WSJ Contest — Friday, February 17, 2023

Grid: 15 minutes; meta: 8 more 


Mike Shenk’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “The Woman in White” — Conrad’s writeup.

Welcome to my eleventy first writeup for Fiend. I meant to mention something on my 100th writeup… and promptly forgot. Eleventy one is a better number anyway. This week we’re looking for a famous American woman of the past. Mike gave us his customary additional hint in the final horizontal entry (61a): MARY, clued as “Lincoln, who was the wife of the 16th president (she’s not the contest answer).” There were four long theme entries, each containing the first name of a first lady who lived in the White House:

  • [17a: Punch]: TAKEAPO(PAT) -> Nixon
  • [24a: Harebrained]: COCKA(MAMIE) -> Eisenhower
  • [41a: Hostile quality]: MALIG(NANCY) -> Reagan
  • [53a: Migraine symptom]: VISUA(LAURA) -> Bush
WSJ Contest – 02.17.23 - Solution

WSJ Contest – 02.17.23 – Solution

Mike’s hint emphasized the 16th president, so the next step is to map the first ladies to their president’s number (and then map that number to the grid):

  • Richard Nixon: 37 -> B
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower: 34 -> E
  • Ronald Reagan: 40 -> S
  • George W. Bush: 43 -> S

The mapped letters spell BESS, making BESS TRUMAN our contest solution. A solving friend pointed out that there have been 54 first ladies, so using a meta mechanism that relies on numbering them risks ambiguity. 61A ties the theme into the presidents’ order, not the first ladies’, which appears to be Mike’s way of addressing that issue. Solvers: please share your thoughts, and let me know if that potential ambiguity affected your solve. I was tempted to end with PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss (sampling Spandau Ballet’s True), but I already shared that. We just finished bingeing Peaky Blinders, so I’ll end with Pana-vision, by The Smile.

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22 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, February 17, 2023

  1. Harry says:

    I would argue that Barbara Bush is an equally good answer: the listed names are all of the Republican first ladies since Eisenhower, except for her. Not as elegant, true, but it fits a reasonable theme coherently. Oh, and Laura is the wife of George W., not George H. W. I’m excluding Melania, because the puzzle asked for a famous woman from the past.

  2. Bob H says:

    Re: Barbara Bush, I initially thought she was the answer in that she was the only one missing from the list of elected Republican presidents.

    The bottom row also had lots of “ARs”—a component of Barbara.

    However, thinking about it more, I concluded that Mike would have a more elegant solution, and that if the answer was Barbara Bush, Mike would somehow provide a better clue to confirm.

    As a result, I shifted strategies and got the correct answer.

  3. Jon says:

    I don’t see the logic on the Barbara Bush submitted answers. The mechanism explicitly spells out BESS and that’s the first name Bess Truman went by. If you thought it could be Barbara, then why not Betty Ford? Or Hilary Clinton? Or even Martha Washington? With Bess you get the click.

    It took me about a day to figure out I needed the ordinal number of the husband to then get the grid square. Overall a pretty good meta.

  4. EP says:

    This was an excellent meta, but extremely frustrating for me. I got the 4 first ladies pretty quickly, and then tried every which way to derive another from them…except, of course, the correct way. I even suspected that it would be Bess, but couldn’t reverse engineer those four to get it. I can see now that my big error was failure to pay attention to Mike’s noting Lincoln’s rank as the 16th.

  5. AmyL says:

    I submitted Betty White. Both Barbara Bush and Betty Ford seemed to be missing. To decide on which to choose, I looked to the puzzle title. Now I know Bess is the answer, but I don’t understand why the puzzle is called “The Woman in White.” I think having only Republican first ladies was a big red herring.

  6. Simon says:

    Congrats on your Eleventy-first post, Conrad. Well done! I enjoyed this meta. I picked out the First Wives Club names shortly after writing in MARY, but then got side-tracked by noticing NARY across the grid from it. So I looked for similar rhymes to the other ladies. Then I thought perhaps we were meant to write down the Presidents’ last names and get a name from those letters. That led nowhere. I put the puzzle down and came back a bit later and immediately noticed the number 16 standing out in the Lincoln clue. And remembered a recent puzzle where we had to find letters using certain clue numbers. And along came BESS! I do think, however, out of all the first ladies mentioned she is probably the least well-known today. I was expecting JACKIE or ELEANOR. Hats off to Mike for coming up with those four clever themers. Try doing that with EDITH or MARTHA or ABIGAIL.

  7. Mary Flaminio says:

    I submitted Lou Hoover. All the First Ladies were 3 terms of presidency apart. Mike said past not present, so it couldn’t be Jill Biden. Lou was 3 terms before Mamie. I thought it had a shot.

  8. Bob Moniot says:

    My guess was Martha Washington. First rabbit hole I went down was that the presidents’ numbers are spaced 3 apart. Continuing the sequence forward gives 46, Biden, but Jill is not “from the past.” Going back gives 31, Hoover, but I didn’t consider his first lady Lou is “famous.” (Looking her up on Wikipedia suggests she should be, at least more than she is.) So I resorted to this reasoning: the puzzle ran on Washington’s Birthday weekend, aka Presidents Day to include Lincoln, whose birthday is also around this time. I saw 61A as saying “it’s not Lincoln” so it must be the other. I admit this idea does not have Mike Shenk’s usual click that assures the answer is right.
    @AmyL: I think the title is meant to suggest “The Woman in [the] White [House]”.

  9. Neal says:

    My best unnecessary rabbit hole was based on the first ladies’ maiden names when I saw NARY was an anagram of RYAN (Pat Nixon) and ODD was one letter off from DOUD (Mamie Eisenhower), surely there’s *something* here to be mined… No, of course not. Silly rabbit. Finally realized Matt named Lincoln as the 16th President (a fairly unnecessary feature of the clue) and I was off to the races.
    Nifty puzzle!

  10. Michael Zierdt says:

    I thought Lou Hoover with the sequence of First ladies skipping 2.
    Herbert Hoover: 31
    Dwight D. Eisenhower: 34
    Richard Nixon: 37
    Ronald Reagan: 40
    George W. Bush: 43

  11. Dusty Gunning says:

    I also subscribed to the “every fourth” position, which, carried backwards, lands you on Martha Washington (1).
    But also on Dolly Madison (4).
    I couldn’t resolve the ambiguity, so I started looking elsewhere.

  12. Bob LaBlaw says:

    I guess I should have remembered that while Matt Gaffney does not embed rabbit holes, Mike Shenk seems to.
    Here’s what we noticed:
    all the theme answers also have two A’s per word.
    Alan Alda is in the grid, as a complete name, not just Alan or Alda.
    What First Lady has that pattern of A’s? Abigail Adams.
    Seemed like a lock. I never suggest alternate answers, and shan’t this time, but that had to be a trap set by Mr. Shenk.
    Oh, a question. Could someone explain 37A to us? “One might be out of stock” — BEAR. Never figured out what that meant.
    Thank you.

  13. Milan says:

    My guess is Lou Hoover.
    The first ladies were spaced 3 years apart (34, 37, 40, 43, and the next 3 year down the line would bring us to Jill Biden (46). But the contest asked for the woman of the PAST, so I went 3 years back from 34, which brought me to Lou.

  14. Iggystan says:

    I originally went down the same rabbit hole as others with the spacing, but then the light bulb went off about “16th president” and I found the answer quickly.

    Someone else, obviously smarter than me, also noticed that the first letter of 16 (from the last clue) is V, which starts Bess Truman’s middle name, Virginia. Don’t know if that was a coincidence or not.

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