No Easy Pieces

updated 12/11/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1995 01:00AM

FOR BARBARA BUSH, THE PIECES all came together during a vacation with husband George this past spring—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 reported later. "We loved it."

She isn't the only one. From the basement of the log house she shares with her husband, Fred, 67, in little Harrison, Maine (pop. 2,200), Stuart, 48, and a half-dozen local craftspeople turn out about 2,000 hand-cut, one-of-a-kind wooden puzzles each year for a clientele that includes 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 has sold 4,000 of those.)

For puzzle enthusiasts, though, the cost is only the first challenge. Stuart provides no picture of her puzzles, often duplicates pieces and tries to avoid anything as simple as a straight edge. "Sometimes folks give up and ask for a picture or call for a clue," she says, "but most people work their way through it. That's part of the fun."

Stuart allows her workers total discretion at the saws. "It's never boring to think of something new, sneaky, devious and nasty," says JoAnne Diller, 55, who joined Stuart's company—ELMS Co., an acronym for Elizabeth Lee McShane Stuart—as a cutter four years ago. Diller and her coworkers have created fish-shaped puzzles 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," she says.

Stuart's path to puzzle making, in retrospect, seems natural. She was born in Baltimore, the youngest of five children whose father, Colegate McShane (he died in 1982), was a manager for Bethlehem Steel and whose mother, Elizabeth, now 90, was an artist and furniture restorer. Stuart studied graphic arts and art history before leaving the University of Georgia in 1968 to marry her first husband, Jon Spence, an English professor.

When the childless marriage ended in 1975, Stuart worked her way through a string of high-pressure jobs, including seven years at two executive recruitment firms in Chicago and New York City. Stress and health problems led her to resign and move back to Baltimore in 1984, and a year later she met widower Ered Stuart, a chemical engineer. On their second date, he invited her to a steak dinner at his home—where she found a large jigsaw puzzle in progress on a table. Stuart, a lifelong puzzler herself, sat down and completed it while he cooked. They were married in 1985.

For Christmas 1986, Stuart bought 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, following Fred's retirement, 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 factory.

Even now, the couple retire to their "puzzle table" near the fireplace each night to begin their usual evening's entertainment, often 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," says Betsy Stuart. "It takes your mind off your pain and problems."

MARI McQUEEN
KAREN FELD in Harrison

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