Thornton Wilder’s name came up in some correspondence recently. He is one of those writers, like Shakespeare or Johnson or Lenin, or Lennon, or Plato, or the Bible, Chomsky…maybe Johnny Paycheck, certainly Freud, (add your own names to the list), who get quoted a lot. We can call up those writers whose works we, and the world, know the best. Of my own list, I’m only somewhat familiar with two, though I admit to quoting from the Bible for a ready cliché, which, heaven forbid, I have not read. “Easier for a camel…la la la.” Or “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.” (I’m a bit thin skinned.)
In my correspondence, I quoted a line from Our Town and made some crack about, thankfully, not having been named Thornton. That gave me pause. I had made a shallow and thoughtless remark. Thornton…Thornton…Kind of pretty sounds. Pleasant to speak. Surely, (“Don’t call me Shirley!”) parents put a lot of thought into choosing their child’s name or, perhaps, have a weighty tradition to consider. Like my friend from Boston named Bolyston. (Google it.) Another friend of mine was in a New York City public hospital to deliver her second child and was sharing the room with a young mother, who, in this case, had not considered a name her new born. The hospital needed the bed back and wanted to dismiss the roommate, but required a name to enter on the birth certificate. As the young mother lay in her gown on the hospital bed casually smoking - even back then this was verboten - inspiration struck.
“While I been in here,” the Madonna said, exhaling smoke, “I heard a pretty name.” My weary friend, still in the course of a long labor asked, “And, what was that?”
“I’m going to name my kid…Carcinoma,” she said, without a trace of irony.
Some names may be harder to live down than others.
I was a “Junior” having been given the same first and middle name of my father. I was never referred to as “Junior”, but rather “Little Jim”, my dad was called, “Big Jim”. He was, too. Six feet, five inches tall, and two hundred and fifty pounds. I was, well, a skinny…little…kid. I didn’t start out as skinny. Rather, like the Bob Wills’ song:
“Roly Poly, daddy’s little fatty!
Bet he’s gonna be a man someday!”
I was pretty chubby as a baby and one day, dressed in my Parisian apache dancer outfit, my old man got a kick out of it and started calling me “Butch.” That nickname stuck with me until, in one of life’s cruel coincidences, I ended up in a one-room school in rural Kansas with a total student population of 15, and another boy named Butch. He really was, though. He already had a bullet scar in his stomach from when he and his younger brother were playing hunter with a real rifle. My friend Butch was the deer during that unfortunate mishap. My nickname got dropped. He was a nice kid. Though, inadvertently, he stabbed me in the back of the hand with a lead pencil. It was really my fault. He was only trying to stab my book when I reached out to protect it. I had a scar, too, then!
After that, I was “Jimmy”, then “Jim” until I moved to New York City upon graduation from college to become an actor. I used to joke about finding a stage name. “Preston Strong” was a contender. I lived in mid-town and could not avoid Times Square, which was rather a scary strip resembling seedy scenes in Midnight Cowboy, rather than the clean, spanking Disney set of today. I used to marvel at the porn movie names up on the marquees, like “Myles Long” and “Justin Thyme.” After some years of struggle and study, I got a wonderful gig at The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in the Cleveland area. (That was their name then; they’ve changed it to Great Lakes Theater Festival.) Anyway, I met an actress, we fell in love, and one day, she looked at me and said, “Why not call yourself: ‘James?’” OK. Her name was Erika. Except, her given name was Mary Lynn. In high school, Mary Lynn went off to do a season of summer stock and her progressive, right-thinking mother got her fitted with a diaphragm, and told her, “If you want to have sex, make it someone you care about, and put this in first.” She did both and his name was Eric. Years later when it came time to list her name with Actor’s Equity (just like the NYC hospital bureaucracy, you have to claim a name), Mary Lynn decided to change hers to “Erika” even though she and Eric’s summer romance had ended. (Thirty years later they hooked up again and married.)
When I met Darling (who refuses to use her middle name; she doesn’t like it), we decided to get pregnant. (It’s possible that occurred in Florence, a name we couldn’t use because my mother, Marjorie Louise, hated her Aunt Florence.) We spent months and months, at least nine, trying to choose two names as we didn’t know the sex. A daughter was born. We were happy with the name we gave her and still are. We chose a name that was classic, yet singular. People would say, “Oh! That was my great grandmother’s name!” It was unique until a popular actress did a semi-successful movie with the name in the title. Oh, well. Kid owns her name and that is what really it’s all about.
Costello: Look, you gotta outfield?
Costello: The left fielder's name?
Costello: I just thought I'd ask you.
Abbott: Well, I just thought I'd tell ya.
Costello: Then tell me who's playing left field.
Abbott: Who's playing first.
Costello: I'm not... stay out of the infield! I want to know what's the guy's name in left field?
Abbott: No, What is on second.
Costello: I'm not asking you who's on second.
Abbott: Who's on first!