Colonel Sanders and His Lady: He Cooks, She Cleans the Pots
According to the title of a new little autobiography by the octogenarian Kentucky colonel, Harland Sanders, Life as I Have Known It Is Finger Lickin’ Good. But of course the book doesn’t quite mention all the deep fat under the dam before his life got so tasty.
The colonel was divorced at 57, wiped out at 65 when a new interstate bypassed his Kentucky crossroads gas station and cafe. But along the way Sanders was remarried to one of his former waitresses, Claudia Ledington, and that made a difference. “I always hired widows with children.” he recalls, “because they had to work and didn’t have any foolishness about them.” Claudia, too, was a grass widow and, like the colonel, combined sufficient earnestness with appropriate marketing foolishness to turn the chicken biz into a barrel of billions.
It was in 1955—backed by his first $105 social security check, his mother’s recipe and a patent-pending special pressure cooker—that Colonel and Mrs. Sanders got into their 1946 Ford and into the consulting-cum-franchising business, teaching roadhouses how to straighten up and fry right. “Claudia and me got up sort of an act,” he says. “We’d go into a franchise place, and she’d wear the old-time dress, the hoop skirt you know, and I’d be in my colonel outfit. She’d serve the chicken, and when I was done in the kitchen I’d come out and mingle with the guests.” Seven years later the Sanderses sold their Kentucky Fried Chicken “secret formula” and slogans to a Louisville-based syndicate for $2 million, which was in turn absorbed by Heublein, Inc. in 1971 for $285 million.
The colonel still continued to do TV spots and serve as goodwill ambassador for the chain, earning him up to $250,000 a year. But to Sanders the deal was no buy-out annuity—at 84 he still travels a quarter of a million miles a year on behalf of the worldwide, 5,300 outlet empire which bears his name. Last winter when he and Claudia, now in her 70s, were talking about establishing a new chain of the Colonel’s Lady Dinner Houses—with sitdown dinners of ham and lobster as well as chicken—the Sanderses accused Heublein of obstructing their new business and demanded $122 million damages.
It now all seems like a mutual misunderstanding. Harland and Claudia have since sold their gabled southern manse and the adjoining and original Colonel’s Lady restaurant in Shelbyville, Ky. and moved 25 miles to suburban Louisville. There, in a simple eight-room brick house the Sanderses—between business trips—are more immersed these days in entertaining their 17 grandchildren and great-grandchildren by their first marriages.
When they are home the colonel is the chef, kibbitzing even as Claudia makes tea (“When’s your seven minutes up, honey?” he keeps reminding). His whole 15-suit wardrobe is Kentucky-colonel whites—in winter and summer weights—partially because it is convenient when he has to wipe flour off his hands. “But I’m the pot washer,” says Claudia, an old-fashioned spouse. “The colonel can mess up 100 things as he goes.” Retorts Sanders, bemusedly: “If she washes one pot, she thinks she’s a dishwasher.”
Their occasional cooking and visits from the grandchildren are about the Sanders’ only sidelines except TV—their favorites are All in the Family and Sanford and Son. They worked too hard over the years to develop any other hobbies. Claudia once ran a restaurant herself and a weight-reducing salon in Miami. Harland was a sixth-grade dropout who took a correspondence course in law and claims to have been over the years a volunteer in Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, a midwife and a railroad man. The colonel, politically and ideologically, is eclectic. Originally an FDR Democrat, he was supposedly being considered by George Wallace as a running mate in 1968. Yet he has donated $500,000 to establish a Harland Sanders Center for Lincoln Studies at Tennessee’s Lincoln Memorial University.
At times he seems to sense his mortality, having commissioned a portrait by Norman Rockwell and a graveyard monument by his sculptress daughter Margaret Huenegardt. As for his many benefactions, the colonel says, “There’s no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery. You can’t do any business from there.” None of which is to suggest that the colonel is through—”I’ve got no idea when I am going to retire,” he says. “Whenever they pick me up and take me to the funeral home, I guess.”