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November 30, 2013

Happy 100th to the crossword puzzle

(Continued)

She called it her "inadvertent profession." When she started in the 1920s she never expected such a seemingly genteel activity to be so controversial. The crossword craze killed mah-jongg virtually overnight. (Mah-jongg dealers put this note in the New Yorker: "Roses are red, violets are blue, we'd like to cut your throats for you.")

There was a crossword-related news story in the New York papers almost every week: A Baptist preacher constructed a crossword for a sermon. A man refused to leave a restaurant until he finished a crossword and had to be escorted out by police. A Cleveland woman was granted a divorce because her husband was obsessed with crosswords. A Budapest waiter explained in a crossword why he was committing suicide; police were unable to solve it.

The Broadway show "Puzzles of 1925" had a skit in which crossword fans were depicted as patients in a sanitarium. Commuter trains started putting dictionaries in every car. The Los Angeles Public Library had to enforce a limit on how long you could use the dictionary. England's Queen Mary became a crossword fan. The Chicago Department of Health declared that crossword solving was beneficial to health and happiness. And thesaurus author Peter Roget was declared "the patron saint of crossworders."

All the while, the Times called crossword solving "a temporary madness," serving "no useful purpose whatsoever," and an "epidemic" that would soon be over.

In 1942 the Times finally gave in and hired Margaret P. Farrar as its first crossword editor.

So whatever happened to Arthur Wynne?

As readers of The Washington Post may know, I make the crossword for the Post magazine every Sunday. I live in Tampa, Fla., but in this age of instant everything, I just attach the puzzle in an email and click "send."

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