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.
“She was just extremely private … an enigma in a way,” said Merl Reagle, who also constructs puzzles for The Times and other publications.
But, he added, “To describe her as a puzzle maker? That’s easy to do....
“I thought she was a great constructor.... Her diagrams were wide open, which means there’s a lot of really good, solid words in there. That’s not easy to do. Most puzzles have more three- and four-letter words. She had sixes and sevens. She was a very talented puzzle maker.”
Noting that both Bursztyn and Tunick were “word lovers purely,” Reagle marveled at “the real strong sense of fun that is obvious in every puzzle she did.”
In “Crossword Crosstalk,” Bursztyn explained her fascination with making puzzles, which was not lucrative work: “The true rewards are the personal, private successes. Time and again a constructor is halted by what seems to be an impossible construction challenge, but with persistence and imagination delivers up a serendipitous triumph.”
In the end, Reagle said, “her puzzles spoke for her.”
Bursztyn’s family declined to offer details about the cause of death or a list of survivors.