Hominy & Hash
AN AMERICAN NAME
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. -- There was a time you could almost tell an American by his name. It was so important to immigrants to be considered American that many of them changed their names. And, those who thought their names belied an unacceptable ethnic group, would "Americanize" their name - by that I mean "Anglo-Saxonize."
This came to me this last week when I read of the death of Jan Murray, long time game show host with a ready wit and charming banter, able to bring what was mundane to entertaining for the television viewers anxious for just that in daytime television. I remembered him well and was surprised to read his name was really Murray Jankowski.
However, his family name was Janofsky. Although I can't account for the discrepancy, it was common for immigrants' names to be misspelled when arriving at Ellis Island. Correcting it was more difficult than living with it. He often quipped that his family was either from Russia or Poland, where "the borders changed weekly in those days."
The reason for the change to Jan Murray was attributed to an agent who thought a name easily remembered would further the career. Fellow Comic Jack Benny was Benjamin Kubelsky. George Burns was Nathan Birnbaum. It follows that the quote, "I don't care what they write about me, as long as they spell my name right," usually attributed to master showman P. T. Barnum, made reviewing the act easier.
If there are budding genealogists among the progeny of the stars, they might have quite a merry-go-round in their searching. For instance, Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, could only find her father's name in the 1930 Census records as a five year old boy named Bernard Schwartz living in the Bronx, N.Y.
The one-name stars like Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone) don't go far from their identifying roots by using just one name - it's an ego thing. Some, however, like Cher, reveal nothing until you learn her full name is Cherilyn Sarkesian. That tells us she is Armenian, which then defines her particular look.
Name and look don't always match, however. This is America, where we have the looks of everyone in the world but a particular culture all our own. Martin Sheen, for instance, looks Irish and has an Irish name, but was raised as Ramon Gerard Antonio Estevez and is called Ramon by his family. His son, actor Charlie Sheen, is really Carlos Irwin Estevez while brother, actor Emelio Estevez, stayed true to the Spanish side of his roots and didn't change his name.
As with many marriages crossing ethnic lines, Martin Sheen's mother was Irish. He is quoted as saying: "I love being Spanish as much as I love being Irish - and I really love being Irish."
Comedian Danny Thomas, Marlo Thomas' late dad, was really Muzyad Yakhoob. Would he have made it on the Boards at Las Vegas with that spelled out on the marquee along with Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), Joey Bishop (Joseph Abraham Gottlieb), Jerry Vale ( Genaro Vitaliano).
This is not to suggest anyone is ashamed of their name or their heritage; not so. The big desire was to make it, to succeed in their endeavors, and, if it appeared that public opinion suggested reasons to make it simpler in some unobjectionable way, then "you do what you have to do." Today, Thomas Mapother IV answers to the name of Tom Cruise.
Would movie tough guy (a description tacked onto his name in every reference), John Wayne, draw in the crowds if the marquee featured him as Marion Morrisson? Perhaps young Marion grew up just like Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" for whom life was not easy - being named Sue, and all. You have to be tough in those school yards; Marion grew into our image of just that tough guy.
When Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner was discovered as she sat in the ice cream parlor in Hollywood she was destined to become "the sweater girl" of the wartime movies. The studio gave this girl with four first names a shorter one: "Lana." She once smiled seductively during an interview and said: "I didn't know Lana meant wool in Spanish."
Not only movie stars and entertainers in general changed their names. Writers would toy for days with a suitable nom de plume; one that would draw in readers by the image it brought to the page. I finally settled on Hilary Wilde. Picture it: Hill . Air . Wild. I loved the image but I liked the sight of my own name more, so I never used it.
Today, ethnic pride is high and few people change their names in the casual way they once did. Not only are they proud to be Americans, they are proud to be part of the generations before them.
Interestingly, the most prominent so-called American names usually belong to African Americans. They bear the names of the landowners (slave holders) who brought them here. Until about 25 years ago, you couldn't tell if Smith were Black or White. Curran could be either, as could Brown, Butler or Davis. Today, the first name is the identifier.
Jai'Breon is suggested for a baby girl and Takola as well. I was surprised to see "Whoopi" listed. I thought that was all American without African roots. Of course, I'm thinking of Whoopi Goldberg who went against all trends when she changed her name from Caryn Johnson to the Whoopi we know today. Her original name was perfectly suited for any marquee but it said nothing about her. It was "vanilla" when she was definitely not.
Did the earlier comics try for the bland while really fearing anti-Semitism? Was it justified? Until I started looking for "real" names, I didn't realize the strong Jewish influence in our entertainment industry, without which there wouldn't be an entertainment industry.
I can't speak for Whoopi but the scene playing in my mind is that Whoopi Goldberg counted on her adopted last name to get her an audition and her talent to get her the job. Well, it could have happened that way.
When the current crop of immigrants melts into the body of American life, fulfilling their dreams of being American citizens, then they too will be profiled solely by their attitudes and the way they carry themselves: proudly. They'll make contributions to this society and we'll work side by side.
No one has to change their name from Gonzalez to Gardner to make it work.