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 (who, along with Tenzing Norgay, became the first person to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain, Mt. Everest, in 1953) and told reporters she had been named after the famed mountain climber. The notion that Ms. Clinton's given name was inspired by the man who conquered Everest was almost certainly a bit of fiction invented for political expediency (as many critics have noted, Edmund Hillary didn't become world-famous until six years after Hillary Rodham was born), but there are some subtleties to this claim which should be considered:
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 a household name 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 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 doesn'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 it 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 does 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 since then refers to that single 1995 account. 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 never mentioned it at any other time, before or since?
Moreover, none of the many Hillary Clinton biographies we checked 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 is rather incredible. (The only other mention of Hillary Clinton's connection to Edmund Hillary was made by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, in his 2004 autobiography.)
We opined back in 2003 that Hillary Clinton's claim about being Edmund Hillary's namesake might not have been completely false since 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 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 rather incredible. 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 unknowingly presented the fictitious story as true in his own autobiography, did her mother finally confess that the "sweet family story" she told her daughter wasn't the truth. (Hillary Clinton doesn't have the excuse that other people 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 for a special occasion back in 1995, and even if it really was a "sweet family story" Dorothy Rodham told her daughter Hillary many years ago, the latter has almost certainly known for quite a long time that it was just a story.