.  Also, John Samson, editor of Simon & Schuster's crossword puzzle book series, has been very open to my constructions over the years.  Not to mention allowing me to copy edit many of those books.

Do you also solve crosswords?

Every day since the 50's

Rather than solve puzzles against the clock, I prefer a more couch-potato approach, you might say.  Sitting down over a steaming hot cup of coffee.  Hmm, that didn't come out right.  Sitting down, comma, steaming cup of coffee nearby, classical music in the background, I solve.  But there are those who prefer the challenge of speed in solving.  Will Shortz's annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament presents that challenge

What advice do you have for new crossword constructors?

Follow what crossword puzzle ideas editors are favoring nowadays and create your own ideas.  As I've said, themed puzzles require fresh words, words that haven't been used in grids before or used rarely.  Note new words or phrases that come into the language and make your own database.  Once your grid themes are entered, put in as many words from your "fresh word" database as you can.

What are some of your other interests outside of crosswords?

Golf and reading.

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(September 28, 2012)

What got you interested in constructing crosswords?

I was looking for something of interest to do after I retired.  Crosswords filled the bill nicely.  My wife, Debby, had done the New York Times puzzles for many years, so I jumped in.

I hadn't realized that you began constructing only after you retired—what was your wife's reaction?  Were you a solver too before you retired?  Was she surprised when you began constructing, and did you try to stump her with your puzzles?

I was not a solver (but I became one pretty quick).  She never looked at solved answer sheets (thought it was cheating), so long after the fact, she made the same errors as at first.

Your first New York Times crossword, which featured the phrase “crossword puzzle” in four different languages, was published on August 27, 1992.  How did it feel to see it in the paper?  Was this the first puzzle you sent to Eugene T. Maleska?

It felt fine . . . but something was missing.  My name!  I had to let people know, so I sent notification letters to all three friends who did puzzles and subscribed to The New York Times.  I live in San Francisco.

Maleska was famous for his rejection letters.  Did you ever receive any memorable ones?

The letters were rather strange, as it was more like being invited into an ongoing argument than an acceptance letter for a crossword puzzle.  I was already enjoyably subscribed to a great puzzle publication edited by Rich Silvestri when I found myself solicited for a dispute I had little knowledge of.

How would you compare the pre-Shortzian era of crosswords to the Shortz era?

The Shortz-era puzzles were more open.  Several classes of words were then not acceptable; clues were livelier, but puzzles really haven't changed that much.  Symmetry and grids are much the same.

Which classes of words weren't acceptable in Maleska puzzles?  I know Maleska didn't like brand names and contemporary references, but was there anything else?

That was it . . . maybe a few other categories of things.
Some of your puzzles appear in Parnell Hall’s Puzzle Lady mysteries.   How did this come about?  Did he write to you and ask for puzzles, or did you write to him and offer to construct them?

To tell you the truth, I  forgot, but it was pleasant. :-) 

What advice do you have for new crossword constructors?

Have fun!

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(September 5, 2012)

How did you get started constructing crosswords?

I was a crossword puzzle prodigy and enjoyed solving them from a very young age.  I recall tackling the crosswords in the back of TV Guide when I was, perhaps, eight or nine years old, and I was pretty good at them.  The puzzles were tailored to the current television season, and I could fudge my way through.  I would thumb through the TV Guide itself to track down the name of, say, some soap star referenced in 5 Across.  I soon graduated to the more challenging puzzles in our local New York newspapers.

Before my teen years, I decided to try my hand at creating them.  I designed a few newspaper-style crossword grids (15 by 15) and began filling them in.  One day, I was emboldened to submit one of my efforts to The New York Times, the gold standard for crossword puzzles, and to my great astonishment, they purchased it!  There was several months' lag time, but it was published while I was still thirteen years old.  My crossword career was launched!  I would later have my first larger Sunday puzzle published by the Times at age fifteen.

Artie Bennett's first Sunday crossword, November 15, 1970.

How did you construct crosswords before computer software?

It took a lot of elbow grease.  I created a sheet of crossword squares, and my mom Xeroxed perhaps a hundred copies for me to noodle upon.  I knew from experience that the standard crossword grid needed to be symmetric and that two-letter words were a no-no.  There was much penciling in and even more erasing.  But I loved meshing words together, though sometimes a particularly knotty portion of the puzzle would take a few anguished weeks to resolve.

My principal reference tool was a dog-eared paperback Dell Crossword Dictionary with a three- and four-letter word finder section in the back, which proved invaluable.  And my career was aided immensely when my sister and I found a complete, ten-volume set of the Oxford Universal English Dictionary on Historical Principles in the incinerator room of my grandmother's apartment building in Brooklyn.  Some yahoo had apparently discarded it.  My Old World grandmother didn't understand why I refused to share my bounty.  All she asked for was one measly volume:  A–Bro, Bro–Dec, Dec–Fit . . . ?

What was it like being a young constructor in the Margaret Farrar and Will Weng days?

It was terribly exciting having my first (daily) puzzle published.  But because only the Sunday puzzles bore a byline, I don't believe I shared the news with many of my peers, for they probably would've thought I was fibbing.  ("Yeah, Artie, and you just pinch-hit for Joe Pepitone and knocked in the winning run for the Yankees last night, too!")

How much did daily and Sunday crosswords pay back then?  What did you use the money for?

The first daily puzzle paid fifteen dollars, which bought a lot of baseball cards, comic books, and jawbreakers.  The fee went up to twenty dollars within a couple of years.  My first Sunday puzzle, at age fifteen, earned me fifty dollars, a princely sum for a boy my age.  It bought even more baseball cards, comic books, and jawbreakers.  My second and final Sunday puzzle, published when I was seventeen, brought seventy-five dollars.  The money went to the purchase of my first car, an Oldsmobile Cutlass.  How fast they grow up!

What was Will Weng like as an editor?

He was patient, kind, and wise.  And he sent me a lovely note.  It was in response to my request for a recommendation as I embarked upon a job search after graduating from college.  I recall sending along a dollar to Mr. Weng for his "troubles," which he graciously returned with the recommendation, assuming that I needed the buck more than he did.  As Mr. Weng noted, I'm probably "the youngest person ever" to have sold a crossword to The New York Times.  The pre-Shortzian database helped confirm my suspicion that I was, in fact, the youngest.  That is, until some new whippersnapper comes along and dethrones me.

Letter of recommendation from Will Weng.

Did Will Weng change much (grid, fill, and/or clues) in your puzzles?

I can recall that he caught an error of mine in a Sunday puzzle.  I misspelled "Minnellis" with one "n."  He personally reworked that corner of the puzzle, changing the answer to "metallic" and adjusting the neighboring words.  He could easily have deep-sixed my submission, stamping it "Rejected!"

I can also recall using a forbidden word, "orgasm," in a puzzle.  While its connotations eluded my youthful naiveté, they didn't escape Will.  He wrote me that we couldn't use that term and he revised the passage accordingly.

And he also enlivened many of my clues, adding a soupçon of zest.

Did you submit any crosswords to Eugene T. Maleska?  What did you think of him as an editor?

No, I never did submit any puzzles to him.  I had pretty much stopped creating puzzles for more widespread consumption by then.  At the University of Georgia, my alma mater, I did construct a regular crossword puzzle for the student newspaper, the Red and Black.  One day, I opened up the paper to find an angry letter to the editor headlined, "Artie Bennett Makes Up His Own Words!"  The letter was a reaction to some punny, offbeat entry, and it incited a flurry of letters, both pro and con.  I never imagined I would become a cause célèbre.

Do you still construct crosswords today?  Have you submitted any puzzles to Will Shortz?

I haven't constructed a puzzle in years now.  I'm the executive copy editor for Random House Children's Books, and the last one that I made was for my company newsletter.  It featured the names of some of my colleagues, as well as many of the books we've worked on and the characters therein.  It got nice reviews in-house.

If you've stopped constructing crosswords, when did you stop and why?

I haven't officially stopped and may make one again.  They're so much fun to do that I may just up and construct one tomorrow.  But much of my creative energy these days is channeled into composing fun children's books.

Artie Bennett reading one of his books to children.

Which aspect of the eventual pre-Shortzian database are you most excited about?

I never would have found my very first crossword puzzle if not for this remarkable database.  The database brought this trove of early puzzles to my fingertips, allowing me to winnow its riches until I experienced my "Eureka!" moment.  I'm so grateful that Will put us in touch, David.

You also write and edit children's books.  What's that like?

It's immensely satisfying.  I've been copyediting children's books for nearly twenty-five years now.  I love what I do—and I love where I do it.  I've worked on everyone from Dr. Seuss to the Berenstains to Christopher Paolini.  It was and will always be my dream job.

A few years ago, I got the itch to write.  Ideas were percolating inside me.  The result was my first "mature" work, The Butt Book, which was published by Bloomsbury in January 2010.  My "number two" picture book, Poopendous!, published by Blue Apple Books, came out in March of this year.  Both books are set in humorous verse, and both have been lavished with praise.  Several reviewers have compared me—favorably!—with my idol Dr. Seuss, which threatens to give me a swell head.  I've had scores of appearances, too, and that's been a kick.  It's a new and very welcome chapter in my life.

I've also striven in my books to enlarge young readers' vocabularies while teaching fascinating and fun natural history facts.  And I hope someday to see the word "poopendous" ensconced happily in a crossword puzzle.  Maybe you'll create it, David.

Artie Bennett's Poopendous!

Have you ever thought about doing a children's book involving crosswords?

What a splendid idea!  I had actually thought about one involving rebuses, but crosswords are, of course, dearer to my heart.

What do you think of crossword construction software?  Do you think it has affected the quality of crosswords or who becomes a constructor?

Those are very good questions, and I'm afraid that I don't have answers, let alone very good ones.  I've not been active in creating crosswords for some time now and I don't know enough about these developments.  Were I still active, though, I might warmly embrace the new technology, or I might fulminate against it, denouncing it as unvarnished barbarism.

Other than crosswords and children's books, what are some of your other interests?

I'm a natural history buff, and we just returned from an amazing trip to Costa Rica.  With more than fifty species of hummingbirds, and a singular array of brightly colored and fantastically named other birds, Costa Rica is a paradise for bird lovers.  Howler monkeys awakened us at 4:30 a.m., letting me know it was time to wake up and smell the heliconias.

Because my work tends to be sedentary, I crave more active leisure pursuits.  I enjoy canoeing, bike riding, playing squash, rollerblading, and most of all, swimming.  In fact, I come up with some of my best children's book verses while I'm swimming.  It's my liquid inspiration.  Everybody into the pool!

Artie Bennett at Playa Blanca, Costa Rica.

[For more information about Artie and his books, see his very cool website.]