Remember Phyllis Lindstrom on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein”?
Cloris Leachman, the actress who brought those characters to life, turns 87 today.
Cloris is a simplified spelling of Chloris, a Greek name meaning “pale green.”
The first Chloris was the Greek goddess of flowers.
Another mythological Chloris was a daughter of King Amphion of Thebes and his wife, Niobe. Niobe, mother of seven sons and seven daughters, mocked Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis, for having only two children.
To avenge this insult, Apollo and Artemis slew all Niobe’s children except Chloris. Niobe wept for nine days and then was turned to stone.
A guilty Leto sponsored Chloris in the first women’s foot race at the ancient Olympics. Chloris won, married King Neleus of Pylos, and gave birth to his heir, Nestor.
Nestor lived to become the wise old adviser to the Greeks during the Trojan War.
In his famous “Odes,” first century B.C. Roman poet Horace called one of his lovers Chloris. English Renaissance poets often copied names from classical works in their own poems.
In 1596, William Smith published the sonnet collection “Chloris,” in which shepherd Colin declares “Whole showers of tears to Chloris I will pour / As true oblations of my sincere love.”
Eighty years later, the court of King Charles II attracted a group of scandalous young poets called “The Wits.” Its leader, John Wilmot, Lord Rochester, wrote several bawdy poems about Chlorises, including “Fair Chloris in a Pigsty Lay.”
Another “Wit,” Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701), first used the simplified spelling in his poem “To Cloris.” He tells Cloris he can’t praise her eyes, face or figure because “For you are so entirely fair/ To love a part, injustice were.”
In 1680, Aphra Behn, first English woman to make a living as a writer, published “The Disappointment,” in which Cloris finally decides to give in to Lysander’s advances, only to discover that he’s unable to complete what he started.
Perhaps because of this bawdiness, Cloris remained rare as a name for real girls. The earliest sure examples in the United States census don’t occur until 1870. That year, several African-American women in the South were named Chloris, probably because some slave owners gave slaves classical names to show off their own learning.
Chloris Spencer, born in Kansas in 1863, was the first non-slave Chloris listed in multiple censuses.
Social Security’s yearly baby name data begins in 1880, but only reports names used at least five times. The first year five Chlorises were born was 1897. Chloris doesn’t appear on the list again until 1913, when the similar-sounding Doris was booming.
In 1901, Iowans Everett and Bertha Wallace named their daughter Cloris. Her name was almost unique; the spelling Cloris didn’t show up on the Social Security list until 1917.
Both spellings remained very rare. In 1923, the high point for Chloris, only 16 girls received the name.
Cloris Wallace married lumberyard owner Berkeley Leachman. They named their first daughter after her mother. In 1926, it was already rare for mothers and daughters to share a first name. Though they named their second child Mary, their third daughter was Claiborne, another bold choice.
Leachman’s mother encouraged her namesake’s acting ambitions. In 1946, the daughter used the scholarship she won as a Miss America contestant to enroll in New York’s famous Actors Studio.
In 1949, Cloris was cast in “Come Back, Little Sheba.” Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead came to see the play while it was still in tryouts.
Bankhead so enjoyed Cloris’s performance she invited her to sail on her yacht. She told her she’d have a marvelous career if she’d change her name.
“Too many syllables,” said Bankhead. “Clorox Bleachman would be better.”
Leachman’s friends in New York agreed. They brought her a phone book and told her to open it to the L’s to look for a new name. She randomly put her finger down and it landed on the surname “Leavitt.”
In her autobiography “Cloris,” Leachman says: “It was miraculous. That translated to “Leave it!” When she went to Hollywood a few years later, she was again urged to change her name and get a nose job, but refused to do either.
Leachman’s career since she played nosy landlady Phyllis Lindstrom on “Mary Tyler Moore” between 1970 and 1975 proves that keeping her odd name didn’t hurt.
Though the name Cloris has remained extremely rare, its modern use is linked to Leachman’s fame. After she won an Oscar in 1972 for playing neglected housewife Ruth Popper in “The Last Picture Show,” Cloris showed up on the Social Security list for the first time since 1959. The name’s best year was 1975, just after Leachman played hilariously sinister housekeeper Frau Blücher in “Young Frankenstein,” and her Lindstrom character was spun off into her own sitcom “Phyllis.”
Cloris Leachman has eight prime-time Emmys, more than any other performer. She renewed her fame in late 2008 with her appearance as the oldest contestant ever on “Dancing With the Stars.”
In 2009, five Clorises were born, the first time the name charted since 1980. Though it was a tiny blip in the data, it’s almost unheard of for a celebrity in her 80s to inspire modern parents to use a name.
If there were Emmys for keeping rare names alive, Cloris Leachman would win once again.