Before and After

This was a puzzle arising from the simple consideration that Michelle Obama yielded up a more pedestrian surname (Robinson) when she married the President-to-be.  It set me looking up what other maiden names the wives of US Presidents had had.  And then the coincidence factor kicked – not only did many US Presidents have surnames that could lower their capital and slip into the dictionary as perfectly good everyday words, but they had chosen to marry women from similarly-equipped families.  And as I scrolled back through the list I also came across Eleanor Roosevelt (née Roosevelt, no less) – well, there was a final curiosity to highlight in the grid.  (For what it’s worth, Einstein’s second wife was similarly née Einstein – in both cases, there was a distant cousinly relationship.)

So, how to combine all this?  Make a list of likely candidates, obviously.  Then think about the final appearance of ROOSEVELT – along main diagonal?  That would seem good.  And let’s have a blocked-off square on that diagonal to give solvers somewhere to start looking.  ROOSEVELT has nine letters, so placing it symmetrically would point to a 13×13 grid, which would give me a fair degree of comfort in arranging the other thematic material.

And so it proved.  I ended up saving an entry by reusing BUSH (even Jeb Bush has married a prefix, so this dictionary-surname obsession is clearly something that runs in the family).

Now, how to guide people to the theme.  FIRST LADY and MAIDEN NAME are the key elements, and if I pluralise them they become the same length.  So they could be derived from redundant words in clues using first and last letters.  There seems to be a rule that if you use that gimmick widely in a puzzle, you will eventually need to use ORMOLU, but clearly 11-letter phrases are short enough not to activate it.  Good.

The grid has the nine married and maiden names in it.  It’s reasonable to leave the married names unclued – BUSH, CARTER, HOOVER and FORD should be clearly-enough related – but the maiden names will need a hand.  Definitions inserted into other clues?  That should do it – except they can’t be one-word definitions as that will clash with other redundant words giving FIRST LADIES and MAIDEN NAME, so let’s make it overt that they’re defined by phrases.  Using a redundant phrase in a clue – and making it clear that it’s a phrase that’s redundant – is slightly different from having a redundant word, so that keeps the clueing interesting.

And that’s that.  Very much a ‘manufactured’ puzzle rather than one which leaps more-or-less fully-formed as an idea into the mind, but none the worse for that.  Twencelas has written a solver’s blog on the puzzle here.

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