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Aging & Society

Do What You Love, Even Into Your 100’s!

A few years back we were thrilled to interview our hero, Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle.

During the course of our conversation, he told us about an incredible woman named Bernice Gordon, who has been creating crossword puzzles for over 60 years and is the Times’ oldest crossword constructor ever.

Sadly, Bernice passed away early this year at the age of 101.  However, we had the privilege of talking to her, right around the time she was planning her 100th birthday party.  She was still the master of the crossword having had over 1000 published puzzles under her belt – 200 for the New York Times.

When we caught up with her, Bernice was living at an assisted living facility in Philadelphia.  She jokingly remarked, “I don’t know what I’m doing here living with all these old people!”  Not only was she still cranking out very complicated puzzles for major newspapers across the country, she was regularly constructing puzzles for the folks at the assisted living facility, using simpler themes, such as “laundry” or “lunch.”   

Bernice began constructing puzzles when she was in her thirties because she was bored with television – except for Milton Berle – and wanted a mental challenge.  She told us about the sheer excitement of having a puzzle accepted by the New York Times, for the first time in 1952, and how she got paid 50 cents for it.

Although the paper did not give bylines to constructors until the 1990s, Bernice’s May 30, 1965 New York Times puzzle made quite an impression. She was credited with pioneering the concept of rebus puzzles when she included a punctuation mark. Hundreds of people wrote to the Editor, some applauding the new feature while others said “they had never seen anything worse.”

In addition to newspapers and crossword puzzle books, Bernice also constructed puzzles for private clients. One of her more unusual ones was none-other-than Xaviera Hollander, AKA The Happy Hooker, who hired her to construct a set of X-rated crossword puzzles for her birthday party. Bernice told us she had to learn quite a few new words for that one (wink! wink!).

Her final puzzle for The New York Times was a joint venture with David Steinberg.  The puzzle was characteristically clever, but also may have set the record for the largest age gap between crossword collaborators. At the time, David was 16; Bernice was 100.  Talk about bridging the generation gap!

We asked Bernice the secret to staying so sharp and hopeful after all her years of living.  Her answer?  Laughing, a lot.  We consider ourselves fortunate to have shared some of that laughter, if only for a brief time.  With her wit, smarts, determination, and the pure joy she got from stumping us with her creations, Bernice is a shining example that age doesn’t have to be an obstacle to doing what you love.

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