Have you heard the life story of Colonel Sanders? It’s taken root in the muddy internet backwater where only inspirational anecdotes tend to flourish.
In the past couple weeks, variations on the tale have materialized in an Osaka Craigslist posting, a YouTube clip designed like one of those Facebook videos you watch without sound while you’re on the toilet, and the Facebook page of former candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Dr. Ben Carson. I came to it through LinkedIn, my personal junction with the web’s dregs.
"At age 5 his Father died," begins the story. "At age 16 he quit school. At age 17 he had already lost four jobs. At age 18 he got married. He joined the army and washed out there. At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby. He became a cook in a small cafe and convinced his wife to return home. At age 65 he retired. He felt like a failure & decided to commit suicide. He sat writing his will, but instead, he wrote what he would have accomplished with his life & thought about how good of a cook he was. So he borrowed $87 fried up some chicken using his recipe, went door to door to sell. At age 88 Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Empire was a billionaire."
Beneath the LinkedIn item is a discolored photo of a smiling Colonel Sanders holding a bucket of chicken, his portrait emblazoned onto its red and white cardboard. And beneath the image are comments. "Sometimes you have to fail to figure out what works," responds one commenter. Says another, "Inspirational."
Each retelling differs, tweaked to appeal to a specific motivation-hungry audience. A longer version on Facebook, for instance, includes more provocative details like "At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby daughter [...] He failed in an attempt to kidnap his own daughter, and eventually he convinced his wife to return home." and "On the 1st day of retirement he received a cheque from the Government for $105. He felt that the Government was saying that he couldn’t provide for himself."
What the retellings share is an indifference to the truth, a puzzling eagernesses to exchange unbelievable facts for mundane and simplified melodramatic plot. For example, much of the text appears to be a streamlined version of a story about Colonel Sander’s plot to kidnap his daughter, found on a Jehovahs-witness.com, and attributed to a Los Angeles Times syndicated article — that oddly doesn’t appear in the paper’s online archive.
Many other avenues can be taken to learn the extravagant truth of the Colonel’s life. In 1970, the New Yorker profiled Colonel Sanders — or as author William Whitworth describes him, "a perfectionist in an imperfect world" — still alive and approaching eighty. Whitworth recounts how Sanders became a cook as a child in his mother’s regular absence, then shuffled between the life of a farmer, streetcar conductor, soldier, railroad fireman, lawyer, insurance salesman, steamboat operator, secretary, lighting manufacturer, and a number of other jobs, including hotel owner and restaurateur. Sanders didn’t lose jobs, it would appear, so much as he bored of them.
"A Kentucky Renaissance man"
Sanders first built an identity on fried chicken while running a service station with his mistress, who following his divorce would become his second wife — a point made in one of Sanders’ autobiographies. And depending on who you believe, he received his honorary Colonel title sometime in the 1930s or 1950s from the Kentucky governor.
Sanders didn’t retire at the age of 65. That’s when he sold his first restaurant, and began developing the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in earnest. Nearly 60-years-old, he would spend days at a restaurant, peddling his chicken technique, cooking for customers, and often sleeping in the back of his car. At 73, he sold KFC for $2 million. He was not a billionaire, but he lived in comfort for the remainder of his years.
The New Yorker piece, and much writing of the time on Sanders, never mentions a kidnapping plot. Though a variation of the event appears, oddly, in the Colonel’s 1974 autobiography, Life as I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good. According to a Thought Catalog synopsis of the book, Colonel Sanders was a servant of God, with a nasty mouth and a willingness to be pummel a man with a chair. He claimed the power of prayer healed his colon polyp. All of which is to say, Sanders' life begs to be described, like a Mark Twain character, with many pauses for comic detail — a leisurely style that doesn't mesh with an optimized social media post.
Sanders invited J. Edgar Hoover to his 80th birthday
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about the boring, false inspirational life anecdotes, which aren't limited to this chef, is how readily available the real story often is. Between the profiles, biographies, and Sander’s own writing, his life story is quite literally an open book. With one exception, that is.
In January 1968, the Colonel invited then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to celebrate his 80th birthday "I do believe us [old] folks can show those young people what celebratin’s [sic] all about." Sanders had previously written to J. Edgar Hoover in 1960 to compliment his handling of the "San Francisco riots," presumably the "Black Friday" protests, a demonstration against the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. He had expressed confidence the work of Hoover, who at this point was facing pushback from younger politicians, including presidential nominee Richard Nixon.
Included in FBI’s file is background on the fast food mogul: "Colonel Harland F. Sanders has not been the subject of an FBI investigation," begins the report. The sentence is followed by two paragraphs of text redacted by long strips of black ink.
That’s the story worth sharing.