Was Stanley Ann Dunham, the President's Mother, Named for Bette Davis Character?

Stanley and Barry
History has now recorded a second version of how Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, got her first name. Though Dunham told her Mercer Island High School classmates and others it was because her father Stanley Dunham wanted a boy, a relative says it was actually because her mother was such a fan of legendary actress Bette Davis that she named her newborn for a memorable Davis female film character called Stanley.

Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss, author of two books on Obama, says one of Stanley Ann's uncles related the Bette Davis version to him. In a Friday story on Obama's relationship with his mother, Maraniss noted:

Born Stanley Ann Dunham, she assumed, as most people did, that her unusual first name was imposed by her father. An uncle tells a different story, attributing the choice to Madelyn Dunham, Stanley Ann's mother, who as a small-town Kansas girl yearned to emulate Bette Davis, the sophisticated actress she saw on the big screen at the air-conditioned Augusta Theater.

Maraniss says that when Madelyn was pregnant,"Davis was starring in a movie in which she played a female character named Stanley. (As it happened, no two people could have been less alike than Madelyn's daughter and this film character, who was cruel, cunning and racist.)" Thus, Stanley Ann was born, becoming Stannie Ann in grade school, Stanley in high school and Ann in adulthood.

According to film databases, the John Huston movie, In This Our Life, was released in May 1942, six months before Stanley Ann's birth. Adapted from the similarly named Pulitzer-winning novel, the movie follows Davis's Stanley as she steals the husband of her sister Roy (their dad, much like Stanley Ann said about hers, favored boy's names). She also drunkenly runs down a child before she kills herself.

Bette as Stanley
According to Wikipedia, Davis loved the book but disliked the movie, saying "A real story had been turned into a phony film." But she was pleased with the film's exposure of southern racism, thanks to the defining role of actor Ernest Anderson.

Davis helped recruit him and was delighted he gave an "educated" performance as a black man wrongly accused in a scandal, rejecting the industry's "colored" stereotype. "This caused a great deal of joy among Negroes," said Davis. "They were tired of the Stepin Fetchit vision of their people."

Stanley Ann coincidentally grew up to share such sentiments on race. After dying of uterine cancer in 1995, she would take an enduring place in history as the white mother of America's first black President. Equality and other "values she taught me," Obama has said, "continue to be my touchstone when it comes to how I go about the world of politics."

Whoever her namesake, Dunham's seeming disadvantage helped shape a full life as a feminist and activist student, young mother and respected anthropologist. As one of her Mercer Island schoolmates put it, "You don't start out life as a girl with a name like Stanley without some sense you are not ordinary."

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