Have you ever heard a speaker or boss quote some profound saying from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War? Did you know there’s a good chance that the wise philosopher who wrote that book never actually existed?
He’s hardly alone — lots of figures from history and pop culture are the product of either some marketing campaign or just bad record keeping. Either way, centuries from now, people will probably still think that at one time there was a person named …
#5. Betty Crocker
Why She’s Famous
When you buy Betty Crocker cake mix, or one of the dozens of other products bearing that name, you obviously don’t assume that the company is still run by her, any more than Wendy’s is still owned by Wendy. But it’s logical to assume that, way back when the company got started, there was some actual lady named Betty Crocker just selling her cookies or whatever, in the same way that at one time Ferrari was just Enzo Ferrari making cars in his garage.
And in fact, Betty Crocker first became famous in the 1920s when she started personally responding to customer questions for the Washburn Crosby Company (which later became General Mills). Her popularity grew so much that in 1924 she got her own radio show and cooking school, and by 1945, she was the second best known woman in America, after the first lady. She also loved sitting for portraits, apparently:
“You’re allowed one outfit. Make it a good one.”
But It Turns Out …
Betty Crocker is a crock of shit. It’s not that she no longer exists, as some of you may assume — it’s that she never did. The name was created in 1921 to “personalize responses to consumer inquiries,” and her famous signature was chosen from samples submitted by female employees. She was invented by Sam Gale, Washburn Crosby’s advertising director, because he didn’t think women would take cooking advice from a man.
“Betty Crocker cake mix: vagina certified!”
The made-up name gained so much respect and credibility that the company just went along with it. For the radio show, each station had a different woman to be the voice of “Betty,” but all read from a script developed by the home office. As for the portraits, well, this explains how she could look like a 30-something housewife in the ’40s and a still-30-something yuppie in the ’80s, short of her being Doctor Who.
So that brownie mix doesn’t grant immortality? This is bullshit.
And people of all ages still believe in her today. The writer of Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America’s First Lady of Food did a little survey and says that about half the people she talked to believed that Betty Crocker was a real person, or that she existed at some point. Hell, just do a Google search and you’ll find plenty of disheartening evidence.
If they tell us Count Chocula isn’t real either, we’re going to lose our shit.
Hey, speaking of great female entrepreneurs who are actually just fictional characters created by some dudes in an office …
#4. Mavis Beacon (of “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” Fame)
Why She’s Famous
If you can type a full sentence without looking down after every letter, there’s a good chance you know who Mavis Beacon is. For 25 years, Beacon has been teaching kids how to make words with a keyboard with her popular “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing” software. Today she operates her very own website and Twitter account (which describes her as “smart, classy, and a little bit sassy,” and accordingly follows Sarah Silverman). She also has a charity called Mavis Cares, which “donates software to nonprofit organizations specializing in job-skills training.”
And other high-risk sectors, like YouTube commenters.
So she’s a great lady, all in all. Hopefully we won’t find out she’s fake in the next paragraph.
But It Turns Out …
The best typing teacher ever really was too good to be true. Mavis Beacon started out as little more than a random face on the box of the program, but she became an instant success: The guy who created her says that in the year the program launched, competitors were asking him how he got the Mavis Beacon to endorse his product and telling him they’d “been after her endorsement for years.”
“More the ‘early ’90s Halle Berry from Boomerang‘ era Mavis, but we’re not too picky.”
Beacon’s original face was discovered working at a department store (she’s since been replaced with computer-generated images, as will we all eventually), while her voice was provided by an assistant at the company. As her popularity grew, Beacon went from a glorified logo to an interactive onscreen instructor who is known for telling students to “call it a day” when she senses they’re screwing around.
When the story broke, people were shocked to learn of Mavis’ origins. Apparently, the news hasn’t reached everyone, because people are still finding out about this. “Ms. Beacon’s” public relations representative (yep, that’s a thing) says she gets inquiries about speaking engagements and fields questions about where, exactly, the woman is teaching currently. Some fans find Beacon’s non-existence difficult to stomach: “There was one man who kept calling back. He could not believe it. He kept asking questions, and saying ‘Are you sure?'”
“Mavis, NO! She was to be my wife.”
#3. Carolyn Keene (Writer of the Nancy Drew Books)
Why She’s Famous
She’s one of the most popular authors in history, having sold more than 100 million copies of her Nancy Drew books. In fact, a whole bunch of you out there only started reading books at all because somewhere around middle school you stumbled across some Nancy Drew paperbacks.
Each of the over 300 books in the series starring the titular teenage Sherlock Holmes was written by Carolyn Keene. When the series first started, Keene was profiled by magazines and invited to join the Authors Guild, and she continues to crank out bestsellers despite the fact that she has to be, what, over 100 years old now?
Here she is at age 24.
But It Turns Out …
Actually, she’s zero years old, because she never existed. Nancy Drew (along with The Hardy Boys and other series in the “unattended teenagers solve mysteries” genre) was invented by publisher Edward Stratemeyer, then handed off to numerous ghostwriters and credited as “Carolyn Keene.” This would be fine and good if the company hadn’t then started lying and threatening people to protect its “business secrets.”
Nancy Drew books are like sausages: shadily made, but delicious with mustard.
For instance, in the 1930s, one Walter Karig wrote to the Library of Congress asking to be credited as the writer of three Nancy Drew books because, well, he fucking was. In response, the Stratemeyer Syndicate claimed they’d never heard of such a man. Most of the early books were actually written by Mildred Wirt Benson, but she signed a “secrecy contract” that forbid her from claiming credit for them. It didn’t say anything about TV shows, though, so when her stories were adapted in the ’70s, she asked for some recognition. The Stratemeyers threatened to sue her if she didn’t cut that shit out.
“If we can’t fuck over the people who create the content that makes us money, I don’t even know why we’re in business.”
Obviously, at some point Nancy Drew fans started getting curious about all the mystery surrounding the author, so in the ’70s the publisher put out publicity materials hinting that Keene was Harriet Stratemeyer all along (she did write many of the books, but not all). However, in 1980, the company was involved in a lawsuit and Mildred Benson was called to testify — as a result, they had to admit her contribution. That didn’t extend to putting her name on the covers of the books she wrote, of course. That would be crazy.
#2. William Tell
Why He’s Famous
The average person probably knows the name “William Tell” for one of two things — either “The William Tell Overture,” aka “The Lone Ranger Theme,” or simply “the guy who used an arrow to shoot an apple off of a child’s head.”
But everyone in Switzerland knows the story by heart: In the early 1300s, what would become their country was occupied by Austria. One day, an official named Albrecht Gessler demanded that everyone in the village of Uri bow to his hat. William Tell was like “No, that’s silly,” so in punishment, Gessler forced Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head with an arrow at 120 paces. If he failed, both Tell and his son would be put to death.
“I’m just trying to stress to you the importance of hats.”
Tell grabbed two arrows and successfully de-appled his kid. When Gessler asked him about the second arrow, Tell informed him that if he’d killed his son with the first one, the second would have been aimed at him (presumably in the crotch area). Furious, Gessler ordered him to the dungeon, but Tell escaped and killed him. Tell’s defiance of Gessler inspired the people to fight, and the resulting rebellion led to the formation of the Swiss Confederacy.
But It Turns Out …
Most historians agree that neither Tell nor Gessler ever existed. In fact, the Swiss apparently “borrowed” that story from the legend of a 10th century Viking named Toko. Like Tell, Toko was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, and he reserved a second arrow for the jackass who made him do it. The main difference was that Toko had to shoot the arrow while the kid was running downhill, and that he was completely shitfaced at the time.
And we think Batman was there, too. At least judging from this illustration.
The earliest written account of the Tell story was created around 1568, some 250 years after the events it describes. Also, the date of the apple incident is supposed to be in 1307, and supposedly it inspired the villagers to unite and destroy the castles of the Austrians — however, evidence showed that those castles had already been wrecked decades earlier.
Nevertheless, Tell has become such an integral part of Switzerland’s culture that in a survey, some 60 percent of Swiss respondents said they believed he did exist. Even today, all Swiss exports carry a little symbol of a crossbow in his honor.
“Honestly, by now it’s more about Daryl from The Walking Dead.”
#1. Tokyo Rose
Why She’s Famous
In the U.S., whenever people openly criticize American troops or side with the opposition in a military conflict, they’re accused of being like “Tokyo Rose” (anti-war protester Jane Fonda was called this during Vietnam, or snidely referred to as “Hanoi Jane”). If you’ve seen the movie Flags of Our Fathers, there’s a scene where the American GIs stationed in Japan hear a sexy English-speaking lady on the radio taunting them with the fact that, while they’re being blown to pieces, back home their wives are probably blowing other dudes. That’s “Tokyo Rose” — she would broadcast anti-American propaganda aimed at demoralizing troops overseas.
After the war, two journalists actually found this traitor and the government threw her in jail.
Yeah, suck it. You just got AMERICA’d!”
But It Turns Out …
The only problem is, the U.S. military had an agency monitoring enemy broadcasts 24/7 during the war, and they declared that there was no “Tokyo Rose.” It was just a catchall name soldiers gave all English-speaking Japanese women on the radio. So wait, who the hell did they arrest, then? A California-born woman, Iva Toguri, who actually did the opposite of what we just described.
In 1941, Toguri was in Japan, taking care of an aunt. She was set to return to the U.S. on December 9 of the same year, but a little thing called “Japan bombing the shit out of Pearl Harbor” made that impossible. So she stayed there against her will and eventually got a job in Radio Tokyo, where she worked under a captured Australian major who had been tasked with broadcasting propaganda in English. However, since their Japanese superiors/captors didn’t actually understand what they were saying, the major and Toguri began slipping pro-American messages into the broadcasts, which were always done in a playful tone. Here’s one:
Toguri never went by “Tokyo Rose” (her moniker was “Orphan Annie”), and you’ll note that her voice was anything but sexy. When the war ended, reporters desperate to confirm the rumors found Toguri, thought she fit the profile, and basically conned her into admitting that she was the real deal. As a result, she was convicted of treason, fined $10,000, and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and she had her citizenship revoked. Toguri was finally given the old presidential “Whoops, our bad” by Gerald Ford in 1977.