No. 7: URI Geller, the self-proclaimed “mentalist” and spoon-bender extraordinaire. With 37 puzzle appearances and only 31 mentions in the Times, he earns a Shortz Factor of 1.19. If not for the Swiss canton stealing his thunder 41 times during our study period, he’d have rated much higher. Best clue, from a 1997 puzzle: “That Geller feller.”
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No. 6: YMA Sumac, Peruvian chanteuse of the 1950s and beyond. Her 50 puzzle appearances and 36 in the paper net a Shortz Factor of 1.39. Unlike URI, she dominated her name group: Every single one of the 50 YMAs that appeared in the Times puzzle referred to her. Ympressive.
No. 5: Mel OTT, baseball Hall of Famer. Like former Orioles first-baseman Eddie Murray, Ott is less famous as a baseball player than his stats would imply. He’s 23rd on the career homeruns list, but with 124 puzzle mentions versus a mere 81 in the paper, his Shortz Factor comes in at fifth place all-time, 1.53. Come on, New York Times, write more about this guy! Master Melvin has even appeared on a postage stamp.
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No. 4: ESAI Morales, journeyman actor (and "famous vegetarian") known for his roles in La Bamba and NYPD Blue. At the start of this study, ESAI was my pick to win. He looks promising, with a vowel-heavy, unusual name (like YMA, no other ESAIs appeared in a crossword grid), and the sort of middlebrow fame that wouldn’t encourage much ink from the rest of the newspaper. Morales wasn't at the top of the list, but he came through with an excellent Shortz Factor of 1.93.
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No. 3: ERTÉ, the one-named Franco-Russian print artist whose greatest fame came in the 1920s and 1930s. This one came as a surprise. Sure, his name has great letters and can’t be clued any other way, but I was sure that ERTÉ was the kind of once-popular-and-occasionally-popular-again artist who would be referenced many times outside of the puzzle. But no: His name proved more compelling than his magazine covers, costume designs, and theater sets. A healthy 110 mentions in the puzzle compared with just 54 mentions in the paper puts his Shortz Factor at 2.04, our first contestant to be more than twice as famous in crosswords as he was in real life.
No. 2: Charlotte RAE, the character actress who played Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life. She’ll take the good (33 mentions in the puzzle), she’ll take the bad (just 11 mentions in the paper), she’ll take them both, and then she’ll have an outstanding Shortz Factor of 3.00. She’d have reached even greater heights if it weren't for the movie Norma Rae, actress Rae Dawn Chong, and, in recent years, singer Corinne Bailey Rae.
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No. 1: And the most crossword-famous person in the land, a man whose celebrity exceeds even that of Mrs. Garrett … ERLE Stanley Gardner. The mystery writer who gave us the character of Perry Mason got 138 mentions in the Times puzzle—fourth behind ALI, ASHE, and ONO —but a paltry 26 mentions in the rest of the newspaper. To his Shortz Factor of 5.31 no other minor celebrity even came close. (Raymond BURR, who played Perry Mason on TV, nets a Shortz Factor of just 0.02.) Gardner has all the makings of an icon: an outstanding crossword name with two vowels; a high level of specificity (he did lose a few mentions to Erle P. Halliburton, the eponymous founder of the oilfield services company); and a bygone, niche career that's not quite interesting enough to have been referenced very often in the newspapers of the 1990s and 2000s. Congratulations, ERLE! You're at the top of the Shortz List.