"Downton Abbey" fans must remember the Ralph Lauren commercials that preceded the program. Yet somehow I don't think the classy clothing and accessories would carry the same cachet if Mr. Lauren had used his real name in advertising them, that name being Ralph Lifshitz. Similarly, I wonder whether Mike Nichols, the Academy Award-winning director of dozens of major movies, who also has won nine Tony awards as well as Emmys, Golden Globes and Grammys, would have been as successful as Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, the name he was given at birth.
Would Cary Grant and Tony Curtis still have been heartthrobs as, respectively, Archibald Leach and Bernie Schwartz? Isn't Marilyn Monroe sexier than Norma Jean Baker? Would "The Glass Menagerie" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" have been as acclaimed if their author had kept his real first name, Tom, instead of changing it to Tennessee?
In the 18th and 19th centuries, in order to be published and to have an audience for their books, women writers had to publish under men's names. For example, Currer Bell, Ellis Bell, and Acton Bell were the names first chosen by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, authors of "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights." George Eliot, author of several major novels, including the famous "Middlemarch," was really Mary Ann Evans. The avant-garde American poet Hilda Doolittle signed her work H.D.
Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, published several short stories under her husband's name. Her publisher, also her husband's, advised her to do that if she wanted to earn the same money as her husband.
What about the famous mystery writer P.D. James? How many people actually know P.D. stands for Phyllis Dorothy? Even today, Joanne or "Jo" Rowling published all of her Harry Potter books as the androgynous J.K. Rowling. And when Ms. Rowling began writing adult fiction, she used the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. What's in a name? Plenty, it turns out.
Obviously, there are many reasons that cause people to change their names: Immigrants want to blend in, celebrities want to stand out, women want to get the same opportunities as men.
What about hyphenated surnames? Julia Marciari-Alexander, executive director of the Walters Art Museum, offers an interesting explanation. "I was living in London and discovered that in many Southern European countries, children often have their father's name followed by their mother's, and that seemed lovely to me." Thus, she "flipped the hyphenation convention," that is, putting her husband's name first. "My initials were JMA from birth," adds Julia, "since Mary is my middle name."
Perhaps one of the more interesting naming decisions is the metamorphosis of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president. During Bill Clinton's first term as governor of Arkansas, Hillary, a partner in the Rose Law Firm, called herself Hillary Rodham. But when Bill lost the next election to Frank White and part of the perception was that people resented Hillary's independence, she then became Mrs. Bill Clinton or Hillary Clinton. Her husband went on to win four more two-year terms before running for president of the United States.
Once Bill was elected, she was Hillary Rodham Clinton. Later in her husband's presidency, she was Hillary Clinton and eventually Senator Clinton of New York, then Secretary of State Clinton. She's now running for president as Hillary Clinton, an "everyday person." Whether or not there's another title in the offing, we must wait and see.
Today it seems we are more liberal about names. We have a more diverse population. There are more foreign students in our universities and, I would hope, we have become more tolerant. Celebrities are called Madonna, Sting, JZ, Lady Gaga. And who ever would have thought we'd have a U.S. president named Barack Hussein Obama?
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best, Inc. She is the author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing" (Basic Books). Her e-mail is lynneagress@AOL.com.