Mine is not an illustrious one. There are a few others who fared well enough with it; but none among them are my relations. It is uncommon enough to catch my eye or ear whenever it is mentioned, even though my own is frequently misspelled or mispronounced. My surname, I mean. As I shared a while ago in this journal, names hold a special fascination for me. Imagine my surprise when, in search of a broadcast event worth recalling today, I came across the modest proper noun attached to my existence while listening to a recording of an American radio program that aired on this day, 4 July, in 1939.
The program in question is Information, Please, a quiz show that, as discussed here, invited radio listeners to send in brain teasers and memory testers to “stump” a panel of so-called experts and notable personalities. The guest guesser featured on this day in 1939 was silent screen actress Lillian Gish.
He “wouldn’t be surprised,” host Clifton Fadiman remarked, if Ms. Gish could not answer the first question of the evening, a comment suggesting that the venerable actress was too far removed from the everyday to tune in like regular folk (despite the fact that she had been a panelist on previous occasions). Whether unable to supply the expected response or unwilling to utter it, Ms. Gish had the smartest reply anyone thus confronted could have given. In keeping with her glorious past and altogether more dignified than the prompted line, her response was silence. You see, the panel was called upon to “give the exact wording” used by announcer Milton Cross in the opening of the program, which, at that time, was sponsored by the makers of Canada Dry. To provide the correct piece of trivia would have meant to parrot a commercial message.
It was a clever game of naming nonetheless. The ostensible poser of said puzzler was awarded a small prize, and the solution, revealed by Fadiman, was rendered even more prominent as a result of it having supposedly managed to elude the experts, much to the amusement of the crowd in the studio.
This introductory bit of product placement was followed by another nominal challenge. The panelists were asked to “name four literary works whose titles consist entirely of initials.” Columnist Franklin P. Adams came up with R.U.R. (short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”), the science fiction drama by Karel Capek to which we owe the word “robot.” Ms. Gish advanced R.F.D. (for “Rural Free Delivery”), a now obscure volume on farm living in 1930s Ohio by one Charles Allen Smart.
Getting into the spirit of things, Gish then allowed herself to suggest “The Life of the Bee.” She didn’t get away with the pun, but garnered some chuckles, following it up with “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Prepared for such levity with a pun of his own, Fadiman suggested X.L.C.R. as the title of a poem by Longfellow. Controlling herself—and asked not to make another joke—Gish think of R.V.R., a book on Rembrandt by Hendrik Willem van Loon, an essayist whose work (compiled as Air-storming) was regularly heard on US radio back then.
Now, I had to look most of these names up—and quite forgot my own in the process. That name, however, was brought up shortly thereafter on the broadcast, Ms. Gish having been given an opportunity to be anecdotal about silent movies by claiming that she had to smooch a bedpost in Birth of a Nation since no actress was “allowed to kiss the men” in front of camera in those days. The question that followed transported listeners back into the reality of the present day; it concerned names of people in the news. Apparently, one of those names was A. Heuser—H E U S E R.
So, who was this A. Heuser? Ms. Gish left it to fellow panelist John Kiernan, the noted sports columnist who would later host the television version of Information, Please, to answer that question. Turns out, said Herr Heuser was a German prizefighter. Also known as the “Bulldog,” Heuser had been soundly defeated by Max Schmeling two days prior to the broadcast. His first name may have made that defeat sound particularly pleasing to those among the American listeners who kept a watchful eye on Nazi Germany: the initial A. stands for Adolf. That, at least, is an ignominy I do not have to live down.