Among my friends and followers I am notorious for my library–as much for the quirkiness of its contents as for its size. I have, for instance, a section of old sex manuals, including a gem from the 1930s called “Sex Without Fear,” which has a dust jacket of the same sort of brown paper of which grocery bags are made. It has a companion volume called “Sex After Forty.” As I’m still only thirty-eight I haven’t bothered reading that one yet.
Since I’m a sponge for pop culture it should not be surprising that I have a large collection of celebrity biographies and autobiographies. Wayne Newton’s “Once Before I Go?” Got it. Desi Arnaz’s “A Book?” Got it. “The Confessions of St. Augustine?” Got it. But the capstone of the celebrity bio collection, the jewel in the crown, is the autobiography of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders: “Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good.”
I was a child of the ’60s and ’70s and was enchanted by the image of Colonel Sanders–equal parts kindly grandfather and Southern seigneur. When I was ten I thought I wanted to look like the Colonel when I got old, which probably speaks volumes about what kind of a child I was.
I had heard copies of the book were being sold at KFC restaurants, but whenever I went into one and asked if they had any copies I was met with slack-jawed confusion by both staff and management. As it was, it took me about twenty years to track this baby down, when someone finally sold a copy to the used bookstore where I worked.
Interestingly enough, around the same time I acquired the book, there was a minor boom in Sanders-related news in the media. He was the subject of a tell-all biography that revealed, among other things, that for years he dressed his secretary (and future second wife) in frumpy clothes that made her look old and unattractive, so his first wife wouldn’t suspect that the two were having an affair. And an A&E “Biography” revealed that in the years before he founded KFC Sanders was a bad-tempered, foul-mouthed hell-raiser who often resolved business problems with a shotgun.
“Finger Lickin’ Good” was published by an obscure religious press. On the front cover is a photo of Sanders reading to a racially diverse group of children, while sitting in front of a Christmas tree. The back cover shows Sanders, in his trademark white suit and string tie, and holding a cane, alongside his second wife, “Miss Claudia.”
The pictures inside are just as priceless. Here’s the Colonel with Jerry Lewis, with Dionne Warwick, with Lawrence Welk. Here he is in Moscow, in his office, standing next to his Rolls Royce with the KFC logo painted on the door. And here he is with Jerry Falwell, getting baptized in the River Jordan, and wearing a yarmulke at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
My copy is worn, with a cracked binding, and had once been in the library of a small town Baptist church. I looked up “Finger Lickin’ Good” recently on bibliofind.com and discovered that most of the copies they had for sale were ex-library editions, which makes me wonder just what the hell all those librarians were thinking thirty years ago.
The first thing that strikes you upon starting the book is that it’s written in hokey dialect, like a third-rate imitation of Joel Chandler Harris. There’s lots of “dadgummits,” “daggones,” “don’tcha sees,” and “workin,’” “cussin,’” and, well, “lickin.’” Apparently the ghostwriter thought it’d be a cute device.
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 in Indiana, the eldest of three children. His father died when he was young. When he was ten he got his first job, clearing a farmer’s land for $2 and board a month. But he spent his first month mostly watching the birds, squirrels, and butterflies and only managed to clear one acre. The farmer fired him and his mother gave him a tongue-lashing, but the experience seemed to be a pivotal one for him, as he made the resolution, “If I ever get a job again, nothing will ever keep me from finishin’ what I’m called on to do.”
Sanders did not apparently consider school a job or a calling, as he dropped out in the sixth grade and took a job as a farm hand. When he was sixteen he worked for four months in Cuba as a mule-handler for the Army. When he returned to the U.S. he got a job on the railroad and eventually worked his way up to locomotive fireman, a position that obviously involved a lot of traveling.
Sanders married Josephine King and started a family, but after his boss fired him for insubordination while he was on a trip, Josie stopped writing him letters. He then learned that Josie had left him, given away all their furniture and household goods, and taken the kids back to her parents’s home. Josie’s brother wrote Sanders a letter saying, “She had no business marryin’ a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job.”
Sanders went to Jasper, Alabama, where the Kings lived, and hid in the woods near his in-law’s house, planning to kidnap his children when they came out to play. When the kids failed to come outside, Sanders came out of the woods and talked with his father-in-law on the porch, then went inside and made peace with his wife.
He stayed with his wife for thirty-nine more years, but privately he never forgave her for leaving him the first time he had a setback, so after the children had grown up and the grandchildren started arriving, he divorced her.
After serving awhile as a railroad section hand, Sanders worked as an amateur lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas, trying minor cases like claims and garnishes. He moved to Kentucky, started his brother in business as a barber, worked some more for the railroad, and then became an insurance salesman. He put in time as the secretary for a small town Chamber of Commerce, bought shares in a ferryboat company, and then worked as a tire salesman.
One thing that comes through in this book is that though Sanders never seemed to stay in any one career field for very long, he was always on the look-out for new opportunities, and most of the time was clever enough to know how best to profit from them.
One day Sanders was driving his car across a rickety board bridge when a support cable snapped, sending him and his car plunging forty-two feet into a gorge. After a few minutes, Sanders climbed out of the wreckage, his scalp split open. Motorists and by-standers up on the road called down, told him not to move, and said they’d get a doctor. Sanders responded with a string of obscenities and said they were to get a doctor only when he said so. He then smoothed a loose and bloody hunk of scalp back onto his head and plastered it over with mud to control the bleeding. A few days later he finished his regular sales route by riding the bus and hitchhiking to get to his clients.
One of the men he met while hitch-hiking was an executive with Standard Oil, so Sanders soon found himself the proprietor of a gas station. He opened early, closed late, and offered lots of free extra services, but went out of business when the Depression and a drought hit. Then Shell Oil offered to build Sanders a station in Corbin, Kentucky on US 25, at a major crossroads that Northern travelers always passed through on their way to Asheville, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.
Sanders had signs for his gas station painted on barns all up and down the highway. When competitors painted over the signs, Sanders went to their stations carrying a shotgun, and dared them to try it again. Around the same time he helped a local bootlegger escape from revenuers by switching the marked money they’d tried to trap the man with. Later, with the assistance of that same bootlegger, he helped break up a ring of thieves that were robbing area gas stations.
Sanders became active in charity work for churches, orphanages, and Alcoholics Anonymous, but admits in his book that in those days he was by no means a godly man.
In the meantime Sanders took up another sideline, as an amateur obstetrician, delivering the babies of poor mountain folk. The tools of his trade were a lard bucket, a pair of shears, a roll of gauze, and some Vaseline, but fortunately Sanders does not go into any more detail about how he used these things.
Sanders added a restaurant and a motel to one side of his gas station, opened a bricklaying school, built an airport, and built another motel in Asheville. Before the Asheville motel was completed, however, the Corbin motel was severely damaged in a fire. He concluded, “You can sleep a man only once in twenty-four hours, but you can feed him three times.” So he cleaned up the rubble and instead of rebuilding the motel, he built a larger restaurant. And when he was able to buy the gas station across the road from his, which had a better location and visibility, he built an even bigger restaurant there.
Sanders became active in the National Restaurant Association, serving as one of its directors. Food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders’s restaurant incognito and was so impressed he listed the place in “Adventures in Good Eating,” his famous guide to restaurants throughout the U.S. Also during this time Sanders made an unsuccessful run for the Kentucky State Senate.
In the 1950s Interstate Route 75 was constructed, replacing US 25 as the main north-south route in Sanders’s part of the country. As a result, Sanders lost almost all his business and was forced to sell his holdings at auction. At the age of sixty-five, Sanders had only his Social Security to live on.
Sanders remembered that diners in his restaurant had always liked his fried chicken. He had perfected the recipe with a special blend of herbs and spices, and prepared the chicken in a pressure cooker. He decided to franchise this recipe and pitched it first to Pete Harman, a restaurateur friend from Salt Lake City. Sanders prepared a sample meal at one of Harman’s restaurant. Harman was impressed and agreed to try the recipe on a trial basis, while Sanders and his wife went off to Australia for a church convention.
When Sanders returned to the U.S., he swung through Salt Lake City. Harman had a huge sign in front of his restaurant saying, “Kentucky Fried Chicken–Something New, Something Different.” Harman said the recipe was so successful he wanted to serve Kentucky Fried Chicken in all of his restaurants.
Sanders used his National Restaurant Association connections and came up with a list of prospective franchisees. He and his second wife Claudia would drive around the country, with pressure cookers and packets of herbs and spices, and do cooking demonstrations for the restaurant owners. At first he couldn’t afford an office building, so he bought a house and ran the business out of it. If he learned a franchisee wasn’t doing things the KFC way, Sanders would personally go to the restaurant and remove all equipment, spices, and anything else related to the company, usually after telling the franchisee off.
Sanders had been made an honorary Kentucky Colonel in 1935, so he decided to capitalize on that image. He grew a moustache and goatee and took to carrying a cane and wearing a white suit at public appearances. Claudia he costumed in an ante-bellum-style dress.
The Kentucky Colonel outfit soon became one of the most recognized images in advertising. Wherever Sanders went, his appearance attracted attention. This was especially invaluable in the early days of KFC when the Colonel had no advertising budget.
Still, the Colonel had lost none of his cussedness. In the book Sanders tells of a time he and Claudia stopped at a restaurant for breakfast. He told the waitress his eggs were undercooked. She took them away and returned shortly thereafter. Sanders could tell the cook hadn’t cooked the eggs any further, but had merely flipped them over on the plate.
An angry Sanders stormed back into the kitchen, caught the cook smoking a cigarette, called him a son of a bitch, and threw the raw eggs at the cook’s chest. The cook reached for a knife, Sanders grabbed a stool. The fight spilled out into the dining room, with the Colonel dividing his attention between keeping the cook at bay on the one hand, and apologizing to the other diners on the other. Eventually the cook gave up and went back into the kitchen, and Sanders slipped out of the restaurant with a mortified Claudia.
In 1963, attorney John Y. Brown, Jr. and businessman Jack Massey persuaded Sanders to sell them Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel was to receive $2 million, an annual salary of $40,000, residuals from commercials, and a lifetime job as KFC’s goodwill ambassador.
Sanders declined to take any shares in the company. He didn’t trust the stock market and didn’t want to have to pay income tax on the entire $2 million. As a result, when the deal was finalized, certain longtime employees, including some secretaries, took advantage of their KFC stock options and became wealthier than the Colonel himself.
Sanders disliked the way big corporations operated, including the one he’d founded, but he tried not to worry about it too much and concentrated instead on his charity work. Brown and Massey eventually merged KFC with the Heublein food and beverage corporation, an organization that expanded the business all over the world.
Like a pharaoh, Sanders had his tomb constructed before his death and often went to the cemetery in Louisville to admire it. There is a row of classical columns, like the portico of a Southern plantation house, and underneath them stands a large block of marble with a bronze bust of the Colonel atop it. In front of all this is a flat marble slab inscribed to the memory of “Colonel Harland Sanders, Founder Of Kentucky Fried Chicken Empire” and “Claudia Ellen Sanders, Truly ‘The Colonel’s Lady’ And Co-Worker In His Enterprises.”
But wealth, charity work, and a membership in the Hall of Fame of the poultry industry were not enough for Harland Sanders. He was worried about his soul. He believed in God and tried to be good to his fellow man, but he was afraid his foul mouth would keep him out of heaven. Finally, in 1969, at the age of seventy-nine, he accepted Christ and prayed that God would help him stop cursing.
In 1973 Sanders felt ill and checked into a hospital, where it was discovered he had a polyp on his colon. The doctors were afraid the polyp was an indication of cancer. Sanders’s minister, the Reverend Waymon Rodgers, came by to visit and prayed with him about his case. The next day tests showed the polyp had disappeared and the Colonel was pronounced cured. And there the book ends, with the chicken tycoon closing his life story while reflecting on his colon and mortality.
Harland Sanders died in 1980. Since then a generation has grown up with little or no knowledge as to who Colonel Sanders was. At least one KFC commercial was made with an actor playing the Colonel’s ghost, and then there was a series of appalling commercials with the Colonel portrayed as a rapping, hip-hop dancing cartoon figure, voiced by Randy Quaid. Several years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the company that makes its money by frying chicken in the Kentucky manner, decided its name was a liability, since people these days know that fried food is unhealthy. So they changed their name officially to “KFC,” the nickname by which they’d been known for years, and hoped that the millions of people who patronize them wouldn’t notice their food is fried. I can only imagine the old man is spinning in his grave.