Ron Tarver / Philadelphia Inquirer

Bernice Gordon, shown in 2009, earlier this year became the first centenarian to have a puzzle printed in The New York Times.

At 100, she comes across as someone who’s still down with puzzle design

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am

Eternal rest can’t be too far off – Bernice Gordon is 100 – but for two nights recently, she didn’t sleep. Didn’t even get into bed.

The primary reason was a crossword puzzle she was constructing for the Los Angeles Times.

And there was the Australian Open tennis tournament as well.

Gordon, who lives at Atria Center City, an assisted-living community in Philadelphia, in an apartment overlooking Logan Square, has been creating crossword puzzles since she was a young widow, home evenings with two small sons and needing something to engage her mind.

She was rejected repeatedly at first. “My child,” her mother scolded, “if you would spend as much time on cookbooks instead of crosswords, your family would be happier.”

Luckily, she didn’t listen. Since her first puzzle was published in The New York Times in 1952, crosswords have given Gordon a lifetime of happiness, friendships, even love.

As she has grown very old, limited by walker and wheelchair, puzzles have become a refuge, where her world remains vast and challenging and rewarding. She corresponds with the nation’s leading puzzle editors, who regard her as a regal figure.

“I just revere Bernice,” said Will Shortz, The New York Times’ puzzle editor, who came to Philadelphia on Jan. 12 for her 100th birthday party. Three days later, Gordon became the first 100-year-old to have a puzzle in the Times – 62 years after her first.

Gordon is one of 62,000 Americans 100 or older, though relatively few remain as sharp as she. It may be that her mind is so healthy because she works it out so rigorously. Research shows that those with an active mind in old age tend to have better acuity and less dementia.

Gordon still has a goal: create one puzzle a day.

But some take her as long as a week, and the L.A. Times puzzle presented a special challenge. (Spoiler alert for anyone in Los Angeles.)

She had FANNYPACK and FENNELTEA and FONDUEPOT and FUNNYBONE as the theme, but coming up with a FIN entry – and then fitting all five in alphabetical order – was bedeviling.

On top of all this, if she is not the most passionate fan of the world’s top-ranked tennis player, Rafael Nadal, she may be the oldest. She watched all of the Spaniard’s matches live – in the middle of the night in Philadelphia.

At 3 a.m. she e-mailed John Samson, puzzle editor for book publisher Simon & Schuster, and also a lover of Nadal and Spain:

“Juan, I am positively worn out. That was some close game!”

After a 5 a.m. bath, Gordon was restored – and completed her puzzle. She leaves her apartment only with a wheelchair. At home, she uses a walker for every step. Yet she can still climb over the lip of her tub – an Olympic-caliber feat for a centenarian.

Surgeon Richard Rothman has replaced each of her hips twice – the first replacements wore out. She also has arthritic knees. A hot soak is her sanctuary.

“Oh, it was so hard,” she said the next morning, referring to the L.A. Times puzzle. “I never went to bed.” She did take afternoon naps. “The answers had to be in order, AEIOU. I couldn’t get a grid. It was fierce. To get it symmetrical was bad, bad, bad, bad.”

Her final theme words were FINKOUT. She admired the puzzle on her screen.

“Isn’t it gorgeous?”

Bernice Biberman was raised in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Her father was a Russian Jew whose family fled the pogroms. He arrived in Philadelphia illiterate at age 8, and sold pencils on the street. He rose to vice president of L’Aiglan, a dressmaker at 15th and Mount Vernon Streets.

“I was brought up in the lap of luxury,” Gordon said. “I never made a bed. I never washed a dish.”

Her two older sisters attended college at the Sorbonne.

“When my year came,” she said, “Mr. Roosevelt closed the banks, so I had to settle for Penn.”

She graduated in 1935 with a degree in fine arts.

After college, she married Benjamin Lanard, 20 years older, co-founder of the commercial real estate firm Lanard & Axilbund.

They shared a beautiful life, traveled the world. He died at 52. She was 32.

She started making puzzles, married Allen Gordon.

“He died at the age of 52, like my first husband,” she said. “Died in the same hospital as my first husband. Died with the same doctor and the same disease and the same nurses, 20 years later. A repeat performance from top to bottom. Cancer of the liver, both of them.”

She raised two sons from her first marriage, a daughter from the second.

“Bernice’s themes and puzzles are almost always straightforward, not at all gimmicky or tricky,” said Rich Norris, puzzle editor at the Los Angeles Times. “Yet there’s an elegance in her simplicity. She finds relationships among words that are so obvious when you first see them that you wonder why you’ve never seen this before.

“One of my favorites,” he said, “was a puzzle in 2011 where the four theme clues were Obie, Odie, Opie and Okie. The answers were all 15 letters … THEATRICALAWARD GARFIELDSFRIEND CHILDINMAYBERRY MANFROMMUSKOGEE … which is no minor achievement. Molding an answer to a certain length and keeping it smooth is a talent in itself.”

Shortz has favorites, too, such as this name-puns theme from 1994:

ROSEGARDEN (Place for Pete?) POWERHOUSE (Place for Tyrone?) CROSSPATCH (Place for Ben?) FOSTERHOME (Place for Jodie?)

Samson added: “The first Bernice Gordon puzzle I had the pleasure of editing was called ‘Place the Names.’ The theme was considered a tricky one at the time, involving names of famous people merging into cities and countries.

“For example, one clue was ‘Soul singer seen in subcontinent?’ and the answer was FRANKLINDIA (Aretha’s surname merging into India).”

Typically, Gordon will propose a theme, and if editors approve, she will complete the grid and write the clues. A grid must look the same when rotated 180 degrees, a design challenge. Gordon for decades created grids with pencil and graph paper, but a granddaughter put puzzle software on her computer 12 years ago, so she now modifies her grids with a mouse click.

Shortz loved the theme for the puzzle that ran after her 100th birthday. Gordon had proposed: CARIBBEANC BLACKEYEDP AFTERNOONT GEOGRAPHYB.

Shortz wanted her to work in two more phrases: ONLYU and WELLC.

She continually revises her clues, trying to improve them. Editors have the prerogative to change them. Her clue for GEOGRAPHYB initially was, “Annual contest sponsored by a D.C. society.” It appeared as, “It’s all about location, location, location.”

For seven years, Gordon has eaten lunch and dinner with the same women: Sophy Cohen, 99, who moved in the same year as Gordon and is like a sister; Evelyn Levitsky, 92; and Jacqueline Cotter, 92.

The four meet at noon at one table, and again at 4:45 p.m. across the Atria dining room, at another. Two come by wheelchair, two by walker.

At lunch the other day, the quartet sat mostly in silence, spooning lentil soup, sipping cranberry juice through a straw.

“After 10 years, there’s not much conversation,” Sophy said. “We know all the stories inside and out. So we just sit and relax.”

The Census Bureau estimates 442,000 centenarians by 2050. James Vaupel, a Duke University demographer and head of Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Demographic Research, thinks that is too conservative, and estimates 1 million American centenarians by 2050.

“Most babies born in the U.S. since 2000 will … celebrate 100th birthdays,” he said, but relatively few will be as sharp as Gordon.

Yaakov Stern, a neuropsychologist at Columbia University, said that 15 years ago, researchers in aging thought that exercise and mental stimulation just kept the brain fit, improving neural networks that already existed.

But new research involving imaging, he said, shows that these activities actually reshape the brain, helping grow new neurons.

Shortz said he’s hoping to publish a puzzle of Gordon’s when she’s 101.

But Gordon won’t be disappointed if she doesn’t reach that milestone.

A few days after her party, asked her feelings about death, she said: “It’s not far away, and I’m quite ready. I’m in pain constantly, and it’s not easy. It’s not a happy existence. I’m content here because I love my apartment and I have the things around me that I love, and of course doing crossword puzzles is wonderful. It makes me think, takes me into another world.”

Read more articles by Michael Vitez

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