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The ‘It’ Girl Who Became a Baby-Naming Expert

Linda Rosenkrantz in the June 1968 issue of New York Magazine.

Linda Rosenkrantz was an art-world “It” girl when, in the summer of 1965, she started carrying a reel-to-reel tape recorder everywhere she went. She recorded conversations at the beach, during parties, and after S&M hookups. Those tapes turned into her lightning-rod novel Talk in 1968 — the same year that New York Magazine launched, devoting two pages to dueling reviews and a bikini-clad Linda in June of 1968.

On this week’s Sex Lives podcast, Rosenkrantz looks back at her sexually scandalous past; plays never-before-heard audio from the original tapes; and explains her career’s surprising second act. Today, Linda is one of two baby-naming experts behind the thoroughly delightful baby-naming website Nameberry.

This is a partial transcript from New York Magazine’s Sex Lives podcast, edited for clarity and length.

Does it feel like it’s been 50 years?

No. Nothing feels like 50 years! I mean, it’s sort unbelievable that it’s been that long.

The idea came to me very spontaneously. I can still remember exactly where I was standing. I was about to leave for the summer in East Hampton, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to take a tape recorder and just see what happens? So that’s what I did. It was a time where a lot of that kind of thing was going on — sort of nonfiction fiction, and documentary films, and new journalism. I was involved in the art world and several people were painting from photographs, so that [was] sort of akin to what I was thinking of doing.

Chuck Close, the most famous painter of photographs, painted you.

That’s my real claim to fame! After all this time, people still come up to me and say, “Aren’t you a Chuck Close?”

What was your life like then?

I had always had a regular job, a full-time job. I was working for an auction house which became Sotheby’s; it was then Parke-Bernet. I was doing publicity kind of work, and had always written. I was friendly with a lot of artists, never have really been in the literary world with writers. We were sort in the thick of things — at the edge of the thick of things — with Warhol and going to those parties.

So you take a tape recorder to your summer beach rental …

A big, heavy reel-to-reel but they were very clumsy and primitive. I had the house myself, but friends came. The other woman in the book was there most of the summer, and the guy had a house of his own. Originally I was going to do more than just the three of us, there were about 20 people on some of the tapes. And they’re indecipherable because of it! But the two main people were very excited and eager to do it.

It’s really interesting, the different reactions then and now. All the reviews and everything were about the sex and how shocking it was. When it came out in England, a local vicar gave a sermon against it: This shouldn’t have been published, this is so shocking. I thought was funny. And this time when it came out, 50 years later [in a reissued edition from New York Review of Books Classics], nobody mentioned the sex. Post-Girls, post–Broad City, it’s a different world.

I personally got some strong reactions from people. My mother went to a therapist the next day, pretty much. My father treated the book as an object. Never opened it. He showed it to people. My daughter wrote a book, great picture on the back. He never read it. And his friends would say, “Do you really realize what’s in this book?” No.

That’s kind of the way I hope my parents regard New York Magazine when they get it. I don’t need them to actually read what I write about sex.

Right! And I was frightened about what might happen at work because it was a very, very, very straight community. At that time the company had just been taken over by the British company, Sotheby’s. So when Talk finally did came out, much to my surprise, the head of the company asked me if he could buy the original manuscript. So he wasn’t too shocked! He thought it was an important historical document.

The original transcript was like a 1,000 or 1,500 single-spaced pages, and it took a year for me to edit it down. It took a year to transcribe, with the terrible machinery, and then another year to shape it into the book that it became.

You’ve also enjoyed my favorite second act in a career. Years later, you became the proprietor of a very popular baby-naming website.

Yes. I had always been fascinated by names. From early childhood, I made lists and wrote stories just so that I could name the characters. And then I met a woman who was equally fascinated with names. At the time she was an editor at Glamour magazine, Pamela Redmond Satran, and I proposed an article on names. It wasn’t even baby names, it was just names. And she looked at it and she said, “This should be a book. Why don’t we do it together?” And so we became partners. We wrote ten books, and those books became the database for this big website, Nameberry.com.

What is it like to know that you have some influence in this critical moment of a parent’s life and a child’s life, naming?

You know, people have said that we sort of revolutionize baby naming. Before our first book came out, which was called Beyond Jennifer and Jason, the only books available were like dictionaries. But these were highly opinionated books, categorizing trends and things like that. And it really seems to have changed the way people thought about names. At that time, people were just picking classic names. I think now you know it’s swung so far in the other direction.

The arms race of baby names!

But I think it’s a real accomplishment. I’m really proud of it.

The ‘It’ Girl Who Became a Baby-Naming Expert