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 Saturday, and The New York Times will publish another one of her puzzles Wednesday – making her the first centenarian to have a grid printed in the newspaper.
“They make my life,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t live without them.”
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.
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 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.
Though 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 Gordon.
“She got hundreds of letters, some screaming that they never saw anything worse and it was cheating,” Gordon said. “And the others (said) how wonderful it was. It’s something new. It was an innovation.”
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.
Farrar was not impressed with her first few attempts, and neither was Gordon’s mother.
“My child if you spend as much money on cookbooks as you do on dictionaries, your family would be better off,” 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.
Since then, the paper has printed more than 140 of her clever grids. The most recent appeared last summer when she teamed up with teenage constructor David Steinberg, a regular contributor to the Times. The central answer in the puzzle was AGE DIFFERENCE.
Steinberg described the crossword as a blend of Gordon’s deep classical knowledge and his penchant for modern language.
“Our styles are a bit different in that way, but we still had a lot of fun collaborating,” he said, calling Gordon “amazing and also prolific.”
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.
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: Gordon contends the former isn’t a word; Shortz disagrees and allows it in his puzzles.
“She is a pistol,” said Shortz, who has known her for years. “I think of her as a classy lady who also can be very down to earth.”
Shortz was among dozens of well-wishers who attended Gordon’s birthday party in Philadelphia on Sunday.
Gordon looked radiant as she greeted guests and blew out the single candle on her large cake. Lanard then led a toast.
“Already the wheels are turning,” he joked about his mother’s word-centric mind. “What are eight definitions that rhyme with ‘birthday’?”
Surely Gordon has that puzzled out by now.