Hillary vs. Hillary

Claim:   Hillary Clinton was named after famed mountain climber Sir Edmund Hillary.



[The Houston Chronicle, 1995]

Taking a weekend break from official duties on her Asian tour, the first lady escaped already-remote Katmandu and traveled two hours by prop plane, land rover and rowboat to the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge.

Later, she got to meet Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to reach Mount Everest's summit in 1953.

Sir Edmund Hillary, a frequent visitor and benefactor of Nepal since his historic trek, had a brief Hillary-to-Hillary handshake at the Katmandu airport before Clinton departed Sunday for Bangladesh.

The first lady said her mother had read about the famous climber and knew his name had two L's.

"So when I was born, she called me Hillary and she always told me, 'It's because of Sir Edmund Hillary,'" Hillary Clinton reported.1

[The New York Times, 1995]

For her part, Mrs. Clinton confessed that her mother, Dorothy Rodham, had read an article about the intrepid Edmund Hillary, a one-time beekeeper who had taken to mountain climbing, when she was pregnant with her daughter in 1947 and liked the name.

"It had two l's, which is how she thought she was supposed to spell Hillary," Mrs. Clinton told reporters after the brief meeting on the tarmac, minutes before her Air Force jet flew past the peak of Everest itself. "So when I was born, she called me Hillary, and she always told me it's because of Sir Edmund Hillary."2

Origins:   During a stop in Nepal while on a south Asian goodwill tour in April 1995, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton engaged in a brief (and reportedly coincidental) meeting with Sir Edmund Hillary, the famed mountain climber who (along with Tenzing Norgay) became the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, the Himalayan peak on the Nepal-Tibet border that is the highest point on Earth, in 1953. On that occasion the First Lady told reporters that she had in fact been named after the man who conquered Everest — a claim that was greeted with a good deal of skepticism in some quarters and was almost certainly a bit of fiction invented for political expediency.

Although critics at the time dismissed the claim entirely based on the fact that Edmund Hillary didn't become a household name in the U.S. (for successfully scaling Mt. Everest) until six years after Hillary Rodham was born, there were some subtleties to the issue that are worth recapitulating:
  • Hillary Clinton said her mother, Dorothy Rodham, "had read an article about the intrepid Edmund Hillary, a one-time beekeeper who had taken to mountain climbing, when she was pregnant in 1947 and liked the name." Although it is true that Edmund Hillary did not perform the feat that made him famous throughout the English-speaking world until 1953 (by which time Hillary Rodham was already six years old), it is not true, as many skeptics have asserted, that Edmund Hillary was nothing more than an obscure Auckland beekeeper until then. Even before World War II he was already a serious mountain climber who had boasted to a friend that "some day I'm going to climb Everest," and by 1947 he was honing the necessary skills on the peaks of the Southern Alps. It's certainly possible young Edmund was profiled in some periodical as far back in 1947.

    However, how likely was Dorothy Rodham, a Chicago housewife, to have seen an article about a New Zealand mountain climber? We performed a comprehensive search of several major American newspapers (including the Chicago Tribune) and found that none of them made any mention of Edmund Hillary whatsoever prior to June 1953, so it's fair to say that the American media paid him little note prior to his successful assault on Mt. Everest that year.
  • Whether or not Dorothy Rodham might have come across mention of Edmund Hillary in 1947, the story about her daughter's name didn't quite jibe with the circumstances. Depending upon how one interprets Hillary Clinton's claim, either seeing Edmund Hillary's name in print inspired her mother to name her 'Hillary' (even though she came across its being used a surname rather than a first name), or it inspired her to use the less-common spelling of 'Hillary' rather than 'Hilary' when naming her daughter. However, 'Hilary' (spelled with one 'l') was a common woman's name which Dorothy Rodham would undoubtedly already have seen and heard hundreds of times before reading about Edmund Hillary, and the two-l spelling, while less common, was one she was far more likely to have encountered reading about persons (both male and female) much more prominent than Edmund Hillary in 1947, such as film actress Hillary Brooke and Cornell football and basketball star Hillary Chollet.
  • The tidbit of information that Hillary Clinton was named for Edmund Hillary did not appear in any news stories about the First Lady written prior to her 1995 south Asian tour, and every appearance of it in news articles after that referred to referenced that one occasion. If Hillary Clinton thought an anecdote about the origins of her name was entertaining enough to repeat to the press when she met Sir Edmund Hillary in 1995, how come she had never mentioned it before in any of her numerous prior interviews and profiles?

    Moreover, none of the many Hillary Clinton biographies so much as mentioned the story, not even Living History, her 2003 autobiography. A staggering amount of information has been published about Hillary Rodham Clinton in her lifetime (going all the way back to her days as a Wellesley College graduate in 1969, when she was featured in Life magazine); that she disclosed a basic fact such as how she got her name only once in all that time was rather incredible. (The only other mention of Hillary Clinton's putative connection to Edmund Hillary was made by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, in his 2004 autobiography.)
We opined when we first published this article back in 2003 that Hillary Clinton's claim about being Edmund Hillary's namesake might not have been completely false in the sense that she didn't say she was actually named for the mountain climber, but rather that her mother told her she was named for him — a minor but important distinction given how often parents either make up harmless little fibs to amuse their children or misremember past events. Indeed, in October 2006 this was the excuse a spokesperson for her campaign provided in officially discounting the story:
For more than a decade, one piece of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's informal biography has been that she was named for Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Mount Everest. The story was even recounted in Bill Clinton's autobiography.

But yesterday, Mrs. Clinton's campaign said she was not named for Sir Edmund after all.

"It was a sweet family story her mother shared to inspire greatness in her daughter, to great results I might add," said Jennifer Hanley, a spokeswoman for the campaign. 3
We still find this explanation extremely unlikely. In order to accept it, one has to believe that only after Hillary Clinton was nearly 60 years old, and only
after she had been pilloried in the press for more than ten years for claiming she had been named after someone who was virtually unknown in the U.S. at the time of her birth, and only after her husband had presented the fictitious story as true in his own autobiography, did Dorothy Rodham finally confess (or Hillary finally admit) that the "sweet family story" she once told her daughter wasn't the truth. (Hillary Clinton didn't have the excuse that it was other people who were spreading a falsehood about her, as she herself was the one who initiated the claim back in 1995.)

As we noted back in 2003, this story was likely a little white lie concocted to curry favor with the public for a special occasion back in 1995, and even if it really was a "sweet family story" Dorothy Rodham told had her daughter Hillary many years earlier, the latter had almost certainly known for quite a long time that it was just a story.

Last updated:   18 March 2015


    Clinton, Bill.   My Life.
    New York: Knopf, 2004.   ISBN 0-375-41457-6.

    Clinton, Hillary.   Living History.
    New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.   ISBN 0-743-22224-5.

    3.   Hakim, Danny.   "Hillary, Not as in the Mount Everest Guy."
The New York Times.   17 October 2006   (p. B5).

    Milton, Joyce.   The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
    New York: Perennial Publishers, 2000.   ISBN 0-688-17772-7.

    2.   Purdum, Todd S.   "Hillary Clinton Meets Man Who Gave Her 2 L's."
    The New York Times.   3 April 1995   (p. A6).

    Radcliffe, Donnie.   Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady for Our Time.
    New York: Warner Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-446-51766-6.

    The [Wellington] Evening Post.   "Hillary Meets Hillary."
      3 April 1995   (p. 1).

    The [Glasgow] Herald.   "Hillary Has Summit with Namesake."
      3 April 1995   (p. 6).

    1.   The Houston Chronicle.   "First Lady Has Safari, Meeting of Two Hillarys."
      3 April 1995   (p. A6).