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At 95, Bernice Gordon is still master of the crossword puzzle

By Peter Mucha

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2009 4:32 p.m. MDT

Bernice Gordon turns to a page in a crossword puzzle book that she created alone with past puzzles. More than 150 of Gordon's puzzles have been published in the New York Times, and hundreds more in other publications.

Ron Tarver, Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — It all began because, about 60 years ago, Bernice Gordon found television a bore, except for Milton Berle.

So instead of watching a box with black-and-white pictures, she started creating her own black-and-white boxes: crossword puzzles.

More than a thousand published puzzles later, Gordon, age 95, is still at it, and the honors keep rolling in.

Recently, the woman who put the & in answers like SC&INAVIA, and once did an X-rated set for the Happy Hooker, was recognized as one of a handful of people contributing puzzles to the New York Times for at least 50 years. Each had a puzzle published, and hers set a record — as she became the Times' oldest crossword constructor ever.

"Somebody said I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records!" Gordon proclaimed in her apartment across from Philadelphia's Franklin Institute.

She wasn't bragging, just being honest in her own charming way.

Despite arthritic knees that require a walker, Gordon hefted a large leather-bound folder.

Inside was a letter from Universal Crosswords, whose puzzles appear in hundreds of newspapers. Universal, it announced, had bestowed on her its first lifetime-achievement prize and had also named its annual constructor award after her.

Universal editor Tim Parker, who signed that letter in 2000, still marvels. "Just today I received three of her latest puzzles, and after giving them a quick scan, I can confirm that she's still got it," he said last week.

Every day, Gordon fashions a new puzzle on her computer — a tool she started using only this decade.

"I never saw anybody who is as prolific," she declared. "I cracked the Wall Street Journal for the first time about six months ago."

She said "calling a spade a spade" is her secret to long life. "I don't mince words."

For example: "They cut my head open and took out a piece of my brain," she said, describing a benign tumor removed about four years ago.

Luckily, the plum-sized lump "didn't destroy any of the neural pathways," said her son Bruce Lanard, 69, a retired pathologist.

She has her wit — as in sense of humor — about her, too. In the old days, she said, a cruciverbalist — her favored term for a crossword creator — had to tread carefully. For instance, a "boob," she said, could not be "a breast."

She also told about a five-letter clue that, she said, got an editor fired: "The — mightier than the sword."

The bookcase in her study speaks volumes — dictionaries, to be precise — about her puzzle-making, but the nearby artworks — abstract collages and meticulous needlework she created — reveal her artistry.

A month after earning a fine-arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1935, she married Benjamin Lanard, cofounder of the local commercial real estate firm Lanard & Axilbund.

On their honeymoon, they toured Europe and Egypt, motifs of which emerge in her needlework and puzzles.

"If I was ever reincarnated, I would want to be Cleopatra," said Gordon, who celebrated her 90th birthday in Egypt.

They had two sons, Benjamin Jr. and Bruce. After her husband died in the late 1940s, she married a businessman who worked long hours, and they added a daughter, Amanda, to the family.

Gordon had loved doing crosswords as a child, so as a young mother spurning TV, she decided to try her hand at creating them.

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