It was night in Los Angeles, and you know how weird that can be. The kids were rioting on Sunset Strip, as ever, and over at the Beverly Hilton Hotel the older crowd had assembled for the Bonanza Ball. The ball was for charity, which meant black tie, and it had a cowboy theme, which meant there was a stuffed horse standing near the bar. Ah, Hollywood.
Then, smiling into the spotlight, came Lorne Greene, television's biggest western star, the Ben Cartwright of Bonanza. He was wearing a tuxedo with tiny silver buckles latched over all the pockets, and, with his white hair and all, he shimmered. He began telling the warm-up joke he had rehearsed in the car coining over from Bel Air. Lorne Greene's joke:
"Boy, am I glad to be here tonight. I had this terrible nightmare last night. Dreamed I was in an airliner flying along at 35,000 feet. We got into trouble, and I had to bail out. My parachute wouldn't open, and when I looked down, there on the ground waiting to catch me was—Willie Davis."
The ballroom exploded into laughter, with an undercurrent of murmuring, as husbands leaned over and explained to their wives, "Willie Davis plays center field for the Dodgers. They were in the World Series, see, and Willie dropped..." Then the wives all laughed.
January 16, 1967
Next the Dan Blocker Singers came on and did four fast numbers, clapping hands and stamping feet, and the place began to swing. Following them came a 24-year-old singer named Wayne Newton who also uses an alias, Mr. Excitement. He was listed on Greene's cue sheet to do 20 minutes, but 45 minutes later he was singing, You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You and had reduced the audience to emotional oatmeal. When Mr. Excitement finished Greene took the microphone again, squinted through the spotlight at one of the ringside tables and said, "What do you think of that, Jack? How'd you like him, Jack?"
And Jack Kent Cooke boomed out, "Great, Lorne. Magnificent!"
Then Danny Thomas came on to do his routine, and—Wait a minute. Stop the show.
Jack Kent Cooke. Not an entertainer. Not a producer or director. Jack Kent Cooke, one of California's most controversial millionaires; silver-haired and suave, the guy who buys sports franchises, who owns Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Elgin Baylor, and who is soon to be responsible for so much more sport—ice hockey in winter and soccer in summer—that folks may run screaming from their TV sets. He is colossal, the Sol Hurok of sport. That's who.
Los Angeles is on a Jack Kent Cooke kick. Name in all the papers. A household word. Feared. Loved. The town sees him on a mental split screen. He is, depending on whom you talk to, a charlatan, villain, pirate or highwayman, a fearless plunger, financial swinger, or Horatio Alger—smooth but honest. Just words. Even if he is none of those things, he certainly is not dull, which in Los Angeles is unforgivable.
To understand this, why many people in Los Angeles are suspicious of Cooke, you must first understand one thing about the city itself. Los Angeles looks big from the air, but it is really just a cluster of small towns connected by cars parked bumper to bumper, and it is full of small-town worries. There are more than 75 communities in Los Angeles County besides L.A. proper, and the people in most of them generally look chic and talk hip: "Hello, sweetheart. Hiya, baby. Sure, lover." And you ought to hear the way they talk to girls.
Still, let just one stranger come to town wearing a $350 side-vent glen-plaid suit and a pair of bench-made shoes and Los Angeles is likely to yell, "City slicker, you guys," and watch his every move. It watches Cooke all the time.
Worse than that, Los Angeles is always wary of a man who uses three names. First initials with names are bad enough. (Several years ago at a lavish Hollywood premiere, an announcer introduced a famous movie producer by saying, "And now, Y. Frank Freeman." And one Los Angeleno turned to another and muttered, "Sounds like a good question.")
Then, in 1960, along came Jack Kent Cooke, using all three names, mind you, and he had that kind of big smile that made it look like his mouth had been lighted by an interior decorator. And the first thing he did was to plunge: He plunked down $20 million for a television-cable outfit that sells clear pictures. Then he paid $5,175,000 to buy a basketball team, more money than anybody had ever paid for five spindly men. No matter. Cooke pointed out that he had never seen a professional basketball game anyway and considered it a real bargain.
The third thing he did was to obtain the conditional franchise for a new National Hockey League team; fourth item was to shell out $500,000 for a soccer team, and before anybody knew it he was halfway to his goal: to own enough teams playing enough sports so that one of them is always in season—somewhere—so that every day or night he can watch. Now is that too much to ask? Not in Los Angeles, it isn't.
Jack Kent Cooke is a number of things. In quick order:
• A self-made man at 54, a millionaire and more, possibly a lot more.
• Owner of the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association. They are not winning games this year, but he makes the payroll every week.
• New franchise owner in the NHL, whose new hockey team will be the Los Angeles Kings.
• An organizer of and team-owner in the new North American Soccer League. This is not to be confused with the equally new National Professional Soccer League. Cooke's team will be called the Zorros. Top that, you Europeans.
• The owner-builder of a new $14 million sports palace to be called The Forum.
• Owner of a publishing company that currently is lying doggo, waiting to pick up the right property for the right price. Like, say, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Do not say they won't sell. Everybody sells, sometime.
• Twenty-five-percent owner of the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, with an option—which he will exercise—to buy up control of the team when it becomes available.
• One of the few Canadian emigrants in U.S. history to be granted instant citizenship by an act of Congress.
• An art collector, homebody, admirer of fast cars, judge of good sherry, songwriter, connoisseur of antiques, master of the English language (he can use the word boggle in a sentence) and the kind of guy who would have called for four consecutive passes against Michigan State.
Cooke is natty; he wears tailor-made suits, fragile blue shirts with fadeaway collars and fat knit ties. He is 5 feet 9 or so, and moves across the landscape in flashes. It is because of the urge.
"The combative urge is within all of us," Cooke says, speaking in quick, combative bursts. "For the man whose horse wins the Kentucky Derby, it is his horse. In football or basketball it is my team.
"This is a basic instinct. But God knows, it comes to us in varying degrees. It is a refusal to succumb. Perhaps the source of it is pride. But it moves most men. My combative urge is strong. And remember, it is always open season on successful men."
About that open season. Cooke has not made one move in California that has not been chronicled. One set of special enemies keeps a file on him complete with categories, such as "weaknesses." Cooke knows of this and keeps the same file. He sees them as strengths.
Still, perhaps the only file in town that really counts is the one at the Security First National Bank, and it is confidential. "But we can say," the bank admits, "that a recent file indicates his net worth in eight figures."
Anybody with eight figures' worth of money has to be suspect. Cooke's enemies will hint darkly at misdeeds. What misdeeds? Never mind. We know...
Well, consider this suspicious episode: Cooke's greatest danger now is not the fact that he may make or lose a great deal of money, but that he is inexorably, stealthily getting chunky. He has put himself on a strict diet, self-enforced, where he will not eat anything containing flour. Especially breads, cakes and pastries.
Now, then, the Washington Redskins were playing Oct. 16 against the Giants in New York and, unable to pick up the game on radio in California, Cooke sat fretting at home in Bel Air. He was waiting for the telephone call from Edward Bennett Williams, who is 1) a noted attorney, 2) a close personal friend and 3) club president and owner of 5% of the team. The two men have a pact: after every game Williams will call Cooke and deliver a postmortem. But this was early in the season, remember.
The Redskins lost 13-10. And Williams, like any self-respecting, distraught club president, stomped unwaveringly out of the stadium, out somewhere, and got soothingly, comfortably, steadfastly potted. No phone call. Back in Los Angeles, Cooke waited, pacing. "No call. That can only mean we've lost the damned game," he growled. Finally, in despair, he wheeled away from the house in his $28,500 beige Bentley convertible, down through the ornate electric gates and to the Bel Air Country Club. He stomped in, fixed the waiter with an icy stare and snarled, "Bring me a piece of that white cake. And put two scoops of ice cream on it." That's the sort of inhuman figure his enemies are dealing with.
Not that Cooke does not have his own biting moments. Two days after the Redskin disaster he was off to New York City. There he was, zinging along on TWA Flight 100 about 30,000 feet over the Midwest, when he summoned the stewardess and pointed imperiously at his tray.
"Take these lamb chops back and cook them some more," he said. "I asked for them well-done."
The stewardess, her smile locked into position, hovered uncertainly over him for a moment, then bent down and looked out the window at the jet engines, as if perhaps she might set the plate out there to cook a little more. And then, when he got the chops back—they may have been hotter, but certainly no more well-done—he pushed them around irritably with his fork and finally set the tray aside.
But it got worse. That night in New York the Lakers played the Knickerbockers at Madison Square Garden. Jerry West, injured, had not made the trip, and Cooke sat there in the executive seats fretting, while the team lost 122-119. It looked for a horrible moment as if Cooke was going to send back the Lakers for more cooking, because they obviously weren't done at that point, either.
The game over, Cooke left the Garden, hunched in his raincoat against a chill rain, and headed toward Toots Shor, where he spends his free time in New York City. He was accompanied by Bill Shea of the Shea Stadium Sheas, and, when the party walked in, it was ushered to table 101—to the right of the archway—one of the two top prestige tables for celebrities. Bob Considine was at the other.
For revenge against the events of the day, Cooke ordered a large bowl of Shor's homemade rice pudding. Shor limped over, leaning on his shiny black cane. "Ya bum, ya," he growled affectionately at Cooke. "Yer lucky we even let you into this town, ya creep. Lost the game, dincha?" Cooke nodded. Shor kept it up: "I made a bundle on the Knicks against yer bums. Ya got any more clubs we can bet against?" Cooke smiled, with that fluorescent burst of teeth, and ordered another bowl of pudding.
The thing is, of course, Cooke does have other teams—he will soon have more—and they will either cost him or make him a great deal of money. A lot depends on two things: whether the American public will take hockey to its heart and, having done that, will also find room for big-time soccer. How did Cooke get into this terrible/wonderful mess? It wasn't easy.
Almost 40 years ago he was tooting a clarinet and saxophone with his own band around Toronto—Oley Kent and his Orchestra—and occasionally he would croon, a la Rudy Vallee, through a megaphone. In the role of Oley Kent, Cooke was a dapper young man in wide lapels and a belt in the back. But poor. Then he took to selling encyclopedias from Canadian door to door—not good encyclopedias, but what do you expect for $39.50 a set? Still, he had vowed to become a rich man—and he wasn't even close. He began to sell soap for Colgate-Palmolive-Peet in 1936, and he says now, looking back on it, "I sold more soap than anybody in the history of the company." This may be the hidden key, for in a way Cooke has been selling soap ever since.
In November 1936, Cooke wangled a letter of introduction to Roy Thomson, publisher and broadcaster, now Lord Thomson of Fleet Street. Thomson looked into those teeth and was impressed. No newspaper jobs available, he said, but would Cooke like to manage a radio station, CJCS, in Stratford, Ontario? Cooke would, indeed.
"The sales manager at Colgate really bawled hell out of me when I told him I was quitting," Cooke says. "He told me I was crazy to walk out on a job like that. He wanted to know how much money I was going to make. And you know what? I couldn't tell him. That was one question I had forgotten to ask Thomson." It turned out to be $25 a week, but don't laugh out there in Hollywood. In six years he was a millionaire.
Cooke and Thomson cut a swath through the Canadian communications world that is still unparalleled. First they put CJCS in the black, then sold it. They bought more sick stations, healed them with shots of disc jockeys and lively programming and sold them. Cooke got the idea fast enough. Most of the properties sold for five times their original price, and he began putting his own money into them. (On one of the stations, same growly voice, was Lorne Greene.) When Cooke and Thomson formally dissolved their partnership in 1952, Cooke was Canada's big executive: 20 magazines, radio properties and the country's largest plastics outfit. He was worth, by conservative estimate, about $8 million.
But can a poor Toronto boy find happiness merely as a wealthy and respected publisher? No. So in 1951 he bought the Toronto Maple Leafs' baseball team when it was down and out. By 1952 he had the attendance up to a record 466,040 and Cooke was named Minor League Executive of the Year. No pretty head will stay unturned by such attention. The Leafs won four pennants in seven seasons, and Cooke had sold himself down the river to a life in sports.
Pockets full of money, he began casting around in the sporting world. In 1955 he tried to buy the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. They wanted too much money. That same year he bid $5.5 million for the Detroit Tigers. They sold for $5.8 million. In 1958 Cooke, Branch Rickey and friends tried to form the Continental Baseball League. They were shut out, but stirred up the alarm that led to major league expansion. Then in 1960 Cooke offered $4.5 million for the Washington Redskins. Shut out again. (Cooke already owned 25% of the club, which he bought from Harry Wismer for $350,000 cash. It was a good buy. The portion is now worth an estimated $4 million.)
But Americans were getting the idea. Cooke was ready to come and bring money. In 1960 he became a U.S. citizen through an unusual bill which sailed through Congress—skipping the usual five-year residency rule. (His sponsor, Representative Francis Walter of Pennsylvania, told a House Judiciary subcommittee, "In Canada, Cooke's energetic and aggressive espousal of the United States and its people is a matter of public record, and some minor criticism.") Settling down—as much as you can ever call him settled—in Los Angeles, Cooke then acquired his U.S. possessions: the Lakers, Kings and Zorros.
Now, at 54, sitting behind a 170-year-old antique English desk in a chain of offices in the Beverly Hilton, barking orders to a covey of secretaries on the intercom and wheeling teams and franchises (occasionally leaning back and plunking those $75 shoes on the desk), Cooke knows he did the right thing.
"My major business was to have been publishing," he says. "But something was lacking. It was sports. I had played hockey well as a boy. And baseball not so well. As a man, I felt a surge of creation in owning a baseball team. Perhaps it is an emanation of self. In any case, it is a very strong feeling. These are my family. They must succeed."
But in Los Angeles, Cooke's surge of creation ran into trouble in the form of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, a nine-man board in charge of the 93,000-seat Memorial Coliseum and the adjoining 15,000-seat Arena. Over the years the commission has made some dazzling decisions. Bill Veeck ran into one of them when he wanted to take his dying St. Louis Browns to Los Angeles in 1954. Walter O'Malley encountered others when he did take his Dodgers out there four years later. And now Cooke knows, too.
Cooke came on stage in 1960, a new boy in town. The commission took one look at him, shivered and made him a bad guy. Cooke, with his $5.2 million Lakers, also was a candidate for the National Hockey League franchise. The league was to expand, and Los Angeles was in on it. The other chief contender was Dan Reeves, whose Los Angeles Rams already played in the Coliseum. Reeves, who along with Cooke and several others figured that big-time hockey would be successful in Los Angeles, had bought into Canada's Saskatoon team, changed its name to the Blades and had brought it to town via the Western league. It was a stunning flop. The Blades ended up at the bottom of the league, and Californians did not exactly storm the gates to see them.
The critical factor in the competition for a Los Angeles NHL franchise was a playing arena. Without a guarantee of that, NHL President Clarence Campbell would not grant a new franchise. So when the commission, ignoring the fact that it is a public body, announced its support of Reeves in September of 1965, Cooke was shut out of the Arena, the only hockey rink in town.
"Unfair partiality," Cooke pointed out. Still no lease. For his Lakers, he asked a 10-year lease such as Reeves and his Rams had for the Coliseum. Instead he got a counteroffer of three. Cooke got angry.
Betting in Los Angeles financial circles was that Reeves was a shoo-in for the franchise. But in November Cooke warned the commission that, unable to gain any promise of a long-term hockey lease, he had submitted his NHL application on the basis that he would build his own arena. On Feb. 8 of last year Cooke flew to New York and repeated his offer to the NHL expansion committee. He must have sold a lot of soap in that meeting, because the next day he was awarded the franchise.
Quickly attitudes changed. Cooke, ready to build his own sports center, said he would now accept that two-year Arena lease. That was all he would need. This time the commission urged him to take 10-year leases for both teams.
Meanwhile L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, who played a bit part in all this—the guy who does not get the girl—tried to find some federal land for Cooke's new Forum, in order to keep the teams and their rich revenues in Los Angeles proper. But the plan fell through. The commission, still figuring Cooke was bluffing about building a forum, announced it was giving the Blades a three-year lease. If Cooke defaulted the franchise by not producing a new arena, they figured, the Blades would be back in again. But Cooke took his franchises and moved out of town—to a vacant lot in nearby Inglewood. And there was Mayor Yorty, wielding another ceremonial shovel, breaking ground for another outfit that was taking money away.
"I did try hard to keep them here," said Yorty, "and I believe I could have succeeded if it hadn't been for the rather impetuous, shortsighted, if not spiteful, attitude of some members of the Coliseum Commission."
One of the commissioners, Mel Pierson, quit the board in disgust. Losing Cooke, he said, did it. "The commission keeps telling people Los Angeles is the sports capital of the world," he said, "but we have lost at least four major franchises in the last five years. The Chargers went to San Diego, the Angels to Anaheim and now the Lakers and Kings are gone."
The Forum—on 29.5 acres hard by Hollywood Park—has everything. It sits smack in the center of four major freeways, a situation that Cooke makes much of. Still, all of Los Angeles sits smack in the center of freeways. But The Forum site will park 4,000 cars and the building will seat 16,602 for basketball, 15,048 for hockey and 17,526 for boxing, all on four escalator-served levels.
One battle won, Cooke jumped into the next. Consider the great soccer caper. Soccer, as everyone knows, is a fast game played by bare-legged men kicking at a ball and each other. It is very big everywhere in the world—except in the U.S. And after the rather startling success of the recent World Cup match, which was bounced into this country by TV satellite, a hard core of promoters kept coming back to the idea that in time it could become America's sports sweetheart.
Cooke was one. Besides, he had a couple of open days left in the week, remember? Arthur Allyn, who owns the Chicago White Sox, was another, plus such notables as George Fleharty, who owns the Ice Follies; William Clay Ford, who owns the NFL Detroit Lions; and Texans Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Judge Roy Hofheinz, who owns the Houston Astros and the dome they play under.
"Actually," said Cooke, "there is less need to educate people in soccer than there is in hockey. It is the coming-sport. It is on the verge..."
This is the verge: starting this April, Americans are going to get soccer with a vengeance. Cooke and associates formed the North American Soccer League and got sanction from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the sport's world-governing body, thereby becoming the In league. The Out league—the National Professional Soccer League—does not have official sanction, but it does have a CBS-TV contract, which it figures is even better. The matches will look the same. Both leagues claim they will present top stars, drawing heavily on imported talent—players who have finished their regular, exhausting winter seasons around the world—who will play during the summer in the U.S.
League owners will pour funds into educating the public. "It will be a promotional-and-merchandising job on a scale comparable to what a major automotive or soap company, for example, undertakes when it attempts to 'condition' the public to its new product." And remember what happened at Colgate when Cooke began to sell soap.
But even this summer there will be some dreadful days when Cooke won't have a team of some sort doing something for fun and money. No matter. It will come in time.
"You pay dearly for all this in emotional wear and tear and bruising," says Cooke. "But the profits far outweigh the bruising. And hope springs eternal. I have this refusal to succumb..."
Funny how Cooke shows no signs of bruises. His critics claim he is still just a slicker and not all that rich. Meanwhile, Cooke lives and looks all that rich. Inside his sprawling Mediterranean home on three acres in Bel Air, he could finance another soccer league just by selling off a Utrillo or an Augustus John or two; the place is so full of expensive art and antiques that he keeps the Wedgewood vases in the basement because there is no room for them upstairs.
If he does come upon hard times he could raise the money by writing songs. Cooke still gets royalties on his Love Is Gone, a tender ballad he composed years ago when he was Oley Kent. Ray Anthony recorded it on 78. Surely everybody remembers Ray Eberly crooning:
Love is gone;
We've had our share.
I've done my part,
But you weren't there...
"That's my song," says Cooke, sitting at the grand piano in the east living room, picking it out. "It also was sung by Helen O'Connell in one of her albums."
Another oldie, Funny About a Dream, still brings in about $200 a year in royalties. On a plane back from New York City recently, Cooke sat staring into space, drumming his fingertips on the armrest and composing, mentally, a tune he calls Say That You Will.
"It goes like this," he says, with a few tuneful crashing chords on the piano. "That's all I've got right now. Just the 'Say that you will' part. Write the lyrics to it, and we'll split the profits."
This velvet, buffered life in Bel Air is just what Cooke needs. It is a good neighborhood. Jerry Lewis lives next door, surrounded by high iron fences and dogs prepared to bite the arms and legs off unidentified callers. But "a nice neighbor, never bothers us," says Cooke. Greer Garson's place is up around the corner—her front wall needs painting badly—and Tony Curtis lives around there somewhere, though a few neighbors are upset because he has this white Rolls-Royce, pretty gauche, for God's sake.
The future looks good. Basketball, hockey, soccer. Lakers, Kings and, er, Zorros.
"We have already sold 1,000 seats for the Kings' games and haven't invited a soul," Cooke says. "Give us five years—maybe 10—and Los Angeles will be the most important hockey town in the U.S."
And this is Cooke at rest. He had a date for the benefit ball at the Beverly Hilton. His wife, Jeannie, drifted downstairs, looking lovely in an original gown, and Cooke, dapper in his tuxedo, was carrying a portable radio from room to room, drinking a glass of sherry and listening to the Lakers play in Chicago. They were losing, and Chick Hearn, the Laker broadcaster, was pouring pure hysteria out into the Hepplewhite furniture and deep carpets.
"The way they're faking that ball away from the Lakers is unbelievable," Hearn cried, and Cooke, in Los Angeles, winced. "Lakers call time out," said Hearn, and Cooke, lifting the radio and talking to it like a microphone, barked: "Should have called it last time."
In a few minutes Mr. and Mrs. Lorne Greene were to come by and pick up the Cookes for the party. In Chicago, Gail Goodrich got hot.
"This is Goodrich's best game as a Laker!" shouted Hearn.
"Well, of course," Cooke said to the radio again. "He hasn't had a chance to play that much."
The front doorbell rang, and Butler Eric ushered in the Greenes. Lorne was wearing the fancy tuxedo with the cowboy belt buckles. "I designed it," he said to Cooke, spinning around to show it all. "You like it?"
"Uh, beautiful," said Cooke, with the flashing smile. He dresses very conservatively.
On the way downtown Greene told his Willie Davis joke, and Cooke began to talk about the Forum again. His thoughts keep coming back to the Forum. It will be ready, he says, at the end of this year.
"Boy," he said, "will I be there when they lay that ice down there for the first time. It will be night, you see, and I'm going to be the first man out on it, on my skates. I'll be all alone. Just me on the ice. And then, after I skate on it a little, we'll call out the Kings, and I'll play hockey with them. We'll have great fun for about five minutes—and then I'll fall down exhausted and that will be that."
The Cadillac pulled into the circular driveway, and the foursome got out. Another Hollywood benefit, and everybody was there: Danny Thomas, who began talking football with Cooke; movie stars, all the celebrities. All the big people who know Cooke and believe in him.
"You know," Cooke said, confidential for a moment, "I go to bed each night feeling a little guilty, I'm having such fun. This is the good life."
The spotlight came on and the Cooke table settled back for an evening of fun. Lorne started to tell his joke.
Jack Kent Cooke, that's who.