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?