This merkin life

After John Kelly published his comprehensive post on merkin in 2015, I assumed there could be little left to say about those pubic hairpieces with the quaint name. (You should read the whole post, but here’s the etymological gist: from Matilda to the diminutive Maud to the secondary diminutive Mal to the third-degree diminutive Malkin to the variant merkin.) Yet recent developments suggest that we are far from finished with merkin, or it with us.

Merkins in the news

On March 17, 2022, the word merkin appeared not once but twice in the pages of the New York Times. One appearance was in Penelope Green’s vivid obituary for Annie Flanders, née Marcia Weinraub, the founding editor of Details. Flanders once described Details as a magazine “for fun-loving people,” and if you were a fun-loving person in 1980s Manhattan it helped to have a merkin on hand, so to speak:

The photographer Marcus Leatherdale made veiled portraits of demimonde luminaries for a column called Hidden Identities: the performance artist Leigh Bowery in a beaded mask, a corset and a merkin (it was a challenge, Mr. Leatherdale said, to flag down a taxi for him afterward); Keith Haring dressed as a raffish Santa Claus; and Andy Warhol posing with a bust of Caligula, his face buried in his hands, though his spiky platinum wig and Rolex watch were clearly visible.

Elsewhere in the Times on St. Patrick’s Day, Alexis Soloski’s story about the new HBO Max series “Minx”—set in 1970s Los Angeles and loosely based on the real stories behind a couple of trailblazing erotic magazines for women—included this furry flash:

Part of the work of the pilot is to introduce Joyce to the world of Doug’s Bottom Dollar Publications and the content it produces. Some of this is achieved when Joyce walks into the office for the first time to see a woman wearing nothing but chaps. (And a merkin.) 

Centuries ago, a bald pubis was often an indication of disease or infestation, and thus a source of shame to be cosmetically remedied. Today, hairless mounds on adult women are regarded as desirable and fashionable, to be achieved at considerable cost and pain, so merkins must be employed to replicate the natural look so proudly preferred just a few decades ago.

For more on “Minx,” see my March 22, 2022, blog post.

Merkins in business

For a certain strain of saucy entrepreneur—in, say, the alcoholic-beverages industry—“Merkin” in a business name strikes the perfect balance between tradition and impudence. See, for example, Merkin Vineyards in Arizona, which was founded by rock-and-roller Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer) and which has had a US trademark registration since 2005. (There’s no explanation of the name in the trademark filing. Perhaps the trademark examiner thought Merkin was the owner’s surname. For more on that topic, keep reading.) You can buy stickers with a winery logo:

The Merkin Vineyards logo, a parody of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, sports a grape-shaped merkin.

Elsewhere, and unrelated to the winery, the Firestone Walker Brewery in Paso Robles, California, produces a Velvet Merkin stout that has “robust cocoa and espresso aromas with subtle American hops nuances,” as well as Molé Merkin, “a milk stout with a twist.”

Velvet Merkin stout.

I also found trademark records for the defunct Merkin Records in Baltimore, which appears to have been active in the 1990s; and for the eponymic M.J. Merkin Paint Company, whose earliest trademarks are from 1947. (Again, keep reading to learn about the Merkin surname.)

Merkins in art

In 2019 the Las Vegas–based artist Diane Bush created a political art project with the wonderful title “Make a Merkin Great Again.” Not only is the artist’s surname Bush, but her husband’s is Baskin. Vulva-centric, kin-suffixed concepts must come naturally to this household.

Here’s the undated project description from Bush’s website:

Starting in August of 2019, I began to prepare for my usual pre-election satire project, by creating “MAKE A MERKIN GREAT AGAIN”.  Merkins are genital wigs that are used for stage and screen, but originally,  as early as the 1400s, they were used to beautify a pubic area that was shaved to prevent lice. Anyway, I was already spinning (by hand) my cat’s fur, and I knew I wanted to use it for a satirical piece. My husband, the ever- so- clever Steven Baskin, came up with the concept.  Now I just have to make 25, one for each sexual harassment accuser that Trump has abused over the years. I came up with the idea of putting them in Veteran Flag Frames, for an added touch of irony.  I hope to make one huge square of them for a show in October.  I also created a soft version for easy shipping, and that version went all the way to Bilbao Spain, as part of their annual EXPERIMENTAL ARTS FESTIVAL (MEM) . Since then, the soft version (there are 2) have been in several American shows and museum presentations, as well.

The cat fur is an especially apt touch. (Read more about pussy.)

Diane Bush with art merkins.
Two cat-fur merkins from Diane Bush’s “Make a Merkin Great Again” art project.

An entity called Poison Brewing in Missoula, Montana, received trademark registration for its own MAKE A MERKIN GREAT AGAIN! slogan in February 2022, but I have yet to find the company online or to figure out what it intends to do with the slogan.

“Make a Merkin Great Again” appears to have had multiple parents. You can find the slogan on merchandise sold on Amazon, eBay, Teepublic, and elsewhere.

“Make a Merkin Great Again” cap, via Etsy

A few words about capital-M Merkin

You may know the name Merkin only as a joke, as it was in Dr. Strangelove, when one of the characters played by Peter Sellers was the (bald) President Merkin Muffley. But in fact Merkin has an interesting and distinguished onomastic history that ought to be a source of pride. (Onomastics is the study of names of all sorts.) It’s one of a handful of Russian-Jewish surnames that derive from feminine first names—in this case Miriam or Mira. (Merkin sometimes appears as Mirkin.) Other matronymics, as they’re called, include Rivkin, from Rivka/Rebecca; Dvorkin, from Dvora/Deborah; and Malkin, from Malka (Hebrew for “queen”) rather than from Matilda/Maud as noted above.

Most Ashkenazi Jews didn’t have surnames until Napoleonic-era laws compelled them to. The linguist and Jewish-names specialist Alexander Beider, in a 2019 article for Forward, summarizes a couple of theories to explain the matronymics, one of which is that in the Russian Empire “Jewish women occupied important commercial roles. Many Jewish men were craftsmen who worked at home, but the women often could be found trading in little shops or in the market place. Certain women were better known to the inhabitants of a locality than were their husbands.”

Perhaps the most famous living Merkins, in the United States anyway, are the author and critic Daphne Merkin and her brother J. Ezra Merkin, the investor and hedge fund manager who got caught up in the Bernard Madoff scandal of 2008. Speaking of “scandal,” the French filmmaker Jacques Scandelari (1943–1999) made gay pornographic movies under the pseudonym Marvin Merkins; his most famous work in that genre is New York City Inferno (1978), which featured a soundtrack by the Village People.

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