On a snowy evening in the early 1900s, a newspaper editor at the New York World was hunched over his desk trying to think of something special for the Christmas issue.
Remembering the small word squares he’d solved as a young Brit in Liverpool, he drew a diamond-shaped grid with numbered squares and numbered clues. It contained 32 words, and his simple instruction read: “Fill in the small squares with words which agree with the following definitions.”
The puzzle appeared Dec. 21, 1913, and what 42-year-old Arthur Wynne had created was the first crossword puzzle.
It was an instant success. Mail poured in. Readers didn’t mind that the first puzzle contained some very unusual words, such as NEIF, TANE, NEVA and NARD. Or that the word DOVE appeared twice, once clued as “a bird” and once as “a pigeon.” Or that the most unusual word was DOH, defined as “the fibre of the gomuti palm,” a clue that, if it appeared today, would elicit much the same reaction from solvers as it would from Homer Simpson.
Seeing the crossword’s popularity, Wynne pushed for the newspaper to copyright it, but his bosses, who included two of Joseph Pulitzer’s sons, considered the crossword a passing trifle. New York Times editorials labeled them a waste of time.
After just a few years, Wynne’s interest waned. He still made crosswords, but he also accepted reader submissions, becoming the country’s first crossword editor as well. By 1921, after eight years as captain of the crossword, Wynne handed the wheel to someone else.
That someone was a Smith grad named Margaret Petherbridge, a World secretary who had hopes of being a journalist. Like almost everyone on the staff, she was utterly uninterested in the crossword and simply picked the ones that had interesting shapes. She never tried solving one.
However, the paper’s most popular columnist, Franklin P. Adams, was an avid fan and began leaving his solved puzzles on Petherbridge’s desk, with the mistakes highlighted. Because the grids were a pain to create, the paper’s typesetters did their best to kill the crossword, running the clues in ever-decreasing tiny type and omitting some altogether.
After a year, Petherbridge had been shamed enough. She decided to try to solve a puzzle — and couldn’t. Rather than feel Adams’s glare, she set about organizing the puzzles in her files. Within months she had devised rules for crossword creators — amazingly, a list still followed today. She simplified the numbering system (Wynne had always numbered the ending square of each word as well as the starting square), stressed the use of common English words (obscure foreign terms had crept in), limited the black squares to one-sixth of the grid and, in essence, standardized the crossword puzzle.
From then on, puzzles that had a high degree of craftsmanship were first to be chosen. The crossword finally looked like a feature that was here to stay.
Then, in 1924, two Columbia grads decided they wanted to get into publishing. Crossword puzzles were more popular than ever, yet there had never been a collection in book form. So they enlisted Petherbridge and two colleagues to compile one: “The Cross Word Puzzle Book.” It sold 400,000 copies in only a few months.
Two more books followed, selling 2 million copies in two years. The two young publishers were Dick Simon and Max Schuster, and the first crossword book launched their careers.
And Petherbridge’s career. With the books, crosswords became a national phenomenon. Petherbridge married in 1926, becoming Margaret P. Farrar, and under that name she would go on to edit the Simon & Schuster crossword series for 60 years.
She called it her “inadvertent profession.” When she started in the 1920s she never expected such a seemingly genteel activity to be so controversial. The crossword craze killed mah-jongg virtually overnight. (Mah-jongg dealers put this note in the New Yorker: “Roses are red, violets are blue, we’d like to cut your throats for you.”)
There was a crossword-related news story in the New York papers almost every week: A Baptist preacher constructed a crossword for a sermon. A man refused to leave a restaurant until he finished a crossword and had to be escorted out by police. A Cleveland woman was granted a divorce because her husband was obsessed with crosswords. A Budapest waiter explained in a crossword why he was committing suicide; police were unable to solve it.
The Broadway show “Puzzles of 1925” had a skit in which crossword fans were depicted as patients in a sanitarium. Commuter trains started putting dictionaries in every car. The Los Angeles Public Library had to enforce a limit on how long you could use the dictionary. England’s Queen Mary became a crossword fan. The Chicago Department of Health declared that crossword solving was beneficial to health and happiness. And thesaurus author Peter Roget was declared “the patron saint of crossworders.”
All the while, the Times called crossword solving “a temporary madness,” serving “no useful purpose whatsoever,” and an “epidemic” that would soon be over.
In 1942 the Times finally gave in and hired Margaret P. Farrar as its first crossword editor.
So whatever happened to Arthur Wynne?
As readers of The Washington Post may know, I make the crossword for this magazine every Sunday. I live in Tampa, but in this age of instant everything, I just attach the puzzle in an e-mail and click “send.”
Such technology has made my puzzling life much less puzzling. And it was while surfing the Web in the 1990s that I found Wynne’s grainy Associated Press obit from the Jan. 17, 1945, Toronto Daily Star. It was one paragraph:
“Clearwater, Fla. (AP) — Arthur Wynn, credited with inventing the crossword puzzle, died Sunday. ... Wynn was born in Liverpool, England, and came to the U.S. 50 years ago to enter the newspaper business.”
First, I was stunned that the man who had invented a feature that was in nearly every newspaper in the world, even in 1945, was given such short shrift. Second, that they spelled his name wrong. And third, that he died in Clearwater. There I was, a lifelong puzzle guy in Tampa, reading that the man who invented the crossword puzzle had died 25 miles from where I was sitting.
Or, standing, since I had bolted out of the chair. I asked an editor friend at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) to check its archives for articles. There were precious few, with nothing new.
I did know what most of us in the crossword world knew. Excellent books have been written about the crossword’s early days: “The Compleat Cruciverbalist,” “Creative Cruciverbalists” and “What’s Gnu?”
I knew that when Wynne was a boy he loved word games and the violin. He wanted to be a newspaperman, but his father, a newspaperman himself, forbade it. At 19, Arthur packed one bag and his violin, and with $30 in his pocket sailed to the United States. (Strangely, this mirrors my own life: At 20 I was a puzzle fan, played the organ and piano, and worked as a newspaper copy editor.)
Wynne found a newspaper job in Pittsburgh and played the violin in orchestras. Then he got the job at the World. He moved to Cedar Grove, N.J., and commuted every day. After inventing the crossword he became a frequent customer at New York’s famous Palm restaurant, where a wall caricature of him remains to this day. He worked for the Hearst papers in the 1930s. In 1941 he moved to Clearwater for health reasons and died four years later.
And that became the puzzle with no answer: Where was he buried? Somewhere in Tampa Bay? If so, is there a gravestone? Or was he transported to a family plot in Liverpool? Fifteen years later I still had no answer.
The break came in July this year. While surfing the Web, my wife, Marie, found the hometown obit of Wynne’s oldest daughter, Janet. It mentioned that there was another daughter living in Clearwater. Wynne had married a third time to a much younger woman and had fathered a child at 62. That daughter’s name was Catherine Wynne — they called her Kay — and she was 11 when her father died.
Her married name was Kay Wynne Cutler. She had turned 80 in April and was living in Clearwater. It took Marie only minutes to find her number and call. A bright-sounding woman answered. The conversation lasted 15 minutes. We tried not to show that we were giddy as kids in an ice cream parlor. We agreed to meet.
Kay walks with a cane but is sharp. She laughs easily. She brought articles about her father. As far as she knows she is the only one in the family who is a crossword fan.
She had the answer to my “grave” question. There was no burial site because there was no burial. Her father had been cremated. Kay says she was too young to know, but she thinks his ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, she was a student at Anona Elementary, a happy accident for the daughter of a puzzle creator — the name of the school is a palindrome.
Kay said her father used to say that he never made a penny off the crossword puzzle. In this, the 100th anniversary of his invention, I hope he can settle for recognition.
Merl Reagle is a professional puzzle author.
Made his first crossword at age 6 and sold his first crossword to the New York Times at age 16.
Has puzzles published weekly in about 45 newspapers, including WP Magazine.
Was one of the co-stars of the 2006 film “Wordplay,” a documentary about crossword people and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Has created national crossword contests to benefit Alzheimer’s caregivers and research.
Is the author of 17 volumes of Sunday crossword puzzles. His latest, “Merl Reagle’s 100th Anniversary Crossword Book,” marks the crossword’s centennial.
Lives in Tampa with his wife, Marie Haley, and calls the English language “the greatest toy a boy ever had.”