What's in a Name: Florida and More
Roads, cities, towns, and landmarks are often named after famous people. Occasionally, it's the other way around.
Florida, like every other place inhabited under the sun, is a land in which many names exist. Names of people who were born, who lived, who died. Names of places that have come and gone or still remain. Names of prominence and names of obscurity. Some names are silly like, Two Egg, a small unincorporated community in Jackson County; or a place called Dogtown in Gadsden, County. Other names are overly descriptive such as Rattlesnake Bend and Fluffy Landing, two places that exist on a map, and if each name implies what it says, then Florida really is the land of extremes.
Many places in Florida are named after people. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, named after the infamous military and political leader in France, was Florida’s governor from 1905 to 1909. Despite controversy surrounding the Everglades drainage project and the fact that he was an avowed segregationist, he somehow managed to have an entire county named in his honor. Whereas Osceola County was named after the Seminole Tribe leader, Osceola, which also means “Black Drink Cry.” And the list goes on.
Florida, originally named La Florida or La Pascua Florida, got its name from Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León upon arrival in 1513. Some historians believe he chose the name in honor of Easter Sunday, often called La Pascua de las Flores, or the festival of flowers. While others credit the lush vegetation and flowers as the reason for its name.
But this isn’t a story about Florida places named after famous, or even infamous, people. This is a story about a person who took on a new name, perhaps even an amplified identity, with origins in a south-central Florida city. Unfortunately, it ended in tragedy.
Just northwest of Palm Beach County and south of Orlando is a city called Sebring, located in Highlands County. Like many places in these parts of Florida, warm sunshine and low cost of living attract retires and those, perhaps, who seek out a quiet and peaceful life. According to locals, Sebring isn’t all that fun for younger people but a few “hidden gems” exist. The mall is reportedly empty, the bowling alley burned down, and Walmart is the de facto shopping district. Sebring is laid back, but lacking in excitement. The city is average, as one local explains.
But within the city’s perimeter, a race track, Sebring International Raceway, established in 1950, and North America‘s oldest permanent road racing facility. Since 1952, this 3.74-mile racing circuit has hosted the legendary 12-hour endurance classic and was the site of the first ever FIA World Championship Sports Car Race in 1953. Fast cars and fast times, drivers and spectators alike gathered in droves for racing events at the Sebring International Raceway. Even Formula 1, the highest class of international racing for open-wheel single-seater formula racing cars, arrived in Sebring in 1959. Unfortunately, the racing series didn't stay long and left the following year.
As most of us who follow sports and celebrity culture know, these are two worlds often intertwined. If it be speed or danger or the thrill of competition, celebrity and Hollywood types are frequently pictured alongside sports stars and in attendance at major sporting events. The same could be said for the Sebring International Raceway. Well known people such as Jim Morrison, James Garner and Steve Jobs attended the 12-hour race and entertainers Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Jackie Cooper, Gene Hackman, Lorenzo Lamas, James Brolin and David Carradine have driven in the race.
Now, there are many fans who take motorsport very, very seriously — whether it be the cars, the drivers, the raceways, or the events — racing enthusiasts love just about everything having to do with cars and racing. Racing fans are loyal — some even obsessed — and the inspiration runs deep.
Sometime in the late 1950s, after fighting in the Korean War, a young man by the name of Thomas Kummer moved to Los Angelas, graduated from beauty school, and opened a hair salon for men on Fairfax Avenue. The hours were long and money troubles repeatedly began to mount. But it was the dawn of the 60s, the beginning of a new era with revolutionary ideas and cultural movements. In a way, it was also a period of personal and professional revolution for Kummer — adopting a new and innovative approach to men’s hair — emerging as a game changer through exciting styling techniques and a price tag to match. He also took on a new name, and arguably, a chance to make it big in Hollywood and beyond.
According to reports, this is when it all started to shift: Kummer was dating a Hollywood actress, Barbara Luna, who brought in a famous friend for a haircut. Enamored with the shampoo, cut and style, he handed the young stylist a $100 bill. Soon word spread and Kummer was introduced to celebrities like Frank Sinatra, He was charging clients $50 for his services, when other barbers charged, at most, $2. But Kummer needed a new name, Luna reportedly told him, a name with more glamour and greater energy.
It would have to be Sebring, which brings us to the Florida connection. Kummer’s fascination with cars, and by extension, the raceway in Florida, or rather the name of the raceway, inspired his new name, legally changing it to Jay Sebring, and, soon after, this man and his new name became the mogul behind Jay Sebring Salon franchises. His client list included Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Sammy Davis Jr., Kirk Douglas, Jim Morrison, and others.
If you happened to watch the movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you would’ve seen Sebring (played by the actor Emile Hirsch) on screen, often accompanying his good friend and ex-girlfriend Sharon Tate. In the movie, it ends with Sebring’s character striking up a conversation, ending the film on a high note, and a“what might’ve been” scenario. But the real story is different. Much different.
He was murdered August 9, 1969, trying to protect his friend, Sharon, from members of the Manson Family.
His famous last name and legacy in the men’s hair industry remains.
Author’s Notes: This was a much shorter story than what I typically write, but I thought it interesting as well as the connection to a small city in Florida. I also wasn’t interested in focusing on the Manson part of the story. I’d love to hear your comments. Did you know about Jay Sebring and the reason behind the name change? I didn’t. Not until recently.
THE NEIGHBORLY FLORIDA is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.