Maura Jacobson, Creator of Witty Crosswords, Dies at 91

Maura Jacobson in an undated family photograph. Her puzzle-making career began during a long convalescence after a traffic accident.

Maura Jacobson, who for 31 years made crossword puzzles for New York magazine that were beloved by aficionados for their pun-filled wit, died on Dec. 25 in White Plains. She was 91.

Her death was confirmed by her husband, Dr. Jerome Jacobson.

Ms. Jacobson owed her career, in a way, to a traffic accident. She had dabbled in puzzle making, sending some to Margaret Farrar, the crossword puzzle editor at The New York Times, but had let the hobby lapse. Then, in 1971, she was seriously injured in an auto accident. It kept her off her feet for a year, she said.

“Margaret Farrar sent me grids and said, ‘Stay well and keep working,’ ” Ms. Jacobson recalled years later. So she began putting more effort into the craft, and by 1978 was making puzzles for a listings magazine called Cue. In 1980, New York bought Cue, and Ms. Jacobson and her puzzles were part of the package.

In a 2011 article commemorating her retirement, the magazine said she had created more than 1,400 puzzles for New York. In the universe of cruciverbalists — people good at making or solving crosswords — Ms. Jacobson was a superstar. When her name would be announced at the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, the hall would burst into applause.

Maura Bandler was born on April 28, 1926, in Brooklyn. Her father, William, was a salesman, and her mother, the former Nettie Duberstein, was a homemaker. She graduated from Hunter College when she was 19, with a degree in English, and became a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx. She married Dr. Jacobson in 1948.

In 1964, Ms. Jacobson was among the first contestants on a new quiz show, “Jeopardy!,” winning three times and taking home $3,150, according to New York magazine. But her mastery of trivia would really pay off when she turned her attention to puzzle making. It happened one day when she was sick in bed.

“I decided to try to make up a puzzle,” she said. “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.”

But Ms. Farrar sent it back with some encouraging words and suggested changes, and accepted a revised version. A few years later came the car accident and more time to devote to puzzle making. Eventually, the pastime turned into a career.

Ms. Jacobson’s puzzles were dense with thematic clues and full of intricate puns, but she was not the kind of diabolical cruciverbalist whose goal is to make the puzzle unsolvable.

She said she would generally make the clues for the upper left of the grid, where most solvers start a puzzle, unintimidating, so as not to discourage people. And she took care not to have two unfamiliar words cross each other, so a solver could figure out a strange word by default.

She didn’t mind if those tackling her puzzles turned to dictionaries and other resources; for her, it was all about filling in the grid by whatever means necessary.

“There’s no such thing as cheating,” she said at a crossword event in 1996.

Not that a dictionary would be much help cracking her witty thematic clues. Take, for instance, the puzzle she provided for the 2008 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It was sprinkled with phrases the cartoon character Elmer Fudd might have uttered. The answer for a clue for parakeet noise in the Netherlands was “Dutch tweet.”

In addition to her husband, Ms. Jacobson is survived by a daughter, Joanne Pye, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Along with her puzzles for New York, Ms. Jacobson had 66 puzzles in The Times over the years. She also wrote more than two-dozen crossword books.

In a 1988 interview, she said it took her about 25 hours to construct a puzzle.

“Sometimes you get to the point where you have a great corner, everything crossing nicely, and you find there’s no such word,” she said. “Then you have to start over. I go through more erasers than pencils.”

How many of each she went through making the doozy she created for the 1983 United States Open Crossword Puzzle Championship is unknown. The puzzle, though, was dizzying. Its theme was storytelling. Here is how The Times described it:

“That puzzle’s central pun, which drew raves from many contestants, took up three full ‘across’ lines. The clue was: ‘Coretta, Steve, Nick, Robert E., Thomas, Toni, Susan B., Joe, Blanche, Gladys.’

“The answer was ‘King, Forrest, Lowe, Lee, Mann, Tennille, Anthony, Namath, Thebom, Knight.’ If the names are read quickly, the line sounds like: ‘King forced lowly man to kneel, and then he named the bum knight.’ ”

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