What’s In a Name?
Aside from physical characteristics, the most important characteristic that distinguishes a human being is his or her name. For most of my life, I took my name for granted and never, not once, in nearly six decades did I ever meet anyone who had my first and last name in a mirror image combination.
To be sure my last name Adler had some public recognition while I was growing up. There was once a company, apparently deceased, named Adler that marketed what they called “elevator” shoes which had a built-in uplift that added two inches to a man’s height. Beyond that, I never met another person named Adler through school, the teenage years, my Army days and my early working life.
The reason I am suddenly obsessing on what to others might seem trivial is the fact that in two movies being released this year “It’s Complicated” and “Sherlock Holmes” there are characters named Adler. Never before have I seen any movies where the characters are named Adler. This rather coincidental and supposedly unremarkable event has led me to consider the fact of a name, my own, and how it has impacted on my once vaunted sense of individuality.
Like most of us who haven’t changed our name, I had nothing to do with naming myself. I was named Warren, after a great grandfather named Wolf. It is a tradition in Jewish ritual to name one after a dead relative, not a live one. I suppose there is a Talmudic explanation for this, but I do know that my name in Hebrew, which is used in prayer rituals, is Zev, which means Wolf.
It doesn’t stop there since in a ritualistic sense I am Zev ben Naftali, Wolf son of Nathan. This has always been rather mysterious to me since my father used the name Sol. Not once had I ever heard him called Nathan, nor did he ever sign Nathan as his first name. My mother, too, had a similar situation. Family legend had it that she was named Fanny, although on her immigration papers, her name was written as Fagda. To me as to everyone else, her name was Fritzie and that is the way it was expressed and signed on every document I ever saw including my birth certificate and report cards.
If you are not bored out of your mind with this family trivia, I have been led to believe that such names can be blamed on immigration officials who could not understand the language of the immigrants who came to America and just wrote down what they sounded like. My mother’s family name was Goldman and I doubt very much that this was the name of her family in the little shtetl of Kozin in the Ukraine from which they hailed.
My father’s last name Adler, which means eagle in German, was probably changed by some immigration official in the empire of Austria-Hungary although he spent the first ten years of his life in London’s East End. For years I used to believe it was an ethnically Jewish name until I discovered otherwise. Indeed, in one of those fits of egomania that often afflicts upwardly mobile idiots, like once we were, we wanted to put a “family” crest on our plates until we discovered that the Adler “crest” was a double eagle, which apparently was the symbol of the Nazi SS, which took care of that crazy notion.
As for Warren, I have a feeling that it was popularized by President Warren Harding, whose sleepy administration was of recent memory when I first saw the light of day in Brooklyn, New York. I can still remember the rare Warrens who graced the silver screen in the golden age of Hollywood, the black and white days. Who remembers the suave Warren Williams and the blundering Warren Hymer?
Thus, I was named Warren Adler, no middle name. For some ethnic cultural craziness middle names were also verboten. My wife Sonia, known as Sunny, does not have a middle name. Bereft of such a middle moniker my Army dog tags were stamped Warren None Adler. To make up for this noneness, we gave middle names to our three boys.
Except for the fact that it was impossible to create a nickname out of Warren, I really like my name. In roll calls, both at school and in the Army, I was either called first or second, which gave me a kind of egocentric self-distinction. In fact in nearly six decades I never met another Warren Adler. I thought I was the only one with that name on planet earth. Until I got to Hollywood.
I was there a week, when we were invited to a preview movie showing at the Director’s Guild. Unfamiliar with the parking protocols I pulled up in back of the building and, in searching for a space, was startled to find my name painted in one of the convenient parking spots. I was stunned. Was this some weird supernatural welcome? Chills, as they say, ran up and down my spine. One of the movies based on my novels “The War of the Roses” was not yet in production and although it was my tenth novel, most of which were published in other languages throughout the world, I did not consider that my name warranted such distinction. Not by a long shot. I was shaken.
It was later that I learned that the then counsel for the Director’s Guild had my name, or by his lights, he had mine. Having never met another Warren Adler, I thought it would be really cool to introduce myself and I called him in the hope that we might meet. Frankly, I was thrilled to find another Warren Adler, even if my vaunted personal exceptionalism was destroyed.
I called a number of times, but never received an answer which puzzled me. It seemed such a harmless gesture. Only later, did I learn from a mutual acquaintance that he might have had another motive that had not occurred to me. His name, meaning mine, had been imprinted on thousands of books all over the world and he might have been sick and tired of the comparison. Although he had quite a distinguished reputation in his field and was a renowned name in movie directorial circles, he might have harbored writing ambitions and it was irksome to see my name, his name, on books and movie screens.
For the first time in my life, I was confronted with this dilemma, which must have afflicted others with a name recognition coincidence. I am not talking about the more common names of Smith or Jones or Cooper and thousands of others. Those who have such last names are used to similarities and expect them. Perhaps it speaks to the narrow circles and the limited geography and less than universal communications of my early years.
Imagine the trials of someone with the name Barack Obama or Winston Churchill or Marilyn Monroe or Hillary Clinton, albeit not the ones that were attached to those in the public arena. I am hardly in that category but I’m sure you get the point. To compound the coincidence, I began to discover that there were, indeed, other Warren Adlers in the world as well.
Perhaps it proves the point that we are not as individually distinct and unique as we think we are and that we are part of something, a kind of super-ego, well beyond our tiny selves and that, in some profound way, we belong to each other.