Did Bette Davis Really Coin The Term "Oscar"? The Nickname Has A Few Origin Stories
If anyone can do the contentious tale of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford justice, it is certainly Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in Ryan Murphy's newest anthology series, Feud. When it debuts on Sunday, March 5 on FX, the series will go behind the scenes of the stars' lives as they rose from their glory days and had to deal with the cruel consequences that were (and still are) thrust upon aging women in Hollywood. Over the course of their careers, many rumors circulated about the actors, and one particularly interesting tidbit that remains is the belief that Bette Davis coined the term Oscar for an Academy Award.
The idea doesn't seem so far-fetched, does it? It seems very likely that this celebrity powerhouse could have been the one to name the coveted golden statue. In a video released by the Academy in 2015, which you can watch below, historian Robert Osborne explains the name's three different origin stories and says that all they know for sure is that the name was introduced around 1935.
Davis comes into play because she is believed to have named the award "Oscar" because its bum reminded her of her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson, when she caught a look at him coming out of the shower in the morning. Other versions of the story don't include the shower origins, but still have Davis calling the statue Oscar after Nelson. Personally, I hope the shower part is true, because that would make this one of the greatest origin stories of all time.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Davis and Nelson are actually responsible for the award's nickname. As Osborne explains and as has been reported elsewhere, Sidney Skolsky, a well-known Hollywood columnist at the time, had been publishing articles using the name "Oscar" for the Academy Award since at least 1934. In his book, Don't Get Me Wrong - I Love Hollywood Skolsky confirmed what Osborne says in the video, that his use of the name was inspired by an old vaudeville joke. As quoted by Mental Floss, he wrote:
"It was my first Academy Awards night when I gave the gold statuette a name. I wasn’t trying to make it legitimate. The snobbery of that particular Academy Award annoyed me. I wanted to make the gold statuette human ...
You know how people can rub you the wrong way. The word was a crowd of people. I’d show them, acting so high and mighty about their prize. I’d give it a name. A name that would erase their phony dignity. I needed the magic name fast. But fast! I remembered the vaudeville shows I’d seen. The comedians having fun with the orchestra leader in the pit would say, “Will you have a cigar, Oscar?” The orchestra leader reached for it; the comedians backed away, making a comical remark. The audience laughed at Oscar. I started hitting the keys."
The final contender for the claim to the "Oscar" name is Academy librarian Margaret Herrick, who according to the Oscars' website, is rumored to have said that the statue looked like her Uncle Oscar when she first saw it. Along with Skolsky's articles, this seems to be the most widely accepted origins of Oscar, with Davis' story being treated as more of a rumor or urban legend, but not the actual basis of the name.
Of course, this name story isn't Davis' only connection to the Oscars. She received the Oscar for Best Actress in 1936 and 1939 for her roles in Dangerous and Jezebel, and was nominated 11 times throughout her career. Whether she originated or popularized the nickname, Davis has plenty of Academy Awards history to be proud of. And as Feud will show, she became just as much of an icon as that golden statue.