Hey there, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.
A few weeks ago, the puzzle community lost a true original and a rare friend when Leslie Billig passed away unexpectedly.
There have been many kind words shared by constructors and puzzlers who knew Leslie, like Francis Heaney, Tawan Sunathvanichkul, Amy Reynaldo, Tyler Hinman, Dave and Robert Mackey (aka the Puzzle Brothers), and others. I encourage everyone to click those links and read their thoughts.
I never really had the pleasure of interacting with Leslie much. Our only collaboration came when I interviewed her for a session of 5 Questions last year. Otherwise, I only know her by reputation, from many stories and anecdotes lovingly told and retold by those who knew her.
[Leslie, with Ken Jennings, at the 2006 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.]
Over the last few weeks, I’ve reached out to many of those people, asking if they’d share their memories of Leslie with me, and folks came out of the woodwork in order to do so.
First and foremost, Leslie was a topnotch puzzler.
Leslie began working with the Champion Division of Dell Magazines in the early 1980s and most recently has been the editor of The Crosswords Club and co-editor of Dell’s Puzzler’s Sunday Crosswords.
“Leslie and I worked together on Clubs for over 10 years, but we really got to know each other in this last year and a half of collaborating. Her creativity and wit, as well as her sharp eye for detail, shaped not only Crosswords Club and Uptown, but many publications at Dell Magazines.
We had very different editing styles and we often butted heads about how to do things — but we challenged each other in ways that made our collaborative efforts stronger. She was creative, funny, and silly… her passion for puzzles and her infectious giggle will be sorely missed by everyone who knew and worked with her. I already miss her more than I know how to express.” — Patti Varol
“Leslie was an integral part of the puzzle community for me. I worked alongside her at Dell Champion for a brief period, and worked with her on various other projects as well. She was one of the most meticulous proofreaders I’ve ever seen, and a very easy-to-work-with editor. She was a regular at the after-hours GAMES Magazine game-testing sessions in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and was always up for New York-based puzzle activities of any sort.” — Trip Payne
“In addition to working with me on Sunday Crosswords, Leslie edited first the Uptown Club, and then the Crosswords Club. They both required original titles and blurbs, since the submissions rarely came with usable ones. When Leslie started to edit them, she’s ask me for help–two heads are better than one. When I heard her say, ‘Titles and blurbs? Titles and blurbs?’ I’d drop what I was doing and we would sit and laugh as we did them. After a while, titles and blurbs morphed into kibbles and bits, and for years when I heard, ‘Kibbles and bits? Kibbles and bits?,’ that was my call to drop what I was doing and help her with …kibbles and bits! We had so much fun.
We spoke our own language: Derek Hough became Derek Huggkkhhhh. Susan Anspach (Leslie pulled that name out from the past) became Susan Anspackkkhhh.
And we agreed that the one crossword entry that made us both crazy was — FLENSE!! It only popped up occasionally, but we’d rush to change the entry. There were words we’d laugh over — I remember one word Leslie had in a grid — UNRED. She complained and complained because she couldn’t fix it … until she came up with the perfect clue — ‘Green?'” — Chris DiNapoli
“She FELT puzzles, which is a rare phenomenon for editors. She could feel why adding a comma to a clue was wrong, or removing a question mark was right.” — Mark Lagasse
[Leslie on NPR’s Ask Me Another.]
Leslie’s heart and her sense of humor were frequently the centerpieces of so many anecdotes and warm reminiscences I received.
“Leslie and I were both born on August 7, so we always wished each other ‘happy birthday to us.’ For a while, it turned into a competition to see who would beat the other person to the punch with the first birthday greeting; she usually won. One year she sent me a card; I photocopied it and faxed it back to her at the office. She also wouldn’t send out holiday greetings; she would send out e-mails saying something like ‘Happy 90th anniversary of the crossword puzzle! (Oh, and happy holidays too.)'” — Trip Payne
“Years ago, Leslie and Nancy Schuster and Chris DiNapoli and I were sitting around playing Scattergories. One of the categories was famous writers, and the letter was S. In Scattergories, since you get double points if your answer has two words both starting with the designated letter, I came up with Snorri Sturluson.
When we revealed our answers, the Leslie-laugh started – ‘Only a crossword person could possibly think of that name!’ she giggled, and we all cackled till we cried for several minutes. Snorri and that happy, happy evening will be forever associated with Leslie in my mind.” — Audrey Thompson
“Leslie was a person who never, ever failed to make me smile. She made me smile with my heart, which is a Rodgers and Hart reference that she would get. We had a lot of the same interests, and we were almost always on the same wavelength about everything. She understood fun and how to make things fun, and boy, was she fun! I didn’t think I was going to be able to write this because it is like saying goodbye, and I’m not ready for that yet. I will miss her terribly.” — Mark Lagasse
“Leslie always called her mom Sally to say hi when the clock read duplicate numbers: 3:33, 12:12, etc. After Sally passed, Leslie had that as an immediate aid that brought Sally to mind. A few nights ago as I was trying to sleep, I thought of Leslie … and remembered her clock association. Sleeping fitfully, I looked at the red numbers of my clock glowing in the dark. It was 1:11. Now memories of Leslie will come to me when I least expect it.
She was a singer, a wordsmith, an amazing woman. A theater buff (she saw Ragtime 27 1/2 times!). And she was my dear friend.” — Chris DiNapoli
She was also a devoted fan of the theater and live shows of all sorts, performing from time to time, as she did in this picture from the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s talent show. (Which she won, of course.)
“She loved the theater and would often accompany me, and a few other puzzle friends, on my annual Broadway excursions. It’s hard for me to even think of the New York puzzle group without Leslie in it.” — Trip Payne
“Leslie was always inviting me to stuff like concerts and Broadway shows, but always at the last minute, and I’m far less of a spontaneous person; I like to plan ahead.
She knew that I’m a fan of the jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and his singer/actress wife, Jessica Molaskey, so she invited me to go to one of their concerts with her. I would have loved to have gone, but I couldn’t make it. The concert was just prior to one of my birthdays.
She attended the concert, and seemed to pay extra close attention, and must have even taken notes, because when we went to lunch on my birthday, she presented me with a detailed, typed write-up of every song and number on the program, with every joke and anecdote that John told, making me feel as I’d actually been at the concert. That was such a thoughtful thing to do, and I’ll always remember it. And if I don’t, I still have that sheet of paper — somewhere — to remind me.” — Judy Downer
A few other wonderful anecdotes I received mentioned her love of sweets and Star Trek respectively.
“One of the things that Leslie and I had in common was a sweet tooth. For several years, a coworker brought Dunkin’ Munchkins to the office nearly every Thursday. Before leaving on Wednesdays, I would stick my head into the office where Chris and Leslie were working to see if Leslie was coming in the next day. If so, I’d be sure to put aside three chocolate Munchkins the following morning as there wouldn’t be many left by the time she got in.
Inevitably, she would stop by my office with a big smile on her face. After handing her the goodies, she would tell me that I was the best boss in the world! I would laugh and say that I must have it pretty good if that’s all it takes to be a good boss! And need I talk about the Chocolate Covered Caramelized Matzoh? She liked it so much that I made a fresh batch just for her. She was kind enough, though, to share it with others (after she and I made sure we took enough for ourselves, of course)!” — Abby Taylor
“Our previous office had a small, two-person conference room that had a door and next to the door was a large pane of glass. Leslie would do most of her work in there, sometimes closing the door. When I would leave for the day I would walk past and if the door was open we would always have a quick chat or she would walk with me to the elevator.
Now if you didn’t know, Leslie was a tremendous Star Trek fan, a fan of the movies and especially the original TV series and Star Trek: The Next Generation. So whenever I would walk past her and the door to the room was closed I would always stop and press my hand up to the glass and she would do the same, pressing her palm up to mine on the other side, reenacting the final scene between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. If you aren’t familiar with the scene, you have to look it up to really appreciate it.
Of my friend, Leslie, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, hers was the most… human.” — Glenn Covert
And, of course, you can’t think of Leslie without thinking of her signature laugh.
“I will miss Leslie’s spontaneity, her sparkle, her enthusiasm, and, as many people would agree, her uninhibited, absolutely infectious LAUGHTER.” — Judy Downer
“Once Leslie started laughing, it was tough for her to stop. Damn, I’m going to miss that laugh.” — Trip Payne
Feel free to share your own Leslie memories and anecdotes in the comment section below. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this all-too-brief tribute to a wonderful friend and fellow puzzler.
Leslie and I worked together at Games magazine in the mid-1990s, and remained friends and colleagues since then. She was smart, funny, clever, a theater and cabaret lover, a singer in her own right, one of my favorite people to play games with, and far too young to be gone.
Leslie was truly a puzzle professional’s professional. Her genius lay not so much in writing but in editing, which she did so meticulously that Mike Shenk used only her to check the Wall Street Journal puzzles for many years. Leslie checked the Sunday-size Friday crossword and later the Saturday variety puzzle as well for their entire run, from 1998 until her death. When the Journal added a daily-size Monday puzzle in 2011, she said enough–she was too busy. I got the new puzzle.
Living up to the Leslie standard has not been easy. To try to equal her, I check those crosswords more carefully than I’ve ever checked any puzzle, looking up words and facts I know perfectly well, searching for some nuance that might make a clue worth questioning.
When Leslie went into the hospital, I took over her Journal work temporarily. And then, suddenly and horribly, that became permanent. Doing her work is an ever-present reminder of her loss that I may never get used to. Mike feels her professional loss more, anticipating as he edits what Leslie would have questioned. He had just arranged a raise for her before she died–she was underpaid for what she put into those puzzles–and has said a number of times how sad it is that she won’t see it.
Leslie had a wonderful little scene filmed for Wordplay that appeared in an outtake on the DVD, where she talked about how she only saw her friend and buildingmate Janet Bradlow at Stamford. At my request, Wordplay director Patrick Creadon was kind enough to provide that outtake, below. Leslie’s part is short in this short clip (she’s in the middle), but I’ve always loved it. So here is Leslie, in 2005.
So good to see that outtake with Leslie. I worked with her for many years at Dell. We actually saw the preview of “Wordplay” together. It’s still hard to think that she is gone. She was so full of life and full of fun. Thinking of her makes me smile, but knowing that she left us way to soon makes me incredibly sad. Elaine Stein
Oops. I just realized that I left off the second “o” in too. Leslie would be scandalized. 🙂
From Leslie’s sister Pamela: The puzzle mania started when Leslie did the Sunday Times Crossword Puzzle on her father’s knee.
Leslie helped give me confidence as I was entering the cruciverbalist world. She helped me with my editing of crosswords and she encouraged me in my creation of crosswords. And one day, without any warning, she gave me the greatest gift I have received to date in the crossworld world: a holiday publication of one of my creations. She never even asked for thanks; she was just being kind and giving and very Leslie. I will never meet a better crossword editor or person.
Leslie Billig was my cousin and my dear friend. Her loss is a tremendous hole in my life that can never be filled. I enjoyed reading everyone’s memories of “CUZ” as we called each other. Her laugh was infectious and she could probably cheer up anyone with it. I will miss that sound. I had 54 years with her and it was not enough. I miss her so much. We were theater fans, Star Trek fans and lovers of puzzles together. In the late 80’s we played trivial pursuit and scrabble weekly. I never won a scrabble game against her, but I occasionally won trivial pursuit. For years I have called her when I did a crossword puzzle with a bad clue or a great one. I am responsible for giving her, “Rhoda’s mother” as an alternate clue to “Lupino”. Only time I ever thought of a better clue than she had. I will miss those phone calls, our theater trips and watching her enjoy a home cooked meal. I will miss her laughter the most. Rest in Peace my dearest Cuz, I will miss you always.