What is it about the name Howard? Once you get past classic film director Howard Hawks and newscaster Howard K. Smith (whom you really have to be a Boomer to remember), you’re left with Howard Hughes, who is mostly remembered for being a germophobic, eccentric recluse; Howard Cosell, whose picture appears next to “obnoxious” in the dictionary; and Howard Stern, who took radio to new depths. There is, as I have noted previously, another Howard Baldwin, who is noted on the one hand for producing some fine movies (Ray) but more duds, as well as for apparently bankrupting the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.
Fiction is worse. I have no idea how this started, but somewhere along the line, Howard became the chosen name for the socially challenged in film and television: Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) on The Andy Griffith Show (pictured). Howard Borden (Bill Daily) on The Bob Newhart Show. Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) in In and Out. And who can forget the immortal scene in Sixteen Candles when one of the grandmothers leans over her exchange student passed out on the grass and shrieks to her husband, “Howard! He’s dead!”
As if that weren’t enough, I have a friend who thinks of me every time she sees Sleepless in Seattle, because Tom Hanks’ surname was Baldwin and his son’s bear was named Howard.
So how did I get the name Howard? This has always puzzled me. I asked my mother this question once, and she told me I had been named after her great-uncle Chaim. Apparently in Jewish tradition, children are named in honor of relatives, but it’s bad luck to give them the exact name, so parents choose something that sounds similar (the C in Chaim is silent). In retrospect, this makes little sense to me because we didn’t practice Judaism. In fact, my maternal grandfather was a devout atheist. So how did my parents happen to follow that tradition when all the others were ignored?
I’m almost as unhappy with my surname. Baldwin in and of itself isn’t such a bad name. It’s from the Old English, meaning bold friend. When I tell people my name, I usually add, “Like the actors, except not as rich and not as handsome.” The only problem is, I used to have a receding hairline. Now it’s just receded. So it’s easy to remember Baldwin if you just visualize my head. It’s a great mnemonic.
As for Howard, if I’d been more confident and far-sighted in my younger days, I would have changed it … to something that started with a J, like Jack or Jeffrey or Jason. Those are the names of men, not dorks. I’ve known several women who have changed their given names because they hated them so much. I know sisters named Edna and Shirley who legally became Jennifer and Jessica. I have a classmate who started out as Mary Anne, switched to Melissa, and is now back to Mary Anne. I admire their kicking-butt-and-taking-new-names attitude.
Once a writer gets a byline, though, it’s hard to change your name and keep your old clippings. So now it’s too late. I’ve never had a cool nickname; I’ll probably never need a pseudonym for a novel; and as a law-abiding citizen, an alias is out. As The Name Lady wrote on NameCandy.com in response to a woman’s query, “A lifetime of living under one name builds a bond too strong to toss aside lightly.” I’m stuck with the bylines and the diplomas and the monograms, all emblazoned with the name I hate. Only reincarnation can rename me now.