Maleska, Eugene Thomas

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Maleska, Eugene Thomas

(b. 6 January 1916 in Jersey City, New Jersey; d. 3 August 1993 in Daytona Beach, Florida), educator, legendary crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times, and the only person to have a New York City school named for him during his lifetime.

Maleska was the son of Matthew Michael Maleska and Ellen Kelly. His father worked for the Central Railroad Company in New Jersey. Raised in Bergen County, New Jersey, he attended Regis High School in New York City and Montclair State Teachers College in New Jersey, where he received a BA. degree in 1937 and an M.A. degree in 1940. He did some graduate work at Columbia University from 1943 to 1946, and he received a doctorate in education from Harvard University in 1955.

Maleska discovered his first crossword puzzle in 1932. He was traveling home from high school on the commuter train, when he found a copy of the New York Daily News on the seat next to him. He saw the puzzle and was hooked for life. He began to keep notebooks of words and definitions, and eventually he created his own puzzles. His first success came while he was an undergraduate, trying to catch the attention of a student named Jean Merletto. He saw her working on the crossword in the New York Herald-Tribune, so he constructed a puzzle for her. The one-across clue was “Most beautiful girl on campus.” The answer was “Jean.” They were married on 23 March 1940. Their friends called them “Big Gene” and “Little Jean,” and both became schoolteachers. They had two children.

While in college Maleska began submitting his puzzles to the Tribune. The Tribune rejected his first forty puzzles, because they were so well crafted that they thought he was using other puzzle writers’ clues. In 1940 Maleska was accepted as a regular contributor at $1.50 a puzzle. At the time, the New York Times did not publish crossword puzzles, considering them “a primitive form of mental exercise.” In 1942 the Times published its first puzzle in the Sunday magazine. Maleska’s puzzles were included almost from the start.

From 1937 to 1940, Maleska taught Latin and English at a junior high school in suburban Palisades Park, New Jersey. In 1940 he began his more than thirty-year career in the New York City public school system. He was an English teacher at Frederick Douglass Junior High School in Manhattan from 1940 to 1946. He was the assistant to the principal at P.S. 169 in 1946, and in 1952 he became the principal of P.S. 192. He took a year off to study at Harvard University from 1954 to 1955 and was the principal of Junior High School 184 from 1955 to 1958.

During this time, Maleska had dozens of crossword puzzles published in the Times. Over the years he pioneered many changes in construction, including the use of nonprimary definitions, such as “nutcracker”s suite,’ for “nest” and “meter man” for “poet,” rather than the straight-from-the-dictionary clues of the past. One of his puzzles had the first multiple-word answer ever printed in the Times. The answer was “hard-shelled crab.” It “crawled across the page,” he said in an interview in 1991. “That just opened up the idea for phrases like ’in a rut” or ‘all the way,’ and then titles. You could have whole titles. It could be a quotation.’ He also developed new puzzle forms, including the “Stepquote,” the “Diagonogram,” and the “Cryptoquote.”

From 1958 to 1964, Maleska was the coordinator, then superintendent, in charge of teacher recruitment for the New York City public school system. He was the assistant superintendent of schools in District 8 of the Bronx from 1964 to 1966. Between 1966 and 1970 he was the associate program director for the Center for Urban Education in New York City, but he resumed his position as assistant superintendent of District 8 from 1970 until 1973, when he retired. That year, Intermediate School 174 in the Bronx was renamed the Eugene T. Maleska Intermediate School in his honor. He was the first person to have a New York City school named for him during his lifetime, and he will be the last, due to a subsequent law.

Maleska also taught at the college level. He was an in-structor at Hunter College in New York City from 1947 to 1951, taught in the summers of 1960, 1961, and 1962 at the University of Vermont, and was a lecturer at the City College of New York from 1952 to 1962. In 1962 he wrote The Story of Education with Carroll Atkinson. This book became a standard text in education courses for many years.

In 1977 Maleska was appointed crossword puzzle editor of the New York^ Times. There had only been two other editors before him, Margaret Farrar and Will Weng. From 1977 until his death in 1993, Maleska selected more than 7,000 puzzles for the daily paper and Sunday magazine. He estimated that he pored through more than 40,000 clues per year to choose which puzzles to publish, and that he made about seven mistakes a year. Explaining the popularity of crossword puzzles, he said, “The biggest reason puzzles are popular is they’re a cheap way to kill time. People attack them because they love words. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does a human being. You see those blanks there, and you leap in.”

Maleska wrote and edited a number of books throughout his life. In addition to numerous crossword puzzle compilations, he wrote a collection of poetry, Sun and Shadow (1961), and the puzzle-related books A Pleasure in Words (1981), Across and Down: Inside the Crossword Puzzle World (1984), and Crosstalk: Letters to America’s Foremost Crossword Authority, published posthumously in 1993.

Jean Maleska died in 1983. On 9 February 1985, Maleska married Annrea Neill Sutton, a portrait painter. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1991 he married Carol Atkinson, the widow of his The Story of Education coauthor, Carroll Atkinson. A heavy smoker and cigar lover all his life, Maleska was diagnosed with throat cancer. “After fifty-five years of devotion to Lady Nicotine,” he said about the choice to have surgery in early 1993, “I traded my voice for my life.” Maleska died of throat cancer at his home in Daytona Beach.

At six feet, four inches, Eugene Maleska was an imposing figure, but he was often described as charming and personable. His puzzles continued to be published in compilations well after his death, and working on the New York Times Sunday Magazine puzzle was a weekend tradition for many. He was called a “cruciverbalist” (maker of crossword puzzles), but he found the word pretentious. He preferred the term “crossword constructor.” “My main purpose is to entertain,” he said in a December 1991 interview in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There are no biographies of Eugene Maleska, but his books A Pleasure in Words (1981), Across and Down: The Crossword Puzzle World (1984), and Crosstalk (1993) contain biographical information. Articles about his crossword puzzle career include David Streitfield, “Getting Down (And Across); The Crossword Gurus and Their Square Dance,” Washington Post (13 Mar. 1987); Boo Browning, “Word Weaver Is a Puzzler,” San Diego Union-Tribune (4 Sept. 1990); and Amanda Gardner, “He Who Causes Cross Words: The Answer Is Cruciverbalist, Not Sadist,” Minneapolis Star-Tribune (31 Dec. 1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Bergen Record (both 5 Aug. 1993).

Sara J. Steen