Food

Colonel Pleasures

A new Lifetime “mini-movie” gets one thing right about the KFC founder: his horniness.

Side-by-side photos of Colonel Sanders, in his usual goateed glory, and Mario Lopez, portraying a dashing Colonel for Lifetime's upcoming movie.
The Colonel and his latest portrayer, Mario Lopez. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bettmann/Getty Images and Lifetime.

Louisville, Kentucky’s Cave Hill Cemetery is a bona fide tourist attraction and a national landmark. Dedicated in 1848, it boasts more than 120,000 interments that include the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers, paupers and bourbon barons alike. There are more than 600 varieties of trees on the grounds, tended by an army of 40 gardeners, as well as a wedding chapel where couples say “till death do us part” quite literally surrounded by Victorian-era tombstones. Cave Hill also hosts the final resting places of Muhammad Ali, “Happy Birthday” songwriter Mildred J. Hill, and the person who is arguably more synonymous with Kentucky than anyone in history: Colonel Harland Sanders.*

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Back in 2015, while reporting a book on the social history of American fast food, I made a deep-fried pilgrimage to the Colonel’s grave, where sojourners are known to sometimes leave KFC Original Recipe drumsticks as tribute. The trek isn’t a simple one. The Sanders plot, nestled among the 300 winding acres and million-dollar mausoleums, is nearly impossible to find. I’d gotten lost among Kentucky’s historic dead when I ran into Bobby, one of Cave Hill’s guards.

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“One of my first jobs was working with Colonel Sanders,” Bobby explained when I told him whose crypt I was after. “Did a commercial with him. I tell you what, he was a cantankerous old man.” In addition to world-famous fried chicken, Sanders’ reputation for profanity is legend. In fact, he once traveled all the way to a church convention in Australia hoping that religion would cure him of his lifelong case of the swears. Bobby could attest to not only the Colonel’s passion for blue words, but also his passion for, well, something else. “He liked to cuss and he liked the girls,” he added. “So he was very heterosexual. Nice man. By the time we got him he was almost 80. He was a good man. But he liked those two things.”

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Hearing this disclosure in a cemetery took me by surprise. But like his 11-herb-and-spice chicken recipe, the Colonel, who died 40 years ago this week, contained multitudes. And his fondness for “the girls” is the focus of a strange wrinkle in a year that we all thought had seen enough strange wrinkles. Of course, I’m talking about A Recipe for Seduction, an unexpected bit of sponsored content from Kentucky Fried Chicken and Lifetime debuting on Dec. 13. Billed as a holiday mini-movie, it will star ageless hunk Mario Lopez as the Colonel, who, according to a trailer, has an irresistible secret recipe. Given the biography of the real Harland Sanders, this romantic, melodramatic portrayal may not be the out-of-nowhere left turn that it seems: The Colonel had a history of adultery and womanizing and behavior that would most likely be seen as harassment today, but was then merely a reputation of unrepentant horndoggery.

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Lopez is only the latest celebrity to take on the role of Colonel—everyone from Jason Alexander and Rob Lowe to Reba McEntire and Ray Liotta has played the founder—but in a few senses, his might be the truest version of the Colonel we’ve ever seen.

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Back in 2010, KFC commissioned a survey that caused the company a startle: Less than 40 percent of respondents in the 18-to-25 demographic knew that Sanders had been a living, swearing person and not a fictional mascot like Betty Crocker. Reintroducing the Colonel and branding him as “The Original Celebrity Chef” represented a strategic imperative for KFC, especially in the time before foodie became a tiresome cuss word of its own. After all, Colonel Sanders had once been the second most recognizable person in the world, according to a 1976 survey. And his showman’s shtick—the white planter suit, black string tie, and amiable patter—had resonated across generations. “I didn’t realize what people thought of him,” comedian Darrell Hammond, who was the first Sanders impersonator in KFC’s ongoing campaign, told me in 2015. “And an interesting part about him is that when I was out filming the commercials in California and we’d be taking a break on set and the people walking by yelling out ‘Hey Colonel’ were not all one culture. All the cultures. That’s an interesting guy—sort of like Johnny Cash, a real cross-culture kind of appeal.”

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It’s impossible to know where A Recipe for Seduction will take us (and Lifetime refuses to answer my many emails), but if the trailer is any indication, it’s a somewhat true-to-life original tale. The story of Sanders arriving “with his secret fried chicken recipe and a dream,” as the Lifetime synopsis offers, is in fact the reason that Kentucky Fried Chicken became a household name the world over. In spite of all his eventual fame, the actual Colonel Sanders lived most of his life in relative obscurity. After decades of thin-margin living and a career that featured dozens of professions and countless failures, Sanders found himself broke at 65 after learning that the new Interstate Highway System would bypass the Sanders Café, his popular roadside institution in Corbin, Kentucky. Faced with the choice between coasting through retirement on $100 Social Security checks or pursuing his lifelong dream of success, Sanders hit the road.

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After selling his café at a loss, Sanders drove around the Midwest, appearing in the doorway of countless restaurants. He would charm his way into demo-ing his specialty dish for mom-and-pop operators and diner owners. And yes, his secret recipe stirred such ecstasy that hundreds of them would sign handshake deals with Sanders to serve fried chicken using his increasingly famous method at a royalty rate of a nickel per chicken. Eventually, there would be Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise stores and corporate shareholders, and Sanders began appearing on television commercials and variety shows, where his old-style charm offered a contrast to the social tumult of the time and rocketed him to celebrity.

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But through it all, Sanders was still a sixth grade dropout who knew how to cook and liked to cuss as much as he liked to pursue women. And the fact that he spent nearly 40 years in a difficult marriage to a woman named Josephine King apparently didn’t stem his appetites. “Josephine bore him three children,” the late Josh Ozersky noted in his excellent biography, Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, “but seems to have been little interested in lovemaking after that—an especially unfortunate circumstance given Sanders’ passionate and hot-blooded nature. He found his pleasures elsewhere.”

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Even as sexual harassment remains a major issue across the fast-food world and restaurant industry writ large, it’s hard to imagine Sanders wouldn’t have been ousted from the business for his behavior if it occurred today. In a 1999 interview, Sanders’ biographer John Ed Pearce offered up this remembrance: “A woman at the Chamber of Commerce told me that every time Harland came in, why, she had to beat his hands off of her,” Pearce explained. “And she told him, ‘Harland, get your hands off me. I got all I need at home.’ ”

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William Whitworth, a reporter for the New Yorker, embedded with Sanders in 1970 and observed the Colonel while greeting a crowd of adoring women. “He knocks them dead with his flattery,” Whitworth writes, “but if you get close enough to him in a crowd you can hear him muttering a running commentary to himself: ‘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.’ ”

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Margaret Sanders, Sanders’ own daughter, would later weigh in on her father’s sated and unsated desires in a 1996 biography. “Mother refused to accept that she alone could not satisfy Father’s physical needs, which from the very beginning of their marriage had seemed excessive to her,” she wrote. “Father nevertheless had a libido which required a healthy, willing partner,” Margaret wrote.

As Margaret Sanders explained, “He found one in young Claudia,” referring to the Colonel’s mistress Claudia Ledington, a waitress at the Sanders Café. The Colonel would eventually divorce Josephine and marry Ledington, who became an instrumental part of the budding KFC operation from helping with everything from high-level business decisions to donning period attire beside the Colonel. After Sanders sold his empire in 1964, he was sued by KFC for opening a competing chicken restaurant called the Colonel’s Lady. He agreed to change the name and, to this day, the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Kentucky, does very brisk business.

It’s hard to find, but Claudia’s plot is beside Sanders’ at Cave Hill Cemetery with a headstone depicting her for eternity as “Truly ‘The Colonel’s Lady’ and co-worker in his enterprises.” It’s not exactly a perfect love story, but it’s certainly one worthy of a Lifetime movie.

Correction, Dec. 11, 2020: This article originally misspelled Muhammad Ali’s first name.

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