A closer look at Luther Cain Jr. and his relationship with Robert Woodruff


Herman Cain has written and spoken widely about his admiration for his late father, Luther Cain Jr., the man who moved young Herman, his brother, Thurman, and their mother, Lenora, from Memphis to Atlanta in the late 1940s. Luther’s plight—humping jobs as a barber, a janitor, and a chauffeur in the segregated South to support his family—has become a central part of the Cain campaign’s rags-to-riches mythology.

But for a fuller portrait of the Cain patriarch, we went to Emory University and dove into the archived papers of the man Luther chauffeured for three decades, former Coca-Cola president Robert Woodruff. Within the voluminous collection (577 boxes), one folder containing sixty-one pages is dedicated to Luther Cain. The first document is a 1962 letter from a Coke employee to Mr. Woodruff regarding Luther’s desire, after ten years part-time with Coke, to become the president’s full-time driver. The interesting part is a reason given for the request: “In addition to himself,” the letter states, “(Luther’s) dependents consist of a wife and two children (Herman was 16), plus a third child he is supporting resulting, he says, from an earlier indiscretion.”

Indeed, later in the file, we found a program from Luther’s 1982 funeral, and among the survivor’s listed in the obituary are sons Herman and Thurman and two daughters, Merlene Taylor and Martha P. Warren. A quick Internet search for “Herman Cain” and “half sister,” brought up only an AP photograph of Herman embracing a woman at an October campaign stop in Tennessee. The woman is identified as Herman’s half sister, “Myrlean Taylor of Eads.” Eads, Tennessee, is a suburb of Memphis in Shelby County, where, according to Herman’s biography, Luther was born and lived until he was 18 and where he and Lenora lived for a short time after they were married. A Myrlean Taylor in Eads did not return our phone calls. We could not find number for Martha P. Warren. There is no further mention in the Woodruff file of any Cain siblings.

Most of the Woodruff file deals with Luther’s financial situation. According to the 1962 letter, Luther made a modest $1.65/hr or $66/week, equivalent to about $25,000 today—not a fortune, but not exactly impoverished, and that was in addition to what he made at the barbershop, which, the letter says, he owned. By 1967, archived payroll forms indicate Luther was helping put Herman through his senior year at Morehouse with a salary $2.68/hr or roughly $5,500/year ($37,000 in 2011). And by 1976, according to Woodruff documents, Luther Cain was pulling in more than $60,000 a year (equivalent to more than $200,000 today), including a $22.8K salary (90K in 2011) and yields from Coke stock and municipal bonds. And as for what might have happened between 1967 and 1976 to bring such windfall, the file only provides one clue, a cryptic 1971 note in Luther’s script: “Dear Mr. Woodruff, May I say to you thanks again for making a dream come true in my life, for the gift you gave me on June 9th. I shall never forget that day … Please trust me that I will never-never-I mean never let you down.”

But Luther’s health would end his service to Mr. Woodruff by the end of the decade. In 1976, doctors at Emory University Clinic informed Mr. Woodruff of Luther’s diminishing eyesight, due to diabetes, rendering him unable to drive. By November of 1978, Luther had been cleared to receive long-term disability and his employment at Coca-Cola came to an end. Mr. Woodruff stayed in touch with his former driver, sending Luther $100 for his birthday in 1981 and 1982. But less than two weeks after his 57th birthday, on March 29, 1982, Luther Cain died. Mr. Woodruff ordered $60 to $70 worth of flowers.

The last page of the file is a notecard, dated April 13, 1982, eleven days after Luther’s funeral. It is the phone number of “Herman Cain (Luther’s Son)” in Minnesota.