Monday, February 07, 2011


Sylvia Bursztyn is no longer with us. For my entire adult life, attempting to solve the Sunday LA Times crossword has been a weekly ritual. Nancy, of the Banar sisters, noticed the note at the bottom of the Jan 9th puzzle stating that this puzzle would be Sylvia's last. Shocked, I've lost a love/hate relationship of decades. Her obit follows.

Sylvia Bursztyn dies at 62; created Sunday crossword puzzles for the L.A. Times

Bursztyn collaborated with her puzzle partner Barry Tunick on the newspaper's word game until his death in 2007, then continued on her own. During their long working relationship, they rarely met face to face.

January 08, 2011|By Claire Noland, Los Angeles Times
Sylvia Bursztyn, who parlayed her playful spirit and love of language into a 30-year career of creating devilishly clever Sunday crossword puzzles for the Los Angeles Times, has died. She was 62.
Bursztyn was found dead at her Granada Hills home on Dec. 30. The Los Angeles County coroner ruled her death was from natural causes.
Bursztyn collaborated with her puzzle partner Barry Tunick on The Times' word game from April 1980  until his death in 2007, then continued on her own. Their Puzzler first appeared in the Book Review, then moved to the Sunday magazine and finally landed in Sunday Calendar. Her last puzzle will appear this Sunday.
Despite their long working relationship, Bursztyn and Tunick rarely met face to face. She would construct the grid and fill in the words according to the theme she had conceived, then send the game to Tunick, a high school English teacher from Culver City who would write the corresponding clues. They were known for their clever wordplay featuring puns and anagrams.
Some of their favorite cryptic clues:
Trapp family dog? The hound of music.
Plain-wrap soap? Generic hospital.
Proof the cat ate the canary? Down in the mouth.
The puzzle makers explained how they met and how they worked together in their book "Crossword Crosstalk," published by Capra Press in 1988. Tunick, who in early 1980 already had a contract with The Times, was searching for a partner to divide the labor and to work more efficiently. He found Bursztyn, who was working as a legal secretary, through the National Puzzlers League. Since joining the organization a year earlier, she had been crafting verse word puzzles that ran in its monthly magazine.
Not only did the duo have different puzzle duties, they also had divergent personalities. In "Crossword Crosstalk," which is written in a chatty, back-and-forth style between the partners, Tunick described how they pitched the publisher on the biographical section of the book: "Barry, the devil-may-care, two-fisted amiable zany … and Sylvia, the inscrutable mystery woman, the Greta Garbo (J.D. Salinger?) of Puzzledom."
In the resulting chapter, Barry's section goes on for nearly five pages. Sylvia's entry reads thus: "Bursztyn's bio: She writes puzzles."
By most accounts, that was a typical response from Bursztyn, who guarded the details of her life. Public records show she was born outside the United States on Oct. 3, 1948. Even her editors and those inside the puzzle-making world knew little about her.
Sylvia and Barry's puzzles were close to perfect in my opinion - not too hard, not too easy, always clever. Solving usually involved a big satisfying AHA! derived from the pun detection. I don't know why - but "getting" those things is just the cat's meow. 

Their puzzles had a California feel, quite different from the big Kahuna - the New York Sunday grid. Sylvia and Barry's blended a satisfying mix of pop culture questions stirred in with just enough literary, sports, movie and language stuff. It was a good Sunday when I cursed the two of them only to retract it all an hour or so later while lighting a cigarette and lounging in that unique post-crossword bliss for which there is no word.

The Banar sisters collaborate on the puzzle and I love to hear them talk about their Sunday phone-solving sessions - it brings back memories of my own sister. She was a crossword whiz and I would call her when stuck. She'd unstick me and nick me in a sisterly way about not knowing the answer.

Just for the fun of it, puzzlers keep useless trivia rattling around in their noggins: archaic words, roman numerals, obscure bits of geography and some beauties like "etui" a four letter wonder, slightly obscure with terrific ear. Pops up frequently in puzzles.

The Banar sisters are the only people I know who can actually use the word "etui" in a sentence.  Not only that, I believe they own or have traded in etui's - bought and sold them on Etsy. I'm betting they're killer Scrabble players.

Life goes on. Now we have the Merl Reagle puzzles on Sunday. Aptly described as a sadist, by Nancy, his puzzles are harder. We're going to learn a few things, like this Sunday's "raccoon's kin" - so handy to know for Fallbrookians. Can't count the number of times I could have used this very word.

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