Crossword constructor at 100-year milestone

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PHILADELPHIA -- What's a nine-letter word for a significant event? Try MILESTONE.

Longtime crossword constructor Bernice Gordon is marking two big ones: She turned 100 on Jan. 11, and The New York Times published another one of her puzzles on Wednesday -- making her the first centenarian to have a grid printed in the newspaper.

"They make my life," Mrs. Gordon said. "I couldn't live without them."

Mrs. Gordon has created crosswords for decades for the Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others, including puzzle syndicates and brain-teaser books from Dell and Simon & Schuster. She still constructs a new grid every day.

Mrs. Gordon is nearly as old as the crossword puzzle itself. The first "word-cross" appeared in the New York Sunday World on Dec. 21, 1913; it was diamond shaped and didn't even separate clues into "Across" and "Down."

The grids have evolved a lot since then, thanks in part to Mrs. Gordon. She's credited with pioneering the "rebus" puzzle, which requires solvers to occasionally fill in symbols instead of letters. Her first rebus in the Times used an ampersand to represent the letters AND, so an answer like SANDWICH ISLANDS was entered as S&WICH ISL&S.

Although now considered standard fare, such a trick was unheard of when it first appeared decades ago. Letters poured into then-crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who forwarded some to Mrs. Gordon.

"She got hundreds of letters, some screaming that they never saw anything worse ,and it was cheating," Mrs. Gordon said. "And the others [said] how wonderful it was. It's something new. It was an innovation."

Mrs. Gordon was born in Philadelphia on Jan. 11, 1914. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she raised three children before working as an artist and traveling around the world. She began creating puzzles in her 30s because she liked the challenge, and it offered some extra pocket money.

Ms. Farrar was not impressed with her first few attempts, and neither was Mrs. Gordon's mother.

"My child if you spend as much money on cookbooks as you do on dictionaries, your family would be better off," Mrs. Gordon recalled her mother saying.

Records are a bit sketchy -- the Times didn't give constructors bylines until the 1990s -- but it seems her first crossword was published in the early 1950s. She remembers one long answer was MAMIE EISENHOWER.

Mrs. Gordon works best in the pre-dawn hours in her home office in downtown Philadelphia, surrounded by two bookcases of dictionaries, almanacs and other directories. Ideas come to her constantly, and she uses a computer to build the grids.

"She'll spend hours and hours looking for the right word or the right phrase," said her youngest son, Jim Lanard, 73.

Unpublished puzzles are piled on the window sill. Her funny themes include types of "choppers" (HELICOPTERS, GUILLOTINES, WISDOM TEETH) and different kinds of "removers" (FLY SWATTER, FLEA POWDER, ROACH SPRAY)

Mrs. Gordon has had many puzzles rejected, too, acknowledging that some of her references are not modern enough. She recalled an argument with Times crossword editor Will Shortz over the words YAY and YEA: Mrs. Gordon contends the former isn't a word; Mr. Shortz disagrees and allows it in his puzzles.

Mr. Shortz, who has known her for years, said, "She is a pistol."


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