Puzzle Builder Merl Reagle Got His Message Across—and Down

merl-alternate-1Merl Reagle, the pun-ishingly inventive man who had created crossword puzzles for AARP The Magazine since 2004, died suddenly of acute pancreatitis in a hospital in Tampa on Aug. 22. He was 65.

Those are the facts of the case. What they can’t give you is a sense of Merl’s love of words, or a flavor of how much fun it was to work with him — or a little behind him, I should say, since that’s where his sprinting wit always seemed to leave me.

At 15 in 1965, he became the youngest person ever to sell a crossword to the New York Times. Puzzles of the time typically included such esoteric answers as ANOA (clued as “Celebes ox”) and PRAU (“Malaysian canoe”). So Merl set out to “decerebralize” the solving equation, he told the St. Petersburg Times. The verbal gymnastics that resulted — HALO clued as “Ring around the collar?”, for example, or FUSE clued as “Current governor?” — surprised and delighted solvers accustomed to more schoolmarmish conundra.

Once I challenged Merl to come up with a puzzle theme appropriate for an October/November issue of the magazine. His creative font left me in the dust (Merl would have loved that oxymoronic image): “how about corn?” he asked in one of his quirkily punctuated emails (the man hated the Shift key more than Archy, Don Marquis’ famous night-typing cockroach). “there’s candy corn (halloween treats) and corn on the cob (thanksgiving), but i would do more of a corny pun idea — STALK BROKER, A BUCK AN EAR, KERNEL SANDERS, etc.

“however,” he added, “i would draw the line at, ‘hi, fructose!’ ”

When the finishemerld puzzle arrived, I discovered that Merl had included entirely unexpected clues and answers:

Corny announcement? EAR WE ARE
Corny kids’ game? COBS AND ROBBERS
Corny reaction to solving this puzzle? AW SHUCKS

He also threw in what I’ve come to think of as the ultimate boomer-centric pun:

Corny Jack Nicholson film? KERNEL KNOWLEDGE

Hashing out puzzle themes in other emails, Merl would toss off such seemingly-casual-but-really-quite-carefully-constructed witticisms as this: “i know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid, but he says he can stop any time.”

Marie Haley, Merl’s self-described “life partner” of 32 years, recalled that “We hit it off within the first hour of meeting each other [in Kenny’s 24-hour Deli in Santa Monica, Calif.]. We were each other’s missing piece. I used to love to have Merl read to me, so before we went to see The End of the Tour — our last movie together, it turns out — Merl read me the first 15 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.”

In the “4-Wd.” (his spelling, not mine) to Merl Reagle’s 100th Anniversary Crossword Book, Reagle credits Marie “for making this preoccupation with puzzles an actual career… It was Marie who said, ‘Come on, let’s do it, let’s go!’ So we did, and one by one we kept getting papers — the San Francisco Examiner (later, the Chronicle), the Seattle Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the L.A. Times, The Washington Post and many others. This was Marie all the way, so thank you, sweetie.”

“He had a unique wit that cannot be replaced,” says Lynn Medford, Reagle’s edtor at The Washington Post (for whom he had constructed ingenious challenges since 2008). “He enjoyed what he did, and it showed in his crosswords.”

No true remembrance of Reagle, of course, could overlook his fondness for anagrams and palindromes (he starred in the 2006 documentary Wordplay, after all — and that was in addition to appearing on Oprah and being honored as a character on The Simpsons).

On the day I mentioned to him that I was working with a writer named Christina Ianzito, Merl fired back, sans pause: “Hey! That’s an anagram for ‘Christianization’!”

And in a recent email, he mentioned that “one of my favorite palindromes is, ‘do geese see god?’ and my answer is, if they fly high enough, they do. or if they fly into a jet engine, ditto.”

No one’s flights of fancy took us higher than yours, my friend.


Allan Fallow, a features editor at AARP Media, is the puzzle editor for AARP The Magazine and the AARP Bulletin.

Photos: Edward Linsmier