Tracy Bennett laughs when she remembers that she started college at the University of Southern Maine as a theater major. “I was too shy to audition,” she recalls. When she transferred to the University of Michigan for her sophomore year, she switched her major to English literature. But by the time she graduated in 1989, she realized that as much as she loved stories, her real passion was for words. It seems entirely fitting, then, that in November the New York Times chose her to edit Wordle, the insanely popular five-letter word game.
Growing up in Maine, she was Tracy Pinkham. Her family roots are in Boothbay, where her parents met in high school and then both joined the Navy. Her mother left when Bennett’s older sister, Cinda, was born, and returned to Boothbay when her husband was sent to Vietnam. The marriage didn’t last. Bennett’s mother joined the counterculture, eventually went to art school, and raised her girls largely as a single mother.
Both sisters were educated almost entirely in small “free schools,” as part of the 1960s and 70s-era movement inspired by A.S. Neill’s book Summerhill, about an English boarding school with no set curriculum, grades, or formal testing. This gave Bennett plenty of time and encouragement to work on puzzles, which she has always loved. In a Times profile she mentioned that she used to beg for more spelling tests.
“I was always a word person,” she says. An evaluation after her first year at the New Day School read: “Reading at the fifth-grade level. Just mastered the concept of north and south.” Even now, she says, “when I come to an intersection, I always turn the wrong way.”
Bennett’s terrible sense of direction has been almost as fortuitous as her facility with language. By 1997 she was settled in Ann Arbor, working as a copyeditor at Mathematical Reviews and volunteering as an usher with the University Musical Society. During an intermission at a “Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans” concert she saw her friend Juli Pinsak talking to two men in another aisle. Bennett “gravitated” over to join the conversation. When the men asked where they could get a Coney Island after the concert, she recommended Mark’s Midtown. “I tried to give him directions. It became clear that I was not very good at it—where I directed them was nowhere near where Mark’s Midtown is. He thought it was really cute that I was trying.”
“He” was local jazz musician George Bennett, whom Tracy married in 2002. Their son Daniel was born later that year.
Although Bennett’s Wordle responsibilities are new, her position with the New York Times is not. She often said that she would only leave Math Reviews if she could work on crossword puzzles full-time, and in September 2020, she did exactly that. As the Times’ associate puzzle editor, she is one of the team of five people responsible for the daily crossword puzzles. Most of their time is spent reviewing the 150–200 puzzles submitted each week and then editing the ones they select. Bennett also makes puzzles for Bust Magazine and the app Crosswords with Friends. With fellow Ann Arbor puzzle constructor Peter Collins, she provides a monthly puzzle in Groundcover News, the local street paper. Collins and Bennett edit each other’s puzzles, but he says she “finds five times as many errors as I do.”
Bennett is still shy—it’s one of the first words her friends use to describe her. But Wordle is so popular that she’s experienced an unexpected burst of fame—and a surprising amount of controversy. She has been invited on BBC, CNN, and the Today Show, and articles about her have appeared everywhere from Newsweek, the Guardian, and Forbes to the Deseret News.
Lisa Nichols, a longtime friend and her successor at Mathematical Reviews, says by now Bennett has relaxed into the role of being the public face of a puzzle loved by everyone from Camilla the Queen Consort to Carol Burnett and played by tens of millions of people every day. Bennett is not sure she agrees. While she is fine with interviews, she says, she’s still anxious enough about public speaking that she has been working with a coach.
The Wordle answer for Thanksgiving Day, “FEAST,” generated scores of outraged responses and an article in Slate titled “How the Wordle Editor Is Ruining Wordle.” Bennett says she’s learned her lesson: Though crossword puzzles may continue to be topical, Wordle probably will not.
Bennett says that her thirty years at Math Reviews not only taught her a rigorous attention to detail but also prepared her well for the trolls. Describing herself as “a recovering people-pleaser,” she says that as the manager of the copyediting department she received plenty of feedback, some of it highly emotional, about the changes her team was suggesting to the contributing reviewers and learned to interact without getting emotional herself. At the Times she also, wisely, avoids reading online complaints about what she’s allegedly doing wrong.
Bennett admits, however, that when she started reviewing and editing crosswords, she did not welcome having to reject puzzles submitted by constructors who were friends or even mentors. But Collins, a recently retired Huron High math teacher who has had 117 puzzles accepted by the Times (and many more in other publications), says he still has had far more puzzles rejected than accepted and explains that every constructor knows that many puzzles will be rejected.
Bennett credits the women mentors who helped her along her unconventional path, including Deb Amlen, who handed the Bust puzzle column over to her; Amy Reynaldo, who hired her to “punch out grid after grid” for the Crosswords with Friends app; and Laura Braunstein, with whom Bennett cofounded Inkubator, a site that publishes puzzles by women and nonbinary constructors.
Now she’s mentoring the next generation. Inkubator pairs new constructors with mentors, and Bennett is also part of the mentorship program at the Times. She is proud that her first mentee there, Kanyin Ajayi, recently had a themeless puzzle published in the paper. She also credits Nichols, who tests all of her puzzles for her, taking payment only in lattes.
Bennett works at home, a 1950s ranch-style house near Haisley school. Her sister lives in an identical house next door, and they share a large backyard and a shed. Their mother eventually followed her daughters to Ann Arbor and also lives within walking distance. That meant that Bennett’s son Daniel, now twenty years old, grew up with an aunt, uncle, and cousin next door and a grandmother nearby. This was a great comfort when George Bennett died suddenly in May 2021 at age seventy, having just completed a large rock garden in the shared backyard.
“Every now and then he would get—he described it as ‘discomfort’—in his belly area, which would subside after ten minutes,” she recalls. They talked about going to the doctor, but neither felt it was urgent, especially during Covid. In retrospect, Bennett says, they were misled by expectations that heart problems manifest themselves only in the chest or shoulders. She urges her friends, and the Observer’s readers, to seek immediate help for pain after exertion that occurs anywhere in the torso.
At Math Reviews Bennett frequently reminded her staff that they were not mathematicians, so that when in doubt they should not alter the reviewers’ words. In copyeditor-speak, this translated to “I would stet” (meaning leave it unchanged). She said it so often that it became known as her middle name.
The situation is very different at the New York Times, where she estimates that 80 percent of the constructors’ clues are tweaked, and as many as half are rewritten entirely. The difference, of course, is that though she is not a math expert, she is indeed an expert with words—and now with Wordle.
This article has been edited since it was published in the January 2023 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Deb Amlen’s name has been corrected.