Spinning a yarn, telling a tall tale, or flat out lying. Whatever you want to call it, these folks weren’t afraid to do it, and it didn’t prevent them from creating impressive legacies, being beloved, or amassing wealth.
1. Benjamin Franklin
We may never know for sure what Benjamin Franklin meant when he (supposedly) said, “half a truth is often a great lie,” but we do know that he loved to tell a great lie. Despite this, he’s memorialized in art, history books, and even stuck on currency notes. Not bad for a cheating, lying, political opportunist!
Even most amateur historians agree Franklin lied about, after having a hunch about the true nature of lightning, experimenting on lightning with a kite and a key. It never happened, nor do most scientists believe it is even possible.
Besides this most famous of tales, Franklin was also among the first to deploy fake news to stir up passion in the people. Using a homemade printing press in 1782, he concocted, wrote, and printed an entirely fake newspaper, running a story about the discovery of teenage scalps on the frontier. The story was meant to arouse fear against the local Native American tribes and even included fake letters to the editor. It was picked up by the actual press, leaving Franklin to chuckle in his britches and brag to friends about how easily he had pulled a fast one on the poor American settlers.
2. Frida Kahlo
While she isn’t known for being a liar, this artist is well documented for some blatant bending of the truth—and largely celebrated for being so unapologetic about it, rather than criticized for writing her own history
Frida told two bold, widely spread lies about her life. The first was that her father, Guillermo, was a German Jew, which he was not. While the claim spread far and wide (the feature film about her life even includes a scene where Guillermo refers to his background in this way), Guillermo was from a long line of Lutherans and only came to Mexico because he didn’t get along with his stepmother very well.
Frida also preferred to give a birthday that was not accurate. Although the artist was born in 1907, she said she was born in 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution began.
Who can point a finger? The artist lived most of her life in physical and mental agony and left an artistic legacy that very few individuals from her time can complete with.
3. Frank Abagnale
Who can help (even secretly) cheering for Frank Abagnale? Not only did he get away with what are now considered to be horribly obvious hoaxes, he ended up a pretty wealthy dude because of getting discovered. That’s just some serious talent.
Abagnale is now most known for being portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can, about a teenage boy who figures out how to pull the wool over the eyes of everyone he comes into contact with, and spends the next six years doing just that. Abagnale’s most famous lies include: posing as a pilot at age 16, being handed a legitimate position as a medical supervisor at an ER at age 18, passing as a Harvard Law School graduate to obtain a job as an attorney in Louisiana, and seducing who knows how many older women into affairs.
Here’s the really good part: Abagnale ended up spending less than five years in prison before being hired by the FBI to consult on fraud cases in return for his release. Following this gig, Abagnale found it difficult to hold down a job, given his reluctance to disclose his criminal past to a long line of employers, and his entrepreneurial instincts once again came in handy. He founded the successful firm Abagnale & Associates, has had an Academy Award–nominated film and a Broadway play made about his life, and is a successful businessman with admirers around the world.
4. Bill Clinton
You all know the story: Linda Tripp was out to get Clinton. She happened to record a friend of hers, the young and impressionable Monica Lewinsky, confiding in her about having a sexual relationship with Mr. President himself. Tripp turned over the tapes to the right people, and the morality of the nation was rocked to its core.
Instead of fessing up, President Clinton boldly, adamantly, and even under oath-y, denied the affair, only to recant and admit the entire thing later that year when it became clear that he would not be able to prevent truth from being exposed. Perhaps even more than being a liar, we can most accuse him of the worst ability to predict an outcome in American political history.
You have to hand it to Clinton. Despite the very public scandal, he came out on top (so to speak). He went on to be one of the most active and influential former presidents in history, founding the Clinton Foundation in 2001, partnering with multiple world leaders to help rebuild Haiti, authoring a best-selling autobiography, and being continually involved in successful environmental and humanitarian efforts domestically and abroad.
5. Calamity Jane
No one can accuse Calamity Jane of lacking a bold streak. Orphaned at age 14, it appears she quickly decided she would do whatever it took to keep afloat, even if it meant telling a fib or two along the way.
Calamity Jane is memorialized in popular culture as the sidekick to Wild Bill Hickok and for being one of the Wild West’s original cowgirls. However, friends of Wild Bill’s claimed Hickok had very little interest in Jane as a friend and definitely didn’t consider her a sidekick.
Even Jane’s current Wikipedia page lists one of her occupations as a scout for the military. Jane loved to boast about this chapter in her life and that a Capt. Egan had given her the name “Calamity” after she saved him from capture. There is, however, no record of her ever having served under Egan, or any other general for that matter. It is, therefore, believed that Jane gave herself the name Calamity, along with most of the rest of her biography.
Although her lies are well documented and easily debunked, it hasn’t kept Jane from becoming one of the most beloved and famous figures from the Wild West, rivaling even her so-called partner in crime, Wild Bill Hickok.