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Oh, to have been named ‘Benjamin’

I never really wanted to change my name.  Except once, back in 1967, along with perhaps a million other like-minded young men. And my preferred form of address was going to be "Benjamin." NBC News' Chris Hampson writes a tribute to the late Anne Bancroft.
/ Source: NBC News

LONDON — To my ears, my wife Lynn has a pretty first name. It is petite and to the point, as she is. 

Mrs. Hampson, however, doesn’t like it overmuch and occasionally longs for something more elaborate, more beguiling — or with just more syllables.

She envies the likes of Catherine Zeta Jones and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario whose names she occasionally plays with out loud, rolling them around her mouth like exotic fruit.

As for me, I’m happy enough with my name.  It’s as long as I need and as short as I want. 

In its full form of Christopher it can sound a little formal for everyday use. My father liked to use it when scolding me, presumably because it made the punishment last one fourth of a second longer.

Chris, on the other hand, is friendly and doesn’t take too much of anyone’s time.

My moniker has a fine old pedigree, all the way back to St. Christopher.  Indeed, if you believe the history books, a man with my name was the first European to stumble upon America.  Thank you Mr. Columbus.

So I’ve never really wanted to change it. Except once, back in 1967, along with perhaps a million other like-minded young men. And my preferred form of address was going to be "Benjamin."

The alluring 'Benjamin?'
Now Benjamin doesn’t sound like much of a name to hanker after. 

True, it also goes back in history, as Mr. Franklin will attest. It’s a solid kind of name whose short form, Ben, has the saving grace of being, well, mercifully short. But — if all the Benjamins out there will forgive me, and I doubt they will — it’s not exactly glamorous.

This may help explain why the Hollywood A-list of leading male stars is not heavily populated by heroes with such an unprepossessing first name.

Benjamin Gable? Scarlett wouldn’t have given a damn for him.

Benjamin di Caprio? The Titanic would have been lost, with all hands, in dry dock.

Let’s be honest, I doubt many Benjamins have ever had whispered in their ear: “Benjamin … my, that’s such a cute, sexy name. Sit here next to me on the bed and tell me all about yourself.”

Luckiest man alive
But there was one such Benjamin, and at the time he seemed the luckiest man alive. 

He came to my notice back in the sixties, when I was an undergrad and everywhere was supposedly "swinging," except around me and the hundreds of people I knew.

This Benjamin was the lead character in a movie called "The Graduate." And a certain Mrs. Robinson was, if you’ll pardon the expression, determined to bring about his undoing.

He was the eponymous graduate. She the mother of his girlfriend, twenty-something years older than Benjamin. And ‘it’ was what they were about to do.

My student buddies and I sat transfixed in the darkened movie theater, not sure whom we were supposed to fall madly in love with. Girlfriend Katherine Ross? You’d be crazy not to.

But then there was sizzling Anne Bancroft, born Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, Mrs. Robinson incarnate. So alluring and so very knowing.

In the movie she was out to get Benjamin into bed. Oh, how we scoffed at his gaucheness, his lack of sexual sophistication, while all the time knowing full well that we knew less of women than he did. 

“Mrs. Robinson…you’re trying to seduce me…(she laughs)…aren’t you?”

We laughed too.

Later, peeling off a stocking, she asks Benjamin if he finds her “undesirable?”

“Oh, no Mrs. Robinson.  I think, I think you are the most attractive of my parents’ friends.  I mean that.”

We shrank with embarrassment — while secretly giving our eye teeth to be Dustin Hoffman at that moment.

Pimply days of yesteryear
All this to a haunting Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack that seemed to capture the spirit of the age. “Hello darkness my old friend.” “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” Golden days.

It is popular these days to talk of the “Mrs. Robinson effect” dismissively, as did the writer in Britain’s Daily Telegraph this week, describing it as “fueling the fantasies of a generation of adolescent boys.”

These are usually the weasel words of crusty male Op-Ed writers who have forgotten that they were once the pimply youths of history.

A toast
Anne Bancroft herself sometimes regretted the success of her Oscar-nominated role because it eclipsed her other superb work.

So let’s set the record straight.

Mrs. Robinson, or the notion of her, did indeed set pulses beating faster for a generation of boys — and much older men too.  We carried the dream with us.

Young men went through their single lives (and some, shamefully, their married ones, too) wondering if they were destined ever to have a Mrs. Robinson moment. As the years went by, most of us didn’t. 

Worse still, as even more years went by, most of us knew we couldn’t.

For many it was a defining moment of their mid-life crisis: the time you realized that you were too old for Mrs. Robinson — and she was too old for you.

No matter. It was great while it lasted. And now the beautiful Anne Bancroft is gone also. Truly the end of an era.

So here’s to you Anna Maria Louisa Italiano. My wife loves your name. And I like mine.

Yours affectionately,

Benjamin Hampson