Sometime in the middle of 1940, say around June, that mysterious force Russell Baker once called "The Great Mentioner" swept through the New York City area, whispering the name Richard into the ears of lovesick young couples. That is the only way I can account for the fact that some years later, when I arrived at school, there were four Richards in my class and a teacher who promptly gave us all nicknames. That is how I became Dick.
Of course, Dick became Dickie, a name I loathed but with which I was stuck. It was about then that I began a search for both a better name and a better nickname, convinced that the way we introduce ourselves to the world affects the way the world receives us. There is a fellow at the State Department, for instance, named Monteagle Stearns, and I am quite sure that, all other things being equal, he gets a table in a restaurant before I do.
I have always felt that my name lacked weight, and that somehow, just by saying it, the voice drops. Up until recently (and, in fact, just recently), I would be introduced as either Richard or Dick Cohen, and, in a moment, the person I had just met would be calling me Dave. I understand there is a certain affinity between David and Cohen, but I also understand that no one is going to make that mistake with Monteagle. That is the formidable uniqueness I strove for.
The same year the Great Mentioner was whispering Richard, he was apparently also saying Stewart. There were many of them in my elementary school, and one of them, my friend, announced one day that he would no longer be Stewie. He had been reborn as Ace, he insisted, and since he was big and strong, we complied. But out of his hearing, he was still called Stewie, just as Herbert Freedman, now an ophthalmologist, continued to be called Horse even though his mother insisted Herbert was a better name for a future doctor. Horse moved to another town and finally became Herbert, but Moose Greenberg stayed Moose until graduation from high school. She hated the name.
Anyway, I secretly envied Stewie -- because he had the brass to unilaterally rename himself and also because he had the self-confidence to choose Ace. Calling himself Ace, he sort of became one. He was already a fine athlete and something of a ladies' man, but still the name added to his panache -- assuming you can have panache and acne at the same time.
There is very little doubt that, the old saw notwithstanding, it is the name, not clothes, that makes the man. Bernie Schwartz would never have made it as a leading man. He did as Tony Curtis. Archie Leach became Cary Grant, and the rest was, if not history, then certainly some terrific movies. What if that most elegant of Englishmen, Leslie Howard, had actually been born Lazslo Kvetch? Had he stayed with that name, he would have been a character actor in films like "Casablanca" -- maybe one of the waiters in Rick's with a vaguely central European accent.
If ever I doubted the power of names, it was confirmed during my years as an insurance adjuster. Back then I collected names, noticing that they invariably suited the person or his occupation. Limey Snotty was a gravedigger, Louisiana Law was a lawyer, and a man named Commissar worked, appropriately enough, for a vast government agency. I also noticed the tendency of negligence lawyers to gussy up their names by starting them with an initial -- R. Gordon Gilbert, for instance. My favorite name for a lawyer, though, was Monroe X. Monroe. One day I had to call him, but before I did so, I rolled the name over and over in my mouth and repeated it to people in the office. Then I dialed.
"The law offices of Monroe X. Monroe," the receptionist said. "Monroe X. Monroe," I said. "Please hold for Monroe X. Monroe," she said and connected me to his secretary. "Monroe X. Monroe," she said. "Monroe X. Monroe," I said, whereupon there was a buzz and a man answered by saying, "Monroe X. Monroe." I paused and asked, "Monroe X. Monroe?" He said, "Yes, this is Monroe X. Monroe," and I said, "Well, Monroe X. Monroe, this is Monroe X. Monroe." Horrified at what I had done, I blurted out "No!" -- and instantly hung up the phone. The claim is probably still pending.
Years later, I came to The Washington Post and was asked how I wanted my byline to read. Without giving it much thought, I said, "Richard M. Cohen" -- and that's the way it stayed for a long time. But when I became a columnist, the art department asked me how I wanted my name to read. In fact, they made up a board with variations of my name on it: R. Martin Cohen, R.M. Cohen, Richard Martin Cohen, Richard Cohen and Richard M. Cohen. I even toyed with the idea of changing my name, becoming, for instance, Monteagle Cohen or really doing it up with a hyphen: Monteagle Martin-Cohen. No one would write hate mail to Monteagle Martin-Cohen.
So I took my time making this important decision. After all, I had the chance to start all over. The art director kept coming to me, asking me to decide, but I kept putting him off. Then, one day, the first column appeared in print. At the top it said, "Richard Cohen" -- no "M" for reasons of space, the art director explained -- and that was that. He walked off with the air of one who had decided matters for himself. I, of course, knew better. The Great Mentioner had returned. ::