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  At RFK, the End of an Aerie

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 23, 1996; Page C1

Jack Kent Cooke's legendary owner's box at RFK Stadium beat a whimpering exit into Power Washington history yesterday.

It should have been more noteworthy. It was the last NFL game in the storied stadium's existence — Cooke is scheduled to move the Redskins next season to a stadium currently under construction near Landover. The foe was the hated Dallas Cowboys, the Redskins' arch-enemies since the 1960s. All through the '80s, Cooke's box was a weekly check on Who's In and Who's Out in the Washington social scene. If you got invited to The Box, you'd made it.

But the sum of history was no match yesterday for a recent spate of misfortune. After three dismal seasons, the Redskins momentarily looked like a good team this year before tanking again halfway through the season, missing the playoffs and making yesterday's 37-10 win meaningless. Late last month, the 84-year-old Cooke, after suffering an attack of osteoarthritis, missed a game for the first time since he moved to the area in 1978. He came back for a few more games but was absent again yesterday, putting a pall over the proceedings. How can it be Jack Kent Cooke's box with no Jack Kent Cooke?

Cooke's box was filled with decidedly B-list celebrities yesterday. The biggest star was probably retired Gen. Colin Powell. After that, the luminosity dimmed. There was Virginia Gov. George Allen, his wife and mother. Former governor Douglas Wilder was there with his wife. So were British Ambassador John Kerr and former senator Eugene McCarthy, but they're both regulars. Not a great day for stargazing.

The invitation to Cooke's private box, which is poised halfway up the stadium above the 40-yard line, has been the second most prestigious social invitation in Washington, after a White House dinner. Sitting in Cooke's box, however, is a more high-profile honor than dining with the president. People know you've been to the White House only if they read the invitation list. Box-watching at RFK Stadium has been the closest thing Washington has had to genuine celebrity-spotting, as Cooke's roost is visible from most of the stadium. "Hey, look up in Cooke's box," goes the drill. "It's George McGovern." Then, back to the business at hand: "Hey, Bud man! Two right here!"

Many of Cooke's guests have been regulars since 1978 — people such as CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, columnists and sports nuts George Will and Carl Rowan, and longtime Washington figures such as lawyer Lloyd Hand. Vice Presidents Gore and Quayle have come. So have Powell, former senator Paul Laxalt and, of course, Cooke's wife, Marlene Ramallo Chalmers Cooke, whose youthful, elegant presence next to her aged husband, with both often wearing huge black sunglasses, conjured up the memory of Aristotle and Jackie Onassis.

Some guests are old friends of Cooke; some are Washington political, social or journalism heavyweights. The four dozen or so invitations are handed out the week before each game; Cooke doesn't have a preseason list for certain games.

Bill Regardie, editor of the now-defunct Regardie's magazine and once a regular in the box, thinks he got on Cooke's list because Cooke used to own a magazine that, like Regardie's, sometimes tweaked the powerful. When Regardie got his first invitation, he felt he had really made it in the Washington scene.

"This was about '85, when the magazine was just starting to take off," Regardie says. "Once I got there, it hit me that I was in the club now. Even if your fellow invited guests, people like Eugene McCarthy or George McGovern, didn't know who you were, just the fact that you were there says, 'Okay, you've made it.' It was a heady time for me. I thought it was the greatest [bleeping] thing in the world."

But Regardie also got a lesson from Cooke on how the stratospheric Washington social order works. About the fourth week of the 1989 season, Regardie published an editorial cartoon that showed Washington dignitaries bowing down to a monarchal Cooke for the right to sit in the box. Cooke never called Regardie to complain. He just didn't invite him back the rest of the season.

The following spring, while Regardie was lunching at Duke Zeibert's (remember the Power '80s?), Cooke came over to him and said simply: "Willie — about that cartoon. I'm sure you just got some bad advice. I would hope you would come back to my box this year as my guest."

But things would never be the same.

Before the cartoon, "for three years, I had seats A12 and A13," Regardie says. "They were the best seats in the house. Right in the middle. They had a heater under your feet. The waitresses were right behind you." He pauses. "You can see how I'm going on about those seats. Anyway, I was invited back the next season, but my seats were in the second row. I never made it back to the front row."

His favorite memory is of a game he took his father-in-law to as his guest. Cooke greeted the man he'd never met before and chatted with him at length. Then the secretary of state entered the box. (It's notable that Regardie remembers Cooke's words exactly but not the name of the secretary of state.)

"Mr. Cooke took my father-in-law by the arm and said, 'Sam, do you know the secretary of state?' " Regardie said.

Regardie hasn't been invited to a game this season. But he understands how the pecking order works: His magazine folded. That's how it goes. Tough town, baby.

One other longtime box guest, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared Cooke would think it "poor form" to talk on the record about such an honor, recalled the lavish brunches, the ever-attentive waitresses and Cooke's glee when his beloved team won.

"When a particularly good play would happen, like a touchdown, Jack would walk up and down the aisle in the box, chatting, laughing," he says. "When they lost or did poorly, he didn't go into a blue funk, but he walked less."

Even if Regardie was banished to the second row, he was never put in the back row.

"In the front row, you've got a table in front of you for your food and drinks," he says. "In the second row, you've got this little six-inch ledge. Behind that, you're putting your food on the floor between your feet." Wow. Tough.

Indeed, the seating position of dignitaries in regard to Cooke, who always sat in the lower right corner of the box (as seen from the field), sometimes received as much analysis and speculation as the positioning of Politburo apparatchiks near the premier during the missile parades in Moscow during the Cold War.

In the past few years, when Cooke was throwing darts all over the region's map, trying to decide where to build his new stadium, it was fun to watch who was in his box from week to week. Say, there's D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. Maybe Cooke's staying in the District. Next week: Say, there's Wilder. Clearly, Cooke's building his stadium in Virginia.

The new stadium will have an owner's box of about the same size, though considerably plusher. But there's no telling whether a good seat in Landover will have the same cachet for Washington status seekers. And yesterday's show offered few hints.

At RFK, Cooke's box was a galaxy of handpicked stars assembled in a tight little universe with the owner at the center, dishing out benevolence like sunlight. Yesterday was a gathering of old friends who came even though they knew Cooke wouldn't be there. Sure, it was a good spread and a free game. But maybe it was also a homage to their sick benefactor, a way of thanking him for letting them feel like real Somebodies.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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