7 Things You Didn't Know About the Real Colonel Sanders As KFC's ad campaign brings the Colonel back from the dead, it ignores some of Sanders' complexities that made him so interesting.
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Did you know the real Colonel Sanders once tried to sue KFC?
The chicken chain's recent marketing campaign has brought Colonel Sanders back to American television screens, embodied first by Darrell Hammond and now by Norm Macdonald. The move has been controversial: any over-the-top portrayal of a real human by a celebrity is going to rub some people the wrong way. (And yes, Colonel Sanders was indeed a real human; a study referenced in the 2012 book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream showed that less than 40 percent of Americans aged 19 to 25 were aware of that.)
However, KFC's biggest misstep has been the sanitization of the Colonel. As our own Ray Hennessey wrote, "The new Colonel is a caricature, carefully choreographed by the company and its creative hired hands. Instead of resurrecting the Colonel to lead KFC's sales back to their former fried glory, the company has instead unleashed a childish pantomime that people old enough to remember Colonel Sanders don't like and people too young to know him can't possibly understand."
KFC has been eager to celebrate kitschy parts of the Colonel's history, while ignoring more complex attributes that made him both successful and dangerous to the brand while alive. Here are a few of the most interesting facts about Colonel Sanders that many people don't know – including a few that KFC probably would rather gloss over.
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1. For most of his life, he was a terrible businessman.
Most customers probably don't realize that the Colonel only became a successful restaurateur after failed careers as a lawyer, insurance salesman, lamp salesman and tire salesman. Sanders often made unwise business gambles and had a habit of getting into fights that resulted in being fired – something that suited him as a self-employed entrepreneur, but that was less ideal as a company spokesperson later in life.
2. He once shot someone for his brand.
What Sanders lacked in business skills, he more than made up for in passion. When Sanders painted a large sign pointing potential customers from the highway toward his gas station in Corbin, Ky. (it would eventually expand into Sander's first cafe), he enraged the owner of a competing gas station, Matt Stewart. Stewart painted over Sanders' sign, leading to Sanders threatening to "blow [his] goddamn head off" and repainting the sign himself.
When Sanders discovered Stewart once again painting over the sign, he and two Shell officials ran to catch him red handed, heavily armed. In the resulting gun fight, the Shell manager was killed and Sanders shot Stewart in the shoulder. KFC currently has a purposefully poorly acted reenactment of the fight that gave Sanders complete control over the gas station market in the area after his competition was sent to jail for murder.
3. He cheated on his wife (a lot).
While KFC loves certain quirky details about Sanders personal life, one of the facts KFC chooses not to highlight is his relationship with women, especially his two wives. Sanders married his first wife, Josephine, at the young age of 19. According to Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, his second wife's nephew said Josephine wasn't interested in a sexual relationship after giving birth to three children. So, Sanders "found what he needed to find in other places."
One outlet for Sanders' sexual energies was Claudia Ledington, a former waitress at Sanders' first restaurant, Sanders Cafe. Claudia and Sanders wed in 1949, after an ongoing affair and two years after his divorce with Josephine. It would be Claudia that would support Sanders in transforming KFC from a restaurant with a good chicken recipe to a national brand.
Throughout his life, Sanders was notoriously licentious. Sanders' biographer, John Ed Pearce, recalls a woman at the Chamber of Commerce saying that whenever the Colonel came in she had to beat his hands off of her. A 1970 New Yorker article quotes him observing crowds of housewives seeking autographs saying: "Umm, that gal's let herself go… Look at the size of that one… I don't know when I've seen so many fat ones… Lord, look at 'em waddle." In short, if the Colonel was alive today, it wouldn't be shocking to see his name come up in the Ashley Madison leak.
4. He's not a military colonel.
If you're not from Kentucky, you may have assumed that Sanders served as a military leader at some point in his long life. In fact, he was a Kentucky colonel, a title of honor awarded by the state of Kentucky. Sanders became a colonel in 1935 as the founder and owner of the gas station-adjacent restaurant Sanders Cafe, but misplaced his certificate, receiving his second colonelship in 1949.
In the 1950s, Sanders began marketing himself as a southern gentleman and Kentucky colonel, dying his beard white, crafting a string tie and donning his iconic white suit. As he franchised his concept starting in the '50s, selling the recipe for his Kentucky fried chicken to restaurants across the U.S., this identity as a Kentucky colonel linked Sanders to a southern ideal that lent the Indiana-born man an air of legitimacy.
5. He only made $2 million selling KFC.
After KFC went from a single cafe to a franchised concept, Sanders sold the business in 1964, feeling out of his league at the age of 75 as the chain rapidly grew. The $2 million, plus an ongoing salary to remain the face of the brand wasn't a terrible deal. However, after the company's profitable IPO, in which shareholders made millions, Sanders began to feel as though he got the short end of the stick.
At the company's first franchisee convention after the IPO, Sanders took the stage and spent 40 minutes railing against management. He claimed executives were thinking only about the short-term and ruining his reputation. While he failed to win over the franchisees and went on to continue his duties as a spokesperson, it seems a part of him remained convinced he had been tricked into giving up his business.
6. He tried to sue KFC for $122 million.
After KFC was sold to Heublein in 1971, Sanders' appetite for disruption grew. When the chain denied him the right to open an antebellum-themed restaurant selling Original Recipe chicken, Sanders sued the company for $122 million. He eventually settled out of court for $1 million and a promise that the Colonel would stop embarrassing the company. Sanders did not keep up his end of the bargain.
7. According to him, KFC doesn't use the famous secret original recipe of 11 herbs and spices.
While very few people in the world know exactly what is in Colonel Sanders' mix of 11 secret herbs and spices, we do know that the Colonel said many times in his life that KFC stopped using his recipe. As KFC is intensely protective of the recipe, it is a difficult matter to fact check. The chain reports that it keeps Colonel Sanders' handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices safely locked away in a vault, utilizing two suppliers to preserve that secrecy of the ingredients.
Whether or not the Colonel's original recipe is in use today, it is clear that Sanders was dismissive of KFC's menu in his final years. In 1970, the New Yorker quoted him saying the company's new gravy recipe "ain't fit for my dogs." While the chain turned business around and reportedly improved food quality in the '80s under new leadership, Sanders' wasn't around to see it. He died on Dec. 16, 1980, at the age of 90.