In late 1935, photographs of 21-year-old Mardee Hoff started appearing in the newspapers. She’d been selected from a pool of 2,600 models by the American Society of Illustrators as the girl with “the most beautiful figure in America.”
The papers said she would compete against Rosemary Andree, “Britain’s Venus,” for the international title in 1936. Many published side-by-side photos of the two women. I can’t find any record of this event actually happening, though.
But one thing that did happen in 1936 was the debut of Mardee on the SSA’s baby name list:
The usage spike in 1941, plus the debut Mardi in 1941, were likely influenced by Mardee Hoff’s appearance on a late 1940 LIFE cover. She’s identified by name inside the magazine: “Mardee Hoff, photographed in one of the new torso-length cardigans on this week’s cover, has for the past three years been one of the most popular models with both photographers and illustrators.”
Interestingly, Mardee Hoff also posed for Norman Rockwell in the 1930s. She was the model for “Hollywood Starlet,” which appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in March of 1936.
(And here’s another model name, Twiggy, that debuted about three decades later…)
Uniquely named female film stars were inspiring debuts on the baby name charts as early as the 1910s, starting with Francelia in 1912.
But the first male film star to inspire a baby name debut didn’t come along until the 1930s.
That film star was actor Franchot Tone. He shot to fame in 1933, the year he appeared in seven films — including one with Jean Harlow, another with Loretta Young, and two with Joan Crawford (his future wife).
The name Franchot debuted on the SSA’s baby name list the very next year:
The usage of Franchot peaked in 1936, the year Tone appeared in the very successful 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty. (Movita, Marlon Brando’s future wife, was also in the film.)
Franchot Tone’s birth name was Stanislaus Pascal Franchot Tone. Franchot, pronounced fran-cho, was his mother’s maiden name. It’s one of the many names (and surnames) that can be traced back to the Late Latin Franciscus, meaning “Frankish” or “Frenchman.”
Last year I guessed that the 1935 debut of Normandie on the SSA’s list was inspired by the maiden voyage of the SS Normandie.
Just a few weeks ago, though, I stumbled upon a theory that makes a lot more sense.
I was in the middle of researching the name Terrylea (a one-hit wonder from 1948 — any guesses?) when I found myself on the IMDB page for Terry and the Pirates (1940).
IMDB pages are full of names, so whenever I land on one I feel compelled to skim. And on this particular page I happened to spot the character name “Normandie Drake.”
It made me think of the baby name Normandie, of course, but the release year didn’t match up to any of the SSA data, so…dead end, right?
Well, turns out the movie was based on a popular comic strip of the same name by cartoonist Milton Caniff. The strip was first published in late 1934.
And which character was introduced in January of 1935? Normandie Drake.
Very intriguing — especially when you consider that a number of baby name debuts from that era were inspired by comic strip characters (e.g., Clovia, Dondi).
Another interesting point: Normandie Drake wasn’t featured in every storyline, and her comings and goings in the comic seem to correspond with the fluctuating usage of the name.
In 1942, for instance, she reappeared after an absence. That same year, the usage of Normandie increased:
1944: 9 baby girls named Normandie
1943: 9 baby girls named Normandie
1942: 14 baby girls named Normandie
1937: 11 baby girls named Normandie
1935: 7 baby girls named Normandie [debut]
Not only that, but she brought along her young daughter Merrily* and the baby name Merrily** promptly skyrocketed into the top 1,000:
1944: 71 baby girls named Merrily
1943: 120 baby girls named Merrily [ranked 914th]
1942: 201 baby girls named Merrily [ranked 698th]
1941: 13 baby girls named Merrily [ranked 513th]
A magazine interview with Milton Caniff from a few years later (1945) included a photo of two little girls named Merrily after the character. The caption also mentioned young girls named Normandie after Normandie Drake and April after another Terry character, April Kane.
So, in light of all this new information, I have to admit that my first theory was incorrect. The debut was much more likely caused by Normandie Drake than by the SS Normandie. (Although I do think the ocean liner could have been a secondary influence here.)
Sorry I didn’t have the full story on this one before posting about it initially. Better late than never, though. :)
*Milton Caniff named and modeled Merrily after Mary Lee Engli, the daughter of fellow cartoonist Frank Engli.
**The baby names Merrilee and Merrilie were also affected.
Hayward, Jennifer. Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.
Clione is similar to the name Cleone, which was in use during the first half of the 20th century, but I doubt it’s a variant because Clione’s single-year appearance doesn’t match up with Cleone’s peak usage (from the mid-1910s to the mid-1920s).
One adorable thing that kept thwarting my search efforts was the genus Clione, which includes floating sea slugs or “sea angels”:
Not the source of the name, but makes a great image for this post. :)
It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of the name Cheryl (Cherie + Beryl? Cherry + Beryl?) but it’s clear that the name saw a drastic rise in popularity during the first half of 20th century. Cheryl went from a rarity in the early 1900s to one of the most popular girl names in the U.S. by the mid-1950s.
I doubt Cheryl could have achieved this kind of popularity without a series of pop culture boosts — two caused by the same person, interestingly.
The first (and smallest) boost happened in 1938:
1940: 285 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 408th] – 42 in CA
1939: 289 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 390th] – 49 in CA
1938: 397 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 312th] – 76 in CA
1937: 145 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 563rd] – 16 in CA
1936: 94 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 688th] – 10 in CA
Many of these babies were born in California specifically.
A 19-year-old from Pasadena named Cheryl Walker. In late 1937, she was selected as the 1938 Queen of the Tournament of Roses. Local newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times) talked about Cheryl quite a bit during the last month of 1937 and the first few months of 1938.
She signed a film contract with Paramount around that time, but didn’t have much success in the entertainment industry until five years later.
That’s when she played the romantic lead in the wartime hit Stage Door Canteen, released in the middle of 1943. Dozens of major celebrities — including Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, George Jessel, Gertrude Lawrence, Gypsy Rose Lee, Ethel Merman, Paul Muni, Merle Oberon, Mary Pickford, and Johnny Weissmuller — had cameos in the film, which was one of the highest-grossing of the year.
(Notably, several months before Stage Door Canteen came out, LIFE magazine published a series of photos of the actress along with a short article subtitled “Cheryl Walker rises from stand-in for Veronica Lake to stardom.”)
In both 1943 and 1944, the number of babies named Cheryl increased significantly:
1945: 8,150 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 32nd]
1944: 7,970 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 36th]
1943: 2,878 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 102nd]
1942: 590 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 280th]
1941: 439 baby girls named Cheryl [rank: 311th]
The name of Cheryl’s character, Eileen, also saw increased usage, as did many variants of Cheryl (asterisks denote debuts):
[EDIT, 6/10 – Diana reminded me about Mouseketeer Cheryl, who was on The Mickey Mouse Club from 1956 to 1958. No doubt she also contributed to the name’s popularity in the mid-to-late ’50s.]
Cheryl became one of the top 20 baby names in the country in 1955, and it remained in the top 20 until 1961, peaking at 13th in 1958.
After that, usage began to decline. Cheryl fell out of the top 50 in 1972, then out of the top 100 in 1980. (This despite a late-1970s uptick inspired by actress Cheryl Ladd, singer Cheryl Lynn, and/or model Cheryl Tiegs.)
[EDIT, 7/7 – Cheryl M. reminded me to include Cheryl Ladd.]
And in 1998, exactly 40 years after nearly reaching the top 10, Cheryl fell out of the top 1,000 entirely.
I had to follow yesterday’s post about Nydia with a post about Cherrill. Why? Because both names were inspired by fictional blind girls selling flowers. How random is that?
While Nydia came from a 19th-century book, Cherrill comes from a 20th-century film. But not just any film — one of the best romantic comedies of all time, according to those in the know.
The baby name Cherrill popped up on the SSA’s baby name list for the very first time in 1931. (This was more than a decade before the similar-sounding name Cheryl started becoming popular.)
1935: 10 baby girls named Cherrill
1934: 6 baby girls named Cherrill
1933: 8 baby girls named Cherrill
1932: 6 baby girls named Cherrill
1931: 9 baby girls named Cherrill [debut]
The reason? Charlie Chaplin’s silent film City Lights, which was released in early 1931 and featured Hollywood newcomer Virginia Cherrill as a blind flower-seller (the romantic interest of Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp” character).
Chaplin had auditioned many young actresses before he noticed twenty-year-old Virginia Cherrill when they both sat ringside at a boxing match at the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Although a beautiful blonde, it was the manner in which she coped with her near-sightedness that earned her the role.
Despite the fact that talkies had largely replaced silent films by 1931, City Lights did extremely well at the box office.
And the film has stood the test of time. In 1991, the Library of Congress inducted City Lights into the National Film Registry. In 2008, the American Film Institute ranked City Lights the #1 romantic comedy of all time.
Virginia Cherrill, who was born in Illinois in 1908, never aspired to be a film star. (She was only visiting California when she was spotted by Chaplin.) She appeared in several more films after City Lights, but stopped acting after marrying actor Cary Grant in 1934. (They divorced the next year. Grant went on to marry Barbara Hutton and become a father figure to Barbara’s son Lance.)