Should Saturday start National Ellen Week?
Actress Ellen Burstyn, who became a star in “The Last Picture Show” (1971) and “The Exorcist” (1973), won the best actress Oscar for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in 1974. She was born as Edna Rae Gillooly on Dec. 7, 1932.
Talk show star Ellen DeGeneres (born 1958) hosts “Ellen’s Greatest Night of Giveaways” for three consecutive nights starting Tuesday, surprising unsuspecting people from all over the United States.
Ellen is the English form of Helen, derived from a Greek word for what’s today called “St. Elmo’s Fire,” light appearing around ship’s masts during thunderstorms, caused by electrical discharge.
St. Helen was the mother of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to accept Christianity. Ninth-century English priest Cynewulf wrote about Helen’s travels to Palestine to find the “true cross” in “Elene,” one of the earliest surviving Old English poems.
Ellen was the normal English form of the name. The 10th-most common name for English women in 1380, Ellen still ranked 20th for infants in the 1690s.
In the 18th century, educated parents reintroduced Helen. Though Helen quickly took over in Scotland, in England and America, Ellen had more staying power. The 1850 United States census found 121,770 Ellens and 19,849 Helens.
Around 1875, Helen started its American boom. Between 1900 and 1919, it ranked second for newborn American girls.
Though Ellen receded when Helen soared, it never fell lower than 104th. In 1938, it began its own minor revival, helped by Hollywood.
Ellen Drew (1915-2003) and Ellen Hall (1923-99) starred in many B-movies during the 1930s and ’40s. (Hall died in Bellevue, where she moved after retirement to be closer to her son.)
More important were film characters. Child star Peggy Ann Garner played Ellen, daughter of widowed Julie (Carole Lombard), whom wealthy Alec (Cary Grant) falls for in 1939’s “In Name Only.” In 1940, Grant was Nick in screwball comedy “My Favorite Wife,” in which Ellen (Irene Dunne), the wife he thought had died in a shipwreck, turns up alive and well just after his marriage to Bianca (Gail Patrick).
In 1945, Gene Tierney got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for playing Ellen in “Leave Her to Heaven.” Though Tierney’s insanely paranoid Ellen commits suicide in a way that frames her own sister for murder, the film’s huge success pushed Ellen to 58th, its highest point since 1870.
Though Ellen fell to 290th in 1985, it inched up the next decade as similar sounding Ella rose. After 1995, Ellen plummeted. This may be partly due to DeGeneres becoming a “one-name celebrity” through sitcom “Ellen” (1994-98) and her talk show. Of course, the Ellens born around the name’s 1946 peak are now in their 70s, giving it a “grandma” vibe to modern young parents.
Burstyn and DeGeneres aren’t the only famous Ellens. Emmy winner Ellen Barkin (born 1954) stars as criminal matriarch “Smurf” Cody on “Animal Kingdom.” Ellen Pompeo (1969), one of television’s highest-paid actresses, has starred on “Grey’s Anatomy” since 2005.
Ellen Ochoa (1958), the first Hispanic woman in space, and Ellen Taafe Zwilich (1939), the first woman composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, are also great namesakes for young Ellens. I hope an earlier-than-expected revival isn’t impossible.