At the age of 6, Merl Reagle could spell the names of every kid in his first-grade class. For some reason, he still doesn't know why, he started linking them together.
"Maybe somebody gave me a piece of graph paper. I don't know," Reagle said. "I was into Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, building things. Words were another thing I could build with. I could make little structures out of words like the toys I had."
Then Reagle discovered crosswords. In those puzzles, he found a soul mate. Decades later, Reagle is the most popular crossword puzzle constructor in the country. He contributes daily and Sunday puzzles to more than 50 newspapers nationwide, including The Hartford Courant. He is so beloved that he became an animated character on one episode of "The Simpsons."
His placement in a comedy TV show makes sense. Reagle is known for the humor in his puzzles, with hilarious Q&As like "Least popular cookbook ever: TO GRILL A MOCKINGBIRD," "Whose dream am I in, Mad Hatter?: URINALYSIS" and "I'm not a bad duck, I'm just: MALLARD JUSTED."
That humor made Reagle famous and continues to draw fans into the world of crossword puzzles. This week marks the 100th birthday of the crossword puzzle. To celebrate the occasion, Reagle has released a book, "Merl Reagle's 100th Anniversary Crossword Book" (The PuzzleWorks, $13) and created a special edition puzzle for Courant readers.
Reagle was published in the New York Times for the first time when he was 16. But he really found his niche when he started constructing puzzles for Games magazine in 1977. At the time, the editor of the magazine was Will Shortz, who is now the long-standing crossword puzzle editor at the Times.
In a phone interview from his home in Tampa, Fla., where he lives with his wife, Marie Haley, Reagle, 63, said Games helped him in his goal of breaking out of a stodgy crossword rut.
"They were more on my wavelength with their themes. And there were almost no obscure entries in their puzzles, no 'crosswordese'," he said.
Reagle is referring to those words — known to all puzzlers — that keep popping up in puzzle after puzzle, because the letters in the words come in handy, even though those words aren't used anywhere else, ever. "Yma Sumac" is one of them, that singer from the 50s," he said. "Anoa, which is an ox. Ern, which is a sea eagle. You see documentaries about those animals, and they don't call them erns. The two-toed sloth, unau, and the three-toed sloth, ai. I saw [Games magazine's] point of leaving the menagerie out."
At that time, he was still doing crosswords as a side job. "I was working in Hollywood ... on TV game shows. Whatever I was doing, I was making crosswords on the side on the job at home," he said. "Marie said, 'if crosswords are really what you want to do, how can you possibly make a living at it when the general format of the business is to be a freelancer? There's gotta be a way.'"
He finally carved out a unique niche by focusing on the humor. "Most people were not used to seeing a puzzle that was funny, not in newspapers. That was taking a big chance," he said. "I was changing the crossword, knowing how fanatical the fans are. Solvers don't expect to laugh out loud while they're puzzle solving. ... I decided to deal with the onslaught of mail for a few months."
A career was born. To this day he's one of the few crossword constructors in the country who does nothing else for a living. He is self-syndicated and retains the rights to all his puzzles. PuzzleWorks, the publisher of his new book, is his own publishing house.
Some of Reagle's most memorable Q&A puzzle jokes: "Did you hear that they tore down the old haunted house? Yes, it was EERIE-PLACABLE." "What is the most popular piece of furniture in Egypt? The ARMOIRE SADAT." Worst Muzak Songs for a Doctor's Office: KILLING ME SOFTLY, STOP DRAGGIN' MY HEART AROUND, TRYIN' TO GET THE FEELIN' AGAIN.
And one of his favorites: "Holder of board meetings? NAIL."
History Of Crosswords
Arthur Wynne, a British journalist, published the first crossword puzzle, on Dec. 21, 1913, in the New York World. He called it "word-cross. It was shaped like a diamond and included 31 words, with straightforward clues like "a river in Russia" and "an animal of prey."
In the following years, puzzles became regular features in newspapers nationwide. They were such a hot trend in the 1920s that librarians complained that puzzlers would monopolize the dictionaries in the libraries, shutting out other users. But the trend picked up steam, and the first book of puzzles was published in 1924.
Surprisingly — considering that paper's status with crossword puzzle fans — the New York Times spent decades sneering at puzzles and puzzlers. In 1924, the paper whined about the "sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex. This is not a game at all, and it hardly can be called a sport... [solvers] get nothing out of it except a primitive form of mental exercise, and success or failure in any given attempt is equally irrelevant to mental development." In 1942, the Times caved in and published its first puzzle.
"Every mention of a crossword puzzle in the New York Times, in stories and editorials, said they were a waste of time. They were continually saying they were dumb things, beneath everybody, keeping people from doing more important things," Reagle said. "Legend was that the editor [of the New York Times] got hooked on the puzzle from the Herald Tribune but rather than keep going across the street to [buy a paper and] solve the puzzle he decided the Times should have one of their own. I heard that that story may be apocryphal."
Despite that paper's highfalutin' status among puzzlers, Reagle said "the jury is out on what is the best puzzle in America. I still think there are an awful lot of great puzzles that give them a run for their money."
In addition to newspaper puzzles and books of puzzles, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament began annual events in 1978 in Stamford. In 2008, it has moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. "Five or six years ago, the movie came out," Reagle said, referring to the crosswording documentary "Wordplay." "There was a spike in people who wanted to play, 699 at one point. They needed bigger digs." The next tournament is in March.
Reagle's book is one of two books by prominent puzzlers coming out to mark the 100th anniversary. The other is "The Curious History of the Crossword: 100 Puzzles from Then and Now" by Ben Tausig (Race Point Publishing, $17.99). It includes 100 historical and contemporary puzzles and discusses the evolution of grid shapes and other highlights in the history of the puzzles.
Reagle's book contains 50 puzzles, eight of which have interesting stories behind them. "The stories are about how they got printed, some controversy, other things," Reagle said.
The book also has interesting tidbits from crossword puzzle history, including an interview with Kay Cutler, Arthur Wynne's daughter, who lives not far from Reagle, in Clearwater, Fla. It was illustrated by "Zits" creator Jim Borgman. "I met him at the Tucson Festival of Books. I had no idea he was a puzzle fan, let alone a fan of mine," he said.
Reagle loves going out into the community and watching people do his crossword puzzles. "I go into restaurants on Sunday mornings and watch couple solve. Usually, one of them is the solver and they tell the jokes to the other one who doesn't like puzzles," he said. "If they laugh, it's a real-world joke. It's not just crossword humor. People thought for years that was an oxymoron."