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.

With griddy determination, she started submitting to the legendary Margaret Farrar, first puzzle editor at the Times.

"I started at the top. I wouldn't settle for less," Gordon said.

In 1952, she cracked the Times with a weekday puzzle. She was paid $5 or $10 for it.

It was the first of 150 or more she would create for the Times, according to current editor Will Shortz.

Three years later, she placed her first Sunday stumper, one of nine, said Shortz, who will host the national Sudoku championship in Philadelphia on Oct. 24. "I'm a very determined creature. If I make up my mind to do something, I do it," said Gordon, who makes $35 to $350 a puzzle these days.

In the mid-1960s, Gordon made puzzle history by introducing answers such as COWBOYS&INDIANS, with symbols or icons in them.

When she sent a puzzle with 10 ampersands to the Times, Farrar rejected it. Six months later, Farrar changed her mind.

"America was wild!" said Gordon. "They said it was cheating." The newspaper sent her a batch of letters, many angry and insulting.

No matter. She went further, expecting solvers would deduce the need for a tiny drawing in the midst of a phrase or word — so JIMMY(ASTERISK)TER or BI(ASTERISK)BONATE required a "car."

She also dared to create a quartet of naughty crosswords at the request of Xaviera "The Happy Hooker" Hollander, whom her lawyer son Benjamin met in Spain.

When Gordon told her that she knew only one dirty word, Hollander supplied a list — and agreed to write the clues.

Gordon initially had refused to meet the very-public prostitute but eventually found her "so kind, so good and generous" that they became friends, and last year Hollander stopped by to say hello on her way to Hollywood.

Sometimes Gordon collaborates with her "special, special boyfriend," Norman Wizer of Malvern, Pa., a veteran constructor who said he's "just a baby" at age 81. They recently won the award for best puzzle in the next Mega Crossword Puzzle Book from Simon & Schuster, he said.

"She is a wonderful, wonderful woman. The things that she does for her age are amazing," said the former accountant, who met Gordon at a New York puzzlers luncheon.

The Sunday Inquirer published Gordon's crosswords for years until a younger competitor, Merl Reagle, got the gig in the early '90s. "Merl's adorable!" Gordon said. "I always kid him, 'You took my job away.' ... He hugs me and kisses me."

Florida resident Reagle, 59, got to know her when they were spectators at annual solving competitions.

"I can't tell you how much fun it was to sit and have those chats every year," he said. "As they say in old puzzles, she's a oner, meaning one of a kind, and I hope she's still making puzzles when she's 100!"

If she is still puzzling then, Gordon will have just seen the centennial of the modern crossword. The first appeared in December 1913 — a month before Gordon's birth — as the "Word-Cross" in the New York World.

Until then, she plans to continue setting records. Shortz has promised to publish another puzzle from her after she turns 96 in January.

"I have the letter!" she said.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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