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Wendy turns 100 (at least)

Many who share the name feel there's something magical in it -- whether or not it originated with J.M. Barrie's character in the century-old 'Peter Pan.'

September 03, 2004|Judy Chia Hui Hsu | Times Staff Writer

"What's in a name?" a famous bard once wrote. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

But could someone named Biff ever be president? Could a Gertrude ever become Miss America? And what about the Wendys of the world? Would they feel their name was as integral to their identity if they knew it had been created by an early 20th century writer?

In fact, many of them do know that Scottish author Sir J.M. Barrie is said to have invented the name 100 years ago for a character in his play "Peter Pan" (though there are those who would argue this distinction), and they have no problem with it.

The story -- backed up by academics and such scholarly sources as the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature -- goes that Barrie introduced Wendy Moira Angela Darling in his timeless fantasy as a tribute to a young friend, Margaret Henley, who died when she was about 5. Margaret, daughter of poet W.E. Henley, is said to have called Barrie "my friendy," says Amy Billone, a "Peter Pan" expert at the University of Tennessee. But Margaret had difficulty pronouncing the word, so it came out "fwendy."

The ensuing tale of the boy who never wanted to grow up captivated audiences when it debuted on the London stage in 1904. In the century that followed, it was retold in Barrie's own novelized version, in musicals, on television and in several films. And this fall, marking the story's 100th anniversary, will see the release of the movie "Finding Neverland," starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet, and the book "Peter and the Starcatchers," a prequel to the popular Pan story co-written by humorist Dave Barry.

Some younger Wendys are using the occasion to reflect on the genealogy of their name.

"My mom liked it because she thought it was a magical name," says Wendy Russ, 37. "It's about whimsy and the possibility of life and adventure."

About 12 years ago, Russ started the website Wendy's World (www.wendy.com). Because she was able to obtain such a "cool" domain name, Russ says, she felt obligated to share the site with others, so she created a section dedicated to the name Wendy.

"I love my name," Russ says by phone from her home in Clinton, Ark. "It's a fun name, it's a happy name, and it's uncommon but not weird, you know. I could be named Moonbeam or Sunshine."

Russ, a real estate agent and freelance writer, says most of the e-mail that she receives is related to the Wendy portion of her website, which provides information about the name and includes lyrics from songs that mention it.

About five years ago, when someone inquired about Barrie's connection with the name's origin, Russ delved into genealogical records. She believes that there were people named Wendy living in Europe before Barrie's "Peter Pan."

Genealogist Elaine Hasleton agrees. Hasleton works at Salt Lake City's Family History Library, a research center run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that is the largest genealogical library in the world.

"The name was definitely used prior to 1904," she says, citing the census records of England in 1871 and the United States in 1850. "Wendy appeared to be predominantly a male first name in the 1850 U.S. census, and by the 1880 U.S. census, it becomes more of a female name." Other experts say that Wendy was used as a nickname for Gwendolyn.

But there is no doubt about Barrie's influence, says Billone. "He's the reason the name became popular."

So popular, in fact, that just about everyone knows of at least one Wendy (Wendy's hamburger chain, anyone?). There's also the witty and erudite "art nun," Sister Wendy Beckett; the late "queen of shock rock," Plasmatics singer Wendy O. Williams; actress Wendie Malick; and playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

Wendy Lee Wims-Boyd's grandfather named her Wendy because of "Peter Pan," she says. It fit the family tradition. "My grandfather's name was Winford Wayne Wims. My grandmother's named Freda Fern Fisher, so thank heavens I didn't get something like Wendy Winifred."

Wims-Boyd, 48, a kindergarten teacher in Castaic, says she enjoyed the attention she received as a teenager because of her name. "I was 'Wenda Wee Womps' for a long time in high school." Even now, when she goes to church, a man there whistles the tune from the Association's "Windy" when he sees her, says Wims-Boyd.

Rock star Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, wrote a song called "Wendy" in 1964. He liked the name so much that he later bestowed it upon his daughter, says singer Wendy Wilson, 34, of Wilson Phillips.

She learned about the name's origin and its "Peter Pan" connection about 10 years ago, she says. "I thought that was fascinating." Since then, she has formed a special bond with Barrie's character. "My ears definitely perk up when I hear the story 'Peter Pan,' " the singer says. A few years ago, she bought a painting from a children's store depicting Peter Pan flying in the air and Wendy below, talking to him. "I thought [their relationship] was very sweet."

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