She strides on stage, dimples flashing, looks adoringly at her husband in the wings and, well, you can almost hear Bert Parks hitting the first note. There she is, Miss America, Miss NFL sports celebrity, Miss Phyllis George - AND Mrs. John Y. Brown Jr.
The latest chapter in the life of the 29-year-old TV celebrity is unfolding; marriage-cum-campaigning for her husband, Kentucky Fried Chicken King and one of six major Democratic candidates for govenor of Kentucky.
The Phyllis and John Y. road show is a campaign manager's dream of media heaven; the traditional use of the political wife, elevated in its latest celebrity mutation. The Liz Taylor syndrome. Celebrity-wife Phyllis draws crowds for John Y. Brown Jr. in Kentucky just as Liz did for John Warner in Virginia.
At rallies, she is introduced as Phyllis George. She then says, "The name I'm most proud of is Mrs. John Y. Brown Jr., and I want to tell you about John Y." She was shocked, says George, to find corruption in Kentucky politics. It bothers her and it bothers John Y. "He is honest. He has proven that to me. He will do what he says." With a radiant smile she then brings on John Y. - "He's gonna be the next governor of Kentucky!"
With his-and-her matching dimples, they are handsome enough to have inspired "The Candidate." In public, at every opportunity, they snuggle, bill and coo, hold hands, cuddle, kiss. She sits in his lap at receptions and he says, "I'm in LO-OVE." When a taciturn man at a reception in Paducah grumbles, "Y'all look like you're on a damn honeymoon," George pats Brown on the cheek and says, "We are."
The March 17 Manhattan marriage of Phyllis of the multimillion-dollar smile, and John Y., of the multimillion-dollar checkbook, was a carefully orchestrated media event. People magazine photographers were allowed backstage to catch Mr. Vincent fretting over a curl and designer Albert Capraro checking the fit across what he called a "terrific bosom." Paul Hornung, Milton Berle, Bert Parks, Walter Cronkite, Eunice Shriver, Andy Williams (singing the pop tune "Just the Way You Are") were duly recorded. The night before, the couple wound up their rehearsal dinner at Studio 54.
Theirs is a political partnership, they tell you at every stop. She works an audience participation TV show, mike in hand, fielding questions back to her husband. She is featured on his radio commercials and he winds up hers. In the press kit George is highlighted. (Her bio awards begin with "Lions Club Sweetheart, Kappa Sigma Sweetheart Campus Queen. . . " Her professional training: piano, 14 years, plus dance and drama. her "Marital Status: Married to John Y. Brown Jr., Candidate for Kentucky Democratic nomination for Government. . . ")
During Kentucky Derby week, while George was parade Grand Marshal, references to John Y. were kept to a minimum at her appearances. "We try to be tasteful," says Brown. He usually winds up his speeches with "I'm the best candidate - but I've got a PARTNER that's better than I am. My wife, Phyllis, and I really have something new and refreshing to give to government."
Brown got in the race just two months before the May 29 primary - too late, many political observers feel. Others see Brown - who is spending $20,000 a day - an impressive gamble. Brown's hero is Norman Vincent "The Power of Positive Thinking" Peale. Headquarters volunteers are instructed to answer the phone, "We're gonna win."
One fan says, "Don't count him out. Any guys who can wed Phyllis George and sell the Boston Celtics and announce for governor all in one week is not to be underestimated."
'Too Much Too Soon'
Brown is no fan of small planes and as one lurches through the skies on a campaign swing of western Kentucky, he gulps his third cup of black coffee. One thought consumes him and he offers it often.
"My problem in life is that I had too much too soon." John Y. Brown, a former vacuum and encyclopedia salesman, was 29 years old when a funny-looking man with a goatee and a penchant for white suits walked into his law office one day. The man was seeking tax advice and his name was Col. Harlan Sanders and he had a secret recipe for frying chicken.
Brown sniffed a good thing and he and a partner got $500,000 together in cash and a note of $1.5 million and bought the rights to sell the colonel's recipe. Nine years later, Kentucky Fried Chicken was world-wide; total annual sales exceeded $700 million. At 38, John Y. Sold out for a net worth of $35 million. Several businesses followed - Lum's, Ollie's Trolleys Inc. (hamburger stands), the Kentucky Colonels and Boston Celtics basketball teams.
Now 45, Brown says he's running, blue eyes opening wide, because "I feel guilty not doing something worth-while. The only arena left to me is the political arena."
Kentucky politics being what they are, this arena especially fascinates. A few days ago, political observers perdicted Gov. Julian Carroll would carry his hand-picked candidate, Terry McBrayer, to victory. But five other major candidates (there also are three lesser ones) have hammered away at what Brown calls a "form of blackmail" - contributions to McBrayer from major firms that do business with Carroll's administration. It is now a nec-and-neck race with everyone producing polls to show each is outdistancing the other. Brown claims he is in second place.
They are all running a basically anti-administration campaign.
Issues are seldom defined in detail. everyone is for dogs and cats and old people and the poor - and against corruption, which, the other candidates tell you, abounds in Carroll's administration.
In Kentucky's particular brand of southern politics, everyone is a past master at the sugar-coated character assassination. "They're hiding Thelma Stovall," whispers an aide of Brown. "She's slipping fast. You know, she had this stroke and she slurs her words and when she's on TV everyone thinks she's tanked ." The aide lets that floats around in the air for a while, then demurs, "Now I don't think she's tanked."
Stovall, lieutentant governor, former cigar factory worker and the darling of labor, done up in purple Ultrasuede at the races recently, returned the compliment. "John Brown's got a fine daddy and a lovely sweet wife. That's all he's got goin' for him.
(Stovall last year virtually held the governor captive in his state. Every time he went out of town she did something - called the legislation into session to cut taxes, ordered an audit of the state books which further embarrassed Carroll.)
"Of course I had that stroke eight years ago. There's no dirt they ever had about Thelma Stovall in 30 years so they can only use her health," harrumphs Stovall.
The governor, with slick blond hair and slicker smile, says at one Kentucky Derby reception, "Now, John Jr. promised me a fair fight and I'm disappointed." Carroll sees nothing the least bit wrong in using the governor's plane to fly his daughter to college. (Brown hammers away at such private use of public vehicles.) Brown is a "friend," you understand, says Carroll - then kisses him off with, "He hasn't got a chance." He delivers another punch, "he got awful rich - at Col. Sander's expense." Brown counters, "Carroll will say anything to get at me because he knows I'm the one to beat." That night, when the governor runs into Brown, his smile is warm enough to start a meltdown.
Birth of a Salesman
John Y. Brown is an imposing 6-feet-1, with steel-gray hair he often pats back off his forehead, and a pink, boyish face. "Just look at that lamb face," commands his wife to one crowd. "Could anyone slam a door in it?" She was referring to his first, and phenomenal, business success - selling encyclopedias.
On the plane between speeches, Brown pulls out his wallet and takes out some tattered, taped yellowed pieces of paper. They are checkstubs - and they are 21 years old. "Weekly settlements from Encyclopedia Britannica. Here's one here for $1,044. Another for $1,372. I made about $25,000 a year. Broke the national record for orders."
Brown was in law school then and had a fleet of 12 salesmen. "You learn when sellin' books to put the other party on the defense. The first question I'd ask is , 'What kind of education program do you have in your home for your children?' They got to feeling guilty. It's amazing, I sold most of 'em in the mountains and those people who didn't have the financial means were the most receptive.
"It taught me to talk. To look someone square in the eye. Taught me timing and feel. And how to close. A lot of people can sell, but they don't know how to close."
From then on, life has been selling. "All it takes to get Kentucky on the road is just a matter of sellin' . Issues aren't the hope of Kentucky. The hope is bringing in new business and investment. With my contacts and associations I'm gonna have a voice in Washington. Now you take coal. I never learned how to mine coal, but I never learned how to fry chicken either. I'm a businessman and I'll know how to find a market."
Chicken. . . and Ducks
"As a kid, I never thought about money," recalls Brown. "I was going to go into politics and try to fulfil my father's dreams. I idolized him. He is brilliant." Brown's father, a well-known Kentucky criminal lawyer and state legislator and orator, is now stumping in the mountains for his son. From the time he was 6, John Jr. saw his dad lose - seven times when he ran for U.S. Senate. "There was a lot of indirect pressure," recalls Brown Jr. "'You can do it, Johnny. When you grow up you're gonna be governor or president of the United States.'" He pauses, "When you see your dad lose all the time, it hurt."
Another man Brown admires is Harlan Sanders. At 88, Sanders sometimes takes a dim view of life among the chicken buckets. "I don't like some of things John Y. done to me." He has no specifics. "Let the record speak for itself. He over-persuaed me to get out."
Brown seems disturbed over the colonel's comments.
"The colonel and I get along fine . He's like an artist. He sold when the company was fairly small, for $2 million. How would you feel when your creation then becomes a world-wide company? I've lived in mortal fear that the colonel would get in a bad mood and start blasting everyone.
What dealings doesn't he like? He can't give you a one. He gets $200,000 a year. I tried to make him as much a part as I could. I love the colonel."
Asked if he is helping Brown's campaign, Sanders says, "Not by a long shot. I don't know anybody that's solidly for him. Now he's married to a nice sweet little woman. I think his first wife was just as sweet as can be too. Ella simply slaved for him." Sanders is at a Derby reception and he looks across at Phyllis George, who is shaking hands and smiling at everyone. "Yes, a nice girl." He pauses. "I just hope she don't find that she drove her ducks to the wrong pond."
Go-Getting Each Other
Brown says of his first wife, "We had a very good marriage for 15 years. When we went into business together that just changed the whole relationship. She found out she was a lot smarter than I was."
(He and his wife Eleanor co-owned the Kentucky Colonels basketball team in the ABA league. After it folded, Brown refused to pay the NBA $3 1/2 million to join that league. He on the team but some Kentucky basketball fans are still bitter, and see him only as a business wheeler-dealer.)
Brown says his wife asked for the divorce. As they discussed their divorce two years ago, "I told her 'the only girl that really appealed to me in all categories - looks, ambition, personality - is Phyllis George.' I had never met her but I told my first wife, 'I'm gonna have my first date with her as soon as the divorce is over.'"
Brown did. He met George through friends in California - then shared her with Howard Cosell who came along on the date and talked for three solid hours. "We didn't say if we had had the night alone we would have been married two years earlier.The chemistry was right. Our ambitions were right."
But Phyllis, instead, then met and married Hollywood producer Bob Evans. That lasted 11 months. Brown and George got together again in January and within weeks were married.
'. . . For Phyllis Ann George'
Phyllis George is wowing them at the Paducah Community College all-sports banquet. "For seven years I was a cheerleader and in the south, especially, that's a pretty big deal. . . I learned a lot and it kinda prepared me for my career." She goes on at length about being Miss America in 1971; how she brought her pet dog and pet crab with her from Denton, Tex., and how she dropped the crown. Then she did an imitation of John Wayne. They all laughed like crazy.
"I just set goals for myself. I'm an achiever. As they say in Kentucky, a mover and a shaker. and all my dreams have come true. My year as Miss America was a growing and learning experience for Phyllis Ann George." Once in New York, after countless diction and drama lessons, she landed the NFL job. "I agonized. This was another step in Phyllis Ann George's life." There were highs. Her "all-time favorite" interview was when she established Roger Staubach as a sex symbol. "I said to him, 'You have this square image.' I was really feeling my oats that day. And he said he was so tired of being compared to Joe Namath: 'I like sex just as much as Joe Namath. The only difference is I like it with one person, my wife.' We were all so shocked. I asked fan questions. Curious questions."
"They laughed at me in the beginning and that hurt. When I retired they started writing, 'Phyllis George made history as the first successful female sportscaster ever,' and I thought, 'Why is it that you constantly have to prove that you're talented? That you're smart?'"
After her speech, George - who says she now supports the ERA - is asked what she thinks about women journalists being allowed in locker rooms, an important issue for many serious women sports journalists. She giggles. "I didn't go in the locker room. I wanted 'em lookin' good and smellin' good and clear-headed."
Phyllis Ann George tells them of the "very special message" Norman Vincent Peale gave them at their wedding: 'You are two very talented people. Go out and serve God together.' God bless and thank you," she says, reaching over to her husband on the platform to give him a big kiss.
Phyllis remains perky throughout the derby festivities, the campaigning. At breakfast at the Hyatt Regency, she gives her husband, whom she hasn't seen for 45 minutes, a big hug and kiss, "Oh honey, how are you?" Then she settles down to a grapefruit and conversation when he leaves.
She mentions once again that she is just a small-town girl from Denton, Tex. In fact, Denton is not that "itty-bitty" as she says; (50,000 now and 25,000 population while she was growing up.) But Phyllis George, daughter of a Gulf Oil distributor, was always its princess.
"From the time I was 5 I had my finger in every pie - president of my class, in charge of that society - what is it called, Thespians? - cheerleader. . . I'm no different now. I'm writing a book to motivate and inspire young women and I want to keep my affiliation with CBS and I've just tested for a film. . .
"I don't think I've changed. My taste in clothes and jewelry, that's where I've grown. Who would have ever thought that at age 29 my husband would be running for governor, that I would have gone through three successful years in sports and the Miss America thing and still be healthy and normal?
"I was always popular. I don't know why. I was raised conservatively. 'A lady didn't walk across the room with a cigarette in her hand and you didn't drink because it made you have lines in your face.' Mother, my worst critic, was very much a southern lady. 'Always be gracious to people.' I was told that from time I was this high ."
Her mother put Phyllis into maryjanes and pinafores and always had petit fours waiting on a tray when she woke from her nap.
It sounds a long way from Hollywood as the fourth wife of a sophisticated movie producer.George laughs and claps her hands. Her marriage to Bob Evans "totally surprised me, too. After traveling for seven years, I mean I was exhausted. I just wanted a closet to hang my clothes in, instead of a suitcase. I met Bob and after I had been interviewing athletes - they're good old guys - well, with Bob I could talk about the theater, about the world . It was an experience Phyllis needed in her life. I had been Cinderella and I wanted to try that Hollywood life I'd always read about. It was not what I thought it was," she says, adding hastily: "Oh everybody's nice, don't misunderstand me. But, well, I like to go to church on Sundays."
Invitation for Tea
The Browns have bought an old mansion in Lexington and will have horses, tennis courts, a pool. She tells one audience, "Y'all have to come over for tea!"
George has also kept her New York apartment: "I just love New York - it's the one city that makes me want to get up in the morning and learn what's going on." And she is waiting to find out about her screen test.
"Before we got into all this, I asked John Y. if he'd like to produce movies. He said that didn't interest him." He has said, however, that he would like to back his wife's movies. "He means that! Now how nice is it of your husband to say that? And I never asked, I want you to know. I'm an independent woman, I have my own deal, my own contacts, connections, my own network, my own money. But he wants to get involved in it. I love it.
"He saw my screen test (for a CBS movie called "Hard Hat and Legs") "Well, in this court battle I lose custody of my kids on screen and the tears were rolling and John was very touched by it. And then, I have my first kiss on camera. Just a little kiss! I had to say 'John, he is a robot. He means nothing to me. Just another actor. I am working, John.' It took him about 15 minutes before he understood. I love that about him. That he is still old-fashioned when it comes to his woman."
Whether or not she becomes first lady of Kentucky, George says she would pick her films carefully."I want to do a message thing. Everyone's into messages. You've got to have a message. Like Fonda. I don't want to do anything that exploits Phyllis Ann George. My problem is I'm a personality, as opposed to being an actor. Why does this country always label people?"
George sighs. "I talked to Walter Cronkite about this yesterday at lunch. I mentioned to Walter I'd like to get into news because I'm fascinated by it. I really love people. And Walter said, 'I don't want you to do that because you haven't gone out and worked at, say, the Courier Journal and covered the beat.' Unfortunately, he said, news is turning into show business."
George feels her life has been a training ground for politics. "Politics is all interrelated to show business." Both can be a "rat race," but "I learned as a Southern lady never to react in public." Instead, George has an agent, a publicist and a lawyer to handle tacky business hassles.
Brown and George repeat constantly that they are "incredibly alike." Says Brown, "We're ambitious and competitive and just so suited for each other."
Brown gets irritated that some classify him as a dabbler; a man who might move the "franchise" from Frankfort, Ky., to the Senate or White House if he got the chance.
"Everything I've done, people said couldn't be done," Brown says. "When I did the telethons, no one said it would work." (In 1972, Brown lined up a teleton fund-raiser that netted the Democratic Party $2 million and repeated the success the next year.) "I don't know why you have to defend yourself for being rich - after working so hard to get it."
By the end of April Brown had sunk close to $500,000 in personal loans into his campaign. Brown says he has no idea what he will do if he loses. But one aide said, "He just doesn't talk about it - but John Y. always has Plan A. . . And Plan B, C, and D."
Another close friend said, "He wants the White House. They (both) want the White House." Phyllis George says, "I am fascinated with Jack and Jackie."
Brown looks serious. "Once you get into politics that's the top. I would need a lot of experience before I could get into something like running for the presidency. But I certainly feel well qualified, with my back-ground."
For now, his eye is on May 29. "Phyllis and I could be a really great asset to this state.
"I don't know whether the people are going to relate to that or not" - the smile of positive thinking spreads - "but this ain't no average deal the people of Kentucky would get!" CAPTION: Picture 1, John Y. Brown Jr. and Phyllis George by Jon Webb for The Washington Post; Picture 2, John Y. Brown Jr. and Phyllis George, by Jon Webb for The Washington Post