"If we'd known he was going to be an actor, we'd have
            given him a fancier name." (Mrs Alice Finney, Albert's Mum)

John H Williams

(Investigator 134, 2010 July)

In the Hollywood show business world, the 'wrong' name, apparently, could have been a career albatross. So Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas, Mary Kaumeyer became Dorothy Lamour, and Walter Matuschanskavasky Walter Matthau. Far more marketable and understandable, but wouldn't millions have still have flocked to watch movies starring Fred(erick) Austerlitz (Astaire) & Virginia McMath (Ginger Rogers), or Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) & Joe Yule Jr (Mickey Rooney), despite the less catchy monickers?

Names with many parts, syllables and letters, or perhaps too 'foreign-sounding' – though horror-genre stars Bela Blasko became Bela Lugosi and William Pratt became Boris Karloff — use scarce headline space. So bits of Belgium's Edda Van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston (Audrey Hepburn) had to go, and Rudolpho Alphonso Guglielmo di Valentino d'Antoguolla stood no chance, but, like others such as Prince, originally Prince Rogers Nelson, retained part of their original names. (The 'withdrawal' of a name creates a minor hazard: Prince let us know he preferred to be nameless, offered a cryptic 'Love Symbol' motif in lieu, so became, inconveniently, 'The Artist Formerly Known As Prince').

If your movie-going (also called "the pictures" or "the flicks") began in the 1940s and 1950s, it may come as a surprise to discover that those stars, who had such neat, cool and euphonious names, used pseudonyms.

The studios ruled the stars then, and we knew them as Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Mortensen), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske), Ava Gardner (Lucy Johnson), Sophia Loren (Sofia Scicolone), Cary Grant (Arthur Leach), Charlton Heston, (Charles Carter), Yves Montand (Ivo Livo), Joan Crawford (Lucille Le Sucur), Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg), Brigitte Bardot (Camille Javal), Greta Garbo (Greta Gustafsson), Edith Piaf (Edith Gassion), Mario Lanza (Alfredo Coccozza), Cyd Charise (Tula Finklea), Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz), Marlene Dietrich (Maria Von Losch), Yvonne de Carlo (Peggy Middleton), Yul Brynner (Yul Khan Jnr), Peter Finch (William Mitchell), James Dean (Seth Ward), Doris Day (Doris von Kappelhoff), Rita Hayworth (Margarita Cansino), Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), Jayne Mansfield (Vera Palmer), Raquel Welch (Raquel Tejada), Omar Sharif (Michael Shalhoub), Danny Kaye (David Kaminsky), Rex Harrison, (Reg Carey), Ray Milland (Reg Truscott-Jones), Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch) and Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti).

How star-names were chosen is fascinating, but you may have to scour biographies for the details.

Whoopi Goldberg was Caryn Johnson who chose Whoopi Cushion (she was, apparently, troubled by flatulence!), then Whoopi Caisson (French for cushion), until her Mum checked the family tree and came up with Goldberg. Rock Hudson (Roy Scherer) was reportedly relieved that he hadn't scored Crash, Flip or Brick. Rip Torn (Elmore Ruel Torn) —  Sissy Spacek's cousin — apparently liked his "crazy name", one traditionally used in the Torn family; he married Geraldine Page, so their New York bell-push read, "Torn-Page". Rip advised Sissy not to trade in her name, because "you shouldn't change what you are in search of success" — ignored by thousands of stars and would-be stars for over a century. Nicolas Cage (a comic book buff, whose surname came from a black super-hero character, Luke Cage) nobly gave up Nicholas Coppola, (as Francis Ford's nephew) "because they'd think I was some nepotism-oriented kid".

One might ask why Leonard Slye became Roy Rogers; Mladen Sekuovich, Karl Malden; Carlos Estevez, Charlie Sheen; Harlean Carpentier, Jean Harlow; Walter Palanuik, Jack Palance; Joe Katz, Joel Grey; Louis Gendre, Louis Jourdan; Louis Ludley, Slim Pickens; Ruby Stevens, Barbara Stanwyck; Gladys Smith, Mary Pickford; Constance Ockleman, Veronika Lake; Demetria Guynes, Demi Moore; Laszio Lowenstein, Peter Lorre; Maureen Fitzsimmons, Maureen O'Hara; Jane Frankenberg, Jane Seymour; Edythe Marrener, Susan Haywood; Ethel Zimmerman, Ethel Merman and Harold Leek, Howard Keel, while Gwyllyn (difficult-to-pronounce Welsh) Ford changed to Glenn.

In some cases anagrams were used, Mladen becoming Maldon, Zimmerman morphing to Merman. In most others, completely new 'per neo-name ad astra' first and last names, derived from other family names or from perusal of phone books. There were rules, presided over by Screen Actors Guilds, and one couldn't use one already taken, so Michael J Fox added a 'J' to circumvent the rule, and Stewart Granger's original name was Jimmy Stewart!

As well as escaping unfortunate names, some stars acquired nicknames, such as Duke Wayne (Marion Morrison), who, very patiently, used to explain: "Wal, I guess everybody knows the story by now. Used to have this (pause) dawg called Duke. He'd follow me to school, ya know. Used to stay at the fire (pause) station and wait for me. Firemen knew his name but (pause) not mine. So, he was Big Duke and I was Little (pause) Duke."

Many of those star names were practical and beneficial, though a number, like Humphrey Bogart, Clint(on) Eastwood, Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracey, Mae West, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman Lana Turner, Robert Mitchum and Albert Finney retained theirs, having maybe forcefully exerted their right to use them.

Many of the more recent stars have, in general, maintained theirs: Kevin Bacon, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, James Caan, Jim Carrey, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp (John Depp II), Clint (on) Eastwood, Julia Roberts, Tom (Thomas) Hanks, Hugh Grant, Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, Al (fred) Pacino, Robert de Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake (Jacob) Gyllenhaal, Cameron Diaz, Matt Damon and Keira Knightley, but few of these have been saddled with handles such as Banadinovic (Eric Bana), Daniel Michaeli (Danny de Vito), Krishna Banji (Ben Kingsley), Anne Italiano (Anne Bancroft), David Kaminsky (Danny Kaye), Charles Buchinsky (Charles Bronson), Derek Jules Gaspard Niven van den Bogaerde (Dirk Bogarde), Thomas Mapother IV (Tom Cruise) or Matuschanskavasky!

Who could forget Gary Cooper (Frank James) and Grace Kelly in High Noon, or Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann in Casablanca? Their names, whether real or ersatz, are irrelevant to the personae they projected so well.

My interest in pseudonyms, not only those of the celluloid world, but in politics, sport, the arts and public life, began with the discovery that Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, took his surname from a medieval historian, Yosef Ben-Gurion, and was originally the Polish version of plain David Green (Grün)!


Crawley, Tony, Dictionary of Film Quotations, Wordsworth, 1991
Wikipedia: Pseudonyms, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudonym