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Bill Clinton with Merl Reagle's Sunday Crosswords

 

HOW I DRIVE YOU CRAZY

Confessions of a Crossword Constructor
By Merl Reagle


(Original version appeared as the cover story of the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine, February 1997; shorter version appeared in Reader's Digest, July 1998.)


There's a fine line between entertainment and torture. I ought to know. I make crossword puzzles for a living.  In fact, I'm the guy who makes the crossword for this magazine every week. I'm called a "constructor," although I like the sound of "puzzle composer" better, or maybe even something adorable like "doctor of letters." And I'm fully aware that there are people out there in Solver Land who would like to call me something else. But in the "puzz biz," I'm a constructor.  And I've been constructing for a long time. In fact, I sold my first crossword to the New York Times when I was 16 (31 years ago). By then I was a constructing veteran -- I made my first crossword when I was 6. But more on that later.
     

First I want to tell you about Tarzan.

Ten years ago I lived in Santa Monica, Calif., one block from a deli on Wilshire Boulevard called Izzy's. I used to get up around 6 a.m., walk over to Izzy's, have a cup of B.S. coffee (Before Starbucks), pull out some grid paper, and start constructing.

One morning I noticed Ron Ely come in at about 6:15. If your Hollywood knowledge is a little rusty, he's the guy who played Tarzan on TV and Doc Savage in the movies. He's about 6 foot 4, muscular, blondish, with a big dimpled grin. He sat at a booth, chatted with a waitress, ordered breakfast, pulled out the Los Angeles Times -- and started working the crossword puzzle.
     

How long I stared at this tableau I can only guess. How many zillions of times had I seen ELY in puzzles, clued as "actor Ron" or "TV's Tarzan"? Yet here I was staring at Ron Ely, crossword solver, instead of what I was used to, Ron Ely, crossword answer.
     

So I struck up a conversation with him. Yes, he was a fan of crosswords, but no, he didn't like the daily one in the L.A. Times. It took too many "liberties," he said, and too often the definitions were not even accurate.
     

One morning I came in and saw him over in a booth, already working the puzzle. The sun was just coming in over his shoulders. (The surreal nature of this scene wasn't lost on me, either: This is just how Doc Savage might have looked at his Fortress of Solitude. Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze -- and Brains -- working a crossword.)
     

"How's it going?" I said.  "Terrible!" he answered. He pointed to a section he'd written over several times, and I soon saw the problem. The clue was "actor John" and he had written WAYNE, but the answer was PAYNE. (John Payne appeared in such films as Dodsworth, The Razor's Edge, and Miracle on 34th Street.)  I pointed this out. And this was actor Ron's reaction: "John Payne?! Heck, he's no actor! You have to be able to act to be an actor! See, that's the kind of flagrant liberties this puzzle takes."  (Later, when Reader's Digest reran this article, an editor phoned Ron for verification. He said, "Yes, it's true, just make sure you mention that my tongue was firmly planted in my cheek.")

Flash-forward to 1997. If Ron Ely is still solving the daily L.A. Times crossword, and if he feels as strongly now as he did then about "taking liberties," he must have thrown his NordicTrack across the room when he saw the following (which appeared recently): The clue was "So Now A Real Stumper." And the answer turned out to be SNARS -- the initial letters of the clue!

 

This seems to break an important little rule we have in puzzlemaking: You can't make words up. In the pantheon of puzzle patheticness, SNARS is now No. 1, beating the previous record holder, NERS, a New York Times entry from a dozen years back. NERS was clued as "Abner's father, and others." Now, it's true that in the Bible there was a Ner, and yes, he was Abner's father, but "and others"?  How many guys named Ner could there be? I've barely even heard of the first Ner.  Plus, "Abner" means "son of Ner" and isn't the answer therefore sitting right there in the clue, "Ab-ner's father"? If there were such a thing as the "Top 10 Rules of Clue Writing," "Don't use the answer 

in the clue" would probably be near the top.
     

All crosswords may not be created equal, but most of the ones in newspapers at least play by the rules. And there are lots and lots of rules. So even if you don't know much about crossword puzzles but have always been curious (something I've been called many times), here's a meandering Inside-the-Gridway tour of the puzzle biz.

In the Early Days the rule was (to semi-paraphrase Johnnie Cochran): If it was in the dictionary and it fit, it was legit, and that was it. This was because, in the 1920s and '30s, multiple-word entries were not allowed in crosswords. You could have BIG and you could have BEN, but you could not have BIG BEN.

 

Unfortunately, this meant that any weird word or its variant spelling might be called on to finish a corner. That's how words like EMEER and EMEU got in. It didn't matter that they were more commonly spelled EMIR  and EMU -- the dictionary said the other ways were legitimate variants and the dictionary ruled. Another one is ERAL, meaning "pertaining to a historic time." But just try using it in a sentence: "In a more eral vein, how do you feel about the Cenozoic?" The more that these types of words proliferated, the more that crosswords became disconnected from the Real World. I try to avoid all variant spellings and the truly obscure "crosswordese," and if you ever find ERAL in a puzzle of mine, I'll give you 20 bucks. 

 

And I'm not alone. In the 1980s a new group of puzzlemakers saw that crosswords were starting to remind them of their worst teachers from grade school. Wouldn't it be more fun and attract more solvers if puzzles were a little more playful? Just a smidge trickier and a lot wittier? Of course, what's witty to some may be nitwitty to others, but at least there would be the psychic mini-reward of a light bulb going off when you got the answer. This was when such 1980s games as Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy! were having huge mainstream successes, and yet it seemed as if the crossword puzzle was just sitting there like a block of granite.
     

The first things that had to change were the themes. For all of you nonsolvers, a crossword puzzle -- especially a big Sunday one -- typically is about something. The long answers relate to a subject or a category usually hinted at by the puzzle's title. An old-style crossword theme might be "great American writers" or "phrases containing the word 'blue.' " A New School theme would be more like "movies that shouldn't be shown together," like DRIVING MISS DAISY / NUTS. The rest of the puzzle, the shorter words, would remain more conventional but have a balance of subjects, from Roman history to TV trivia to Eastern religion -- just like Jeopardy!  

 

Of course, the downside is, if you never watch TV or go to the movies or read the news, you'll be at a slight disadvantage. If strictly dictionary-based crosswords are your thing, no need to worry -- that's what most crossword magazines are full of. (Heck, I actually used to read the dictionary as a kid. But more on the perils of that a little later.)
     

Then there are taste considerations. One word with excellent letters that would have bailed me out of many a tough corner is ENEMA, but, as we say, it comes up a little short in the entertainment department. Ditto PUS and RETCH.  

 

And entertainment is exactly what a crossword is supposed to be -- a rather bookish one, granted, but an entertainment nonetheless. This I learned from the first crossword editor of the New York Times, Margaret P. Farrar, when I sent her my first crosswords in 1966. And in a very real sense, her story is the story of crosswords.
 
The crossword puzzle was invented in 1913 by Arthur Wynne, an editor at the old New York World newspaper. It caught on and became a raging fad by the early '20s, when another editor was put in charge of the puzzle at the World. Her name was Margaret Petherbridge.

 

In 1924, Margaret was approached by two guys who wanted to start a publishing company. After seeing how popular crossword puzzles had become, they asked her and two friends to put together the first crossword puzzle book. The book was a surprise smash, and the two guys -- whose names were Dick Simon and Max Schuster -- had a best-seller with their very first book. And that's how Simon & Schuster was born.

 

By and by, Margaret left the World, got married (became Margaret P. Farrar), and continued to edit puzzle books. In 1942, when the New York Times decided to start its own crossword puzzle, Margaret got the call.  

 

Margaret Farrar is responsible for virtually all of the rules of crossword construction that the pros follow today, which include:
* The diagram must be "diametrically symmetrical" -- that is, the arrangement of black squares must look exactly the same when viewed upside down. (Even many veteran solvers have never noticed this.)
* Black squares should take up no more than one-sixth of the diagram.
* Diagrams should have an odd number of squares on a side. This creates a central square and allows answers to go across or down the exact center of the puzzle.
* Every letter must be in two words, across and down -- that is, no single letter can be between wedged two black squares. (The British do this but we don't allow it over here.)
* All words must be three letters or longer. (Two-letter words are left to the ultra-easy puzzles like those in TV Guide.)
* There must be "all-over interlock," meaning that there can be no "islands of words" isolated from the rest of the puzzle by black squares.
     

In theory, all of these rules are supposed to give puzzles a more pleasing, designed look (like a rug or a mosaic) and to separate the artists from the amateurs. In theory.  I still have that first letter I got back from Margaret when I was 16. In it she tells why two of the puzzles I submitted were unacceptable.
     

One of the puzzles contained both DEAD AS A DOORNAIL and ROTTEN IN DENMARK -- "not very pleasant terms," she explained. The second puzzle had EDEMA and RALE -- "that's the death rattle, dear, not very pleasant either." She wrote, "Crosswords are an entertainment. Avoid things like death, disease, war and taxes -- the subway solver gets enough of that in the rest of the paper."

Entertainment? Subway solver? These ideas had never entered my puny head. But the third puzzle was OK. And that's how I sold my first crossword puzzle to the New York Times as a teenager -- by accidentally not being repulsive.

When I was 4 or 5, my mom and dad (Evelyn and Sam) got me a set of Lincoln Logs for Christmas. Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, Kenner Girder Builder Sets -- I liked construction kits of all kinds. And when I learned what words were, I used them the same way.  I remember making my first crossword puzzle when I was 6. I was sitting on the living room floor under a claw-foot table. I had a sheet of grid paper and a pencil, and since I could spell the names of all the kids in my first grade class, I started hooking them together, crossword-style.  After making little crosswords like this for several days, someone said, "Oh, I see. You're just making Neanderthal versions of the ones in the paper." I looked up brightly and said, "Thanks, Mom!" and went off to look up what Neanderthal meant.

 

By the time I was 8, I was making crosswords based on the ones in our local paper. On weekends Mom would drop me off at Grandmom's house, which was fine by me because as soon as Mom left, Grandmom would always open a round can full of potato chips and spoon me out a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

 

But the main reason I liked going over there was that Grandmom had a huge 1919 dictionary that, basically, I read all day. It was Webster's New International, the first in the series that is now up to Webster's Third New International. (Webster's Third, by the way, contains one of the greatest word-and-definition combos I've ever seen in a dictionary.  The entry word is Ntlakyapamuk and the definition is "Thompson." That's all, just "Thompson." Now you know.) I sat in a corner of Grandmom's dining room with that huge dictionary on my lap and made crossword puzzles.  One time I remember making a puzzle where I needed a nine-letter word with an F in the fourth spot and a B in the sixth spot. (I still have this puzzle, by the way.) The only word I could find in that 1919 dictionary that would fit was SELF-ABUSE, which was defined simply as "masturbation." I had no idea what that was, but it fit, so I wrote it in. (If I had this letter combo today, I'd probably write in the first thing that came to mind. In other words, DRAFT BEER.)

One final digression.
     

In May 1996 I was in the middle of watching a video at home when I got a phone call from TV newsman Brit Hume (who now works for Fox Television but at the time was the White House correspondent for ABC News). He'd written to me in 1991 and I'd sent him a test copy of my first book of Sunday crosswords. Now, five years later, he was still working the puzzles (he describes himself as a "methodical solver").

 

But the real reason it was taking him so long was that he solved them only during long press flights with President Clinton, because when Brit got stuck on a clue, the President would always bail him out! (In fact, the reason Brit was calling was to say that someone had snapped a picture of one of these puzzle consultations between Bill and him in a military plane over Bosnia -- and would I like a copy. I don't remember exactly what I said but I think half of it was "holy.")

 

The point is, Bill Clinton, the president of the United States, is an ace crossword puzzle solver. He can polish off the New York Times Sunday crossword in 20 minutes -- in ink, with no mistakes. He usually times himself on his watch, and he does something that only hardcore  crossword competitors do -- he uses the "little e" technique. That is, he uses a small cursive "e" (which is basically a quick loop) instead of a capital E, which has -- let's face it -- those three time-consuming, drag-inducing pencil lifts. And with 30 or more E's in a puzzle, he saves himself a whopping six seconds or so.

 

By the way, the video I was watching when Brit called was -- no kidding -- The American President.

 

It's a puzzling world.

 

 Merl Reagle

 

 

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