A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a series of problems with your own name? That just stinks.
It started with my mother’s father. To be honest, this is all hearsay, and I’ll bet my father embellished it a little; but he always told me that when my mom found out she was pregnant with me and she and Norman started up the old name game, they decided to call me “Nichols” until his father-in-law talked him out of it. That’s what he told me anyway, although it seems a little embellished, I mean, right? Why not just “Nicholas”? Anyhow, I can envision the conversation, cocktail hour on the porch of the beach house in North Scituate, Dewar’s on the rocks in Harvard tumblers, sunset glinting off the windows of the Provincetown Ferry as it passed on the horizon, and my grandfather, Boston Bigwig (Herald Editor, Clover Club President, Brahmin but for being Irish,) Thomas Carens, with his new son-in-law, Norman, in the heart-to-heart. Tom saying, “You should call him Norman Hilton Junior.” Because you should remember, this was 1948, and there were some pretty good Normans out there: Vincent Peale, Rockwell, Mailer… Nobody would have thought that Norman, such a simple, straightforward first name would, by the 1960s have gone the way of Elmer, Clyde, or Hugo. But, and here’s the rub, at Tom’s advice and with Connie’s apparent consent, they decided to have me christened Norman Joseph Hilton, Jr., and to give me a nickname. Namely, Nick.
Sounded great. Classy. Nicky Hilton. Bouncing baby boy. Except that inevitably you grew up and went out into the world. To kindergarten, say, where everybody finds out what your “real” name is, at roll call, in any kind of formal function, whenever you graduate from anything; in short, whenever your name is pronounced in any kind of public gathering your cover is blown. You are Norman. To your schoolmates, it’s Norrr-mannn. Then of course when you’re in the most vulnerable time of your entire life in, say, sixth grade, comes the insipid, ridiculous song “Norman! Ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo!” that everyone sings when you come in a room, because, well, you know… Hence did I live in a state of alienation from my own non-secret identity. A fundamental source of neurosis, like teenage acne, or a lisp.
And then there’s the Liz Taylor thing. The “original” Nicky Hilton, Conrad Hilton’s famous playboy son, and, more famously, Elizabeth Taylor’s first husband, loomed large in those days. It seemed that for at least the first twenty years of my life absolutely everybody knew who he was; that being called Nick Hilton was kind of like being called Mickey Mantle, or Errol Flynn. No one was ever at a loss for words when they heard my name. It was a knee-jerk response: “How’s Liz?” Or, “Are you related?” Even though the guy died at 47 from ailments related to having too much fun, in 1967, his celebrity lived on around me long after, and whenever I’d meet someone it was the same old thing. “Weren’t you married to Elizabeth Taylor? Hahahaha.” I probably don’t have to tell you that I never tried to end the confusion by saying, “My real name is actually Norman.”