Merl Reagle, Creator of Witty Crossword Puzzles, Dies at 65

By Roberts, Sam | International New York Times, August 26, 2015 | Go to article overview

Merl Reagle, Creator of Witty Crossword Puzzles, Dies at 65


Roberts, Sam, International New York Times


Mr. Reagle contributed devilishly inventive puzzles to numerous publications, relishing his roles as a wisecracker, provocateur and tease.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Merl Reagle, a playfully irreverent crossword puzzle constructor whose clues set off spirited cerebrations from his fans rather than frustrated surrenders to dictionary arcana, died on Saturday in Tampa, Fla. He was 65.

The cause was complications of pancreatitis, his wife, Marie Haley, said.

"Many of today's top constructors, in fact, got their inspiration from him," his friend Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, said on Wordplay, the crossword blog on nytimes.com. In an interview, Mr. Shortz added, "His puzzles were genuinely funnier than anybody else's, and he was an expert interlocker."

Mr. Reagle started creating crossword puzzles when he was 6. ("The English language was the best toy a boy ever had," he once said.) At the urging of his high school English teacher in 1967, when he was barely 17, he became the youngest person to sell one to The Times -- for $10.

While his record was broken only two years later, by a 13-year- old, he followed the advice of the puzzle editor, Margaret P. Farrar, who wrote to him that crosswords should be entertaining above all.

"In the 1980s, a new group of puzzlemakers saw that crosswords were starting to remind them of their worst teachers from grade school," Mr. Reagle wrote in a 1997 article for The Philadelphia Inquirer's Sunday magazine. "Wouldn't it be more fun and attract more solvers if puzzles were a little more playful? Just a smidge trickier and a lot wittier?"

According to Mr. Shortz, though, "Incredibly, The Times's editor, Eugene T. Maleska, had written Merl that he had no talent."

Readers disagreed.

Mr. Reagle would go on to contribute devilishly inventive puzzles to The Times and to create them regularly for The Washington Post Magazine and The Los Angeles Times, as well as syndicating them to dozens of other newspapers.

He would be featured in "Wordplay," a 2006 documentary about the Times puzzle and its devotees (revealing, among other trade secrets, why he did not use descriptive terms for bodily functions as answers).

Mr. Reagle and Mr. Shortz's appearance in that film inspired cameos by them, in cartoon form, in a 2008 episode of "The Simpsons," "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words," in which Lisa solves a puzzle that was actually published in that Sunday's Times and included a 21-letter diagonal that corresponded to the final 21 notes of the "Simpsons" theme.

Mr. Reagle's signature clues were more likely to be inscrutable brain-twisting puns or anagrams than recondite factoids. The answer to "completely" was "atoz" (think a-to-z). If the clue was "Least popular cookbook ever," his answer was "To Grill a Mockingbird." Readers prompted by "expensive job for Jimmy Durante" were supposed to assume "nose X-ray. …

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