MGWCC #455

crossword 8:04 yikes  
meta 3 hours 


hello and welcome to episode #455 of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Letters from the Past”. for this week 3 puzzle, matt challenges us to find a First Family member of the past 20 years who would have made a fitting final theme answer to this puzzle. okay. what are the actual theme answers? five famous historical figures (one spanning two grid answers) get *ed clues:

  • {*With 95-Across, Rome-born dictator (and this theme entry is a little different from the others)} JULIUS / CAESAR.
  • {*Norfolk-born monarch (disputed but you’ll figure it out)} ANNE BOLEYN. interesting. no idea what that means yet, but it’s interesting.
  • {*San Francisco-born director of “Any Number Can Play” and “No Time for Sergeants”} MERVYN LEROY. did i say five famous historical? i meant four famous people and mervyn leroy.
  • {*Rome-born Nobelist} ENRICO FERMI. so that’s two born in rome, admittedly some millennia apart.
  • {*French-born theologian} JOHN CALVIN.

the meta took me a while to process. actually, even before we get there: holy hell, this crossword was tough. for starters, it’s 17×17 which is already a lot (and, if i can get ahead of myself a little bit, suspiciously and unnecessarily big to just fit five theme answers). secondly, the cluing and fill were just plain tough. there were a lot of answers i just did not know, plus is-that-really-a-thing entries like {Give a desperate appearance} SEEM DIRE and {Recipe amount} ONE CAN. eight minutes is a typical sunday nyt time for me, so this quite was a slow solve; in fact, it is my slowest mgwcc solve since mgwcc #247, four years ago—and that was a 21×21.

okay, back to the meta. the theme clues seem to go out of their way to mention the birthplace of each person, so we are probably going to do something with that. what about the title? my first thought was greek letters, but that did not seem to have any relevance (and anyway, they’re still used). my second was people spelling their name differently, like the interchangeable I/J of JULIUS because they were the same letter in latin, or JE(H)AN CAUVIN becoming JOHN CALVIN. but that did not seem to have any bearing on ANNE BOLEYN, MERVYN LEROY, or ENRICO FERMI.

finally i just started to look up all of these people on wikipedia, even though i already knew quite a bit about four of them. i was paying special attention to their births, and i found this interesting tidbit about ANNE BOLEYN’s date of birth: either 1501 or 1507, depending on which historian you ask. well, that certainly caught my eye, because of the parenthetical note on the clue. now the title clicked: surely we were going to be looking at roman numerals for birth years, in this case MDI or MDVII. the former seemed quite a bit more likely, and in fact, it suddenly explained the dire-seeming fill entry SEEM DIRE.

from there it was just a matter of racing through the others:

  • JULIUS CAESAR was born in 100 BC; the entry {Ottawa-based media org.} CBC NEWS has this covered, and indeed it is a little different because of the BC.
  • ANNE BOLEYN (disputedly) was born in MDI, as discussed.
  • MERVYN LEROY was born in 1900, which is MCM. that’s in {Alma mater of Martin Short and John Candy} MCMASTER, a canadian school i am not familiar with. (i wanted MCGILL, in montreal.) having worked in physics labs for years, i’m quite familiar with the giant industrial supplies catalog of mcmaster-carr, but maybe that’s a niche bit of knowledge.
  • ENRICO FERMI was born a year later, in 1901. MCMI is in {“How Stella Got Her Groove Back” novelist} terry MCMILLAN, one of the few longish fill answers (well, secretly a theme answer but i didn’t know that at the time) i actually did know.
  • JOHN CALVIN was born in 1509, or MDIX. that’s in {Noted English furniture designer} TOM DIXON, who may well be noted by people other than me.

so what does that mean for the meta answer? there must be one other roman numeral year hiding in the grid, and it must be fairly recent to be the birth year of a recent first family member. in fact, all the entries holding the years were symmetrically located acrosses, so it didn’t lake long to find {Harnessing the flow of} DAMMING, concealing 2001 (or, much less elegantly, 2000, i suppose). that is too late to be anybody other than sasha obama (and too early to be barron trump), so she must be the answer to the meta.

i wonder how many people will be able to just guess this right anyway, since there aren’t a lot of options to choose from. presumably if the answer were a president, the instructions would have said to name a president; likewise a first lady. so it’s likely to be a presidential child. restricting it to the last 20 years pretty much gives us the obamas, the bush twins, and chelsea clinton. one in five! (i suppose if you add in the trump kids it’s one in ten.)

okay, time for my assessment of the meta: there was a nice click here, and i appreciated the mechanism, but many parts of this felt kind of arbitrary. MERVYN LEROY sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. i am finding it hard to imagine that it wouldn’t have been possible to make this puzzle with five actually famous people, even given the significant constraints on what years you could reasonably conceal in roman numerals. the fill also felt very ungainly all over. i’m not going to list all the answers that made me scowl, but there was no shortage of them. that’s not especially surprising given the fact that there were actually 11 (or 12, if count JULIUS/CAESAR as two) theme answers in the grid. but it sure wasn’t fun trying to figure out DURYEA and WEYL and ELISSA and the rest.

anyway, that’s all i’ve got for this week. what’d you all think?

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25 Responses to MGWCC #455

  1. Jason says:

    Rats, I had no idea so I guessed MALIA.

  2. Jim S. says:


    I did everything right – converted the birth years to Roman numerals, found the difference with Caesar and the dispute with Boleyn, and matched everything up with the Roman numerals in the grid. Spotted MMI in “damming”, figured it had to be an Obama, looked it up on Wikipedia under Barack’s page and misread the daughters’ birth years :(

    On a positive note, the challenge here is supposed to be grokking the meta, which I most certainly did so I should feel good; however, watching the total solve count increment, the streak go on, and seeing your name on Matt’s board each week is part of the experience and my idiocy prevented that from happening for me this week. I even laid it all out in my description when submitting my answer, I was so impressed with the meta (and, like Joon, this was a brutal puzzle for me to solve). Alas, I’ve learned my lesson.

    5 star meta in my opinion

  3. Paul Coulter says:

    This was excellent. So opaque at first, but the path to success was expertly arranged. TOMDIXON broke it open for me – this obscure name looked like it should be a themer, but wasn’t starred. “Why not?” became the question. After several false starts, the penny dropped with MDIX. Because their places of birth were noted in the clues, I’d already written the birth years of the starred ones in my margin notes. Just as Matt intended, I expect. I was delighted to find the other Roman numerals corresponding with these birth years in symmetric positions. This left the birth year of our answer. From the start, I’d reached the same conclusion as Joon that it wouldn’t be a president or first lady, but I don’t think this narrows it to children. There have been other notable family members – RFK and Bubba Carter come to mind – so I don’t think we can ding this as too easily guessable. Brilliant construction – such a satisfying AHA moment.

  4. dbardolph says:

    I agree that the grid felt a little clunky, but I really liked the theme, which provided a very satisfying aha moment. I went to birth years in Roman numerals right away – and then did all sorts of silly and useless things with them. Finally spotted toMDIXon and all the pieces fell in place.

  5. sharkicicles says:

    I liked DURYEA in the grid, but I’m a bit of an auto history buff.

    Brutal solve, but the meta felt more like a week 2 than a week 3 for me. The only minor rabbit hole I went down was looking for a pattern in the roman numerals, since the clue mentioned a “final entry.” But then I looked at the grid again and toMDIXon was staring me right in the face.

    Edit: whoa, apparently not the only person to get it from that clue.

  6. BarbaraK says:

    I knew it had to be birth years (because of the dispute about Anne Boleyn). I had the roman numerals written out. But I didn’t see them in the grid. I’m so mad at myself!

    • ajk says:

      I was there for a couple of days. Anne Boleyn took me right to birth years (I only subsequently even noticed all the x-born forms of the clues), Julius Caesar plus title took me to Roman numerals. I was there in like 5 minutes.

      Then I played with a long string of things within the numerals themselves, and looked at all the possible first family numerals. I was even on the verge of considering first pets, when CBCNEWS clicked me onto the right path.

  7. David R says:

    The Anne Boleyn dispute I’m sure was the toehold for most to get into this meta. I never did figure the Roman numerals with the grid fill but still went with Sasha based on the dates of the individuals in the grid and Sasha’s birthdate fitting in that range.

    • Jim S. says:

      My toehold was actually the result of the predictive text on my iPhone. I was typing the Roman numeral years into my Notes page for Meta analysis, and it offered up “McMillan” when I typed in “MCMI.” I went, “Wait a minute…”.

  8. Kali says:

    Ugh. I was sooooo close!!!

    I had all of the Roman numerals written in the margins AND I had guessed that Sasha made the most sense, but I was looking for the *a-ha* clincher and just didn’t see the Roman’s fitting in the other clues. So close. Didn’t send in even a guess (I fell asleep, oops!)

    Nice one! I wish I would have made that next leap!!!!

  9. Bret says:

    I was trying to figure out if the MCM for that outlier LeRoy was a thing, and as soon as I plugged MCM into google it suggested McMaster. After three days of struggling, that was my entry. Saved a streak by about 15 minutes

  10. David Samuel Glasser says:

    Wow! Nowhere close!

    All the focus on birth locations led to me to look at death locations. Boleyn, Fermi, and Calvin died in London, Chicago, and Geneva. These were all old-school (original Mac) fonts – letters from the past!

    It got rougher after that. LeRoy died in Beverly Hills, which is in Los Angeles, which is another original Mac font, but that’s a weird choice of an obscure person. Caesar died… in Rome? And it has to work differently? Well, I guess you could say Times New Roman but that’s not a Mac font and it’s way more different than appropriate. He died by the Theater of Pompey and Pompeii is a moderately obscure font.

    And no explanation for the Boleyn parenthetical (her death location is pretty undisputed, as is the existence of the London font) and worse still, no dead First Family members. I considered one of the current President’s parents who died in New York state…

  11. jefe says:

    So obvious in retrospect! I had thought Roman numerals, and McMaster and McMillan seemed suspect, but I think the extraneous L’s in McMillan made me discard the Roman numeral theory.

  12. Jon says:

    Matt, with Enrico Fermi, you used McMillian. But with L being a roman numeral, you could have used to to MCMIL, which is 1949. Famous people born in 1949 w/ 11 letter names gave me a lot of possible grid fills: Meryl Streep; Gene Simmons; Richard Gere; Jeff Bridges; etc, etc. So, did you try to use an 1949 birth year celebrities in that grid spot or were you always from the start only going to use the MCMI from McMillian?

  13. Scott says:

    In retrospect, I should have gotten this one. I spent way too much time and came up empty. I’ll still give it 5 stars.

  14. Garrett says:

    I certainly agree with Joon on the toughness of solving this grid. It was so remarkably difficult.

    I stared at this thing for hours. Finally, I noticed that each of the names had an IN-ish sound to them, except for Julius Caesar (this one is a little
    different!) but it did have an I.


    And so I went for Bill Clinton. It did not feel like any kind of lock, but it was all I could come up with.

    Did anyone notice the unusual use of the letter Y? I counted ten Ys in this grid. That struck me as an odd coincidence.

  15. kaes says:

    I loved this meta. I was stumped all day Friday, unable to figure out what the title meant… and then WHAM, the answer hit me out of nowhere when I was lying half-awake at 4 AM, as some vague association with Julius Caesar and toMDIXon — Roman numerals! By then I’d done enough Wikipedia research and fruitless grid-staring to piece together the answers from memory, and was delighted to realize bit by bit that this explained the odd MCMASTER/MCMILLAN thing and even the unsightly SEEM DIRE … and it slowly dawned that the hidden themers were symmetric(!!) I agree that the grid was NOT pleasant to solve, but this was a very impressive meta and a great aha moment.

  16. Norm H says:

    Excellent meta, which I didn’t get. Actually quite amazing that Matt stuffed 12 themers in here (counting JULIUS/CAESAR as two). But…even with the 17×17 expansion, the fill creaks loudly under the strain of holding up all the themers. WAYWEWERE, ONECAN, USNEWS/CBCNEWS dupe, ELISSA, WEYL, ULU, OHOME, NYDIA, SER — yikes.

    Not my favorite, because Matt usually pulls off great metas while retaining his usual elegance. Not this week.

  17. ML Perry says:

    OK – whew. It wasn’t just me! It took until this morning for me to even solve this puzzle! No chance with the meta with only 20 minutes to deadline! Thanks – great idea for a meta!

  18. Abide says:


    …but really liked this one.

    • Matthew G. says:

      The CL in CLAMDIPS might have been distracting given the Roman numeral theme, especially because it precedes the relevant Roman numeral.

      As it was, I hesitated in sending in SASHA OBAMA even after I got it, because I was worried about two things: (1) the extra Ls in MCMILLAN that Jefe mentions; and (2) the dupe of NEWS in both CBC NEWS and US NEWS. The latter was so un-Gaffney-like that I feared there was some additional layer to the meta that I was missing.

      I eventually accepted, though, that I had fully grokked it and that Matt was just working under severe constraints. 4.5 stars from me.

  19. Kman23 says:

    Just looking at this working down, JULIUS CAESAR and ANNE BOLEYN each have 1/2 the letters as vowels, 1/2 as consonants (disputedly, if you include the Y). Funny enough, so does SASHA OBAMA! It falls apart after those two, but it is still interesting.

  20. Cindy says:

    Right answer, wrong path. Googled each of these people and found no middle names. Except Julius Caesar and Julius is his middle name (a little different). Interestingly found no middle name for Natasha Obama. All other first family members in the last 20 years have middle names. I was definitely nagged by the lack of link to the title but I had nothing else so I submitted what turned out to be the correct answer, though quite by accident.

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