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First Puzzle Editor Of The New York Times, Crossword puzzles



First puzzle editor of the new york times: The huge crossword-puzzle mania began to sweep the country precisely thirty-five years ago. Crossword puzzles, like mah-jongg, which came up a little earlier, may have been anticipated to fade away when the enthusiasm had worn off; nevertheless, they have lasted and prospered, and even though they are not widely discussed these days, they continue to have millions of dedicated addicts.

Margaret Farrar, a small, charming sixty-one-year-old woman who helped create the craze in her youth and is now the acclaimed crossword-puzzle editor of the New York Times, is probably the most significant person in the world of the crossword puzzle.

We had a delightful, nostalgic chat with Mrs Farrar at the Times shrine the other day, and she made it clear right away that she was not the inventor of the crossword puzzle.

That honour goes to Arthur Winn, an editor of the old New York Sunday World, in which the first crossword puzzle was published on December 21, 1913.

It was nicknamed a word-cross puzzle because it was diamond-shaped, had no black squares, and included thirty-two words. It was a minor hit, and the puzzle became a regular feature.

Mrs Farrar, then Miss Petherbridge, and just graduated from Smith, acquired a job as secretary to John O’Hara Cosgrave, editor of the Sunday World’s magazine section, and designed the current square shape and pattern of black-and-white squares, as well as the inverted name, before 1920.

Miss Petherbridge’s responsibilities included ensuring that the puzzles were free of typographical errors, which had long been a source of frustration for readers.

(To Mr Cosgrave’s chagrin, F. P. A., an early crossword puzzle lover, frequently pointed out similar mistakes in his famous column “The Conning Tower.”) Miss Petherbridge successfully prevented mistakes that she was promoted to unofficial crossword-puzzle editor and even allowed to try her hand at puzzle creation.

After deciding to launch a publishing firm in 1924, a couple of ambitious young men named Simon and Schuster came up with the concept of releasing a collection of unpublished Sunday World puzzles.

They agreed to pay Miss Petherbridge and two colleagues $75 for putting together fifty puzzles. Simon & Schuster had begun to doubt the drawing power of puzzles by the time the problems were finished, so to avoid the danger of starting their corporate existence with a flop, they released the book under an alias—the Plaza Publishing Company.

A freshly sharpened pencil was attached to each copy of the book, which sold for the then significant sum of a dollar thirty-five as a selling gimmick.

It was an instant hit, selling forty thousand copies in the first three months. Simon and Schuster, as Simon & Schuster, quickly emerged from their pseudonym and released two more crossword-puzzle books, both assembled by Miss Petherbridge; by the end of the year, cumulative sales of the three books had reached 350,000.

As she recalled those days, Mrs Farrar lit a cigarette and shook her head in surprise. “I was occupied doing puzzles day and night for a time,” she explained.

“I married the publisher John Farrar in 1926, and when our children arrived, I gave up my newspaper puzzle job and focused only on editing the books that Simon & Schuster published at a rate of two per year.

In 1942, the New York Times asked me to editor a Sunday crossword puzzle. I accepted because our three children were no longer babies, and I’ve been here ever since. In 1950, we launched a daily crossword puzzle. Oh, and the S. & S. books continue to be published; I’ve just finished editing the eighty-second, which will be released this summer.”

The Times riddles are submitted by “constructors,” as Mrs Farrar refers to them. They are paid $25 for the giant Sunday puzzle and $10 for the mini dally problem, and they operate on a freelance basis.

A high-school principal, an advertising executive, and an actress are among the Times’ regular contributors; many puzzles also come from prisoners in prisons, who presumably have plenty of free time.

What are Mrs Farrar’s specifications for a good puzzle? “First, it must be an allover interlock,” Mrs Farrar explained, her face solemn. “This means that each piece of the puzzle is linked to the others. We employ symmetrical black-and-white square patterns and don’t allow unkeyed letters (letters that only appear in one word of the puzzle).

The British, unlike us, always use unkeyed letters. This makes the puzzles more challenging for the solver because he typically only gets one chance at a letter, but easier for the function Object() { [native code] } because he doesn’t have to fit every letter horizontally and vertically. We aim to reduce the number of black squares in our puzzles to a sixth or less of the total number of squares, and we attempt to keep the word count low because the longer the words are, the more difficult the puzzle becomes.

We don’t accept two-letter terms, and we try to avoid outdated words, variations, obscure words, and clichés as much as possible—words like ‘gnu,’ ’emu,’ and ‘proa,’ for example. Their strange letterforms make them extremely handy in tricky situations, but they’re starting to tyre me.”

Mrs Farrar selects puzzles by sitting down and completing them. “I presume others will feel the same way if I find them entertaining and truthful, and neither too easy nor too difficult,” she remarked.

“I like to use a lot of different book titles, play titles, news names, and so on. I also like puzzles with a common theme—what I call the inner-clue puzzle, created by Harold T.

Bers, one of our best constructors. For example, he recently completed an inner-clue puzzle for us called ‘Catalogue,’ with answers such as ‘catbird seat,’ ‘catacombs,’ ‘Kitty Hawk,’ and ‘pussyfoot.’

We had the last question if the Times puzzles had ever contained errors. “Oh, yes!” exclaims the speaker. Mrs Farrar spoke herself calmly. “The majority of our errors are typos, but now and then, we’ll make a factual error.”

A function Object() { [native code] } recently submitted in a puzzle asking for Long John Silver’s distinctive feature in nine letters. ‘Wooden leg,’ of course, was the answer.

I changed it to Captain Ahab’s distinctive attribute because we’d just used Long John Silver in a puzzle. After the puzzle was published, I received a letter from an eight-year-old child saying that, while he’d discovered that the only answer that matched was ‘wooden leg,’ he knew that Captain Ahab had an ivory leg as a reader of “Moby Dick.” True, but I couldn’t help but question, a little irritably, why an eight-year-old was reading ‘Moby Dick.’

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