That’s an anagram above – the letters of “Mel Taub” rearranged to spell “Mutable.”
Anagrams are the key to solving my favorite-ever crossword puzzles, the ones on which I grew up, created by a remarkable wordsmith, Mel Taub.
His spicy, witty, sometimes infuriating, Puns & Anagram (P&A) puzzles have appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine for – catch this! -- 61 years.
And all along, on almost every Sunday his P&A puzzle has appeared in the Sunday NYT, except for a period when I was a foreign correspondent in Africa, I have attacked Mel’s puzzles with gusto, using – what’s this, Mr. So-Assured-of-Yourself? -- a pen!
Recently, I spent a day tracking down Mel Taub and found the 88-year-old Prince of Puzzles living in Manhattan, NY, with his wife, Phyllis. Mel still produces puzzles for the Sunday NYT, although they appear less often than before because the paper has incorporated so many other styles of puzzle for Sunday rotation.
A sample Mel Taub P&A Puzzle from the Sunday NYT
In the ten years I have written as napaman, I have intentionally neglected to reveal much about myself; I wanted to highlight Napa Valley and shine a spotlight on the people and wines of the region, so I made a conscious decision to rarely use the first person singular -- the “I” construction – in most of the stories, which I have penned for this column.
But, this time, I need to include a bit of my own personal background to explain how I approached Mel, to justify to him why a California food and wine writer wanted to profile a crossword puzzle-maker in New York.
I’m reprinting my pitch to Mel below to explain to readers why this profile appears here – it is because Mel is someone I have admired for much of my life!
Here’s what I wrote to Mel:
“I know this sounds corny, but I have always used my journalistic credentials to meet people who were my boyhood heroes -- to be able to profile them.
I have met and interviewed Buckminster Fuller, Sir Edmund Hillary, had breakfast with Sir Richard Branson, and over a period of six months, spent time with anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey and their family in Britain, Kenya and Tanzania, researching an article for the NYT Sunday Magazine, which, unfortunately, never saw print.
I’ve also had the opportunity to dine with Haile Selassie in his Imperial Palace, in Addis Ababa; I interviewed Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli, Libya, though I do not consider him a “hero” by any stretch of the imagination. Same for Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, whom I tracked down in Algiers, Algeria in June 1970. He wasn’t a boyhood hero of mine, either, but I was a curious and fearless journalist and decided to track down America’s Most Wanted Fugitive (by the FBI). And I did just that.
Over my life, Mel, your name became synonymous with one of my favorite mind-stretching exercises— I have been filling in your Sunday New York Times P&A puzzles from shortly after the New York Times began publishing them. I have never been a diagramless, or acrostic. puzzle fan nor have I become a Kenkenian. I was nursed on your P&A puzzles and have been a fan of them since my youth.
In short, Mel: You are, in your own way, one of my boyhood heroes with whom I’d love to connect. As much to say Thank You as to learn more about you.
Having just reached 70, I am taking stock of my life’s pleasurable moments, and, on reflection, your P&A Puzzles have, for decades, brought me extreme joy, and only on the rarest occasion have they caused me to curse you for pulling off a totally wicked pun, which I was unable to figure out.
Will you let me interview you please?”
As you will see below, Mel agreed.
We exchanged Qs and As through email and followed up with a phone interview.
When I next get to New York, I will make a point to meet Mel in person, to give him a hearty hug to express my thanks for having filled so many days of my life with lucid learning, groaner jokes, and those ecstatic moments – when I’ve filled in an entire crossword puzzle correctly, defying the odds, and proving, at least one more time, that “I haven’t yet lost my marbles.”
Q &A with Mel about P&A
How old were you when the New York Times accepted your first crossword puzzle? Was this a conventional crossword or a P&A puzzle?
I was 26-years-old. My first regular crossword was commercially published in the Times in November 1954. My first P&A puzzle appeared May 1, 1955.
How much did they pay you?
I was paid $10 for my first regular crossword and $15 for the P&A.
How much do you earn contemporarily for selling a P&A puzzle to the NYT?
Current payment for the P&A is $300.
How many P&A puzzles have you constructed for the NYT in your lifetime?
I can't tell you exactly how many were published in the Times. An educated guess would be 350 to 400. In between them, there were quite a few British-style cryptic puzzles and a bunch of "Puns & Twists" for editor Will Weng. I have also had about 150 P&A puzzles published in other publications over the years.
Was constructing P&A puzzles your fulltime occupation all these years?
If not, what did you do 9 to 5 for your career?
Puzzle making was always just a hobby. My real job was as an insurance company executive. I retired in 1992.
How long does it take to construct a Sunday P&A puzzle, on average?
When do you construct your puzzles – at night after your wife goes to bed, or early in the morning before anyone else in the house gets up, etc.?
With a full time job, I created my puzzles evenings and weekends. In retirement, I have no time restrictions. In my younger days one puzzle might take five to eight hours to construct. Nowadays, probably 10 to 12 hours. I almost never complete one at a single sitting. I spread the work over two, three, or even four days.
Where do you and your wife live?
Phyllis and I live in Manhattan near Lincoln Center. We still go to the theater, and enjoy movies and concerts, but at 88, I can no longer undertake the long, casual walks, which we’ve always enjoyed.
According to NYT Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz, Mel's next P&A puzzle will appear September 25 -- mark this down on your calendar, get the Sunday paper,find the puzzle at the back of the Sunday Magazine and tackle my favorite puzzle. If you're not familiar with Mel's P&A puzzles, I suggest you attempt your first one in PENCIL.