Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Human Interest

Searching for the crossword inventor: a Clearwater connection

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle. To a person like me who makes crosswords for a living, it is, in 14 letters (four words): A Really Big Deal.

Despite its cerebral trappings, the crossword puzzle has a surprisingly dramatic flesh-and-blood history, but for more than half a century there has been a big hole in the story — a real-life puzzle that I've been trying to figure out for 15 years.

The crossword was invented by Arthur Wynne and first appeared in the New York World newspaper on Dec. 21, 1913. (The first word across was "fun".) Wynne had based the puzzle on the small word squares he had solved as a boy in Liverpool, England. His new "word-cross" puzzle was an immediate hit. For the next eight years he either made the puzzles himself or published ones sent in by readers.

But after Wynne handed the crossword baton to a young staffer named Margaret Petherbridge in 1921, he was barely mentioned. Where had he gone?

I knew only that he had died in 1945. In the late 1990s I found an old newspaper obit online. I had always assumed, since Wynne was born in Liverpool but lived most of his adult life around New York, that he was buried in one of those two places. Nope. As is so often true, there was a Florida connection. The inventor of the crossword died in Clearwater.

My head, as soon as it stopped spinning, immediately flashed with questions. Where did he live? Where is he buried? Are there any relatives?

My wife, Marie Haley, eventually found the next clue: the obit of Wynne's oldest daughter, Janet. She died in 2007, but among the long list of relatives was a sister, Kay W. Cutler, of Clearwater. Within five minutes, Marie had her on the phone.

As far as I know, no one in the puzzle world was aware that Arthur Wynne had married again to a much younger woman and that he had become a father at 62. The child's name was Catherine — Kay — and she was 12 years old when her father died.

Kay was now 80 and still living in Clearwater. We met over breakfast. She was funny, sharp, self-effacing. She said she'd always wanted to set the record straight about her dad.

Here are a few fascinating things she told us:

• Seeing how popular the crossword had become, Wynne urged his bosses to copyright or trademark the puzzle. They declined, calling it a passing trifle.

• Wynne was a regular at New York's Palm restaurant and was one of the first caricatures on the wall.

• Wynne moved to Indian Rocks Beach for health reasons in 1941. He died at Morton Plant Hospital and was cremated (the reason we could find no mention of a grave site). His bungalow has been remodeled since 1945, but it's still on Gulf Boulevard.

So, thank you, Arthur Wynne, for creating this odd interlocking thing that gave me a career, and thank you, Kay, for solving the biggest "crossword puzzle" of all — whatever happened to the inventor.

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