As It Happens

Clever crossword constructor Maura Jacobson remembered for her wit and puns

Known for pun-filled clues, Jacobson was awarded a lifetime achievement award in 2016. She died Dec. 25, 2017, at the age of 91.
Maura Jacobson pictured at the 2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. (Donald Christensen)
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Story transcript

Maura Jacobson, a superstar crossword constructor known for puns and clever themes, died Christmas Day. She was 91-years -old.

The White Plains, N.Y., puzzle maker built crosswords in New York magazine for over three decades. Her work is admired by cruciverbalists — people skilled at the art of solving and building crosswords.

"She wanted to be entertaining," Dr. Jerome Jacobson, her husband, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "She didn't want people to have to suffer while doing the puzzle."

Curious beginning

Jerome Jacobson said his wife credited her start in crosswords to her father.

"[He] was a puzzle solver," he said. "He would buy two newspapers everyday ... each of which had a puzzle and he would solve both puzzles."

At some point, she attempted to create her own puzzles, using "Jerome" as a clue and making up the final two words in her first. Jacobson sent that crossword to then-New York Times crossword editor Margaret Farrar, who replied with her feedback.

"She wrote back to Maura that she looked everywhere, but she couldn't find those two [manufactured] words anywhere," he said. "If Maura would make corrections, she would consider publishing the puzzle."

It was soon printed in the Times.

Jacobson, a crossword constructor known for her puzzles in New York Magazine, died Dec. 25, 2017. (Jerome Jacobson)

Unfortunate circumstance

Despite a handful of crosswords printed in the New York Times newspaper and magazine, Jacobson retired early from her craft.

But in 1971, a car accident lead her to revisit her career.

"Margaret Farrar was looking forward to her submitting some more puzzles," Jerome Jacobson said. "Then Farrar sent her an envelope filled with graph paper and said, 'As long as you're lying in bed, why don't you work on some puzzles?'"

That began a career publishing weekly crosswords for Cue magazine until it was bought by New York magazine in the 1980s.

Gleeful praise

Jacobson was a fixture at crossword events. When she would arrive at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament — she created a puzzle for the competition each year until 2011 — players offered a standing ovation.

"They loved her puzzle because the other puzzles they had were very challenging and they had to work very hard," he said. "Sometimes they couldn't even complete the other puzzles."

One of many crossword anthologies published by Maura Jacobson. (Penguin Random House)

Jacobson added humour to her puzzles with witty, pun-filled clues. According to a 2011 piece in New York: "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."

Her husband was often the test subject for her punny posts.

"She would come to me and say, 'How do you like this one?'" he said. "If I thought they were funny, she used it. If I didn't think it was funny, she didn't."

Greatest of all time

In addition to her crosswords in New York and the Times, she's published many crossword anthologies, including a series for Playboy Press.

Two years ago, her wit and skill was recognized when she was awarded the Merl Reagle Award for lifetime achievement in crossword construction.

It was her peers who voted for her to be awarded the first annual prize and her husband accepted the snow globe award on her behalf.

"For her to get this first lifetime achievement award that has been given, I think meant a lot to her," he said.

"There was no question in our mind that they enjoyed Maura's puzzles more than anyone else's."

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