When I was growing up, it sometimes seemed as if half the girls in my classes were named Susan. There were tall ones and short ones, blonde ones and dark ones, but we all shared one thing: Our unimaginative mothers had given us what I came to think of as Generic Girl Baby Name.
After doing some research, I discovered that the popularity of the name Susan enjoyed a 36-year lifespan, starting in 1940 and disappearing into oblivion by 1976. Susan's heyday ran from 1948 to 1965, when it never dipped below #5 in popularity.
The popularity of the name closely tracked that of actress Susan Hayward, a fiery brunette with a flair for melodrama. Her first major screen role was in 1940, when she played Isobel Rivers in Beau Geste. As Hayward's renown grew, her first name became more common, hitting its stride in the 1950s. She was twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress: In 1952 for With a Song in My Heart and in 1955 for I'll Cry Tomorrow.
The apogee of Hayward's success came in 1958, when she finally won a Best Actress Academy Award. It was for the role of Barbara Graham in the jazzy film noir I Want to Live!. Despite the character being a prostitute, drug addict, and perjurer who landed on death row and was ultimately executed, mothers everywhere dubbed their own little drama queens Susan in such great numbers that the name stood at #2 in popularity from 1957 through 1960.
The popularity of the name held during the first half of the 1960s, but its last stand in the top 10 came in 1967. That was the year Hayward played has-been actress Helen Lawson in the deliciously camp Valley of the Dolls. When Patty Duke as up-and-comer Neely O'Hara pulled off Lawson's wig in the unforgettable ladies room scene and tossed it in the toilet, the glamour of naming a girl Susan also went down the drain.
Ten years later — by the time the many Susans were having and naming their own female children in 1977— Susan didn't even appear on the list of the 40 top girls' names.
Today we can, with varying degrees of success, mask our age by using hair color, cosmetic surgery, and other trompe l'oeil tricks, but the name's a dead giveaway. If you're a Susan, you're at least 45 years old. But look at it this way: You're in good company.
PS: Ashley and Emily, Britney and Jennifer, Kimberly and Jessica, be warned: Your day will come.