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Remembering Mary Ann Madden ’54, New York Magazine Wordplay Creator

Mary Ann Madden ’54, who for three decades challenged New York magazine readers to compose double dactyls, literary limericks, godawful puns and dexterous spoonerisms in a weekly competition that foreshadowed hashtag games on Twitter, died on July 26 at her home in Manhattan. She was 83.

Madden graduated from Marymount Manhattan College with a degree in English and world literatures. She was known as a sparkling conversationalist, generous friend, and brilliant humorist.

“She had, it’s fair to say, the fastest wit I have ever experienced,” writes her New York magazine editor Christopher Bonanos in a remembrance that also includes some highlights from her three decades of wordplay contests. 

Madden was also a friend of Stephen Sondheim’s and it’s said her machine-gun delivery inspired his song “Buddy’s Blues” from Follies. Sondheim recalled, “During a game of Bartlett’s — a version of Dictionary in which the players have to make up a quotation from an author chosen by chance in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations that is convincing enough to fool the other players from choosing an authentic one — the author chosen was Dorothy Parker. Mary Ann wrote: ‘If music be the food of love, count me out.’ Needless to say, she won the round.”

It was this verbal elan that inspired Sondheim to recruit Madden for the New York magazine position. At her retirement in 2000, she had edited 973 wordplay competitions.

“I suppose it’s okay, now,” Bonobos writes, “to reveal that the Competition results that she published bore more of her imprint than anyone knew. Often, she’d punch up weaker entries, to make them funnier. If the week’s collection of entries looked a little lame to her after she turned it in, she’d get off the phone, and 15 minutes later, a couple of extras would arrive in my inbox, all of them better than the ones we’d received. One of them was usually attributed to ‘Grace Katz, N.Y.C.’ Mary Ann’s cat was named Grace.”

The entire Marymount Manhattan College community remembers Madden fondly and mourns her loss. You can read her obituary in the New York Times.