This column appeared in the June 28, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
With the world’s eyes on Louisville for the funeral of Muhammad Ali, many called the champion boxer the most famous person in the world, at least for a portion of his life.
Measuring fame is tricky, but there is widespread agreement that Ali surpassed all others in his heyday. What other Kentuckians could claim the title of “most famous” during their lifetimes, and who actually holds the distinction now that Ali is gone? An obvious place to start is politics where Kentucky has produced its share of outsized celebrities, according to Kentucky state historian Dr. James Klotter.
“In Henry Clay’s era, the politicians were treated like rock stars. When Clay spoke once, over 100,000 turned out to see him and perhaps hear him,” Klotter said of the 19th century statesmen, who served in the U.S. House and Senate, was nominated for president three times, and crafted the Great Compromise of 1850. “In his era,” Klotter says, “Clay was the best known figure.”
Klotter, a professor of history at Georgetown College, offers other Kentuckians from that time: Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor, famous for exploits in the Mexican War before winning The White House; and John C. Breckinridge, who by age 40 had been state representative, U.S. representative, the youngest ever Vice President, and a presidential candidate in 1860.
One issue to consider is measuring momentary fame versus lasting societal impact, a point raised by history professor Melissa McEuen of Transylvania University.
“If we take Ali’s commitment to civil rights as the basis for his legacy and use it as the framework…I think immediately of Anne Braden, Georgia Davis Powers, George Clooney, A. B. ‘Happy’ Chandler, Wendell Berry, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, and Abraham Lincoln. Other Kentuckians may have enjoyed greater fame in their lifetimes—such as Floyd Collins, whose cave entrapment stoked sensationalist stories in print and on radio in the 1920’s—but the accomplishments of these individuals are significant and long-lasting: persistent challenges to racial segregation, poverty, environmental abuses, and slavery, to name just a few,” McEuen says.
McEuen highlights Lexington’s Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, “the great-granddaughter of Henry Clay and Kentucky’s foremost Progressive Era reformer. Breckinridge worked to improve public education, to create a juvenile justice system, to generate better health care (especially tuberculosis treatment), and to secure suffrage for women. As an officer of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Breckinridge traveled widely and spoke in support of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. She saw it ratified in her lifetime and cast her vote in the 1920 election, a few weeks before she died.” Check out McEuen’s Kentucky Women: Their Lives and Times for more.
In 1784, frontiersman Daniel Boone became a household name with the publishing of a ghost-written autobiography called The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke . . . to Which is Added an Appendix, Containing the Adventures of Col. Daniel Boon, written by John Filson, Kentucky’s first historian and well-known in his own right.
At the turn of the 20th century, “Kentucky writers had 5 of 10 places on the 1903 best-seller list, and Annie Fellows Johnston’s Little Colonel series, set in Pewee Valley, became a staple for a generation of young readers,” according to Klotter, proving the power of books to propel a name. Just ask authors Sue Grafton, whose popular “alphabet series” of crime novels is read by millions, or “gonzo journalist” and fellow Louisvillian Hunter S. Thompson.
Advancing to the 20th and 21st centuries, Klotter posits three more politicians: Louisa’s Fred Vinson (U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice from 1946-53 who began to break down racial segregation), Paducah’s Alben Barkley (U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Vice President from 1949-53), and Louisville’s Mitch McConnell, the current Senate Majority Leader.
“At the 1949 inaugural, Kentuckian Vinson swears in Truman, whose grandparents had Kentucky ties, and Justice Stanley Reed from Kentucky gives the oath to Vice President Barkley, of Paducah,” Klotter says.
In the 20th century, several sports, entertainment and business personalities emerged. Baseball Hall of Famers Earle Combs (a New York Yankee from Owsley County) and “Pee Wee” Reese (the Brooklyn Dodger from Louisville who embraced Jackie Robinson) were household names. Adolph Rupp, John Calipari, and Rick Pitino became world-famous basketball coaches here, but none were Bluegrass born. Several internationally known musicians arose from Kentucky—Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, and The Judds top the list.
Three Kentuckians are world-famous food wizards, but only one was born here: Duncan Hines, the Bowling Green native known first for travel food writing and then for baking products that bear his name to this day. Colonel Harland Sanders (Kentucky Fried Chicken) and “Papa” John Schnatter (pizza) were born in Indiana but their names and brands are synonymous with Kentucky. Colonel Sanders became a world-famous mascot for KFC after he sold it in 1965, and was the second-most recognized celebrity in 1976 (Ali was number one).
The highly influential “inventor of Hollywood” hails from Oldham County. D.W. Griffith directed the groundbreaking Birth of a Nation in 1916 and “transformed movie making,” according to Klotter. And Hollywood today may hold the most famous living Kentuckian, likely one of Jennifer Lawrence (Louisville), Tom Cruise (not native but lived in Louisville), Johnny Depp (Owensboro), or George Clooney (Lexington). An honorable mention goes to television journalist Diane Sawyer.
Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this article contains several hyperlinked citations. Thanks to Kentucky state historian James Klotter, Professor Melissa McEuen, and the staff of the Kentucky Historical Society for insights.