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Original Issue

Going to pieces is the whole point at Par Puzzles, mind-bogglers for the millions

Mary Roberts Rinehart used them to keep herself preoccupied while she worked out the intricacies of her mystery plots. A former president of Bethlehem Steel ordered them sent to his special train at Penn Station. Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Yul Brynner and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are addicts, as were several members of the Astor, Gould, Vanderbilt and DuPont families. At one point they were probably America's favorite indoor sport.

Today jigsaw puzzles have pretty much gone the way of Mah-Jongg and whist, but to a hard core of fanatics—including the people listed above—there remains no substitute for a nice 750- to 2,000-piece mind-bender to wile away a rainy afternoon or long convalescence. And no supplier going quite satisfies jigsaw aficionados as well as Par Puzzles, 18 East 53rd Street, New York City, 10022.

"Everyone who loves puzzles finally finds us," says John Henriques, holding forth in the garretlike office-factory where he and partner Frank Ware have been masterminding the world's most unusual and elaborate jigsaw puzzles since 1936. He describes their product as "fiendishly intricate," and he's right. They are also colossally elaborate. Each Henriques-Ware puzzle is one of a kind, hand-cut from five-ply mahogany-backed wood, velvet to the touch and monogrammed with pieces cut in the shape of dates, messages or any talisman the customer requests. "One woman asked us to make a puzzle from a photograph of the odometer of her imported car, which had just registered 50,000 miles."

Henriques and Ware like to work from masterpieces, preferably the modern ones. A favorite source is Matisse, whose work is rich in color and detail. Taste in puzzles has changed, they report. "When we first started, people ordered Anne Hathaway's cottage, hunting prints or tavern scenes," says Henriques. "We were the first in the business to make puzzles out of the moderns. One woman who was horse crazy wanted Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair—a stinking picture, very dull in color and everything else. We finally weaned her away to moderns, and now she loves them. When someone orders a Norman Rockwell, we wince." Their least favorite subject is boats, which usually turn out to be nothing but "acres of sky and water," says Ware.

The only clue they give patrons about their puzzles is the solving time—anywhere from four hours to six weeks, depending on the number of pieces. It's an expensive game—$75 to $2,000 per puzzle—but, as one satisfied customer put it, "It's cheaper than psychoanalysis."