Brow Beat

How Merl Reagle (1950–2015) Changed the Way American Crosswords Were Made

Merl Reagle.

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images for the Sarasota Film Festival

If you happen to own a bottle of Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot, open it today and drink to America’s greatest crossword writer, who died unexpectedly on Saturday at the age of 65. Not because it’s such a great vintage, but because it conceals both the first and last names of that writer: Merl Reagle.

Embedding his own name was one of Reagle’s favorite kinds of wordplay, and when he used “Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot” as an answer once in a puzzle, fans of his who worked at the winery sent him a case of “his” wine on the house. Things like this happened a lot to the gregarious Reagle, who charmed editors at 50-plus papers around the country into carrying his weekly crossword, including those at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Reagle was America’s first celebrity crossword writer: He made appearances on Oprah and The Simpsons, was featured in the hit 2006 documentary Wordplay, and was mobbed at book signings and crossword tournaments by fans.

What was the secret to his success? His crosswords were extensions of his winning, jovial personality. You didn’t need the byline to know it was a Merl Reagle puzzle; who else would conceive of a theme like “Signs in a department store that you hope Junior won’t take literally,” with answers of THROW RUGS, SLIT SKIRTS and POCKET CALCULATORS? Only Merl.

His style of crossword writing is not easily mimicked; you need a very special brain to pull these ingeniously oddball ideas out of the air every week, so it remains to be seen where his newspapers will find a new crossword. To his fans, his puzzles are irreplaceable—and to the crossword world, his impact has been enormous. Among his contributions:

1. He believed that crosswords should be fun. This sounds obvious now, but 40 years ago, crossword puzzles were seen as more of a mental test than a form of entertainment, and were largely written and edited as such. Arcane rules of construction tended to take precedence over fun, and amusing clues were hard to find.

Reagle turned this notion upside down, viewing himself primarily as an entertainer. His ideal crossword answer had what he termed “a life off the page,” meaning that the wordplay involved was so clever that a solver would shout out the clue and answer to their spouse in the next room.

2. He showed crossword writers how to self-brand. The logistics of the pre-Internet era demanded that a crossword’s brand be based on the newspaper it was printed in, with editors receiving bylines over puzzle-makers. The New York Times crossword, for instance, did not even print the latters’ bylines before 1993.

But with Merl Reagle, for the first time, his name became the brand solvers knew and looked for; it was newspapers who sought to associate themselves with the Reagle name as much as the other way around.

3) He started the Indie crossword movement. There are now dozens of crossword writers doing what Merl did for 30 years—building fan bases around their own highly personalized, idiosyncratic weekly crosswords. This template was set by Merl with the indispensable help of his wife, Marie Haley, who ran the business end of their crossword enterprise. I myself have consciously patterned my career after Reagle’s. About once a year, I’d call him up to ask some or other question, and we’d wind up talking for two or three hours, most of which I’d spend laughing.

He did this with a lot of people, but a bout of acute pancreatitis in a Tampa hospital has now robbed the crossword world of another decade or two of Reagle’s delightful elder statesmanship.

In his final puzzle, “Homophone Hijinks,” the funny clue for 102-across is classic Reagle: “People with the same name as a famed dame.” (The answer? “Ednas.”) The man is now gone, but in the 4,000-plus crosswords he made over his career, that irrepressible personality remains.