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 she becomes the first centenarian to have a grid printed in the newspaper when The New York Times will publish another one of her puzzles on Wednesday.
“They make my life,” Gordon said. “I couldn’t live without them.”
Gordon has created crosswords for decades, including puzzle syndicates and brain-teaser books. 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. She raised three children before taking up puzzles 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.
Gordon has had many puzzles rejected, too, acknowledging she may not be modern enough.
“She is a pistol,” said Times crossword editor Will Shortz. “I think of her as a classy lady who also can be very down to earth.”