The winter holiday season highlights many imaginary celebrities and entourages we’ve come to embrace over the years. From Jolly Old St. Nick – aka Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas- to his tireless corps of elves, steadfastly patient wife, Mrs. Claus, and a herd of flying reindeer, it’s a challenge to find a holiday tale that isn’t full of characters and events that never existed or took place.
But there are many other famous figures we’ve grown up with, some for hundreds of years, that never existed. For better or worse, these imaginary people have been part of our lives, some more fleeting than others that will live on into perpetuity long after we mere mortals have moved on.
In 1889, two guys who ran a milling operation developed the first ready mix for pancakes and named it Aunt Jemima. The next year the company was purchased by R.T. Davis who decided the name needed a face to make it more memorable and hired Nancy Green as his spokeswoman, the lady whose image became synonymous with a full line of pancake mixes that evolved into syrups and ready-made frozen products. Aunt Jemima’s image was updated in 1989 to reflect a modern woman with a modern hairstyle and wearing a lace-collared blouse, and pearl earrings. The mythical Aunt Jemima and her line of popular products continue to thrive under the direction of the Quaker Oats Company.
Most would assume that before a guy is designated a saint that protects travelers, he would be vetted for authenticity and viability before little dashboard statuettes were handed out. No one’s quite sure how the story started but St. Christopher was allegedly a martyr who was murdered by evil emperor Decius in Rome around 300 AD. But a few years ago, some curious Catholic historian started looking into Christopher’s past and discovered not only was he not a martyr, he apparently only existed in the imagination of the Church.
Although technology and the Internet are often blamed for the apparently blossoming gullibility in the masses, people have been easy to trick for centuries. In November 1996, author Martha Sherrill wrote a prank article for Esquire magazine about an up-and-coming model/actress named Allegra Coleman, portrayed by photographs of real actress/model Ali Larter. A follow-up piece detailed a movie project in the works with Woody Allen, a stormy romantic tryst with David Schwimmer and a closeness with Deepak Chopra, none of which had a thread of truth. Although Esquire editor Edward Kosner revealed the hoax to the press, Sherrill eventually wrote a novel featuring the Coleman character, which perpetuated the scam. Larter used the publicity to her advantage and earned roles in a variety of TV shows and movies.
No matter what tragedies befell the world and regardless of the proliferation of evil-doers throughout the universe, the story of a noble, handsome young man and his band of brothers who robbed the rich and gave the bounty to the poor always offered hope that the innate goodness of mankind would always prevail. Alas, there is nary a shred of evidence that Robin Hood and his besties ever existed, much less brazenly stole from the wealthy to ease the woes of the poverty stricken. But it’s a concept worth keeping alive.
One of the most memorable scenes from the blockbuster movie Titanic is Jack Dawson, excellently played by Leonardo DiCaprio, looking out from the ship’s prow declaring, “I’m the king of the world!” The movie has been widely criticized for many of its historical inaccuracies, which director James Cameron dismisses, as the movie never purported to be historically correct. However, to learn that Jack Dawson, as well as Rose DeWitt Bukater, were characters created by Cameron, was disheartening to many. Although there are records of a J. Dawson dying aboard the Titanic, Cameron discovered those documents subsequent to writing the movie screenplay.
When kitchen appliances became more advanced in the early part of the 20th century, women started to barrage milling companies with questions on baking. One of the biggest ones, Washburn Crosby, that later became part of General Mills, decided to create a spokesperson in 1921 to answer questions and provide culinary guidance. Betty Crocker got her last name from a retired company executive and her first name was chosen simply because it sounded “warm and friendly.” When her face was created in 1936, the artist derived it from a composite of all the women in the company’s Home Service Department. Betty became “younger” in 1955, acquired a “professional” persona in 1980, and became more ethnically diverse in 1996 when her skin was slightly darkened.
You’ve likely seen the red, white and blue image in movies and television, beckoning young men and women to join the US armed services to serve and protect, as well as many other versions touting a myriad of political views. Uncle Sam never existed but developed slowly over decades, based on a poster developed by British Lord Kitchener in 1914 to recruit soldiers for World War I and II. J.M. Flagg used his own face as the basis for the poster he unveiled in 1917. But the term Uncle Sam originated with a meat packer named Sam Wilson during the War of 1812 who supplied rations for US Army soldiers. Although the “U.S.” on the meat barrels stood for United States, soldiers affectionately called the food “Uncle Sam’s.”
Tell was a Renaissance man long before it was fashionable or a guaranteed chick magnet. He was a very snappy dresser as well as an outstanding marksman who instilled enough confidence in his son that he calmly let his dad shoot an apple off his head with a crossbow in a deal made with an adversary to save the lives of both father and son. He was also a renowned crusader against tyrannical rulers. Only problem is that, like Robin Hood, Tell never existed but was only part of another popular European myth. The famous William Tell Overture is from the opera William Tell, the last of composer’s Gioachino Rossini 39 operas and most widely known as the theme song of The Lone Ranger TV show and movies.
Franklin W. Dixon
Back in olden times when people still read real books made from paper, many young people enjoyed the Hardy Boys series of mystery novels by Franklin W. Dixon. Brothers Frank and Joe Hardy were whizzes at solving local crimes and mysteries that readers studied and unraveled as the books progressed. Come to find out, the biggest mystery turned out to be that Franklin W. Dixon never existed. Instead, a stable of ghostwriters wrote the books, all for a flat rate, with no recognition whatsoever.
Around the same time the Hardy Boys were top choices of young readers, Nancy Drew mystery books, written by Carolyn Keene, enjoyed massive popularity, selling over 100 million copies. Keene was so famous she was profiled by magazines and asked to join the prestigious Authors’ Guild. But there was a problem: Keene was a fictional author made up by publisher Edward Stratemeyer. Like the Hardy Boys series, the 300+ books were ghostwritten by many authors who were never credited for their work.
In one of this century’s most notable scams, Donald Kaufman, brother of brilliant screenwriter Charlie Kaufman who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was played by Nicolas Cage in the movie Adaptation. He was also Oscar nominated, along with brother Charlie, for the Best Adapted Screenplay for that movie. But since Donald never existed, all bets were off, unless his non-existence was a ruse as well, in which case….who knows?