Nancy Schuster, Crossword Champion, Creator and Editor, Dies at 90

Nancy Schuster, Crossword Champion, Creator and Editor, Dies at 90

Nancy Schuster, who began crafting crossword puzzles for a P.T.A. newspaper when her children were young and went on to make puzzles her career — constructing them, competing in tournaments and editing them for magazines — died on April 26 in Newburgh, N.Y., in Orange County. She was 90.

Her daughter, Jackie Novick, confirmed Mrs. Schuster’s death, in a hospice facility. She had been living in nearby Goshen, N.Y.

Mrs. Schuster became a star in crossword puzzle circles in 1978 when she won the first American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held at a hotel in Stamford, Conn. She took home $125 after solving all five of the competition’s puzzles.

She told Newsday afterward that the most difficult clue was in the third puzzle: “Greek festival maidens with baskets on their heads.”

“She described herself then as a Queens housewife,” said Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times since 1993, who started and remains its director. But, he said in a phone interview, she was already editing puzzles as a freelancer for Dell Magazines. “Maybe she was trying to hide her credentials.”

The tournament attracted enough media attention to irritate Mrs. Schuster.

“They knew I was leading overnight, and I had TV cameras over my back on Sunday morning,” she told Vero Beach magazine in 2022. “It drove me nuts.”

Stanley Newman, a longtime puzzle editor at Newsday, said by phone that when Mrs. Schuster won the 1978 tournament, “she became a goddess to everybody.”

Nancy Jane Cahn was born on July 13, 1933, in the Bronx. Her father, Elkan, owned a printing company. Her mother, Sophie (King) Cahn, ran the house. At around age 9, she became acquainted with The Times’s crosswords by watching her father solve them. She occasionally contributed answers.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, she entered Adelphi College (now University) on Long Island, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1953. She then worked as a research assistant in a lab at New York University until she became pregnant with her son, Gary, in 1958.

When the editor of the P.T.A. newspaper at Gary’s elementary school asked her to construct some puzzles to “liven up” the publication, she told Crossword magazine in 1991, she agreed. “I had never thought of constructing before,” she recalled.

Her first one was crude, but she said that the experience of creating subsequent ones was “like a drug.” Jokingly, she said, “My house never got cleaned, my dinners never got made, my children were filthy, and my husband was furious.”

Looking beyond the P.T.A. newspaper, she submitted puzzles to The Times, The National Observer and other publications. They were rejected, but she found success with other outlets, including Harper’s Bazaar — one of her puzzles appeared there as early as 1969 — which paid her $5 to $7 for each crossword.

Her freelance editing for Dell led to a job editing puzzles for Official Publications, where she created a magazine, Superb Word Games. In 1988, she was hired as the editor in chief of Dell Champion Puzzles magazines, a job she held for six years.

“She was the best critic that an editor could have,” Mr. Newman said, recalling the advice she gave when he was starting out as an editor. “She was totally unrestrained in letting me know what I should do. She made me a better editor.”

She was one of three candidates to replace Eugene T. Maleska in 1993 as the crossword editor of The Times, but believed that Mr. Shortz deserved the job because he could dedicate himself more completely to it than she could have. For most of the past 30 years — until her 90th birthday last year — Mrs. Schuster tested and proofread The Times’s crosswords for Mr. Shortz.

“She gave me her comments, told me if there was anything wrong or didn’t sound right,” Mr. Shortz said. For a time, she served as Mr. Shortz’s chief test solver at The Times.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Schuster is survived by her son and four grandchildren. Irwin Schuster, a songwriter and music publisher whom she married in 1955, died in 1984.

Mrs. Schuster published 12 crosswords in The Times, but she initially had trouble getting her puzzles accepted there.

She said that Margaret Farrar, The Times’s first crossword editor, rejected a puzzle of hers whose theme was the “kissing bug,” or mononucleosis.

“She definitely did not approve of that,” she told Patrick Merrell, who wrote the Vero Beach magazine article. “She was horrified!”

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