Goodbye Norma Jean

Norma Jean Baker, Robert Zimmerman, Reginald Dwight.


Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, and Elton John.

You probably know them better by those names. Many famous artists have chosen to operate under stage names. What makes someone decide to change the name their parents gave them?

Sometimes there’s a fairly understandable logic to it. Fred Astaire’s mother apparently felt that their surname Austerlitz was too reminiscent of The Battle of Austerlitz from the Napoleonic Wars, and didn’t want people to think of such violence when they saw her son (who was already demonstrating great talent at a young age) perform. One always can’t help but wonder if she thought a less “European”-sounding name might make him more popular.

William Henry Pratt is not a name to strike fear into many hearts. But Boris Karloff? Much more menacing and mysterious, appropriately so, for the man who played Frankenstein’s monster and The Mummy, among other horror characters. And in contrast to Fred Astaire’s change, here there was probably a deliberate attempt to sound more more exotic and enigmatic, vaguely Eastern European or Russian.

But in other cases, the stage name is just, well, more showbiz. Few people would argue that Marilyn Monroe sounds more glamorous than Norma Jean Baker. There’s nothing wrong with Norma Jean of course, but there’s something much more seductive about those liquid l’s and r’s, than the more workaday Norma Jean Baker. Also, her name probably makes you think of bakers, and though there’s nothing wrong with bakers, all that flour and those puffy white hats aren’t particularly sexy. Elton John and Bob Dylan both trip off the tongue than Reginald Dwight (still the only case I know of of Dwight being a surname) and Robert Zimmerman.

It’s funny though, that on Candle in the Wind, probably the best-known song on Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, refers to Marilyn Monroe as Norma Jean, ostensibly as a mark of respect to her. While the lyrics, like all of Elton John’s songs, were written by Bernie Taupin (real name), I wonder how he felt when he first read them, and if it made him think of any similarities to his own situation, and maybe if in the future someone will write a tribute to Reginald Dwight. At least it’s pretty easy to rhyme with.

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