At 100, crosswords help her keep an active mind

Bernice Gordon (second from right) leads a class on working crossword puzzles at her apartment, joined by her friends (from left) Julie Patillo, Ann Frank, and Fran D'Urbano. AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer
Bernice Gordon (second from right) leads a class on working crossword puzzles at her apartment, joined by her friends (from left) Julie Patillo, Ann Frank, and Fran D'Urbano. AKIRA SUWA /Staff Photographer
Posted: February 24, 2014

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.

Bernice, who lives at Atria Center City, an assisted living community, 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 Bernice 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 Jan. 12 for her 100th birthday party. Three days later, Bernice became the first 100-year-old ever to have a puzzle in the Times - 62 years after her first.

Bernice 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.

One puzzle a day

Bernice 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, Bernice 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 of the L.A. Times puzzle. "I never went to bed." She did take afternoon naps. "The answers had to be in order, A E I O U. 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?"

'Lap of luxury'

Bernice Biberman was raised in Germantown. 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," Bernice 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, cofounder 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.

Twice a widow, she moved into a high-rise on Rittenhouse Square in 1967 and lived there 38 years. Her sister, Geraldine, lived in the same building. They spoke six times a day. Her death years ago was another blow.

Bernice had surgery for a brain tumor at 90, in 2004. Her younger son, Jim Lanard, a retired pathologist, thought she should move to assisted living in case the tumor grew back.

She was supposed to get annual brain scans, but stopped. "Even if it did grow back," she said, "it's too late for another operation. Enough already."

A tricky theme

"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, Bernice 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. Bernice 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.

Bernice had proposed:

CARIBBEANC BLACKEYEDP AFTERNOONT GEOGRAPHYB.

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

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."

    

Meetings in New York

Beginning in the early 1970s, the nation's leading puzzle constructors would meet monthly in New York City for an elegant lunch.

"We would have wonderful meetings," Bernice said, "discuss new words. It was a closed affair and an honor to be there."

Norman Wizer of Malvern was 14 years younger than Bernice, but started sitting next to her at the luncheons, then driving her to New York and back. Soon they were a pair.

Bernice created an anagram of their first names, and they published puzzles together as Monica Brenner.

Every Sunday for years she took a train from 30th Street Station, and they would build puzzles at his home. Bernice loved a wooden carousel horse from Mexico, a work of art, at the top of his stairs.

When she could no longer take the train, he would come to her apartment.

They traveled to Europe together. She loved him.

"I was much better at words," she said. "But his [clues] were so hard that I didn't understand the finished puzzle. We were a wonderful team."

  When Wizer went into a nursing home,  Bernice   called morning and night.

He died in May.

"In the end, he had another girlfriend," Bernice said. "She lived near him, and she could drive. She hated my guts, and I hated her guts. But she was a great help."

Wizer helped Bernice plan her centennial celebration at the Four Seasons. She wanted an accordion player, but he said classical guitar would be better. He told his niece if he died before the party, see that Bernice got the carousel horse. It arrived on her birthday.

She wept.

Teaching crosswords

For seven years, Bernice has eaten lunch and dinner with the same women: Sophy Cohen, 99, who moved in the same year as Bernice 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."

Evelyn recalled the first time she entered the dining room. "I stood and looked and didn't know where to sit. Bernice approached and asked me to eat with her. She sort of saved me. We've been together ever since."

Sophy added, "It's very awkward when you come into a place where you don't know one person. You feel like a lost soul."

Sophy, Evelyn, and Jacqueline deeply admire Bernice. "She's brave and strong," Sophy said. "She accepts things. She lost a son just a week before her party. She decided she's not going to cancel. She's just going to continue with her plans. That's the most amazing thing."

Bernice's older son, Benjamin Lanard, who lived in Spain, died at 76 after an illness. Sophy, Evelyn, and Jacqueline cried with Bernice in her apartment.

Bernice teaches a crossword class to residents on Wednesday afternoons. She creates an easy puzzle and helps them solve it.

They sit in the Newport Lounge, at a long table.

"One across is part of a college campus in four letters, starting with Q," Bernice began the other day.

Silence.

"Quad," she said, spelling it, "Q U A D."

And so it went.

 They do best with questions from their youth.

When Bernice asked on 51 across, "Bojangles, what kind of dance did he do?" Julie Patillo got that right away. "Tap."

When Bernice said on 59 across, "Comical Allen," Ann Frank knew immediately. "Fred," she said.

The chef walked by and greeted Bernice like a VIP.

"This is the man who keeps me thin," she said.

He laughed. "I try not to give her too much tiramisu."

After the puzzle was complete and class ended, Bernice powered her wheelchair toward the elevator and said, "I am very patient, but I find it so frustrating. They can't get the simplest clues. It's very hard on my nerves."

Why do it?

"They have learned so much, and they thank me."

Brain activity

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 one million American centenarians by 2050.

"Most babies born in the U.S. since 2000 will ... celebrate 100th birthdays," he said, but still relatively few will be as sharp as Bernice.  

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.

Stern said he's pathetic at crosswords, and one need not be Bernice Gordon. Gardening or even socializing can constitute a rich brain activity.

Sheet cake

Bernice had much fun at her party. A great-nephew flew in from Seattle, a granddaughter from California. Her surviving son came from Arizona; her daughter and granddaughter from Chester County. A godson in Florida sent 100 roses. Samson, of Simon & Schuster, sent orchids.

The sheet cake depicted a crossword puzzle.

Her son said he saw two lessons in his mother's longevity: "You got to be tough to get through life, and you're never too old to be creative, to work, to enjoy what you're doing."

Shortz said he's hoping to publish a puzzle of Bernice's when she's 101.

But Bernice 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."

Then she began to explain her latest idea for a theme, recasting a popular quote.

Instead of, "Where there's a will, there's a way," she was noodling with, "Where there's a will, I want to be in it."

She'd be up late working on it.


From Bernice:

My dear friend Sophy died yesterday after a brief illness, and I am so depressed. In six months I have lost Norman, then Benjie, and now my closest friend. Your write-up gave me a lift and helped ease my depression. Thank you so much, dear Michael, for the thrill of seeing a worn and weary face on the front page.


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639 @michaelvitez

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