Betsy Stuart’s puzzles are a cut above the rest and so was Stuart, herself, who this week at age 60, lost her valiant decades-long battle with cancer. For Barbara Bush, the pieces all came together during a vacation many years ago with husband George –the hand-cut pieces of her Betsy Stuart jigsaw puzzle, that is. The former First Lady had brought along the 500-piece puzzle–a picture of Manhattan’s skyline–on the couple’s 12-day Aegean cruise. “It drove us crazy,” she said later. “We loved it.” Now she’s a member of Stuart’s rental club, the Netflix of the puzzle world.
She isn’t the only one. The current President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush are also puzzle enthusiasts. Mrs. Bush remembered her first introduction to Betsy Stuart’s ELMS (an acronym for Elizabeth Lee McShane Stuart) puzzles during their early years in The White House. “It’s our way to relax,” she said yesterday through press secretary, Sally McDonough.
From the basement of the log house she shared with her husband, Fred, in Harrison, Maine (pop 2,300), Stuart and a half-dozen local craftspeople turned out thousands of hand cut, one-of-a-kind mahogany puzzles each year for a clientele that has included Queen Elizabeth, Oprah, Bill Gates, Ivana Trump, designer Oscar de la Renta and anyone else who will pay from $30 for a simple child’s puzzle to $3,500 for a complex, 2,000-piece, custom-ordered jigsaw. (She sold thousands of those.)
For puzzle enthusiasts, though, the cost is only the first challenge. Stuart provided no picture of her puzzles delivered in a plain green box, often duplicates pieces and tries to avoid anything as simple as a straight edges or cutting along color lines. “Sometimes folks give up and ask for a picture or call for a clue,” she said, “but most people work their way through it. That’s part of the fun.”
Stuart allowed her workers total discretion at the saws. They have created a fish-shaped puzzle made of fish-shaped pieces and puzzles designed with pieces in the shape of words and initials. One customer even ordered a series of 30 erotic jigsaw puzzles, based on Japanese prints that featured “interlocking pieces in Kama Sutra-type positions.” Another preferred a puzzle of a Forbes Fabrege egg.
The First Family regularly orders puzzles for Camp David and for the Crawford ranch. Even former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, intrigued by his boss’s puzzling hobby, soon became a customer, himself. Stuart was commissioned to turn old New Yorker magazine covers into puzzles, and was thrilled to find a baseball cover which happened to appear on President Bush ’s birthday so she created a puzzle for him with special pieces.
While most women get bleached, waxed and botoxed prior to a visit to the white house, not Stuart. She wasn’t phased at all that her “chest” and “hair” (as she referred to the cosmetic accoutrements, which she found too cumbersome to wear while traveling) were lost on a luggage carousel in some unknown country on her return from Dublin, Ireland, to Portland, ME., with a stop in D.C. at the invitation of the President and First Lady. Stuart laughed when relating that story to me. She didn’t have time to care about the aesthetics. She was passionate about living every minute of life. She was authentic. This wasn’t about appearances nor about politics; this was about people. President Bush hugged her, and Mrs. Bush invited her up to the residence. Stuart was comfortable with herself – sans “chest” and “hair” and felt right at home in The White House just as she did in rural Maine.
“We enjoyed Betsy’s company. She was enthusiastic and a wonderful friend,” Laura Bush said. “The President and I are heartbroken,” she related through McDonough, after learning of Stuart’s death.
Stuart’s path to puzzle-making, in retrospect, seems natural. Born in Baltimore, the youngest of five children, her father was a manger for Bethlehem Steel and her mother was an artist and furniture restorer. After studying graphic arts and art history at the University or Georgia, Betsy worked her way through a string of high-pressure jobs, including seven years at two executive recruitment firms in Chicago and New York City, before health problems led her to resign and move back to Baltimore in 1984. A year later she met widower Fred Stuart, a chemical engineer.
On their second date, he invited her to a steak dinner at his home–where she spotted a large jigsaw puzzle in progress on a table. Betsy, a lifelong puzzler herself, sat down and completed it while he cooked.
For Christmas in 1986, Betsy bought new husband, Fred, a $99 Sears saw, and they began making puzzles together. The following year she placed ads in Gourmet, The New Yorker and Smithsonian magazines and received more than 300 orders.
In 1990 the couple moved to rural Maine, where Stuart designed a hilltop log house, in view of the nearby White Mountains, with a 4,500 square foot basement that became the site of her now thriving puzzle factory. Hand-written notes from the Bush family adorn the walls. Each evening the couple retired to their “puzzle table” near the fireplace to enjoy their passion– assembling one of her collection of antique puzzles.
After all, assembling a puzzle is “a relaxing process and a way to forget about things that are driving you crazy,” said Betsy Stuart. “It takes you mind off your pain and problems.” It certainly did for her. She worked on her puzzles, planning her upcoming holiday catalogue and filling special orders even while in hospice care.
Her legacy will continue and so will ELMS in the hands of her competent niece so the First Family will not be puzzle-less. But Stuart, herself, will be missed by all who knew her, myself included. I’ll certainly treasure my unique and personalized puzzle — a surprise 50th birthday gift from this passionate puzzle-maker.
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