If there are two things in this world that I love most, it would have to be history and pop culture. Seriously, ask any of my former students about how I “ruined” all of their favorite history-based films in class because I kept pointing out all the historical inaccuracies or kept stopping the movie to talk about the parallels with the film and the influences it was taking from history. I am constantly finding television shows and movies taking their influences from history, and why not? History is chock-full of great stories to tell or set in eras that are drastically different from our current way of life.
Take AMC channel’s hit show Mad Men, the drama set in the 1960’s about the cut-throat industry of advertising. It takes its own particular influence from that era in regards to the exuberant lifestyles some of these men lived, the dating of famous beautiful women and (of course making cigarettes cool again). Unless people actually lived in those times (and I wish I had because the 1960s were just rife with all kinds of cultural mega-hits, from the music, the political movements, and the social movements), you wouldn’t think that a show like Mad Men was really that historically sound… that is until I came across one of Kentucky’s very own “mad men” to make me reconsider.
Ask any person born after 1985 who John Y. Brown, Jr. was and they would probably stare at you blankly. Ask that same person to name what multi-million dollar restaurant chain was founded in Kentucky and they will immediately exclaim “Kentucky Fried Chicken!” Chances are that this person (unless they are extremely well-versed in Kentucky political history) will not know that these two are linked. I myself admit that I had not known who John Y. Brown, Jr. was or his contributions to the one of the most recognizable Kentucky institutions or to the state (yes I was born in 1985).
When I was assigned to audit our collections for Kentucky governors and provide item descriptions for the oral histories contained in them, this was going to mean reading transcripts of the interviews. At first thought “ugh!” came to mind. However, this all changed with the John Y. Brown collection. The transcripts of this man’s life read almost like a story arc for the Mad Men show. This man vas a virtual rock star of the business world before shocking everyone in Kentucky politics by throwing his hat into the gubernatorial race in 1979. Let’s go down the list of Brown’s “Mad Men” credentials:
• Become a criminal lawyer and be involved in ten murder cases… check.
• Married to a former Miss America (Phyllis George)…check.
• Part owner of sports teams ,including the Boston Celtics and the Kentucky Colonels (an American Basketball Association team that existed in the commonwealth before the 1976 merger of the ABA with the NBA, which saw the Colonels become collateral damage)… You got it.
• Buying a little known restaurant franchise called Kentucky Fried Chicken for $2 million and turning it into a global , multi-million dollar chain ( and selling it for over $200 million later in life)… yup.
• Become governor of a state… did it.
* As a side note, just reading Brown’s recollections on the dealings with Col. Sanders and his business team alone warrant an episode of Mad Men.
And this is all leading up to his run as the 51st governor of Kentucky, which in itself was an interesting administration because of Brown’s business-like running of the government, meaning less influence on the state legislature (a tactic not seen much in Kentucky politics up until that point.)
Discovering these types of characters in a historical context is fascinating because it exemplifies influence of a time gone by that people who are fans of these period shows can relate to. It is easy to say that the stories in the movies and television are better than anything that happens in real-life, but I would be quick to suggest a trip to the historical society and dig up some stories on people of the past. You may find something far more entertaining.
Editorial Note: The John Y. Brown Collection is currently in the digitization process, so be sure to look for it in our Digital Collections in the upcoming days!
-- Tommy Grant
Images: Image 1- Governor John Y. Brown (1979-1983) of Fayette Co., Museum Collection donated by the Ky Department of the Arts, 1988.4.2
Image 2- "Sanders Court & Cafe- Corbin, KY", postcard of the famous Sanders Court & Cafe where Harland Sanders first sold his famous chicken recipe. From the Roland Morgan Kentucky Postcard Collection, Graphic5.Box3.186