A FIFTH AVENUE FLOWERING
By Henry Hof 3rd
What if I had been given another name than Henry Hof 3rd? Does it really matter? The Bible says, “As his name is, so is he”. Is this valid? Would my destiny somehow have been different if my parents had bestowed on me a distinct given, and perhaps a middle, name? Expressing a contrary view to the biblical aphorism was William Shakespeare who opined that by any other name, a rose would smell as sweet. Shall we agree with the Bible or with the Bard? Let us consider the issue from the perspective of six decades of actually being Henry Hof 3rd.
Was I aptly named? From day one there were signs of rebelliousness against the bonds of tradition. When I was born on a frigid January 1937 morning at the Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital, even the nearby Central Park Zoo polar bears must have been cold and restless. My teenage mother, nineteen at the time, later told me about the experience. Mom had been admiring the rotund newborn son (“like a cherub”) of her roommate. But when Henry Hof 3rd was ushered in for nursing, my mother found herself enveloped by a hungry, fidgety stringbean whose long red feet protruded shamelessly from the blue blanket.
Family lore has it that I was named for my grandfather, Henry Hof, Senior, as he came to be called. I always suspected that I was actually named for my taciturn father. Henry Hof, Junior, without his wanting to say so. My family followed the custom of the time of naming me for someone close in consanguinity. Economic criteria prevailed. But I shouldn’t be harsh. In the Depression era Henry Hof, Sr. was a successful real estate operator, buying and selling Manhattan property even before Monopoly was marketed in 1935. “Henry Hof, Inc.” was a Midtown fixture, especially along Third Avenue. Like my namesakes, father and grandfather, I was favored with a name that foretold of Family and Fortune.
Growing up, however, I found myself ambivalent about the name and its paternal role model. My grandfather and I got along well, but my father (also in real estate) and I had differences. To rankle him, I would innocently ask, “Dad, what’s so great about real estate?” Thus, as a twenty-one year old, I needled my father for having supposed that I was going to be a carbon copy of him as a realtor.
To worsen matters, during my formative years, the name Henry had acquired a derisive image. Henry Aldrich bumbled along on the radio, inquiring, “Are you calling I, Father?”; the newspapers featured a comical bald-headed youth know as Henry; advertisements denigrated the head of any household by warning against Henry, the Bulb Snatcher. Popular songs like “Dance with Me, Henry” and “I’m Henry the Eighth, I AM” blared ubiquitously. This was the dark side of my parents’ well-intentioned decision.
There wasand isa bright side. Certainly, the first name does have a regal ring. Before and after King Henry VIII, monarchs in England and France proudly answered to “Henry”. From Portugal, Henry the Navigator set sights on the New World. Henry is a noble name. In the German language Henry means Head of the Household, and indeed I have now attained the responsibility of being head of a happy household. Famous contemporary figures like Kissenger and Arron have contributed positively to the moniker. And I admit to having a certain pride in being the flag-bearing firstborn and the eldest of the lot of four Hof siblings and fifteen cousins. There’s a sense of history that attaches to us Henrys. For the most part, I like the connotations attached to the word with the five letters: H, E, N, R, Y.
This may explain why I’ve never been partial to nicknames. Is it the Germanic in me that chafes at the sound of a nickname? I consider myself, simply, Henry. I sometimes answer to “Hen,” being a diminutive, not a sobriquet. During my teens I was increasingly called Hank, but I was never comfortable with the monosyllable. “Hank” started in the New York Post sports pages which honored me as an all-New York City high school basketball player. It persisted in college where one day I opened a national basketball magazine to read rhymingly, “Slated high for the varsity is a lanky soph known as Hank Hof”. Later on, when the magazine forecast proved overoptimistic, I used an alias, Cleve Kearny, to play with a touring team of castoffs who were not supposed to play for two teams at once. I still like the rugged sound and image of “Cleve Kearny”. What a contrast to the haughty H-filled denomination penned on my birth certificate.
Like a nickname, I’ve never wanted a middle name. My forebears, junior and senior, had no second name, and so neither do I. That’s fine with me. There is something distinguished about an appellation totaling eight letters. Its hallmark is brevity. A middle name would have just muddled the self image.
To be accurate, though, for a few years I was known by three names. When I bought a condominium in Chile, I respected the Roman law and Spanish custom of using both parents’ surnames. The impressive ownership document, therefore, proclaimed Henry Hof Marsh as deedholder. I was pleased to immortalize my maternal family name in Chilean archives albeit in an idiom foreign to my mother tongue.
Language can blur one’s self image. The Spanish equivalent of Henry is Enrique, and in French it is Henri. At various times I have worked and socialized in Spanish and occasionally also in French. Subjectively, I find that Henry, Enrique and Henri have multiple personalities (lending new meaning to the “third” in my name). “We” subconsciously adopt the cultural traits of the language we are speaking. The liveliest persona is the emotional Enrique who has managed to escape puritanical shackles clamped on those long red feet at birth. Enrique tends to accentuate the affirmative, prone to answer “si” to the very same question already responded to negatively in French or English. I think that by learning Spanish, volunteering for the Peace Corps, living first in Colombia and later in Chile, Ias Don Enriquesubtly forged my own identity and cleverly dodged the nomination of being a faithful reflections of my father.
Dad and I did not resemble each other physically. He was an even six feet tall, with dark hair and sturdy build. Most of us Hofs are large. I am almost six feet four inches. Our surname is small. It’s been a family struggle to keep it at three letters. Despite its simplicity, people tend to misspell “Hof”. The most common error is doubling the final consonant. “One F, please” is a family refrain. For a while Time magazine was sending me a trial subscription addressed to Mr. Henry Hot. (I like that.) In junk mail I’ve been several times referred to as Mr. Hog. In German and in Dutch our last name means courtyard or patio. There’s a sizable city in Germany known as Hof. The surname Hof is relatively rare and is probably locational in origin. From the German and Dutch language cognates, the name means “a dweller of a courtyard or fenced-in place”. In my imagination, I can see a fourteenth century relative, somewhere in what came to be called Germany, being told he had to select a second name for the local census. Swigging beer in his sunny courtyard, my red-faced (and footed) ancestor ponders, looks around and then exclaims “Hof”!. I can identify with the scenario.
In the current century our German last name was probably unpopular during the two World Wars. I experienced no bias myself, and as far as I know we never changed the name nor its spelling. On the contrary, during the 1940s and 1950s growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, I learned that my family name enjoyed local renown. The community house had a vist gymnasium/ auditorium combination, commemorating my paternal grandfather (and grandmother) who helped build the place. Hof Hall was where I learned basketball, and had fun doing it. I always felt at home in Hof Hall, in part because I was a third generation Henry Hof.
The final part of my name, more numerical than verbal, inextricably links me with my sires. In recent years I’ve simply used the Arabic number 3, followed by “rd,” in place of the Roman numeral III. The practice coincides with my birth certificate, and seems less pretentious. Unlike earlier generation Henry Hofs, I see myself as egalitarian, having made my own modest, yet distinct, mark on the world by virtue of accomplishments, not family name nor connection.
Given a choice, I would have preferred a unique name, rather than the implied identification with my father and with his father. Nor am I easy with the statistic at the end. But I have grown accustomed to Henry Hof 3rd, and so be it. It’s alliterative, if not euphonious, being heavy on the initial hissing H sound, which is hard for me to hem and haw out sometimes. The name notwithstanding, when I left real estate for the Peace Corps, a whole new frontier opened. While keeping my name, I had identified with a new calling with which I felt entirely comfortable.
Due to my career as an international civil servant, I exuded enthusiasm and confidence. For the first time in years I attracted a steady girlfriend. When I proposed marriage, I asked if she were willing to change her name to mine. Ignoring the cliché, Sally said No…but I will hyphenate with you. So it is Mrs. Rosalia Tinio-Hof. This arrangement has been ideal. Since we both work for the United Nations Secretariat, our records are distinct, and she is able to maintain a conspicuous part of her Filipino heritage, blending Asia and America, East and West, via a tiny hyphen.
Maintaining the global focus, our daughter’s name is Karina Tinio Hof. I like it for its international overtone, endearing echo and ease of pronunciation. Its source was the United Nations telephone directory, a treasure chest of exotic designations. My two other children are Philip Osborne Hof and Andrea Grace Hof (loved-ones for short sometimes called, "A&P"). They bear nominal ties to both sides of their family, but not directly to father and mother.
For a while I was shadowed by a doppelganger. When a childhood friend told me how a cousin bore the same name, I didn’t believe him. But when Henry Hoff came from Austria to stay with Philip Spitzer’s family, I was converted. Henry attended both my high school and college, getting better grades in both. When marks were displayed publicly, I was routinely congratulated for our achievements. I did not always explain to my well-wishers how there was another Henry Hof(f). One of us was the athlete; the other the scholar. Cruelly, around town among teenagers while I was called Henry Hoff the Third, my homonym was referred to Henry Hoff the turd. The latter is now a cardiologist living in a huge house in Cleveland, Ohio. Both of us have succeeded in our separate ways.
Seven years ago I was flattered when some close friends living in Boston suburbs announced that they had decided to call their newborn son, Henry, after me. I don’t place the imitation in the same category as a father-son naming. After all, little Hen is under no pressure to follow in the tracks of Big Henry.
Over the years, then, as we have seen, I have been very much affected by my name. The biblical saying, “as his name is, so is he”, however, suggests more causation than I think is true in my particular case. But definitely I would agree that my name has significantly influenced my self image and the way I’ve conducted my life. If my parents had chosen another name for me that cold January nearly six decades ago, I surely would have survived but probably not in the same way. As a matter of speculation, I might well have selected another career (yes, like real estate) avoiding the third world and its disabling viruses altogether. The loss to the world of Don Enrique would have been at the gain of a reemergence of Cleve Kearny, still swishing in rainbow jump shots from the top of the keyhole, each one now worth three points on the scoreboard. Not bad for an aging white realtor from Queens, according to the playground smalltalk, who as Hank Hof was once All-New York City in basketball.