John Train Is An Outrageous Name-Dropper, Who'll Introduce You to Katz Meow or Iva Odor
John Train is the pin-striped president of his own investment counseling firm and an insatiable collector of curiosities—particularly the peculiar names that people inflict on their children. He began recording unusual names and events in tiny black diaries years ago at Harvard when he came across a Mr. Katz Meow in an issue of Colliers. Now, at 51, Train (and Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.) has published two slim volumes titled Remarkable Names of Real People and Even More Remarkable Names, introducing the reader to the likes of Cheatham & Steele (bankers), Drs. Fealy and Zoltan Ovary (gynecologists), I.M. Zamost (lawyer), Wong Bong Fong of Hong Kong, Zilpher Spittle, T. Hee, Iva Odor and Ure A. Pigg (restaurateur).
"The free-form nutty name is the one indigenous American art form," Train observes. "Having a strange name is like having a funny face or a stutter. It strengthens a person's character for good or evil." Train finds the Bible Belt the happiest hunting ground for his oddities. At the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Jacksonville, Fla. alone, he found twins named A.C. and D.C, Bigamy and Larceny, Curly and Early, and Pete and Repeat. As obsessed with accuracy as he is with words, Train insists that all names be verified before he commits them to print.
Train is also responsible for a third book, called True Remarkable Occurrences, which reports, among others, the sorry case of Moses Alexander, aged 93, who married Frances Tompkins, age 105, on June 11, 1831. They were both taken out of bed—dead—the following morning. Or the astonishing story of Vera Czermak of Prague, who jumped out of her third-story window when she learned her husband had been unfaithful. As it happened, she survived, having landed on a passerby who was killed. The passerby was her husband. "I don't know why I am a collector," Train muses. "My ambition was to write fairy stories, which are to me the highest form of art. But the best occurrences are like little morality plays."
A friend, New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, teases that Train was known from the cradle as Johnny Choo-Choo. John sniffs, "That's better than being called Stinky or Itch." His Scottish ancestors found their way to New England in 1640. His grandfather was a partner with J.P. Morgan, and his father, Arthur, was a successful attorney who preferred writing fiction. (He created the rebellious Yankee lawyer Ephraim Tutt in a famous Saturday Evening Post series.) John was born in Manhattan three blocks from his current address. After being properly educated at Groton and Harvard—he finished with an M.A. in comparative literature—he left for France. There in 1953 he became the first managing editor of the Paris Review literary quarterly. Several years later he was lured into the world of high finance by mutual fund mogul Imrie de Vegh and then encouraged to found his own firm. Since 1959 he has presided over Train, Smith Counsel, which specializes in family portfolio management ("We're very cool to big corporate money").
Train's literary interests are not entirely whimsical. He writes a fortnightly investment column for Forbes and has published two books on finance, Dance of the Money Bees and The Money Masters. "He is a man of many categories," says George Plimpton, Paris Review's present editor. Indeed, he skips stones, flies kites, chases New York car thieves when he sees them, speaks six languages and quotes Horace with equal agility.
Train shares a Lilliputian-size pied-à-terre in Manhattan, a weekend retreat in upstate New York and a chateau in France with his second wife, Frances Cheston, age 53 ("a delicious woman"). In spite of his predilection, none of the offspring of his first marriage (which ended in divorce) is saddled with an insufferable name. There are no Immaculate Conceptions, Phoebee Bee-bees or Ima Hoggs. Instead, his three daughters (aged 13 to 17) were christened Helen, Nina and Lisa. "I'm a traditionalist," Train says. "I don't think one should be too innovative in matters of names and morals."
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