Tree of Names: The Wainwright-McGarrigle-Cohens

November 30, 2011 § 7 Comments

(c) Neal Preston/Corbis: Leonard Cohen with his photographer daughter, Lorca.

Following my last post on “Life” Names, I touched on this extended Canadian-American folk music family, and was inspired enough to devote a whole post to the collection of interesting, generally unique names.

Leonard Norman Cohen is considered by many a poetic musical genius, having written everything from “Suzanne” to “Tower of Song” to the haunting, often covered “Hallelujah.” He was born in Montreal in 1934, of Lithuanian Jewish ancestry, the son of Nathan Bernard Cohen, a clothing store owner, and Masha. Nathan died in 1944, leaving Masha to care for Leonard and his elder sister, Esther. His paternal grandfather Lyon Cohen was once president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Lyon married Rachel Friedman in 1891 and had three sons – Nathan, Horace Rives, and Lawrence Zebulon, as well as a daughter, Sylvia Lillian Cohen.

The hit song Suzanne was written for Suzanne Verdal, the wife of Cohen’s friend, Quebecois sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, and not for artist Suzanne Elrod, who is the mother of Cohen’s two children. (Instead, she was reportedly “The Gypsy’s Wife.”) Son Adam was born in 1972, and daughter Lorca was born in 1974. Lorca was named for early 20th Century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, whose work Cohen first started reading while in high school. He has said of the poet, “I love him. I named my daughter Lorca, so he is not a passing interest in my life.”

(c) Adriel Reboh/, 2008: Rufus Wainwright and his longtime boyfriend Jorn Wiesbrodt show the love after a New York concert in August 2008.

On February 2 this year, Cohen and Elrod became second time grandparents when Lorca, a photographer and videographer, delivered a daughter – Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen. The little girl was conceived artificially by Lorca and her longtime friend, Rhinebeck, New York-born, Montreal-raised singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright’s fiance, German arts administrator Jorn Wiesbrodt, is Viva’s “deputy dad.” Cohen’s first grandchild arrived February 10, 2007, when Adam and his wife Jessica welcomed son Cassius.

Three generations of Cohen men – Leonard with son Adam and grandson Cassius in 2009.

Rufus McGarrigle Wainwright, 38, has achieved musical success around the world, and is the son of two other accomplished singer-songwriters – Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III – both contemporaries and friends of Leonard Cohen. Viva’s name means “life” in Italian, and Katherine honours his mother, born Catherine Frances McGarrigle in Montreal in 1946. She died of clear-cell sarcoma on January 18, 2010, following a nearly four-year battle with cancer. Rufus and his younger sister Martha, born in 1976, spent much of their childhood with their mother after the divorce of their parents, but Loudon still found time to write the songs “Rufus is a Tit-Man” (penned when his son was breastfeeding) and “A Father and a Son” for his son, and “Pretty Little Martha” and “Five Years Old” for his daughter. Alternately, he wrote the song “Hitting You,” a brutally honest account of their teen years with him, and they responded with songs like Martha’s expletive “Bloody Mother F—— A——,” Rufus’ “Dinner At Eight” about a dispute at home, and they collaborated on songs such as “Father Daughter Dialogue.” Singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright married music producer Brad Albetta in September 2007. Their son Arcangelo, which is as distinctly Italian as Viva, was born November 16, 2009.

(c) Dane Lanken, 1987: Kate McGarrigle in Montreal in 1987, photographed by her brother-in-law.

(c) Cherry Vanilla, 2009: Martha Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle attend the opening of Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, at the Manchester International Festival in July 2009.

Kate performed with her sister Anna as a well-known folk music duo from Montreal. Their sister Jane was the eldest of their English father Frank McGarrigle and French Canadian mother Gabrielle Latremouille, and Jane is also a singer-songwriter. Jane McGarrigle‘s daughter with Dave Dow is named Anna Catherine in honour of her’s sisters, and her son named Ian Vincent. Anna McGarrigle married journalist Dane Lanken, once a film critic for the Montreal Gazette and a longtime contributor to National Geographic. Their daughter Lily is a singer in cousin Martha’s backing band, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Concordia University in Montreal in 2006. Anna and Dane also have a son named Sylvan.

(c) National Film Board of Canada, 1981: Kate & Anna McGarrigle.

Loudon Snowden Wainwright III (pronounced LAO-dun) was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1946, but headed north with his family as a child to follow his father’s journalism career. New York was where he eventually met Kate McGarrigle and they built their family. But following their divorce, he had another daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, in 1981 with singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche (rhymes with fuzzy). It was for Lucy whom he penned the song “Daughter,” notably heard at the end of the 2007 hit film Knocked Up. Suzzy and her sisters, eldest Margaret “Maggie” and middle sister Terre (pronounced Terry), formed the folk group The Roches in the 1970s, their sound influencing groups to come like The Indigo Girls. Wainwright’s father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was a columnist for Life magazine, and his mother, Martha Taylor, was a yoga teacher. Loudon had a brother, Andrew, and three sisters, Martha, Anna, and Greenwich Village singer-songwriter Sloan Eleanor Wainwright. Sloan married George McTavey, and had two sons, Sam and Gabe.

Loudon Wainwright III performs in 2007 with his youngest daughter, Lucy Roche.

Nine notable names from the tree:

Rufus: This name has been dripping in hipster cool cred for a while, and Rufus Wainwright is a large part of that. Sure, this name treads that line between ‘dog names’ and ‘human names’ that everyone talks about, but Rufus never started as a dog’s name (and I wonder if it became one because of the “ruff” beginning, despite being pronounced ROO-fuss.) Rufus is a Latin name meaning “red-haired,” which reached the height of it’s popularity in the 19th Century. The name has since dropped out of the US Top 1000, but surprisingly, perhaps, hung around until the early 1980s before falling off the grid.

Loudon: German for “low valley,” this is a name that is about as unique as it gets these days. It’s not on anyone’s radar, really, and is a pain in the neck to pronounce. No, it’s not Loo-dawn, it’s LAO-dun. Add the fact that Loudon Wainwright and his ancestors are among the few people who actually have this name, and it’s not exactly on the verge of trending any time soon. I would recommend it to parents who want unique, but did I mention it’s a pain in the neck to pronounce?

Martha: A Wainwright family staple, this name appears on Loudon Wainwright’s mother, sister, and daughter. It’s another one of those old-fashioned names that could come back with choices like Eloise or Hattie, but it doesn’t quite have the same beauty. Female names with -th just aren’t trending these days. It’s an Aramaic name that means, “lady of the house,” and in the Bible she was the “cumbered” sister of Mary of Bethany (a Life Name for it’s association with this ancient village near Jerusalem.) Mary of Bethany is sometimes better known as Mary Magdalene. The Puritans revitalized this name in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but use dropped off throughout the 20th Century and now the name is only in the Top 700 in the United States, but the name was Top 100 in Canada a decade ago, and in England this name has actually been rising in popularity, perhaps inspired by the likes of actress Martha Plimpton, the United States’ original First Lady, Martha Washington, dancer Martha Graham, and possibly even Martha Stewart. Countless other notables answer to Martha, so much so that it borders on cool, and could deserve a post if trends continue to follow Britain’s lead. I can see this name faring quite well if it started trending in Australia or New Zealand, because I think it kind of has an Outback feel. Tom Waits wrote a song called “Martha,” and he also wrote “Waltzing Matilda,” something of a national theme song and the inspiration behind the fantastic name of Anna’s blog, Waltzing More Than Matilda! (Anna‘s name also features in this tree of names!)

Esther: Persian for “myrtle leaf” or “star,” it’s become one of the Jewish faith’s most revered names. (Madonna famously picked Esther as her Kabbalah identity.) History tells that a young Hebrew woman named Hadassah (which may have evolved to Hester/Esther) married Persian king Ahasuerus, and risked her life to save her people. The annual Jewish festival of Purim is celebrated in her honour. Alternately, the Persian word ishtar, which means “love,” could be the root of this name. It’s a classic name, but Esther has yet to catch on again with today’s parents looking for something old fashioned. Still, it’s popularity is rising enough that last year it broke the US Top 300 again, after falling out in 1980. In Canada, it was a Top 100 name as recently as 2004.

Cassius: These days, baby boys named Cassius are not uncommon, especially with growing interest in the name Cash. A Roman name that is Latin for, likely, “empty, hollow,” it’s a name that has existed for millennia, and has experienced a resurgence since the 1960s thanks to boxing champ Muhammad Ali, whose name before he converted to Islam (and his name when he won an Olympic gold medal for the US at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games), was Cassius Clay.

Adam: Man’s first name, in Christian theocracy. The Hebrew name for “earth” has evolved to generally refer to the word “man,” derived from adama. In the Book of Genesis, he was the first man created from the earth. It’s a name that rejuvenated in the Middle Ages and it hasn’t really looked back since. These days it’s as popular as ever, and almost everyone knows at least one Adam. And everyone else knows of notable wearers like Adam Sandler, Adam West (TV’s Batman), British rocker Adam Carolla, or Adam Clayton, bassist for U2. The name is exceptionally musical, and add to Clayton and Cohen, the name belongs to British rocker Adam Ant, the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz, Adam Levine of Maroon 5, the Beastie Boys Adam “MCA” Yauch, and American Idol finalist Adam Lambert.

Sloan: While it was uncommon as a first name in the middle of the 20th Century when Sloan Wainwright was born, it has really begun catching on for girls over the past five years. Thank, perhaps, Dr. Mark Sloan (portrayed by Eric Dane) on Grey’s Anatomy, or Sloan McQuewick, portrayed by the gorgeous Emmanuelle Chriqui, on Entourage. Alternate spelling Sloane is even trendier for girls, a reference to the “Sloane set,” a name for young, British upperclass-types (aka. the kids with direct access to daddy’s platinum Visa card) who reside in high-priced flats in London’s Sloane Square. These feel more like reasons why Sloan is trending for girls these days, as opposed to having anything to do with the name’s original meaning – it’s Irish Gaelic for “man of arms/warrior.”

Arcangelo: A loaded, uncommon, and unlikely first name for boys, Arcangelo is Italian for “archangel,” from the Greek arcangelos, and is a name in use primarily by Roman Catholics to honour high ranking angels from The Bible like Michael or Gabriel. Martha Wainwright chose this name because it was the name of her Italian husband’s grandfather.

Cohen: It would be tough to get Leonard trending these days, when Leo has become perfectly acceptable as a stand-alone name in large part to avoid using a name as unattractive as Leonard. So Cohen is what most people who wish to honour Leonard Cohen name their kids (though it’s popularity as a first name, due to it’s recent emergence, it most often attributed to the Cohen family on The OC, or to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen). Cohen is a boy’s name on the move whether you aspire to honour the songwriter or not. However, this name is not considered acceptable as a first name for people who are Jewish, because this surname denotes the title of ancient Israeli priests and their descendants.

Five generations of the Wainwright-McGarrigle-Cohen tree of names.


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