Bernice Gordon, 101, the matriarch of American crossword puzzles, whose last puzzle appeared in the New York Times in August, died early Thursday, Jan. 29.
Mrs. Gordon, a Philadelphia native who lived her last years in a Center City assisted-living community, started creating crosswords at age 35 as a young widow, home evenings with two small sons and needing something to engage her mind.
She was rejected repeatedly at first. "My child," her mother scolded, "if you would spend as much time on cookbooks instead of crosswords, your family would be happier."
Luckily, she didn't listen. Since her first puzzle was published in the New York Times in 1952, crosswords had given Mrs. Gordon a lifetime of happiness, friendships, even love.
As she grew very old, limited by walker and wheelchair, unable to leave Atria Center City on Logan Square, puzzles became a refuge, where her world remained vast, challenging, and rewarding.
She continued to create puzzles and correspond with the nation's leading puzzle editors until the last weeks of her life.
"Bernice is the classiest crossword constructor I've known," said Will Shortz, crossword editor at the Times, who went to her 100th birthday celebration. "When she hosted a party for puzzlers, as she did a number of times, it was elegant."
Shortz said Mrs. Gordon had more than 120 puzzles published in the Times, and added, "She holds two records which are likely to stand for a long time: Oldest known New York Times crossword constructor - 100 years, seven months, her puzzle of last Aug. 14 - and longest-running New York Times crossword constructor - 61 years."
Among his favorite puzzles of hers was this one, with four 10-letter answers and corresponding clues:
ROSEGARDEN (Place for Pete?)
POWERHOUSE (Place for Tyrone?)
CROSSPATCH (Place for Ben?)
FOSTERHOME (Place for Jodie?)
"I last published a puzzle of hers Dec. 2," said Rich Norris, puzzle editor at the Los Angeles Times. "As it happens, I sent her an approval on a new theme just a few days ago. She usually sends me the completed puzzle the next day. This time, though, she didn't, and I wondered if she was feeling poorly again."
"I'll always remember her," he added, "as one of the outstanding constructors in modern crossword history - for her talent, her wit, her longevity, and most of all, her kindness and grace."
In an Inquirer article last year, Norris said Mrs. Gordon's themes and puzzles were almost always straightforward, not at all gimmicky or tricky. "Yet there's an elegance in her simplicity," he said. "She finds relationships among words that are so obvious when you first see them that you wonder why you've never seen this before."
One of his favorites was a 2011 puzzle where the four theme clues were "Obie, Odie, Opie, and Okie." The answers were all 15 letters: THEATRICALAWARD, GARFIELDSFRIEND, CHILDINMAYBERRY, MANFROMMUSKOGEE.
Bernice Biberman was raised in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. Her father was a Russian Jew whose family fled the pogroms. He arrived in Philadelphia illiterate at age 8, and sold pencils on the street. He rose to vice president of L'Aiglon, a dressmaker at 15th and Mount Vernon Streets.
"I was brought up in the lap of luxury," she said last year. "I never made a bed. I never washed a dish."
Her two older sisters attended college at the Sorbonne in Paris.
"When my year came," she said, "Mr. Roosevelt closed the banks, so I had to settle for Penn."
She graduated in 1935. She was widowed twice, first from Benjamin Lanard, cofounder of the commercial real estate firm Lanard & Axilbund. He died when she was 32. She later married Allen Gordon, who died when she was 52.
Mrs. Gordon suffered from heart disease, had hospice in her home at the end, and died peacefully, said her daughter, Mandy D'Amico.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by son Jim Lanard, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Services will be private.