The day Jack Kent Cooke dies, nobody will be more surprised than Jack Kent Cooke. Said so himself. Eating chopped liver at Duke Zeibert's restaurant one day in Washington, D.C. He was going on as only JKC can, when he threw in this little beauty: "However, if I die...."
Now, you do not snatch a plump chicken from a skinny coyote, and you do not interrupt Jack Kent Cooke in midaddress. But Mo Siegel, a Washington Times columnist and a Cooke crony, could not help himself. He interrupted.
"Wait a minute, Jack," said Mo. "Whaddya mean, if?"
Cooke looked as if somebody had just put a thumb in his mustard. He arched his back, pulled back his shoulders, straightened an ascot that didn't need straightening and stared holes in Siegel's eyeballs. There was a torturous pause.
December 16, 1991
"Dear Morrie," sniffed Cooke. "I don't intend to die."
The crazy thing is, you almost believe him. If there's one guy on the planet who might be able to remove death from his life's Filofax, it's Cooke, 79 years old and set to turn 30 again next October. Check out Cooke in this, his eighth decade of squeezing life right down to its very rind: In the last 11 years, he has begotten a daughter, married three women (13, 44 and 40 years his junior), made an estimated $1.15 billion and kept up a pace that is still too fast for most people. If it can be done with money, charm, smarts, power, gall, white lies, blue eyes or sheer stare-down will, then Cooke will find a loophole in this death thing.
Besides, Cooke doesn't have time to die. There's a new $2 million house in northwest Washington to break in, not to mention the one in Acapulco and the one in Los Angeles and the one in Middleburg, Va., to keep warm. There's Cooke's latest wife, Marlene, the Bolivian Bombshell, to attend to. There are her two kids, one of whom he's trying to adopt. There's the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, the Daily News in L.A., the Elmendorf thoroughbred farm in Kentucky and the Redskins in Washington. Not bad for a claustrophobe who hates to fly.
O.K., O.K., there are nettlesome little problems with being Jack Kent Cooke—just life's little gnats, really. There's the son he hardly spoke to for seven or eight years. There are the three ex-wives, two of whom tried to commit suicide because they either loved him or hated him. But he has found the right bride now, don't you agree? Any woman fresh from 3½ months in the Hard Time Hotel on a cocaine conviction isn't going to bolt a setup with a billionaire, is she? There is that little unpleasantness about the four-year-old daughter he refuses to see. But can't you see he was trapped into having her? And there's always his grandson Jackie—poor Jackie. But one can't live a life this big and satisfy everybody, right?
Cooke's life is so big, he doesn't have time for interviews. He told SI he was "too dreadfully busy" to talk, and he refused again four separate times. Still, when SI's fact checker called to confirm dozens of anecdotes from Cooke's friends and enemies, Cooke's calendar suddenly cleared. He spent an hour and a half denying nearly every story.
Oh, Cooke's life has been big. On his deathbed, Errol Flynn said, "I've seen everything twice, and I'm ready to go." Well, Cooke has been everything, sometimes twice or even thrice—an athlete, musician, singer, husband, newspaperman, magazine editor, father, radio whiz, cable magnate, businessman, entrepreneur, songwriter, grandfather, plastics tycoon, land baron, baseball owner, hockey bigwig, fight promoter, basketball mogul, yacht racer, soccer owner, NFL honcho and, soon perhaps, stadium eponym—and he's still not ready.
Die? Then who would be there to have the mot juste at the most delicious moment? Who would be the best dressed, the most charming, the very center of the room? Who would sit down at the piano and knock out one of the hundreds of tunes he'd written? Who would call at two in the morning without apology? Who would stand in his luxury box and know that at the patched elbow of his fine tweed jacket was a collection of guests who could fill a month's worth of Face the Nation? And who would be there as living proof that a high school dropout who once was down to a trunkful of encyclopedias, a mud-stuck car and a pocketful of lint could rise above them all?
Forget dying. Jack Kent Cooke doesn't even have time for old age. He tried to retire once but loused it up. He was 50 years old, and he moved to Pebble Beach, Calif., where he got his handicap down to five—scratch anyplace else—and his sanity even lower. Oh, god, we're going to play golf again today? Cooke could not live without the sweet symphony of the ringing telephone and the chattering Olivetti. So, for a "diversion," as he puts it, he paid an outrageous $5,175 million for the L.A. Lakers, then a $2 million expansion fee to found the Kings, and he built a very nice hobby chest to put them in, the Fabulous Forum.
Now, that was industrial-sized happiness. Mel Durslag, the veteran L.A. Herald-Examine)-columnist (Cooke loves columnists), met Cooke outside the Forum one night in the late 60's and asked, "Hey, Jack, why do they call this place Fabulous?"
"Dear Mel, that's the most stupid question ever to pass through your lips," Cooke answered. The Forum was packed. Chandeliers hung high over customers ordering drinks from lovely, toga-draped waitresses. A highly paid basketball team cavorted below in its underwear. "What else could they call it?"
Damn right it was fabulous. One, it was gorgeous. Two, it was perfectly round. And three, it had Jack Kent Cooke at the very center.
Jackie, everybody called him, but his real name was Jack Kent Cooke II, and he loved two things more than anything else in the world—his grandfather and the L.A. Kings. Since his grandfather owned the Kings, Jackie's world was as close to perfect as an eight-year-old could dream. Sometimes his grandfather would put his arm around his shoulder and say, "Jackie, someday the Kings will be your hockey team."
So what if he was lousy in school? The other kids loved him. He was funny. And when the doctor told his mother, Carrie, that her son had severe dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning disabilities, what did it matter? He was the future president of the L.A. Kings, wasn't he?
They say that once you're dead, you're dead for a long time, and Jack Kent Cooke lives as if he has got that inscribed in his hatband. Why eat breakfast and lunch? Cooke doesn't. No time. Why watch just one channel? Cooke's house can suck up almost any transmission in the world, and he gives them all a whirl. Why work eight hours? Cooke works even in bed. If Cooke is at your table, the conversation is steered his way. "Christ, if Cooke isn't interested in the topic at hand," says Siegel, "he'll change it."
This is a man who, when he wanted to become a U.S. citizen in 1960, persuaded Congress to grant him citizenship almost overnight. You think Cooke was going to spend five years waiting around, memorizing the names of cabinet members? He was the only kid in the history of Toronto's Malvern Collegiate high school who took out an ad in the annual for his night job: "SPECIAL RATES for Parties-Dinners-Banquets-Weddings JACK COOKE and HIS BAND."
Cooke never had time to wait around for his ship to come in. He swam out and roped it. The Depression took the picture-frame business for which his father worked, leaving the family nearly broke. Jack gave up football (he was a quarterback), a hockey scholarship (to Michigan) and his band (he was the handsome one on sax and clarinet and the Rudy Vallee megaphone) and went to work. First he sold encyclopedias, and then soap. He wasn't worried. Cooke could sell sunlamps on Waikiki Beach. So it was that in 1934 he set out for western Canada in a red-and-black Ford roadster with his bride, a pretty Ontario girl named Jeannie Carnegie, determined to be odorously rich by the time he got to Vancouver. He was 21.
Somewhere between prosperity and the Manitoba border, though, the roadster got stuck in the mud. Flat busted, the Cookes spent the night in the car. The next day, while Jeannie waited in a hotel kitchen, Jack beat the streets with his encyclopedias. By 4:30 in the afternoon, he hadn't had a bite. He latched on to a high school principal who wouldn't give yes for an answer; Cooke wouldn't take no. The poor principal left school and walked home. Cooke tagged along. The principal went into his house. Cooke stuck to him like gum to the bottom of a desk. The principal's wife served dinner. Cooke watched. Finally, just to digest in peace, the principal gave Cooke $5 down toward the infernal encyclopedia. Cooke got his wife and got his roadster out of the mud. He has been running from the mud ever since.
Vince Lombardi called it "contest living," in which every facet of life is nothing but a game, to be won or to be lost, no ties. Cooke subscribes to a kind of contest living—his idol is Ty Cobb—and it has been very, very good to him. In the early 1940s he began investing in dying radio stations, sprucing them up with his own brand of hype and spit and polish. He was a millionaire by 31, and it wasn't nearly enough. He took nearly defunct magazines and made them shine. He bought a fading plastics company and revitalized it. He took moribund cable companies and breathed the Joy of Cookeing into them.
Sports just went along for the ride. The face of sports without Cooke would be like pizza without pepperoni. You could still enjoy it, but it would be a lot less spicy. Without Cooke, there might not be the Toronto Blue Jays, since Cooke woke up baseball in Toronto in 1951 by taking a nearly dead minor league team, the Maple Leafs, and packing the house with 3-for-1 Nights (a pregnant woman got in free with a paying spouse or "friend"), Friday the 13th Nights (bring a black cat, get in for nothing) and complimentary boxing matches staged on the infield grass before and after games. The Kings franchise might never have been granted to L.A. without Cooke, and lord knows, the Lakers wouldn't be the same without him. For one thing, it was Cooke who kicked the press from courtside to make room for the legendary leers and celebrity cleavage that populate it now. You'd rather look at sportswriters?
Cooke can pick people. He gave professional basketball its last three eras—Wilt, Kareem and Magic. He gave Sparky Anderson and Dick Williams their first managerial jobs. He gave football probably its best coach of the last 10 years, Joe Gibbs, who calls Cooke "the greatest owner in the NFL." No wonder. Every player Gibbs has wanted, Cooke has delivered.
Of course, it is one thing to hail Napoleon, it is another to have to fix his lunch. "I didn't like him as a person," says former Laker color man Hot Rod Hundley, now with the Utah Jazz. "Nobody did. He wouldn't let you. The man didn't know how to relax." Says Bill Nicholas, a former member of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, which runs the L.A. Sports Arena as well as the Coliseum, "Jack Kent Cooke was the most arrogant man I ever dealt with in my life." Says former Laker All-Star Rudy LaRusso, "Cooke was affable, but it was a phony affability. You'd go to lunch and it was, 'Rudy, you order this. Joe, you order that.' Just overbearing." Of course, Hundley quit on Cooke, Nicholas and his Sports Arena were rejected by Cooke (so Cooke built the Forum), and LaRusso was traded by Cooke. Enemies all. Then again, when it comes to Cooke's enemies, you can throw a bucket of birdseed in any restaurant in L.A. or Washington and hit a dozen. Cooke fired so many people at the Forum that the pink-slipees formed their own association: the Forum Alumni. They said they felt the same way Patton's soldiers did—just happy to be alive.
Nothing was too minuscule to put arch in Cooke's eyebrows. According to Kings broadcaster Bob Miller, the standing rule around the Kings' offices was that if the phone on your desk rang three times before you answered, you could start packing what was in your desk. You were fired. Cooke would often call just to test. If you answered in under three, Cooke would nonetheless quiz you on starting times and other facts about upcoming events. If you fail, hit the trail. No wonder Forum employees would station a lookout at the door to watch for Cooke's car. "When you'd get the signal, you'd bury your head in your typewriter or your office," remembers Miller. "Because if Cooke saw you, he'd think of some reason he was mad at you."
Of course, even being on Cooke's good side wasn't all that great. One afternoon, according to a former Kings player, a Cooke aide was standing with Cooke and his dog, Coco, in a very cold arena. "Give me your coat," Cooke snapped. The aide whipped it off in an eyeblink. Cooke put it around Coco. (Cooke says this is nonsense.)
For all his millions, Cooke can be tighter than a bass drum. According to Mo Siegel, Cooke once convinced United Airlines to give him blankets for his private jet, lest Cooke suddenly stop chartering United for his football team. (Cooke says this is folderol.) As late as 1976, Cooke was paying his houseman $8,400 a year. And then there was the day Laker announcer Chick Hearn suggested to Cooke that he call his new building the Fabulous Forum. Cooke was pleased mightily, so he said to Hearn, "There will be a little something extra in your paycheck this week." There was indeed. A wallet-sized photo of Cooke. (Cooke says this is balderdash.)
Oh, Cooke can be generous. One Christmas, according to Hundley, Cooke gave all his employees engraved silver-plated coffee warmers. Typically, Cooke engraved them with his name. (Cooke says this is bushwah.) He is a one-man parade who tends to smile all over you and call men "dear" and women "pet."
Anyway, you can imagine being married to the man. By 1970, Jeannie was no longer keeping up with the endless dash from the mud. She tired of going to sporting events 80 nights a year. She wrote Cooke, "I can't measure up to your competitive nature." She tried to file for divorce but says Cooke forced her to back off. Four times between 1965 and '76 she tried to kill herself, and four times she failed. Finally, on July 1, 1976, Jeannie stormed out of their vacation home in the Sierra Nevadas and got in her Chevy Nova to leave for good. Cooke burst out of the house and ran up to the car as it sped away, banging him on the arm. "She tried to kill me," Cooke screamed to the housekeeper. His wrist was broken, and so was the marriage. In '79 a judge stuck Cooke with a $41 million divorce settlement, then the largest in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The judge's name: Joseph Wapner. One and the same. You've got to admit it: Whatever Cooke does, he does it big.
Now Cooke had all the breathing room a claustrophobe could want. He was completely alone.
How could Jackie Cooke know what his grandfather's divorce would mean to him? How could he know that his grandfather would force his sons to choose sides? How could an 11-year-old know about contest living? Jackie's dad, Ralph, sided with his mother, Jeannie, while Ralph's brother, John, sided with their father. Not only did Jack Kent Cooke rarely speak with Ralph over the next seven or eight years—in both the Redskins' media guide and in Who's Who, Ralph suddenly had never been born—but he saw much less of Ralph's kids too.
That, coupled with Carrie's divorce from Ralph, turned the prince into a pauper. Before, Jackie had sat in his grandfather's private section at Kings games; now he was in the rafters. Before, his school problems were just a hardship; now they were debilitating.
By the time Jackie was 17, his grandfather had sold the Kings. By 19, Jackie had flunked out of a very bad college. By 20, he was terrifically overweight, not taking care of himself, an alcoholic. He flopped from job to job. If you can't even copy down a phone number, you 're lucky to get past personnel.
He would call his grandfather now and again, but the relationship was not the same. "That hurt Jackie," remembers Carrie. "Of all the children, Jackie was hurt by that the most. He worshiped his grandfather."
Jackie blamed himself. He told friends he had "blown it" with his grandfather. Jack Kent Cooke II—how could he do such a dark thing to this shining name?
"I'm the goddamnedest romantic you'll ever meet," Jack Kent Cooke once said, and romantics do not let love beat them. Cooke fell in love and married twice more in the next seven years. First there was Jeanne Maxwell Williams, a Las Vegas sculptor and socialite. Having sold his Los Angeles holdings, he took her with him to Washington to look after his 86% share in the Redskins. They were married on Oct. 31, 1980—by Judge John Sirica. But Cooke wouldn't allow her to set up a small sculpting studio at Fallingbrook, his house in Upperville, Va. "It wouldn't be in character with the surroundings," he said. He was right, of course. Wherever Cooke lives, the surroundings must surround him. This is a man who had owned a circular house when he lived in Las Vegas and who would soon build a duplicate at Far Acres in Middleburg. If there is no circle, then there is no center, and if there is no center, then where is Cooke to stand? "He's charming and I admire him," Jeanne says, "but he was too authoritarian." The marriage lasted 10 months.
Next came 31-year-old Suzanne Martin, daughter of a wealthy Middleburg family. She and Cooke were wed on July 24, 1987, and the wedding was remarkable only in that it was contingent, she says, upon the bride agreeing to have an abortion the next day. After the vows, the happy couple had dinner with Siegel and then it was off to the hospital the next morning. Not exactly a wedding out of Bride's magazine. It would have been Suzanne's third abortion of a pregnancy caused by Cooke. She was ashamed of the first two, but she would do anything to be with Cooke. After a breakup with him in '86, she had been so despondent that she tried a stay at the Psychiatric Institute in Washington and a bottle of Valium to help solve her problems. She took almost the entire bottle of Valium at one sitting.
Cooke took her back on Valentine's Day 1987, and everybody knew who was in charge. Cooke told Suzanne what kind of clothes to wear, what books to read, how to speak at parties. He insisted that the fire be going, the wine be poured and his favorite music be playing when he walked through the door. And if they weren't? "He'd have a fit," says Suzanne. Pygmalion? Cooke doesn't wear that Rex Harrison hat for nothing. She became pregnant again in May, and again Cooke told her to abort. She refused. One night, according to Adrian Havill's new book on Cooke, The Last Mogul (St. Martin's Press), Suzanne began bleeding, and Cooke was sure it meant she was having a miscarriage. "[He] celebrated by giving Suzanne a four-strand pearl necklace with a large heart-shaped diamond clasp," writes Havill. I'm the goddamnedest romantic you'll ever meet.
The marriage proposal won her over. She agreed to go through with the "A," as Cooke referred to it in his handwritten agenda for that week. Yet when she arrived at the hospital after the wedding, she couldn't go through with it. When Cooke found out that he was still an expectant father, he flipped. On a drive to Far Acres from Washington, Suzanne says, he ordered her out of his limo on Route 713, four miles from home. Here it was the end of August, with Suzanne four months along and wearing new shoes. The walk home took over an hour. When she got to the house, feet blistered, Cooke wouldn't let her in, though he could see her through the bedroom window, pounding on the glass. She slept in a guest house.
The marriage lasted 73 days. Jacqueline Kent Cooke was born Jan. 25, 1988, six days before the Redskins won Super Bowl XXII. Three years later, Cooke saw the child during a deposition unrelated to his paternity, and what he saw was a near Xerox of himself—blue eyes, brown curly hair, square jaw, 80-decibel voice. He swooped her up in his arms and said, "Well, there's no question whose child this is." He hasn't seen her since.
It was late, an hour after the end of the party the Friday night before the 1989 Super Bowl in Miami. Pete Rozelle, then NFL commissioner, and his wife, Carrie, went back to their hotel suite. Carrie loved Pete, whom she had married after her divorce from Ralph Cooke, but sometimes she hated these parties. For one thing, they might mean seeing her former father-in-law.
There was a message waiting that night. Jackie Cooke had been found dead in his apartment in Glendale, Calif. The coroner would say he died of alcoholic liver disease and related cardiomyopathy. Turns out Jackie's heart was much too big. Who didn't know that?
Jackie had been dead for three days. Since he had almost no friends left, nobody had called or stopped by to check on him. Through all those three days, the festivities had raged on in Miami.
Talk about a photo op. Oct. 2, 1988: Redskins versus the New York Giants at RFK Stadium. Cooke was on the far left of his luxury box, as usual. His gorgeous new girlfriend, Marlene, then 36, was next to him, and Nancy Reagan was nearby. How often can you shoot a picture of an American billionaire sitting next to a woman with a cocaine conviction sitting near a First Lady who has just attended a pregame Just Say No (to drugs) promotion?
Cooke once said, "My life is better than any F. Scott Fitzgerald novel you have ever read," but Marlene Ramallo Chalmers is more out of an Elmore Leonard novel. Marlene was a friend of Suzanne Martin's (though Martin insists she knew nothing of the drugs); in fact, Marlene's mother was Suzanne's maid. Suzanne even lent Marlene $5,250 for plastic surgery. So you can imagine Suzanne's chagrin when a friend of Marlene's testified against her at the child-support hearings for Jacqueline, saying that he had heard Suzanne say the baby was "her ticket" to getting big cash from the Cookeie jar. Hmmmm. Marlene was tough, calculating and deceptive. Jack Kent Cooke's kind of woman? He married her on May 5,1990.
What do you figure the odds are of one billionaire's marrying two women in a row with cocaine-related convictions? Suzanne had gotten three years' probation for illicit use of a telephone to sell cocaine in 1982, and Marlene, according to U.S. government allegations, was a longtime associate of drug smugglers. In '86, Marlene was arrested at Washington's National Airport along with a companion who was carrying a suitcase containing 10 grams of cocaine. That triggered a 13-count indictment against Marlene and against three other Bolivians who, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, were involved in a drug ring that brought "$20 million worth [wholesale] of cocaine into the Washington area" between August '82 and March '86.
After agreeing to cooperate with the government, Marlene got 18 months for conspiracy to import less than a kilogram of cocaine. She served 3½. No problem. Within two years, she was sitting in Cooke's luxury box, about to have her child adopted by a man who wouldn't even see his own biological daughter. The adoption isn't official yet because the boy's father, Angel Miguens Oiler, says from an Oakdale, La., prison that he'll never sign the adoption papers. "He is my only son, and I love him," says Miguens Oiler. Still, Suzanne knows the score.
"You go against Jack Kent Cooke and...he'll try to get even with you," she says. "Everything's a game to him, win or lose."
After Jackie's death, Carrie Rozelle founded the National Center for Children with Learning Disabilities in Manhattan. Jackie had a purpose after all.
Jack Kent Cooke has never contributed to the center, and Came has never asked him to. But maybe things would have been different if Cooke had gone to Jackie's burial. Cooke made it to the funeral but left before the graveside ceremony, which meant he never got to see what one of Jackie's friends laid on the casket just before the shovelfuls of soil fell: an L.A. Kings hockey stick.
Die? Are you kidding? If there's one place a claustrophobe like Jack Kent Cooke doesn't want to end up, it's in a coffin. No, dear boy, the circle is not big enough yet, the contest is not nearly over. In fact, Cooke gets so excited about tomorrow that sometimes, along about three in the morning, he'll be out burning up the country roads in his Jaguar, thinking, hatching, plotting. He wants a Kentucky Derby win for Elmendorf and another Super Bowl title for the Redskins. He is trying to get the government to pitch in on his newest monument, Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, to cost $160 million. He has a little angina pain and a hearing aid, but nothing an ex-quarterback can't handle.
Life is bigger than ever. Look around. Who has the most beautiful wife, the most gorgeous home, the prettiest skyscraper and the fiercest team? It's funny, isn't it? How things turn out? Who would have thought that the son of a picture-frame salesman would turn all the world into one giant frame for a very wonderful portrait of himself?
Any woman fresh from 3½ months in the Hard Time Hotel isn't going to bolt a billionaire, is she?
Cooke never had time to wait around for his ship to come in. He swam out and roped it.