What kind of name is Garance Franke-Ruta?
This is the mother of all FAQs in my life. I have been asked some version of this question, along with certain by now utterly predictable follow-up questions, virtually every week for literally as long as I can remember. During intense reporting jags, I can be asked this question several times a day, and, at cocktail parties, sometimes several times in a single hour. And so, in a bid to reduce the lifetime frequency with which this question is asked, I present the entire story, in as much detail as I can find, along with answers to the most frequently asked follow-up questions.
The first name is French, and the last name is German-Italian.
So you’re French?
No. I was born in Cavaillon, pop. 25,000, in Provence. But I’m not French. My parents were there for the summer, living in the impossibly beautiful village perche Lacoste, pop. 417, a small 11th c. town known chiefly for its panoramic views, narrow calade stone streets, and the fact that the Marquis de Sade took up residence in a chateau overlooking it in 1771 when things got too hot for him in Paris. My family lived there for a few months, renting a house from an elderly World War I veteran farmer, until he needed the house back to store potatoes.
The river Durance runs through the Vaucluse, and I was named Garance in honor of that sound and the main character in Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, one of the classics of French cinema. The character, played by Arletty, uses Garance as a stage name, though her real name in the movie is Claire Reine.
Garance is also a color, a kind of vibrant red known as rose madder, derived from the roots of a plant in the coffee family that was grown for centuries in the Vaucluse area. The Garance dye was frequently used in the production of military uniforms. It gave the British Redcoats their bright red and was used by the French before the advent of modern military uniforms. Indeed, the French infantry were easily identified by their red slacks, and known as “les pantalons garance.”
In the French Revolutionary calendar adopted in 1793 and used for 13 years, the 23rd of Brumaire is Garance.
According to Insee, the French research agency, 2,395 people have been named Garance in France since 1940. Because few women were given the name before 1971, with rare exceptions, all Garances are 35 years old or younger, and 88.9 percent of them agree, “J’aime beaucoup mon prÃ©nom.”
I suspect I might have a lot in common with some of the other Garances.
O.K., that’s a lot of data. So, what, are you German, then?
No. My father, Peter Ruta, was born in Dresden and I am, like a quarter of white Americans, ancestrally mainly German. But my father’s family left Germany in 1923 for Italy, and he grew up in Liguria, before coming to the States in 1936.
And isn’t Ruta an Italian name?
Yes. I am third-generation Franke-Ruta, a name that started out as my grandfather Max Walther Franke’s dateline when he was working as a journalist in Ruta, Italy. When he lived in Milan, he was briefly Walther Franke-Miland, but he became Walther Franke-Ruta on an ongoing basis in 1933. As an anti-Fascist German, he wanted to distance himself from his German origins (lot of good that did him), and as a writer, it was useful to distinguish himself from the many other Frankes in Germany. He wrote books, news articles, and radio plays.
In 2008, the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum Leipzig held a retrospective of my father’s paintings that doubled as the story of the family — part of the city’s ongoing effort to resurrect and reconnect with its pre-Communist and Jewish history.
And that, dear readers, is the whole tangled tale.