An Appreciation: Thirty-one Down

Photo: Danny Kim

Truth is, New York Magazine hired Maura Jacobson by accident. It was 1980, and New York, looking to expand its culture coverage, had bought and absorbed a listings magazine called Cue. As part of the deal, along with the Off Broadway reviews and restaurant ads came a crossword puzzle that (we soon discovered) was beginning to build up a fan base, owing to its craftsmanlike construction and charming voice. Maura had been working for Cue for two and a half years, and in the issue of May 19, 1980, her byline first appeared on our back page. In three decades (until she dropped back to alternating weeks a year ago), she has never skipped an issue, not once.

Even the most consistent things must eventually come to an end, and 31 years and a bit over 1,400 puzzles later, Maura is retiring, despite our protestations. (One editor here actually burst into tears when she heard the news.) Over the course of her career, Maura has also contributed lots of puzzles to the New York Times—her longtime friend Will Shortz, the Times’ puzzle editor, calls her “a national treasure”—and to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the annual convention of across-and-downers. Maura’s the only one who’s kicked in a puzzle every single year since the tournament began, and when her name is announced, she gets thunderous applause. That’s because the crowd knows her trademarks well: grids that are unusually dense with theme clues, shot through with a distinctive and sometimes antic whimsy.

How did she find herself on such an odd career track? As a young woman, “one day I was sick in bed, and I decided to try to make up a puzzle,” Maura recalls. “I started with my husband’s name. And I sent it to the Times. It was a terrible ­puzzle—I had made up words, I did all sorts of things you didn’t do.” Margaret Farrar, the Times’ first crosswords editor, sent it back. But she included, instead of a rejection slip, an encouraging letter, saying, “I cannot find a few of these words. If you want to try again, why not do this …” Maura took Farrar’s advice, fixing the fake terms and some awkward verb tenses, and the much-improved puzzle was accepted. After a few years of stop-and-start puzzle-making—secondary to her job as a kindergarten teacher—“in 1971, I had a bad auto accident that kept me off my feet for a year, and Margaret Farrar sent me grids and said, ‘Stay well and keep working.’ ” Maura did, and a few years later, on the vigorous recommendation of Farrar’s successor Will Weng, Cue called.

We have gradually grown aware that Maura has built up a mystique among her fans, and to that end, we offer the following facts about her. She was a three-time winner on ­Jeopardy! when the show was just three weeks old, taking home $3,150, which was pretty good money for 1964. She once built an entire puzzle around punned names of countries after encountering the phrase “You go Uruguay, I’ll go mine” on a restaurant menu. She takes special pains to avoid those silly ­crossword-only words that make constructing easier but solving a bore: esne for “slave,” etui for “needle kit.” She delivers fastidiously, uncannily error-free puzzles, and until fairly recently worked sans computer, creating her grids with pen and graph paper. She has said that her goal every time out is solvability and satisfaction, and to that end, all seriously difficult words are crossed by simpler ones, to allow puzzlers to get out of a jam.

New York’s incoming puzzle-maker is Cathy Allis, whose crosswords, as noted above, have been alternating with Maura’s for the past year. Crossword solvers are, by their nature, lovers of consistency, and Maura has offered her successor—we will not say “replacement”—the best endorsement imaginable. “You know, for the past fifteen years, it’s been in my contract that Cathy is my alternate, in case I can’t do it one week.” She pauses, then adds, with a laugh, “I never gave her the chance.”

An Appreciation: Thirty-one Down