Kissin', but Not Cousins, John Y. and Phyllis George Aim to Do Kentucky Up Brown
10/22/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT
It is, far and away, the most skillfully choreographed pas de deux in Kentucky political history. Just as shifts are about to change at the Henry Vogt Machine Co. in Louisville, a gleaming black Oldsmobile crunches up the gravel driveway toward the gate and out vaults the Democratic candidate for governor. Awaiting him, camera crew in tow, is a stunning brunette, her eyes sparkling, lips slightly parted in a warm smile of welcome. He rushes to her, she to him, and in less time than it takes to say "John and Phyllis," there they stand locked in embrace, clutching each other like newlyweds.
Suddenly a whistle shrieks and homeward-bound workers stream out of the factory. John Y. Brown Jr. and Phyllis George disengage themselves and turn their fierce attention to politics. While the cameras roll, accumulating footage for campaign commercials, John Y. wades into the crowd pumping hands, his icy blue eyes sweeping the passersby. A freckle-faced woman collects his autograph, then thrusts the pad at his wife. "You've got the one that counts," says Phyllis with a smile, gracefully deflecting attention back to the candidate. "Oh, I've got to have you both," gushes the woman. "You're our king and queen."
Brown's ambition may not extend to a monarchy, but in every other respect it is boundless. "I operate on only one level—intense," says John Y., the supersalesman who parlayed Col. Sanders' fried chicken recipe into a finger-lickin' fortune. "I was brought up to feel guilty if I wasn't first in everything I tried." Recent polls show him running comfortably ahead of his Republican opponent, former Gov. Louie B. Nunn, and his sights may ultimately be set farther than the governor's mansion in Frankfort. "He wants the White House," a close friend maintains. "They want the White House."
At 45, Brown is a candidate of bankable assets: rugged good looks and robust good health, first-name friendships among the rich and the powerful, a hefty ledger of political IOU's and a personal fortune estimated at $35 million. But his most awesome ammunition is Phyllis, 30, the 1971 Miss America turned TV-celebrity who last St. Patrick's Day became Mrs. Brown. The couple was only four days into a Leeward Islands honeymoon when Brown confessed his yen to be governor. "I told him if that's what he wanted to do, we should go back to Kentucky right away and get started," says Phyllis. So they packed up and took their honeymoon with them, kissing and clinching all over Kentucky. "Up in the mountains there's a kind of rule that you don't touch your woman in public," Phyllis recalls with a giggle. "Well, they looked at us at first like we were real strange. But then they decided it was okay because we were newly married—as long as we didn't get in the haystack."
For Brown, the public billing and cooing may have softened his image as a gem-hard wheeler-dealer. Though he is accustomed to face-to-face salesmanship, his smile seems almost too studied, and his brusque impatience can seem like arrogance. Phyllis, by contrast, seems instantly at home wherever she goes—whether sequin-gowned among the Louisville gentry, or playing the red-booted cheerleader at an up-country hoe-down. "They call me 'Flypaper Phyllis,' " she chuckles, "because I just walk up to anybody and start talking to them about voting for my husband. John has trouble doing that, but he's getting better."
Brown's peculiar ambivalence about electoral politics has roots that trace back to his childhood. His father, a lawyer, was a state legislator who served one term in Congress. But in nine statewide campaigns, for either governor or U.S. senator, he was defeated every time. One legacy of the elder Brown's disappointment was bitter unhappiness and household unrest. Mrs. Brown, a strong-willed state champion in bridge, resented the time and treasure squandered on the fruitless races. John Y. Jr. sometimes cried himself to sleep and still blames his father's humiliation on crooked machine politics and the betrayal of friends. Perhaps as a result of that, John Y. Jr. is not a man who encourages casual intimacy. "Trusting people is as important as loving them," he once remarked. "You've got to be careful."
The only son among five children, John Y. Jr. may have carried a disproportionate share of his father's hopes for the future. As a schoolboy athlete he was more determined than gifted, but won 17 letters in football, swimming and other sports. Father and son remain close—at 79, John Y. Sr. is campaigning actively in his son's behalf—but the relationship has known moments of tension. Once, as a teenager, John Jr. took a summer job peddling vacuum cleaners instead of toiling on a road construction crew with other young football players. When Brown Sr. objected, Brown Jr. exploded. "Someday," young John vowed in tearful frustration, "I won't be known as your son. You'll be known as my father."
Goaded by the paternal criticism, John Y. Jr. averaged $1,000 a month in vacuum-cleaner commissions. After entering the University of Kentucky in 1952, he earned as much as $25,000 a year selling encyclopedias, and in law school he had his own crew of salesmen. Graduating in 1960, he married Eleanor Durall, a coal miner's daughter who had spent hours waiting patiently in the car while Brown flogged his trusty Britannicas in the front parlors of rural Kentucky. "It's amazing," says Brown. "I sold most of my encyclopedias in the mountains, and those people who didn't have the financial means were the most receptive. Selling taught me to talk. To look someone square in the eye. And how to close. A lot of people can sell, but they don't know how to close."
Joining his father's law practice in Lexington, Brown served as state vice-chairman of John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential drive and continued to work in Brown Sr.'s campaigns. It was at a political breakfast in 1963 that he met Col. Harland Sanders, already a local legend, who had developed a new method of frying chicken. Sanders believed in tenderizing the bird in a pressure cooker and mixing in his top-secret herb-and-spice recipe. Over ham, eggs and grits, the Colonel talked John Y. into buying his own Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in conjunction with a Porky Pig barbecue outlet.
Brown's entry into the fast-food business began at the level of greatest humility. Wife Ellie waited on tables and sewed curtains, while John Y. whipped up the chicken himself after his law office had closed for the day. Sanders, at 75, was losing interest in the business side of KFC, while Brown nurtured visions of empire. By 1964, John Y. had raised $2 million to buy Sanders out, though the Colonel was kept on as goodwill ambassador at $40,000 a year. Assembling a team of lean-and-hungry executives, Brown moved KFC out of restaurants and barbecue shops and into the now familiar red-and-white outlets. Though he detested flying, Brown logged some 300,000 air miles a year. By 1970 the chain had grown from 400 stores, with $7 million in annual sales, to a 4,500-franchise international network with sales of almost $1 billion.
Brown wasn't the only one to make his fortune hawking the Colonel's chicken; as many as 100 investors became millionaires. By 1971, however, complacency had begun to set in. With Draconian certitude, Brown summoned all of his top executives to a meeting one morning—and fired them. "It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do," he says, "but they were more concerned about their racehorses and new boats than the business. There was no fear element anymore." In fact, Brown concedes, his own interest was waning as well. He had no time for his three children, and his marriage had begun to deteriorate. "I was 37 years old before I realized how important it was to be happy," he says. That same year, Brown sold KFC to Heublein Inc. for $245 million.
Though he professes to have been bored with money, John Y. couldn't seem to help making more. He paid $4 million for the Lum's restaurant chain and sold it for $9.5 million. When his friend Robert Strauss, then Democratic national chairman, appealed to him to help rescue the party from its $9 million debt, Brown signed up some 150 stars and performers for a series of telethons that raised $19 million.
On the home front, though, the going was rocky. Brown's abortive venture into pro basketball ownership—beginning with the Louisville Colonels in 1973 and ending with the Boston Celtics last spring—contributed to furious arguments with his wife Ellie (who operated the Colonels) and led to their divorce in 1976. At loose ends, Brown began casting around for a challenge. "All my life, sales was something I really liked, but I felt I might do something else to make my life count," he says. "I didn't know what it was, and I didn't think I would marry again." Then, by chance, the night his divorce became final he caught a glimpse of Phyllis on television. "I sure do like her," he announced on the spot. "I think I'll go out with her."
With his connections, getting an introduction was no problem at all. But on their first date two years ago in Los Angeles, Howard Cosell herded them into the Beverly Wilshire lounge for a drink, then Warren Beatty arrived. "I didn't get a chance to say three words to Phyllis all night," moans John Y. "We would have been married two years earlier if it hadn't been for Co-sell." Indeed, it wasn't until last November, after Phyllis' 11-month marriage to Hollywood producer Bob Evans, that Brown caught up with her again in L.A. She had quarreled with a date and was leaving a party when she encountered John Y. on the stairs. "Here was this wonderful man, the kind that mother told me about, and he was interested in me," she says. "I hadn't recognized it before because he was so low-key." Brown proposed to her two months later.
Married by the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, with the admonition to "Go out and serve God together," the Browns say they have learned painful lessons about single-mindedness and living too fast. "We're a lot alike," says Brown. "We're competitive, action-oriented people. We live every day like the Super Bowl." But amid the merciless pace of campaigning, and the promise of campaigns to come, they vow not to be consumed by the drive to succeed. Win or lose, John Y. insists, "Phyllis and I have our priorities in order. Our ambition will not become our masters. We've both been through that, and we won't let it happen again."