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So What Do You Do, Maura Jacobson, Legendary New York Crossword Maker?

This puzzle master talks her 31-year career and how others can break in the business

By Amanda Ernst - May 25, 2011
While readers of New York magazine generally pick up the weekly for its award-winning journalism, local shopping or restaurant coverage, or even the "Approval Matrix," there are plenty more whose first flip is to the crossword puzzle in the back of each issue.

Unlike its more high-brow sibling in the Times, this grid doesn't require a reader to be a member of Mensa to solve it. New York puzzles are challenging enough to make an F train rider feel smarter than the person next to him, but accessible enough for the liberal arts grad who may not know how to spell Kazakhstan.

And, for decades, the sense of accomplishment readers got from cracking a difficult clue can be chalked up to master creator Maura Jacobson, who has been crafting the word puzzles for the magazine since 1980. New York readers' love for Jacobson's work became evident when she announced her retirement after 31 years at her post, resulting in an outpouring of support. (One reader even equated Jacobson's stepping down to "losing a family member.")

"I just couldn't believe anyone was sorry I was leaving," Jacobson said, modestly. "I'm really proud of that."

Name: Maura Jacobson
Title: Longtime crossword creator for New York magazine
Birthdate: April 28
Hometown: New York City
Education: B.A. from Hunter College
Resume: Quit teaching kindergarten when she had her daughter, and created a puzzle on a whim and sent it to The New York Times. In 1971, started creating consistent puzzles for the Times, and later Cue magazine. When Cue was bought by New York in 1980, she came, too, creating a puzzle a week for the magazine for the next 30 years. (She's been doing a puzzle every other week for the past year leading up to her retirement).
Marital Status: Married, with one daughter
Media idol: Margaret Farrar, the former crossword editor at The New York Times, "If it wasn't for her, I would have never been in the job."
Favorite TV show: Baseball games -- she's a Yankees fan.
Guilty pleasure: Chocolate
Last book read: None

How did you get into professional crossword making?
I would play with crossword puzzles in the magazines or in the newspapers. And, one day, I decided to try my luck and made up a terrible crossword puzzle which had made-up words in it. And, very brazenly, I sent it to the Times and the Times' editor of puzzles at the time, Margaret Farrar. If she had simply said, "I reject this. You made up words," well then I never would have sent in another puzzle to anyone. But she was gracious. And she said, "I cannot find these words anywhere. However, if you want to try again, I can make a few suggestions." So that was big news. You know, you get your name in the Times.

So I followed her suggestions, and she published the puzzle, and I started making larger puzzles for the Sunday edition. And then after a while, I lost interest, really. In 1971, I had a very bad auto accident which kept me off my feet for a year, and Margaret, again, sent me graph paper and she said, "Stay with it and it will be okay." And then she had to resign because The New York Times at the time had a ruling that you couldn't work after [age] 70. The position was taken over by a wonderful man, Will Weng, and he apparently liked my puzzles.

When New York magazine bought Cue, did you continue to create crosswords for the Times or just New York?
When I started working for New York magazine, I stayed with them only and I've had maybe one puzzle in The New York Times since. [New York Times crossword editor] Will Shortz was always asking me for puzzles for the Times, but I didn't have time to do both.

"I just couldn't believe anyone was sorry I was leaving. I'm really proud of that."

There is this whole community of passionate people who create crosswords and love them and do them fanatically. I know that you take part in the Crossword Puzzle Tournament, so how did you get involved in that community?
There was not very much contact between the people who made puzzles until 1977. Will Shortz was a young man from Indiana, and he was trying to make a place for himself. He was asked to make up a crossword tournament at the Stamford Marriott, because it was a business hotel and they wanted people to stay on the weekends when business was not being performed. So, he undertook this because he really had nothing else lined up. And that was in 1977; he's been doing it ever since. I'm the only person who he has asked for a puzzle every year since, which I have given him.

People say that your puzzles have very unique attributes. What would you say is your trademark?
I try to make the puzzle solvable, just simply that. I think other crossword makers try to fool the solver and I don't. I just go straight and apparently that gives people a way to move and they enjoy coming up at the end of the puzzle and being able to say, "I finished it! How smart I am." You know? And I feel I would like to be that kind of solver, so I do it for my puzzles.

Have you ever made a mistake in a puzzle and been called out on it?
I can't remember ever finding an error, except in my very last puzzle for New York magazine. And it's not my error -- there was an error in the clues, a misprint or something. And that bothered me, because I used to go over every single word and I don't know where this crept in. I had a young lady at New York magazine who went over every word with me, and I checked this after I saw the mistake. Apparently, the mistake went in at the printer, I think.

Is there enough money in crossword puzzle making to do it full time?
There's not enough money in it unless you have a weekly job. If you have a weekly job, then yes, you can manipulate that. But if all you can do is send a puzzle to the Times or some other publication and have one accepted and one rejected, you're not going to be able to have a steady income.

What about getting into it? You sent a puzzle to Margaret. Is that still the way to go?
I got lucky, and I was lucky with Will Weng as well. He liked my puzzles and he would go out of his way, I felt, to put me in the Times. And that helped. Today they would send a puzzle to Will Shortz or to another editor. Will Shortz will give your puzzle consideration and if it's good enough they'll publish it. I see a lot of names in the bylines in the Sunday Times puzzle. So, there are a lot of new names in there, and these are people who took the puzzle they made and sent it to Will Shortz. That's really the only way.

"I try to make the puzzle solvable, just simply that. I think other crossword makers try to fool the solver and I don't."

Has anyone ever sent you a puzzle for advice? Have you ever mentored anyone?
I've given advice but [finding other people to create puzzles] wasn't my job, so I didn't really go at it.

What if someone wanted to send you a puzzle now and asked for your advice?
I'd rather not be involved anymore.

What are your plans now that you're retired?
I'm planning to do some reading, because as you may have noticed, I couldn't come up with the name of the last book I read.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Brandon Holley, Editor-in-Chief of Lucky Magazine?

Amanda Ernst is a freelance writer living in New York. She also manages business development and social media marketing for B5 media, the publisher of three women's lifestyle sites.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2011. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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