High Life

When Names Can Kill

January 04, 2013

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When Names Can Kill

Lanza is a noble Sicilian name which I believe appears in Il Gattopardo, Lampedusa’s immortal tale of changing times in Sicily during the 1860s. Prince Raimondo Lanza was one of Gianni Agnelli’s best friends until he threw himself off a Roman balcony while suffering a cocaine overdose. I knew him slightly. His brother Galvano, whom I knew better, lived a long life (some might say a useless one), remaining in his family’s ancient and rundown Sicilian property reading books on Napoleon. One might say it was a life straight out of Bertolucci’s brilliant film 1900. I liked the Lanza brothers because I had never met such cynical but stylish people before. Cynicism and decadence are not talents to be found in elite American prep schools, but rather in Roman palazzos and drafty English country mansions.

I thought of the princes Lanza because of the infamy brought on their name by the nerdy killer of 20 children and six school staff members as well as his mother and himself. There was also Mario Lanza, the great tenor who died in his thirties by overeating and then over-dieting.

“Our names are important, but sometimes we can’t help them.”

Well, the noble Lanzas shouldn’t worry. Edwin Booth’s brother, John Wilkes Booth, murdered Abraham Lincoln, and Edwin went on to be a major theatrical star in America and Britain. A man named Whitman killed 14 people from a Texas bell tower in 1966—he was among the first mass murderers of innocent people for absolutely no good reason—and a Whitman with a Texas connection was elected governor of New Jersey not long ago. I know a very nice man called Oswald, again no relation, who lives in Delray Florida, who has never been discriminated against because of his surname. (Well, I’m not sure Caroline Kennedy would have married him even if she loved him, but the two have never met.)

Adolf Hitler’s real name was Adolf Schicklgruber. He changed it and ruined it for all subsequent Hitlers. Could a man named Hitler run for office in Germany these days? I don’t see why not, but I am sure others would mind very much.

Gabriele d’Annunzio, whose name originally was Gabriele Rapagnetta, changed his name at age eleven because he knew no one would take him seriously with a name like that, which I believe means “little carrot.” Romano Mussolini, the Duce’s youngest son, had a successful career as a jazz pianist in postwar Italy, as did Sophia Loren’s niece, Romano’s daughter, who has repeatedly been voted a deputy despite using the Mussolini name.

Stalin’s daughter refused to use her papa’s name when she defected to the US of A, but she reverted to it once she returned to mother Russia, only to leave again.