Happy 100th Birthday, Crossword! Merl Reagle on the Puzzle That Stumped Him
If the New York Times's Will Shortz is king of the crossword, Merl Reagle is head of the knights of the round table. A contributor to Shortz's New York Times crossword section whose Sunday puzzles appear in more than 50 U.S. newspapers, Reagle's bona fides include a starring role in the 2006 documentary "Wordplay" and--proof he's made it big!--a cameo in "The Simpsons." To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first published crossword puzzle on December 21, we're featuring an exclusive excerpt from Reagle's new crossword collection, "Merl Reagle's 100th Anniversary Crossword Book." In it, Reagle opens up about the toughest puzzle he's ever encountered: Learning the true story of what became of the crossword puzzle's inventor, Arthur Wynne.
As you might guess, I am an incorrigible puzzlehead. I feel as if I have two brains, one that functions relatively normally (accent on “relatively”) and one that is always looking for puzzle possibilities in every word, name, sentence, sign, headline, license plate, book title, show title, and movie title that I see.
I am also fascinated by the origins of things, especially how certain puzzles came to be—how they were created, who created them, where they first appeared, and so forth. In 1998 that I found an obituary online that started me on a quest to uncover what to me was one of the great mysteries of puzzles.
What I’d read online was an old newspaper photostat of the obituary of Arthur Wynne, the inventor of the crossword. It was only a paragraph long, which to me was shocking irony—a newspaper giving the ultimate short shrift to a man who invented something that appears in every newspaper.
I'd known that Arthur Wynne had grown up in Liverpool, England; that he had come to the U.S. when he was just 19, worked on a series of newspapers and played violin on the side, eventually became an editor at the New York World, created a diamond-shaped “word cross” puzzle that appeared in the paper on December 21, 1913—the first crossword puzzle—that it became a hugely popular, and that he died in 1945. This was all part of the lore that I’d known for many years.
What I did not know was exactly where this amazing man had died. But, in this obit, it said that Wynne had died in Clearwater, Florida, twenty-five miles from the exact spot where, at that moment in 1998, I was reading the obit. I was instantly filled with questions. Is he buried there? Are there any records? Are there any relatives I can talk to?
Unfortunately, the Internet in 1998 was not what it is now. I came up empty at every turn. All the time I was searching I couldn’t help thinking that Wynne’s time in Florida might make an interesting local contest, maybe a puzzle treasure hunt in which Arthur Wynne’s house or apartment would be the ultimate destination.
That’s where things stood for several years. Flash forward to July 2013: I’m in the process of preparing this book for publication, and it becomes all too clear to me that if there ever were a time to find out once and for all what happened to Arthur Wynne, it was now or never, the 100th anniversary of his invention. While I was out to lunch one day, my better half, Marie Haley, was doing some dogged Internet research of her own. Marie was hot in pursuit of [Wynne’s] oldest daughter, Janet. What Marie found was initially deflating—Janet had died in 2007—but in finding Janet, Marie had hit the mother lode, Janet’s hometown obituary. The first relation mentioned was “a sister, Kay W. Cutler, 74, of Clearwater, Florida.”
Marie and I had the same thought instantly—if Kay is actually right across the bay, what’s her phone number?
It took Marie just five minutes to find it. A bright-sounding woman on the other end answered. The conversation lasted 15 minutes. We agreed to meet for breakfast at the Wildflower restaurant in Clearwater.
Kay walks with a cane but is still extremely sharp and laughs easily. She brought some articles about her father and has always wanted to set the record straight about his life. Afterwards she led us to the site in Indian Rocks Beach where they lived, right on the gulf. The reason there was no funeral record or gravesite for her father, she told us, is because he was cremated. Kay guesses that his ashes were probably scattered in the gulf, where he loved to fish.
We hope to have many more breakfasts and lunches with Kay. The stories she’s told us about Arthur are utterly fascinating. We hope to be friends with her as long as we can. She has inspired us immeasurably.
Excerpted from Merl Reagle's 100th Anniversary Crossword Book (9780989782500), with permission from Merl Reagle and The PuzzleWorks, copyright © November 2013.
Merl Reagle is an award-winning crossword puzzle creator whose Sunday puzzle appears in more than 50 major U.S. newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, and the Washington Post. He has been called “the best Sunday crossword creator in America” by Games magazine. He lives in Tampa, Florida.