The Two Debuts of Durelle

durelle alexander, singer, 1930s, radio
Radio Guide, Sept. 1936

You could say that the name Durelle debuted in the U.S. baby name data twice — first as a girl name in the ’30s, next as a boy name in the ’50s.

The name’s very first appearance in the data was in 1936:

  • 1941: unlisted
  • 1940: 5 baby girls named Durelle
  • 1939: unlisted
  • 1938: unlisted
  • 1937: 6 baby girls named Durelle
  • 1936: 12 baby girls named Durelle
  • 1935: unlisted

This initial influence here was female entertainer Durelle Alexander, who was born in Texas in 1918.

She’d started out as a child actor, then re-emerged during her teen years as a vocalist associated primarily with bandleader Paul Whiteman. She sang on the radio, made recordings, and toured with Whiteman’s orchestra (and several others) before getting married in 1939 and retiring from the music business.

Around that time, the name Durelle dropped off the charts entirely…

boxing, yvon durelle, archie moore
Yvon Durelle vs. Archie Moore, Dec. 1958

…But, about two decades later, the name reemerged on the boys’ side of the list:

  • 1959: unlisted
  • 1958: 6 baby boys named Durelle
  • 1957: unlisted

It was the year that French Canadian boxer Yvon Durelle, the “Fighting Fisherman,” challenged American boxer Archie Moore for the World Light Heavyweight title. By all accounts it was a sensational match, with each man knocking the other down multiple times before Moore finally prevailed in the 11th round.

The fight not only made Durelle a legend in Canada, but it “was one of the first to be broadcast coast-to-coast on American television.” This wide exposure of the surname Durelle — and the unmistakably masculine association — is what boosted the name back into the data, but as a boy name. The uncommon name Yvon also saw peak usage in 1958/1959.

I’m not sure about the origin (coining?) of Durelle Alexander’s first name, but Yvon Durelle’s surname can be traced back to the Old French word dur, meaning “hard(y).”

Do you like the name Durelle more as a girl name or as a boy name?

Sources:

  • Hanks, Patrick. (Ed.) Dictionary of American Family Names. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Rayno, Don. Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, 1930-1967. Vol. 2. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2009.
  • Sares, Ted. “Back from the Brink of Defeat: Archie Moore v. Yvon Durelle.” Bad Left Hook 20 Oct. 2010.

P.S. Durelle saw peak usage (as a boy name) in 1985 thanks to Star Search contestant Durell Coleman.

The Story of Tondalaya

leon gilbert, tondalaya, 1955,
Leon Gilbert with children Leon and Tondalaya
© 1955 Jet

The sudden appearance of Tondalaya in the SSA’s baby name data in the mid-1950s had me stumped for a long time.

  • 1956: unlisted
  • 1955: 11 baby girls named Tondalaya
  • 1954: unlisted

Why? Because “Tondalaya” was so suspiciously close to “Tondelayo,” the name of a character from the 1942 movie* White Cargo. The character was a mixed-race African character played by Hedy Lamarr.

tandelayo, hedy lamarr
(from the White Cargo trailer)

But the spelling didn’t match, and the timing was way off.

Finally, years later, I happened to find the link between these two things: a photo in a 1955 issue of Jet magazine that featured an 11-year-old girl named Tondalaya. Here’s what the caption said:

Paroled after five years imprisonment for disobeying Army orders while a lieutenant in Korea, Leon A. Gilbert is reunited with his wife, Kay, son Leon, and daughter Tondalaya at Los Angeles’ International Airport.

(Further research revealed that her name was actually spelled “Tondalayo.”)

So that solved the mystery of the name, but…who was Leon Gilbert?

Up until mid-1950, he was a decorated WWII veteran serving with the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea.

But on July 31, he refused an order and was arrested on the spot.

Seems like an appropriate outcome for a disobedient soldier during wartime…until you consider that the 24th was an all-black unit, that the 24th’s commanders were all white, and that this particular order amounted to a multi-man suicide mission. (The order would have had Gilbert leading about a dozen men back to a location that had been abandoned due to heavy enemy fire.)

Leon Gilbert was court-martialed. At the trial, which lasted about four hours, no witnesses were called on Gilbert’s behalf, medical reports indicating that he suffered from acute stress reaction were ignored, and the defense attorney didn’t bother to make a closing statement. Leon Gilbert was convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad.

Back home, the case was being followed closely by the press — particularly by the black press. The sentence angered many Americans, and “petitions calling for [Gilbert’s] freedom were sent to Washington from around the country.”

An investigation carried out by NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall found that Gilbert was one of “many blacks and no white troops who had been charged with misconduct in the presence of the enemy.” He also said that “[i]t seems apparent that some of [the black soldiers] are being made scapegoats for the failures of higher personnel.”

In late November, President Harry Truman commuted the death sentence to 20 years in prison.

Ultimately — as mentioned in the photo caption — Leon Gilbert served five years in a military prison before he was released on parole in 1955.

Sources:

*The movie was based on play of the same name from the 1920s. In the play, the character’s name was spelled “Tondeleyo.” The play was based on the novel Hell’s Playground (1912) by Ida Vera Simonton, but Tondeleyo did not appear in the novel. Playwright Leon Gordon created (and named) Tondeleyo by combining the attributes/histories of two of the book’s female characters, Ndio and Elinda.

The Baby Names Kippie and Kippy

kippie, The World of Mr. Sweeney, tv, 1950s,
Glenn Walken as Kippie, 1955

The simple name Kip has a longer history than one might guess. There was a Kip in the 11th century Domesday Book, for instance.

But today’s post isn’t quite about Kip. It’s about the diminutive forms Kippy and Kippie, which saw some interesting usage in the ’50s and ’60s. No doubt the trendiness of Kip during that era set the scene for this usage, but pop culture played a part as well.

Let’s start in 1955, when Kippie debuted as a boy name, and Kippy both peaked as a boy name and debuted as a girl name:

1953195419551956
Kippy (boy name)6618 (peak)13
Kippy (girl name)..6 (debut).
Kippie (boy name)..6 (debut).
Kippie (girl name)....

I think this extra 1955 usage can be attributed to a TV series called The World of Mr. Sweeney. The main character was Mr. Cicero P. Sweeney, who ran the town general store, but another prominent character was Cicero’s young grandson Kippie, played by Glenn Walken. (Fun fact: Glenn is the brother of Christopher Walken.)

The show began as a weekly segment on The Kate Smith Hour in 1953, but was spun off into an independent program — 15-minute episodes, 5 times per week — that lasted from 1954 to 1955. (Father Knows Best (1954-1960) occasionally featured a boy named Kippy as well, but I think Mr. Sweeney better accounts for the spike/debuts.)

Moving on to the ’60s, we see another spike for Kippy in 1960, followed by a relatively strong debut of Kippy as a girl name in 1962:

19591960196119621963
Kippy (boy name)917 (spike)11811
Kippy (girl name).8.75
Kippie (boy name).....
Kippie (girl name)...12 (debut)10

During 1960, a male character named Kippy Clark was featured in the comic strip Mary Worth. (This might seem trivial, but comics were widely read decades ago. The name Mardeen debuted thanks to the very same strip.)

And in 1962, following the sudden death of famous comedian Ernie Kovacs, his widow Edie and his ex-wife Bette battled in court over the custody of his two teenage daughters, Bette and Kippie Kovacs.

Do you like the name Kippy/Kippie? How about Kip itself? Let me know what you think in the comments…

Sources:

The Debut of Mardeen

mardeen, baby name, comic, 1950
Mary Worth – July 30, 1950

The name Mardeen has appeared in the U.S. baby name data just twice — once in 1950, then again a couple years later:

  • 1953: unlisted
  • 1952: 5 baby girls named Mardeen
  • 1951: unlisted
  • 1950: 14 baby girls named Mardeen [debut]
  • 1949: unlisted

Other variants of the name (Mardene and Mardine) had been in the data before this, but neither has ever been given to as many as fourteen babies per year.

So where did Mardeen come from? My best guess is a secondary character from the nationally syndicated comic strip Mary Worth. Mardeen made appearances regularly in 1950, from June through August.

Mardeen worked as a housekeeper for fellow character K. T. “Katy” Farrell, who was the 35-year-old, “brilliantly successful” head of a publishing house. Katy was involved in a romance — well, a love triangle — with “young novelist” Gregory Ford, one of Mary Worth’s friends. (Despite the title, Mary herself didn’t often make appearances in the strip.)

The comic Mary Worth, which has been around since the late 1930s, was being written by Allen Saunders and drawn by Ken Ernst at that time.

What do you think of the name Mardeen? How would you spell it?