Thursday, October 29, 2009

L’État, C’est Moi

October 30 is the birthday of legendary tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who died in 2004 at 81. With Tennessee Williams, Texas Guinan, Minnesota Fats, Florida Friebus, Dakota Staton and Dakota Fanning, he is among a handful of notables whose first names are the names of American states.

Louisiana-born Jacquet was originally Jean-Baptiste Illinois Jacquet, the middle name chosen to honor a Chicago friend of his mother’s. When he moved to Houston, “Jean-Baptiste” proved difficult for Texans to pronounce, so he began to go by Illinois.  Williams, né Thomas Lanier,  changed his name to Tennessee, his father’s birthplace. Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, the 1920s New York saloon-keeper, got her nickname from the state of her birth. Pool champion Minnesota Fats, actually Rudolf Walter Wanderone, Jr., adopted his professional name from the 1961 movie The Hustler, in which he claimed the character played by Jackie Gleason was based upon him. Among those whose first names are genuine are Florida Friebus, a writer and TV actress, and jazz singer Dakota (North or South not specified) Staton. Teenaged actress Dakota Fanning, however, is really Hannah Dakota Fanning.

Indiana Jones and Nevada Smith don’t count, since they are fictional characters, and neither do surnames like Indiana (Robert), Montana (Joe), and Arizona (Nathan). The same goes for Georgia, Virginia, Carolina, and Washington, all perfectly proper names independent of any allusion to states.

The undisputed champion of state names is the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Wall Street Journal—Vermont Connecticut Royster.  His family had a tradition of naming sons after states, and his great-uncles were Arkansas Delaware, Wisconsin Illinois, Oregon Minnesota, and Iowa Michigan.

As usual, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou can’t keep his feet out of his mouth, and he scribbled the following while in an agitated state:
    O, Mr. Royster, we all want

    To know the proper etiquette.
    Were you addressed as just Vermont,
    Or as Vermont Connecticut?


  1. I guess Nathan Detroit doesn't count either

  2. Dear Jim,

    How can you forget the famous team of Curley Fox and Texas Ruby? I believe the were on KGUL back in 1954 or so and wre local TV's first violin/voice sensation. It was a male/female act, which is not as easily discernable these days...even on B/W television her lips were as red as tomatoes and her dress as yellow as that famous Rose she would sing about.

    Later he was followed by that other famous "Wander' of the Waste Land..." (his opening number) on Saturday morning (poor kids! Just what we wanted to hear...) His name was Utah Carl.

  3. i had NO idea that there was a real antecedent (and such a distinguished one at that) for my self-imposed nick "royster" which i derived personally from "oyster." This was in response to being called "royboy" by my family too many times. Serves me right, as i had turned down as a child the choices "Trip" (since i'm a third, i thought it sounded clumsy) and "Trey" (which in its alternate spelling, i associated with fast food serving). i wish now i had opted for Trey, a very distinguished name. Back then, i knew no others called that.

  4. Andre has nudged my memory of Curley Fox and Texas Ruby, whom I certainly watched as a youngster while lapping up fried okra and grits from a TV tray. I must have saddled up and ridden off, however, before Utah Carl wandered on screen.

  5. Royster also calls to mind Ralph Roister Doister, the title hero of a play by Nicholas Udall, written sometime between 1534 and 1566. It is the first known English comedy. Maybe it would make a good musical.

  6. Perhaps another posting can deal with people (or characters) with American city names, as Hal Spencer suggests. Let's see, besides Nathan Detroit, such folks as Judy Chicago, Stella Dallas, Louis St. Louis, John Denver, and Stephen Birmingham spring to mind. You can't count Sam Houston, Chief Seattle, San Antonio, and all those others for whom the cities were actually named. Anyone out there called John Albuquerque or Mary Salt Lake City?