Peter D Kramer

In Practice

Homage to Frank W. Lewis

The waning of an era: Frank Lewis goes to twice a month.

Posted Apr 28, 2008

I don’t know that the change signals the end of Western civilization, but certainly we are suffering a decline in our standard of living now that The Nation has made this unwelcome announcement: Frank W. Lewis’s cryptic crossword will appear only biweekly.

For those late to the show, Lewis, now 95 years old, has been composing his amusing puzzles since 1947. The questions and answers are full of wonderful puns. The basic rules are set out in a note to puzzlers. A sample: “You might have pondered a bit over UPBRAIDED AFTER DINNER, which resolved itself to DESSERT (it was a vertical, you'll remember) 'tressed' going 'up' and meaning BRAIDED, of course. Or a clue might merely read S with the more or less obvious answer being LARGESS.”

In this week’s edition, “Implicit meanings from obvious people?” is “overtones,” from “overt ones.”

Devotees get to know Lewis’s quirks. Clues that include a “gin sling” lead to solutions ending in “-ing.” “Flowers” hints tend to concern not horticulture but rivers and streams. More often than not, “workers” points to “-ants,” as a final syllable. Lewis loves old songs, classic theater pieces, and artists of all stripes.

I wish I had recorded favorites, among clues and responses. I’ve discarded my copies of The Nation, which I read mainly for the Katha Pollitt columns (sadly, they, too, appear less often than they once did) and (yet rarer) anything by Paul Berman. But every few weeks, Lewis entertains solvers with unusual words. For some years, I have kept a list.

Herewith, in his honor, a baker’s dozen of words cadged from Frank W. Lewis. If I’ve set the links right, a brief definition will appear as you pass the cursor over the entry. Clicking will get you to The American Heritage Dictionary at or, when that reference has failed, the Free Online Dictionary.

finjan (see also zarf)

For those who need a concentrated dose of the cryptic, a fairly current Lewis collection is in print; early books can be found by those willing to search farther afield.

Who is Lewis? A Powell’s Books bio reads in part: “Although trained as a musician (with a Master of Music degree) possessing some talent as a conductor, particularly for choral groups, Mr. Lewis worked for thirty years as a cryptanalyst for the War Department and the National Security Agency. Much of his work is still classified. He and his wife retired to the Caribbean in 1969 but had to relocate to Massachusetts after the Montserrat volcano blew. They have five children.”

In the past I had worried over Lewis’s health. The occasional anagram would be in error; I wrote a colleague at The Nation who set me to fretting further — the puzzles were arriving late. But then, the next week would bring a timely, flawless gem.

Frank, wherever you are, be well, we need you.

Afterthought: As Alan Truscott aged, the New York Times cut the frequency of the bridge column to three days a week, from seven; when Philip Alder took over, the deficit was not restored. Plea to Katrina Vanden Heuvel: I’m in favor of any accommodation for the incomparable Frank Lewis. But if (heaven forfend) he should retire and be replaced, we’ll want our weekly puzzle back.

Bonus afterthought: Here's a cryptic clue from the short story "Weekend," by one of my favorite authors, Shirley Hazzard: “I am between water and stone fruit in India.” Once again, run the cursor over the link for the answer. Clicking takes you to Hazzard's 1963 collection, Cliffs of Fall.

 Happy afterwordL Due to popular demand, the Frank W. Lewis puzzle is weekly once more!

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