A Puzzler’s Puzzler: On Frank W. Lewis

A Puzzler’s Puzzler: On Frank W. Lewis

A Puzzler’s Puzzler: On Frank W. Lewis

Lewis was a true Renaissance man, a lover of music, history, literature, language, botany, geography, sports, boating, cards—the list is endless—all of which enliven his puzzles.


Even if you don’t know a rebus from an anagram or a double-entendre from a pun, you have no doubt noticed Frank W. Lewis’s cryptic crossword puzzle each week on the last page of the magazine. Frank, who died peacefully November 18 at the age of 98, had supplied The Nation with his brain-teasing (some would say brain-frying) puzzles from 1947 until his retirement at the end of 2009. Frank’s fans were and are legion (Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Vonnegut and our own Katha Pollitt among them); they were also steadfast and very demanding (they burned up the phone wires when we printed the wrong grid once; an intern had to be assigned to field the enraged calls).

Frank was a true Renaissance man, a lover of music (in which he had an advanced degree), history, literature, language, botany, mythology, geography, the military, sports, boating, cards—the list is endless—all of which enliven his puzzles.

He also had a past about which he never told all: during World War II he was a cryptanalyst, or "cryppie," for the War Department, where he labored in the dark days BC (before computers) cracking Japanese and German codes. He was hired by the legendary "Willie the Fox" Friedman, and, as Frank once told me, "You had to be an oddball to make it, and I was glad to be included." As Civilian in Charge of the Japanese Section, he broke the Japanese shipping code and was credited with shortening the war in the Pacific. He was awarded the (very rare) Exceptional Civilian Service medal by both the War Department and the National Security Agency (the only person to win two such medals, as far as anyone knows).

Meanwhile, stationed in England, Frank had fallen for the cryptic crosswords he’d found in the papers there; to amuse himself and friends, he began to make his own. Back home after the war, he found only one American magazine that featured a worthy cryptic—The Nation. When a vacancy opened up on our puzzle page, Frank filled it by winning a contest judged by Nation readers. Thus began Frank’s sixty-two years as our puzzle master—counting back, we find he "set" (the proper term) an incredible 2,963 of them.

For the past year we’ve been running "Frank’s Golden Oldies" while we look for a successor to the master. Early in the new year, we will announce the results of our search.

Farewell, Swank Filer.

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