Cursed by a name
I have a slight synesthesia with names. I see them in colour. I never liked my own name: Maureen is a dark pink, almost puce. It was the result of my father’s penchant for Maureen O’Hara in all her plunging glory—this was in Hull in 1946. Dad’s own name, Maurice (pale blue), made it somewhat a free-for-all when my mother called us in for dinner: “Mauri-Mauree, Mau, Morse, Moss . . .” until, eventually, he became Moishe and I became Mo.
I had the opportunity to change my name when I left drama school. I knew Lipman wouldn’t look great on a playbill alongside good Albion names like Ashcroft, Massey and Redgrave. I toyed with calling myself Beverley Westwood, which was a rural common just outside Hull, but rejected it on the grounds that it was sage in colour and cowpat in odour. Then, suddenly, Albert Finney was good enough for Albert Finney, and Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith maintained their proletariat base—so why not Lipman? I had a cousin who had changed his name to Lawrence, as Gertie probably did, but the idea of change just to obfuscate what I am embarrassed me. Then I got my first job and there I was on a poster in red letters, outside the Watford Palace Theatre. The die, like me, was cast.
Today it is fashionably PC to use your real moniker proudly. It’s a bit like showing off your pregnancy bump through stretched jersey. (In my day, you spent nine months in two discreetly gathered smocks, which you burnt immediately after birth). I was delighted when my son told me my first grandchild would be called Ava, but secretly looked up “J” for middle names to honour her late grandfather Jack. I came across
Jaina, pronounced to rhyme with China.
It’s Hebrew, meaning lover of God. Nice, my son said patiently, but it might be embarrassing when her name is called in assembly:
Today, the more cumbersome your Cumberbatch credentials, the more memorable you become. Doris Kappelhoff could have sung “Take me back to the Black Hills” as memorably as Doris Day; Archibald Leach could have kept one foot on the bedroom floor as suavely as Cary Grant. Today if you were born Diana Fluck (purple) as Ms Dors was, it wouldn’t stop the studio doors from opening. Same for Reg Dwight (maroon, Elton John) and Maurice Micklewhite (pink, Michael Caine) but Ned Rocknroll changed his name from Edward Smith in a quest for more frivolity. Can he be serious?
Renée Zellwegger and Reese Witherspoon have progressed very nicely thank you, but on the other hand, Natalie Hershlag might have lagged behind Natalie Portman. Who knows? Whoopi Goldberg, conversely, didn’t do badly for Caryn Johnson.
Similarly, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has chosen to be Boris. I mean anyone can be Alexander. Nursery schools and newspaper columns are bursting with Sachas and Lexies. Who would call their child Boris in a post-Cold War era? It is unfashionable, brutal, butch as Croesus and airforce blue but the perfect choice for a classicist, a joker, and a self-publicising narcissist. Meanwhile, Jeremy (ochre) Bernard Corbyn perfectly reflects his public school background. In fact he should be Boris and Boris is a right Jeremy.
I could never saddle a child with a patriarchal name. Sorry, Nigella Lawson, Hilary Benn, Evelyn Waugh and all those posh Fredericas, Jocelyns and Henriettas, but isn’t there always a hint the parents wanted a different sex of baby or just believed one size fits all? Meanwhile, naming by number—spare a thought for poor little Sixtus Rees-Mogg (white) destined to be labelled some variation on Rictus Fleas-Dogg, and soon to be followed, no doubt, by Septima (yellow) Octavius (light grey) and Nina (is there anyone greener?).
Another modern reversal is the playwright and artistic Director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah. He was born Ian Roberts in Hillingdon, and acted under that name after stage school before combing back through his roots and adopting his Ghanaian name. Perhaps I should have done that with my name. But why? Everyone knows I am Jewish—unlike the guests on Who Do You Think You Are, who go in all WASP and vanilla and come back shrugging and saying kvetch. But I could have called myself Masha Devorah Lipmanovitch (still puce), and seen where it took me. Bobby Zimmerman switched and is still blowing wind but, for me, it is Leonard Cohen who will be eternal.
Meanwhile, Steven Demetre Georgiou became Cat Stevens, who became Yussuf Islam in two fell swoops. Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon switched to the much more street-cred Tommy Robinson, and small wonder that Stevland Hardaway Judkins turned into Little Stevie Wonder. The Steves changed their names to express a religious, musical or political—and essentially proselytising—stance.
Which brings me to The Donald. “Trump” is Bavarian for “drum” and oh, doesn’t he just? His great grandfather Friedrich came from Bobenheim am Berg in Germany through Ellis Island to be welcomed as an American immigrant. Whoosh went the sound of ladders being pulled up behind him. Name changing is all about “getting on”.
At Ellis Island immigrants were asked name, place of birth and occupation, but with poor or non-existent English they often muddled up the questions. Which perhaps explains the Goldsmiths, the Fishmans, the Bakers, Pearlmans and Silvers. I suppose the Lipmans were dentists. The confusion echoes the Austrian law of 1787 that compelled Jews to adopt German-sounding names. Hebrew-sounding names like Yaakov ben Yitzhak were forbidden. A well-bribed bureaucrat would secure “nice” family names, derived from flowers or precious stones: Lilienthal or Edelstein. Bored officials handed out Weiss (white), Schwartz (black), Gross (big) and Klein (little). Mean-minded officials inflicted monikers like Eselkopf (donkey’s head). Something to aspire to, I suppose.
And who can forget the Johnny Cash record “A Boy Named Sue”? It was the ballad of a boy who grew up the toughest kid in town. His father named him Sue so he’d spend his life fighting. It worked. They call it the Cognomen Syndrome. You become the result of your name.
I remain, yours faithfully, Maureen Diane Lipman Rosenthal, a mauvey-blue child of Lithuanian hygienists.