By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City
The Dame Name
For generations, mine included, Ashkenazi Jews (descended from Eastern Europe) gave newborns a Hebrew name, naming a baby after a close and beloved relative who was no longer living. Instead of calling the poor kid by his or her Hebrew name (Schmule, Tzeitel, Zvi), the custom became giving the Hebrew name and an American name starting with the same first initial. (Consider actress Mayim Bialik the exception.)
Fast forward to four years ago when I got a first-time invitation to a neighbor's Purim party. Since I was not expected to dress up as Queen Esther, I accepted the invitation.
When it was time for the meal, I was seated next to a woman who lives in my building and who I knew by sight but had never talked with. We introduced ourselves to each other. During dinner, and during the course of conversation (and of chicken), I used what I thought was her name, Merrill. Probably used to doing it her entire life, she quickly corrected me. "My name isn't Merrill. It's Merle." I said, "Oh, like that old-time actress, Merle Oberon." "Exactly. My mother needed a name that began with an 'M' and she thought Merle Oberon was so beautiful that she named me Merle."
I thought, “Isn’t that something?” and I said, "My mother needed a name that began with an 'L'. She had seen a film starring Merle Oberon who she thought was so beautiful and who played the part of Lydia...which was also the name of the film. That's how come I'm Lydia.
What are the Chances...? of getting an invitation to a Purim party, then being seated next to that particular neighbor, and me getting her name wrong, leading to her correcting me with her real name that rang a bell with me, and then discovering that we're both named because of the same actress and yet, we have different names?
Name Me, I’m Yours!
A publisher in Minnesota asked if either my sister or I had children because she wanted a baby name book written. We said neither of us had any children, but both of us have names. And so we got a deal to write our first book, which the publisher named, Name Me, I’m Yours!
Even though our little book sold for $3.95, we were sent on a first-class media tour. A city a day across the country. When we got to a city, if it wasn’t too late, we’d go to the nearest bookstore to make sure they had copies of our book. That way, whatever TV show we were on, we could tell the viewing audience exactly where our books could be found. Don’t forget this was long before the Internet and ordering online.
In one of the stores, when we asked if our books were on the shelf, the clerk said, “Oh yes. Every time I pass by it, I sneeze.” That was because the pages of the book were (excuse the expression) impregnated with the smell of baby powder.
The tour was a success; we sold a ton of books. Then we started getting feedback from people who bought our books. We mostly got thank you notes with birth announcements that included the name they chose from our book. One of the letters, however, was disturbing. We were told that these soon-to-be parents spent days going through every name, origins, meanings and variations of over 5,000 boys’ names. They just couldn’t find a name they both liked enough to saddle their son with it. They were very disappointed in our book, they wrote.
The book was on the table and the husband and wife wanted to beat it up…they were so frustrated. They kept looking at the closed book and yelling at it. Until, suddenly, they both saw the perfect name: Wilen (the last name of the book’s authors). They thought it was a brilliant name for a boy—strong and substantial. They decided to spell it: Wylen. That spelling should make it easier for the name to be pronounced properly: Wylen, not Willen, as I am so often called.
What are the chances of a couple selecting the last name of the authors as their newborn’s first name?
I had an appointment to meet with Paddy Chayefsky, who was revered, respected and even idolized by writers who followed his illustrious stage and film careers. I met with him before he wrote Network (for which he won an Academy Award). The appointment was set up by Chayefsky’s producer-friend whom I worked with as an assistant on a TV pilot that didn’t sell.
I was going to meet with him in his office to talk about my career as an actress. It was ridiculous since I didn’t have a career as an actress.
But I must digress… When my father’s brothers came here from Lithuania and went through Ellis Island, they ended up with an assortment of names. One was Wiilenchick, one was Wilensky and one was Wilencov. My mother’s cousins—three brothers from the same parents—were passed through Ellis Island as Stier, Singer and Barnett. That was Ellis Island in those days.
Now back to Chayefsky. I thought we should start off with something in common. I will call myself Lydia Wilensky (even though my father and his brothers legally changed their names to Wilen, way before marriage and children). Chayefsky…Wilensky—something in common.
The first question Chayefsky asked me was “What does your father do for a living?” I thought it was a strange question. I told him my father is a milkman, delivering to stores, not doors. He said, “My father was also a milkman.” It was a strange question, but stranger was the fact that both our fathers had the same jobs.
At the end of our pleasant and trivial conversation, as he was walking me to the door, he said “I have a piece of advice for you.” Finally! “Drop the ‘sky’ from your name. Wilen is a better theatrical name than Wilensky.” Little did he know, I added it before I got to his office.
A few years later, if he looked at the Network cast list, he would have seen: Hunter’s Secretary–Lydia Wilen. (Dear me, the ‘sky’ had fallen.)
What are the chances of both our fathers being milkmen? What are the chances of him asking me that question? And then his advice to me about shortening my last name? The biggest “What are the Chances…” was that I actually had a meeting with him. I never saw him again in person, not even during the week I spent on location in Canada, working as an actress on his film Network.
If you have a “What Are The Chances...? story you would like to share, I’d love to know about it. Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t be shy!
Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).
Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.